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

No-bake mascarpone, Biscoff and Nutella cheesecake

cheesecake

A quick snap before devouring…

It’s currently 34C here in Melton Mowbray, I’m sat in the garden sipping on a lagerita and feeling very thankful.

I find myself feeling incredibly thankful for a lot these days. Despite the financial and emotional adversity that lockdown has brought, it has also brought a great deal of positivity into my life – the kindness of friends, family and strangers, the shift to working entirely from home, my new found love of succulent plants (seriously, I’m addicted just check out my Instagram!), my tiny garden (where I sit every day it doesn’t rain and indeed even some when it does) and today the fact that my cottage is like a fridge on the hottest of days.

I got up at 6:30am with the well placed intention of watering the garden before the sun unleashed its scorching rays on my unsuspecting plants, I looked at the hosepipe and then thought: I really fancy cheesecake…

I picked up a couple of very cheap tubs of mascarpone yesterday from Lidl, not entirely sure what they were going to be used for but with the best intentions of something to do with fruit…yes, more well placed intentions.

You can make this with cream cheese instead of mascarpone but I just love the silkiness that the Italian softy cheese brings, full fat though, always full fat. I had some Biscoff biscuits knocking about, half a pat of butter and a pot of double cream that was bought for a pasta dish and a punnet of strawberries picked up from the Reduced Section for just 15p, so I was all set for a fruity cheesecake. Then I spotted the jar of Nutella winking at me seductively.

So this is a pretty experimental cheesecake that turned out to be perfect. If I had a bar of chocolate I would have melted it and drizzled it across the top but alas the pantry was bereft of such delights.

This is really easy to make, needs time to set in the fridge before serving but an hour or two later and you are good to go…

Ingredients:

  • 400g Biscoff biscuits
  • 100g melted butter
  • 500g mascarpone
  • 2 tblsp icing sugar
  • 300g Nutella
  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • chocolate balls to decorate (or some melted chocolate to drizzle)

Method:

  1. Put 300g of the Biscoff biscuits in a processor and bliss to a fine crumb then pour in the melted butter and blitz again to mix.
  2. Put almost all of the biscuit mixture in the bottom of a 23cm springform cake tin and press down with the back of a spoon. Reserve a bit to sprinkle on the top later if you like or chuck the lot in.
  3. Put the mascarpone, icing sugar and Nutella in a big bowl and beat together until well incorporated. I’m lazy so use an electric beater for ease.
  4. In separate bowl beat the double cream and vanilla paste until it is fluffy and full of air but not overly stiff. Fold the double cream into the mascarpone mix and mix until all is the same colour.
  5. Put the mascarpone and double cream mix on top of the biscuit base and put in the fridge to chill for a few hours or even overnight.
  6. Once ready to serve release it from the tin and then decorate with the crushed biscuits, the remaining whole biscuits and your chocolate balls (or melted chocolate).

Easy, kickass hummus

HUMMUS

Lockdown may have eased somewhat but finances are still really strained so cheap food wins are still as important as ever and this hummus has become a weekly staple here at the cottage.

This hummus is ready in just a few minutes, it’s really easy and can be customised depending on your mood. Throw in some jarred roasted red peppers, fresh basil, coriander, roasted aubergine, make it using butter beans, cannellini beans, whatever you have to hand. If you have a glut of courgettes (as many do at this time of year!) why not make my raw courgette hummus, it’s packed full of  goodness and tastes kickass too.

Ingredients:

  • 1 can chickpeas (plus about half of the liquid in the can)
  • 3 garlic cloves (I like it really garlicky!)
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • pinch sea salt (I like to use smoked) and pepper to taste if you like
  • 3 tblsp tahini
  • smoked paprika
  • drizzle of olive oil to serve

Method:

  1. Drain the chickpeas, reserving the liquid in a mug. Put almost all the chickpeas into a “Nutribullet (or any blender but the Nutribullet gets it really smooth and creamy) reserving a few to garnish.
  2. Add in the garlic, lemon, cumin and tahini and about half of the chickpea juice (aquafaba). Blitz and add more liquid if needed. Taste and add salt and pepper if required then blitz again.
  3. Pop into a serving bowl, scatter with reserved chickpeas, the smoked paprika and a drizzle of oil. I like to leave it to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving to allow all the flavours to develop with each other.

 

Very lazy sourdough loaf

sourdoughIt’s been a while since I made sourdough, probably about 4 years or so, but the lack of yeast on the shelves means it’s back on my lockdown radar.

Two weeks ago my friend Andy got in touch asking me if I had a sourdough starter that he could have. I didn’t, but said I would happily make some as my old cottage seems to make a pretty good starter.

There are LOADS of various sourdough starter recipes online, some really complicated ones, some that add all kinds of things from yoghurt to leaves, but I have no interest in complicated recipes so I do my own lazy version, and you know what? It works a treat.

All I do is put some plain flour into a Tupperware dish then add enough cold water to make it into a thick paste, like a tin of matt paint. I don’t weigh or measure the water or flour, I really can’t be arsed with dicking about weighing and measuring. Each day I add a bit more flour, maybe about 3 tablespoons and a bit more water to it and give it a good stir to get back to a thick consistency that is still liquid and drops off a spoon easily. When it separates I just stir it all together. If the Tupperware gets too full, I discard some and then add the flour and water. I leave the Tupperware, uncovered in the  kitchen out of the way at this point.

I ran out of plain flour after about 10 days so added some organic stoneground rye flour that I had knocking about and it really liked this, it bubbled better and started to get really sour smelling, happy starter.

It took two weeks to get to the point I wanted it. Starters take time, don’t rush it, it will get there. I knew it was ready as about half an hour after feeding it would have risen up the Tupperware and be bubbly and was smelling quite sour.

Then it came to making the loaf, and you know what? I did a really lazy loaf too.

Easy, lazy sourdough loaf:

sourdough top

Ingredients:

  • 270g strong white bread flour
  • 200g sourdough starter (unfed that day, see above for how I make it)
  • 130ml water, I use cold water straight from the tap, you may need a little more depending on how runny your starter is.
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar

Method:

  1. Put everything into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix for about 10 minutes until supple and stretchy.
  2. Put the dough in an oiled bowl (I use the mixer bowl) and cover with a damp tea towel. Leave for 3 hours.
  3. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball by tucking the edges into the centre.  Put into a floured proving basket seal side up. Cover with a damp cloth and leave for 3 hours. You can pop it in the fridge and leave overnight also at this stage.
  4. Get your big dutch oven pot out (I use a cheap but very heavy enamelled Le Creuset wannabe picked up from Sainsburys years ago) and some baking parchment. Cut a round of parchment to fit the base with some excess – I just trace the shape of the lid and cut it out.
  5. Preheat oven to 230C. Put the big Le Creuset style casserole pot in with its lid on for about 20 minutes to get really hot.
  6. When the pot is hot, gently upend the dough onto the parchment (I put the parchment over the bowl then flip and tip. Score the dough with a razor blade so the loaf can expand.
  7. Take the pot out of the oven, pop in your dough on the parchment (by holding the edges of the parchment) pop the lid on and get it into the oven quickly.
  8. Bake for 25 minutes then remove the lid and continue to bake for 15 minutes.
  9. Remove your bread from the pot and leave to cool completely (well if you have any self restraint, but it helps the crust set)
  10. Enjoy your sourdough loaf.

 

 

 

Life in lockdown – wine club and the kindness of others

 

breads

White tin loaf and a focaccia, made possible thanks to the kindness of friends

On Friday afternoon I was able to order a case of wine. It arrived the following morning at 9am. I’ve no money but I am part of a wine club thing, I have been since I drunkenly signed up as a student many, many years ago, then wondered where the case of wine mysteriously appeared from.

I put some money into a wine bank account every month, I can’t really afford to and take payment holidays several times a year, but when I am able to I pop some funds in there. The wine company adds some funds too and then I forget about it, until, like now, I have absolutely nothing and I check out the wine balance and fingers crossed there is enough for a case, usually the cheapest one going, but a case nevertheless.

We are able to do one shop a month at Tescos and it’s now pot luck as to whether there is anything left. We are lucky that our butcher sells flour pretty cheaply so I’ve been making bread and pasta and we are able to get milk from the pound shop. But veg is a luxury now, salad is a once a month treat bar foraging for dandelions, sorrel, cleavers and lime leaves from the garden. I’m lucky that I had a pretty well stocked pantry before all of this but stocks are very low, unless you count a wealth of  dried hibiscus flowers (great for a gin and tonic but I rarely use them for anything else).

But I do now have wine, wine that can be swapped for something edible from a friend or neighbour. Wine that can be sipped in the sun whilst I escape the kitchen and its challenges, wine that can be added to a smoky chorizo and chickpea stew. Thank fuck for wine club.

I have some incredible friends that live close by, one gave me pasta flour and a load of garlic last week that I have roasted up and am eating straight from the jar now. Yesterday  she blew me away with a care package packed full of fresh, canned and frozen food, it was like Christmas. Shrieks of “SUGAR! STRAWBERRIES! OIL! COURGETTES!” resounded throughout the cottage. I’m still teary as I write about it. I was able to make a salad for dinner of fresh watercress, tomatoes, onions and dressing alongside the frozen prawns she had very generously included. Magical! As I type this there is bread dough in the mixer to make a loaf and some more focaccia so we will have bread again.

One friend left a huge bunch of rosemary on my doorstep that has since been turned into focaccia, gone into stews, pasta dishes and sits in a massive vase of water in the kitchen so I can keep dipping into it. It will also go into some pampering sugar scrubs once I get time and I’ll be sure to make her some lovely sugar scrub in return. Another has had some tobacco dropped off for us and the kindness of that delivery blew me away also.

This is not a post about asking for sympathy, far from  it.  We are in fact very lucky, we have amazing friends who live locally, flour in the pantry and now wine in the fridge which makes us more than lucky.  Until I had begun accepting help I was beginning to feel quite alone in this, there is self isolation and then there is feeling isolated, and poverty can make you feel incredibly isolated.

I’ve been in dire straits before, hell I used to sell The Big Issue many years ago and get food from skips as standard. We will come through this.

I’m learning the power of true friendships, the generosity of others means the world. I’m learning to focus on the positives. I’m learning to take some time to relax, despite the huge pressure to bring in any money. I’m learning to ask for help.

I could focus on the things I miss, and there are many, but I’m trying to focus on the things we have instead. We have our health, a roof over our heads, a small outdoor space to escape to on a sunny day (and this really has been a lifeline) and I’m a pretty good cook so I can turn a group of random ingredients into a meal for two.

I am so very thankful that this has not happened in winter as there’s NO WAY we’d be able to heat the cottage, which stays cold even on the hottest of days. I have some income, not enough to cover bills, but enough to buy us food once a month and milk as we go. I have amazing friends and family…and I have wine.

So why am I writing all of this down? Well I wanted to let you know that you are not alone. Reach out, ask for help. I don’t have much but I will happily share what I do have, so if you need anything and you are local just drop me a message. If you just want someone to chat to, if you need a rant or a giggle, if you need recipe ideas, or if you’d like me to make you a loaf of bread, please, drop me a message. We will get through this, together.