Image: Kim Cowie
By the time I was 19, I was in almost £5,000 worth of debt. I blame this on a myriad of factors. Some of them were my own fault, but most were not. So how did I deal with being a 19-year-old student in a huge amount of debt? “Not well” is the answer. When faced with this giant, flailing demon of financial responsibility, I chose the famously terrible method of “ignoring my debt completely, and living my life as though it did not exist”.
I did this for around two years. Every time I got a letter or an email or a phone call, I would simply recite the following mantra: “I am cool as a cucumber and I am absolutely not in debt.” Not only was this statement very obviously not true, repeating it to myself for an extended period of time turned me into an entity that was the polar opposite of a cucumber. In fact, it made my stress levels re: the debt skyrocket into the stratosphere. This happened slowly at first, like an exponentially increasing graph moving through a vat of treacle, then faster.Looking at this period of my life from a bird’s eye perspective, I can clearly see the downward spiral forming, gently nudged along by this mountain of ever-slowly-increasing debt. If I zoom in to a particular week, I can also see the specific behavioural patterns that enabled things to get as bad as they eventually did. Whenever I received a letter from one of my many creditors, I would not open or read it. Instead, it went straight into my designated plastic “letter folder” (call me Marie Kondo, call me a Fucking Idiot – it was very important that I was meticulously organised in my avoidance). I would then, obviously, go straight to the pub. I was a student, so this was pretty straightforward. Plus, if no-one could tell the difference between me, who was drinking to mentally burn the contents of my plastic folder, from the other students in the pub, who were drinking to have fun, then was I really so different from them?
I would remain at the pub, give or take a few fitful sleep / half-hearted lecture breaks, for the next few days. When the next letter inevitably arrived, I would repeat the process, each weekend going slightly harder in the pub, drinking more and more pints of Strongbow – so many, in fact, that I am surprised I didn’t quite literally turn into an apple. After a year of this, though, I was a frantic, sleepless, paranoid mess, resembling a sort of extra-highly-strung, Air-Max-90-clad Mr. Krabs. This was actually a huge achievement in itself, considering that, in true Anxious Student Circa 2017 style, I was taking a hefty amount of Xanax, a drug famous for dramatically decreasing your anxiety levels.Reading this back, I want to scream at my younger self: “Stop doing the things that you are doing! The (non)actions that you are taking right now will make your life so much worse, in almost every way imaginable!” I know, though, that I wouldn’t have heard these haunting future-self screams - or, if I did, I would have put it down to a particularly harrowing acid flashback and cracked open another Strongbow. When you are avoiding your debt, you don’t ignore people’s advice out of insolence or malice - it’s just far, far easier to keep pushing it to the side.
Burying your head in the sand, though, means that when your problems do eventually rise to the surface – which they always, always do – they are going to be considerably more volcanic in scale than they would have been if you confronted them on sight. I got hit by this volcano in quite a major way. Two years and £700 worth of accrued interest later, I found myself hospitalised after a suicide attempt. Pretty soon after that, I was calling the Citizen’s Advice Bureau with my head in my hands. They were not horrible to me, as I had feared they might be. They told me there were many others in similar situations, that it is normal to try to hide from your debt, that I was not going to get sent to federal prison (mainly because I live in the UK), and that, together, we could figure out a plan to get me out of The Big Mess. Everything became much easier from that point, both financially and emotionally. My citizen’s advice advisor and I devised a plan that allowed me to start climbing - pathetically and mouse-like, in embarrassingly small monthly instalments, but still climbing - out of the debt.Suddenly, armed with this plan, I was not terrified by the letters in my folder. They had lost their anxiety-fuelled fear factor, and now only acted as physical reminders of a system that is kind to those it is seducing, yet thinks nothing of kicking its victims, hard, when they inevitably fall down under the weight of the debt they were sold.
I have now climbed some way out of The Proverbial Void, thanks to most of the money I earn going towards paying it back. The rest still follows me around, but in a more apathetic, less chaotic way than it did before. I urge anyone who is ignoring their debt to pick up the phone and speak to someone who knows what they are talking about. This requires minimal effort - the person on the other end of the phone will tell you to find the letters or the emails and open them, so that you can, together, calculate exactly how much you owe. This makes it a great option for people who are too scared to confront things by themselves - once someone else is telling you to do something, it becomes a lot harder to avoid doing it. There are plenty of people out there who will help you. As mentioned, when all this happened, I was at university, and I found that there was a debt advice office in my student union - if you are also a student, it’s well worth checking out what services your uni offers. If not, there are charities like StepChange, who offer phone support, and independent organisations like the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, who do the same. These are people who are on your side, who know what they are talking about, who will hold your hand through the whole process. I urge you to take advantage of them.Some people – my past self included – will choose to ignore the world’s advice and continue burying their head in the sand anyway. If that is currently you: do not blame yourself for your situation, remember to breathe. Then, please God, reach out for some help - maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon. I cannot stress how much better you will feel for it.If you or someone you know are feeling emotionally distressed, you can ring Samaritans on 116 123 or visit its website. You can also text SHOUT to 85258 for a 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks.