COVID-19 Pandemic: How 2020 took me from a six-figure salary to universal credit

 ‘My World came crashing down’ ….  

illustration of woman looking in bare cupboards

‘No income, no way of paying my bills, no way of buying food, nothing …’ Illustration: Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva/HeartAgency/The Guardian

When I was made redundant, I thought I would easily get another great job. Then the pandemic hit …

Claire Smith – Published on Wed 19 Aug 2020 – THE GUARDIAN UK

As I took it in I became light-headed. “You still there?” my friend asked. All my well-honed acting and pretending to be fine collapsed as I said: “No, I don’t think I am.” Through sobs, I told the truth about my financial situation for the first time.

My whole life, my friends and I had laughed about what we called my “bag lady complex”. Having been brought up in a working-class family where money was tight, I was always concerned that everything might one day be taken away from me. Now, at the age of 45, it looked as if that might become a reality.

Less than a year ago, my life seemed pretty sorted. I was earning a six-figure salary in HR, I had a wonderful home in the country and a large group of friends. I was a keen traveller and hiker. I thought I was living the dream.

I took redundancy from that job in November 2019. I was relaxed about it and comfortable with the intention of doing some writing and consultancy work for a few months while looking for a new role. A long period of illness a few years earlier had cleared out my savings and left me with some credit card debt, but with the redundancy payment and no dependents other than a dog, I knew I had the skills and experience to support myself. And in February, I was shortlisted for another job.

Then coronavirus came along. I have elderly parents and an older brother with a number of complex health issues who live a considerable distance away, so my focus turned there. When not racked with anxiety about them and the fact that at times it felt as if the world might be ending, I took the opportunity to be at home and be creative, which I had not had much time to do. I was a writer and a painter in my youth but, with what now seems like supreme irony, I had given up those pursuits due to my “bag lady complex” and the need to earn enough money to feel secure in life.

At the beginning of March, I was informed that the role I had been shortlisted for had been pulled due to the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic. I was unsurprised. I felt the flickers of concern, but was still hopeful that a) things would get “back to normal” soon and b) I could survive financially until July. I put the fear to one side and fell back on what now feels like the glib and naive mantra: “Something will turn up.”

Over the next few months, I watched as the bottom fell out of the job market in my field, but kept busy in lockdown: walking the dog (a rescue collie, the light of my life), painting, writing and tutoring my godchildren via Zoom to give their frazzled parents a break every day. The friends I told – and I have chosen them carefully – were a huge support while, I suspect, being very grateful it wasn’t them. I found I was unable to sit down for long enough to watch TV, so instead listened to endless true-crime podcasts; the stories they told about the many ways lives can go wrong made me feel like my life was less of a car crash.

Knowing that I fell between the cracks of any government support, not having been self-employed for long enough to qualify for a grant, I kept a close eye on my finances and took advantage of payment holidays where I could. As time passed from one month, to two and three, I started to have restless nights and suffer from nightmares, but remained in denial during my waking hours. Until the moment I received the email from my bank, I had effectively been acting as though lockdown was a giant pause button on life.

That email forced me to take stock. My funds were now so low that I did something that would have seemed inconceivable to the person I was last year: I applied for universal credit.

I was blindsided by the physical impact the process had on me. I noticed that my hands were shaking as I completed the questions online and I felt physically sick as I received the email to let me know that “Jane” would be calling me on Monday to verify the details of my application. I imagined she would speak to me with disdain. I am relieved to report that, while I found the whole conversation mortifying, she did not. In fact, noticing my voice cracking as I told her about my situation, Jane said: “Please don’t worry – we’ve had lots of calls like yours.”

In early July, I saw an advert for a role at my level of experience – the first in months. It was based hundreds of miles away from where I live, but it represented hope and I applied immediately. About 250 people had got there before me. I have also applied for a number of entry-level roles, one of which 590 people have also applied for. These numbers are no longer unusual. As yet, three weeks on, I have heard back from three of the 12 roles I’ve applied for so far, all “thanks but no thanks” responses. I have started to sell many of my – what now seem completely pointless – possessions on eBay: clothes, designer handbags, shoes … Selling my home is not an option, since I rent.

Like many others, I’m sure, all this has caused me to think hard about my life, my identity and what I consider to be success. The result has been a process of grieving – for the person I was, for the decisions I’ve made and for living what now seems like a very materialistic way of life. There are good days and bad. On the good, I apply for every job I can and work on writing the novel I started at the beginning of lockdown. On the bad, I curl up under the duvet. I take medication for anxiety and depression to keep the really dark thoughts at bay.

I’ve noticed I cry at the drop of a hat, particularly for other people’s losses and pain in a way I was too self-centred to do before. I have found myself sobbing uncontrollably while reading about Caroline Flack and her family, the killing of Breonna Taylor and the loss of the writer Joanna Cannon’s dog Seth. Life has become more simple by necessity. I take joy from different things, mainly books, and my dog, who is my constant companion through all of this and is so happy I am at home all the time. My friendships with the handful of people I have told have deepened and feel more authentic and closer than before. I still haven’t told my parents (which is why I’m writing this piece under a pseudonym). The past few months have taken enough of a toll on them without having to worry about this, too.

I am also in the process of re-evaluating my treatment of others while working in HR. If I ever have a senior role in the sector again, a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely, I hope I don’t lose the empathy and humility that have come from this experience. I have always thought of myself as a compassionate person, but I now look back and know I used to make decisions without really considering what I was doing to others’ lives and their sense of self.

My next step is to contact a debt management charity, though the thought makes me feel I might pass out. I am on tenterhooks for the next two weeks to see whether I get any job interviews and/or am awarded a universal credit payment. That decision is made five weeks after you have made your claim. If all I get is universal credit, it will be nowhere near enough to cover my outgoings, as lean as I have managed to make them. The articles I have read about the cruelty and inadequacy of the benefits system have been brought into sharp focus.

If I don’t even get that, I don’t know what I am going to do. I suspect I am not the only one.

Claire Smith is a pseudonym. Some minor identifying details have been changed.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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Comments

  • kamtanblog  On August 22, 2020 at 7:38 am

    Nice one ….
    Riches to rags !

    An eye opener.

    Kamtan

  • wally n  On August 22, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Solution alert
    Go to France
    Jump into boat with raping hordes
    Land back in England
    Government puts you in hotel
    Free everything…………

    • kamtanblog  On August 22, 2020 at 11:16 am

      Ha ha ! We look after “refugees/asylum seekers “ for their short stay here.
      USA Potus says “shoot em” …
      Who are uncivilised/barbarians?

      Some are even welcomed to stay if they
      have skill we need/or can prove their
      status.

      French put them in slumish refugee
      camps in squalor.

      Kamtan uk

  • wally n  On August 22, 2020 at 12:32 pm

    “if they have skills … short stay” ?????hhhhhhhhhha rape and rioting counts?
    That was Canada, before Liberals opened the borders, check em before you let em, and Canada did welcome thousands of Guyanese refugees,Indian(Africa) vietnamese, I am willing to bet not a single rapist.
    Your country,was crap, is crap, will always be crap, outing fires in far away places, while backyard was burning. Total facade.
    Come on…Shoot em…..you know that is BS….but you might actually have to start shooting…hope not

    • kamtanblog  On August 22, 2020 at 2:06 pm

      Ha ha !
      UK is no “bed of roses” but people are
      treated like humans not animals !
      Every empire had its heyday !
      It is time for the Asian empire (China India Russia).,.,let’s see how many refugees/asylum seekers they will take ?
      Guyana will be flooded with economic
      migrants who will eventually rule Guyana.
      Every dag gat he day !

      Good luck my friend

      Kamtan

  • CDS Maraj  On August 23, 2020 at 9:07 pm

    My Friends, I think everyone is forgetting that immigrants build USA and Canada. USA and Canada cannot be successful without immigrants.
    Politicians know this but they use immigrants as pawns.
    This is really sad putting children in Cages and literally ripping babes away from mothers arm. What has America become? never thought I would live to see America gone rouge.
    Guyana is still better folks, for regardless how Guyanese Politicians behave and even though a few gone rouge there is still Empathy and Humanity in our Guyanese people.
    We must hold our heads up high and be proud we do not have a dictator in Guyana as yet.

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