Life in lockdown 3.0 – fuel poverty and mental wellbeing

Ahh back in lockdown again. I say again, I’ve basically been in lockdown since March due to underlying health conditions, so nothing has really changed for me to be honest, it just feels harder right now.

In the summer I could sit in the sun drenched garden, under the big canvas umbrella, watching the bees and butterflies dance around the flowers, unaware that their existence is seriously under threat. Just being there, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, the smell of the lush garden surrounding me and the clink of ice in my drink made everything that was difficult seem just that bit easier.

Now we are in the depths of winter and simply staying warm is a daily battle which we don’t always win. Heating an old cottage is expensive. We struggled on until December 1st just trying to use the wood fires, as we couldn’t afford to use the gas central heating, but being constantly cold was seriously affecting my mental health and I realised I couldn’t afford to ignore that any longer.

Good mental health has never been an easy road for me. For many years I lived with undiagnosed bipolar disorder so have battled with yo-yoing between extremes. Once I was finally diagnosed I was still reluctant to take medication for several reasons, one being that I was always at my most creative during times of elation. I would write, paint, redecorate, create anything and everything I could. Canvases were painted and repainted until they fell apart, rooms were made over, furniture rearranged time and time again and I loved it. The other major reason I avoided medication was when they prescribed it to me I checked the side effects, saw the words “sudden unexplained death” and said FUCK THAT!

It came to a point though when I was so low that sudden unexplained death was no deterrent for me, it would have been welcome at the time, I was that ill and I needed help. Fuck you side effects, nothing could be worse than how I’m feeling right now, bring it on, I said – and without a doubt it saved my life, again.

So when I felt myself slowly slipping away into the darkness this winter I eventually realised I had to stop fighting it and do something about it. I put the heating on. For those of you not familiar with fuel poverty, count yourselves very lucky because it’s fucking horrific. It comes down to a daily decision of food or warmth, and I opted for food, because it brought temporary comfort and was cheaper than warmth.

We are on a Pay As You Go meter for our energy and during the summer lockdown, when we had no money for electric and gas, we were forced to get a fuel loan from our energy provider. This meant that once we had used this energy for every £10 we put on the meter we only got £3 of energy until the debt was paid off. When you are living in the debt you accumulate more debt on top of your existing debt as there is a standing daily charge so it’s almost impossible to get out of it without putting a shitload of money on the meter in a lump sum, and that just wasn’t possible so we couldn’t afford to use the gas to heat our home. I’ve since discovered that you can get fuel vouchers from your energy supplier instead of going into debt, I only discovered this as I was talking to an energy agent and they happened to mention it, they don’t want you to know shit like this you see so hide it away in the deepest recesses of their websites or most commonly not mention it at all there. Call your supplier and ask to apply for a voucher.

I also found out that there was help available from the government’s COVID Winter Grant Scheme. This is also hidden away from us and I was only made aware of it though talking to someone at our county council about something totally different. We were able to apply for a food voucher and fuel voucher and they were in my inbox the very next day. They can also pay off your fuel debt, although by this point I had finally managed to pay ours off. You need to be referred for this scheme, you can’t self refer but here’s the Leicestershire County Council info about it and who can refer you.

So we have been warm recently and it’s been bloody wonderful when we are. Why am I telling you all this you may ask? Well because lockdown is fucking hard on all of us and I am lucky in that I was able to find out what was affecting my mental health and take steps to remedy it. Sometimes it can be easily identified and remedied, sometimes it can be much more complex. If you are feeling low and can’t work out what exactly is your trigger or triggers then have a think to when you felt happier. For me it was sitting in the garden and feeling warm, such a simple thing but it felt so unattainable for so long. We were broke then and we’re broke now but the big difference was warmth and the route to change that was asking for help.

This winter will be hard on us. Not seeing friends and family, not being able to sit in the garden or a park feeling the sun’s warmth on our skin, heating our homes, homeschooling, feeding our families, there’s a wealth of adversity for us to overcome. But, we are facing this together and there is help out there. We fall through the cracks of financial support in terms of Universal Credit, ESA etc and we are not alone in this. If you are like us then get in touch with your council and ask about the COVID Winter Scheme. We are only allowed to apply twice apparently but it will get us through January which as you know lasts 75 years so that is a massive help.

My family and friends have been and continue to be amazing. My daily Facetimes with my sister are a vital part of me staying optimistic about the future, even if we just talk about Housewives of New Jersey for the entire time, it’s something I look forward to every day. My nephew has started streaming on Twitch, he has a focus on mental health there and has created a really good little community of gamers that I can often be found in during the evening if he’s live. I’ve zero interest in gaming, it’s just such a cool space to chill out in, he’s also funny as fuck so it always lifts my mood! If you give him a watch ask him to do his Kermit does Taken scene, you won’t regret it!

My Mum and I WhatsApp most days, she has been absolutely amazing. I’ve not been able to see her for well over a year and I’ve no idea when I will get up to North Wales again to visit, so staying in touch most days is so precious.

Stay in touch with people, maintain friendships no matter how shit you feel that day because it’s these connections that lift us up, keep our heads above the turbulent seas and keep us keeping on when things seem so hard. Having crashed recently I know how important my friends and family are to my mental wellbeing. The social isolation of lockdown can feel overwhelming and never ending at times but I am not alone in feeling this way and it’s tough on us all. Reach out, stay connected, seek help and don’t suffer alone.

Below is a list of helplines and resources, there is help out there and of course my inbox is always open.

In an emergency:

  • Call 999
  • Go to your local A&E department

If you’re in crisis and need to speak to someone:

  • Call NHS 111 (for when you need help but are not in immediate danger)
  • Contact your GP and ask for an emergency appointment
  • Contact the Samaritans (details below)
  • Use the ‘Shout’ crisis text line – text SHOUT to 85258

Mind

Mind offers advice, support and information to people experiencing a mental health difficulty and their family and friends. Mind also has a network of local associations in England and Wales to which people can turn for help and assistance.

Lines are open Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm (except bank holidays). More on Mind’s Infoline opening hours over Christmas.

Samaritans

Available 24 hours a day to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts.

PAPYRUS UK

PAPYRUS is the national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide. They support young people under 35 who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, as well as people concerned about someone else.

Their HopelineUK service is open 9am – midnight every day of the year (including weekends and bank holidays).

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)

A helpline for people in the UK who are down or have hit a wall for any reason, who need to talk or find information and support.

5pm to midnight, every day of the year

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