Sarah Douglas, 52, secretly struggled with debt throughout her adult life and suffered severe mental health issues as a result. Six years ago, she came clean to her husband. Sarah shares how she reclaimed financial control and rebuilt her life.
Standing at the beauty counter in Debenhams, I hung off every word the sales assistant was telling me about the fancy new face cream I needed. This would be the start of my new self-care routine, I told myself. I didn’t question the price as the assistant filled the glossy shopping bag and I didn’t flinch when it came to punching in the pin number of my credit card when the machine totalled over £300. I walked out buzzing. I felt amazing.
This was just one example of my impulsive and reckless splurges in my thirties, when I used to run up charges on store cards and credit cards which bulked up my purse. But these erratic spending sprees – using money I didn’t have in my bank account – were not new to me.
I’ve had money problems most of my life and have been racked with feelings of shame, guilt and failure as a result. And I’ve done a very good job of hiding it.
How it started
I didn’t have a traditional upbringing – I left home at 17 during my A-levels. My parents didn’t want me at home so I went to live with a religious family for a few weeks before Dad found a flat for me to live in on my own.
I was fortunate the benefit system was so supportive back then – although I had no idea how to manage my money. I was also emotionally fragile and had mental health issues, but I didn’t know it, which made my situation even more challenging.
Still, I managed to go to university to study teaching. The only way I could support myself was taking out an annual £2,000 student loan over three years and using a grant and my student bank’s free overdraft, while working a part-time job in a cafe.
I left university with about £6,000 of debt which was impossible for me to pay back. By this time, my mental health issues had worsened, and there was no way I could hold down a demanding teaching job, so I took an office admin role on a minimum salary to pay bills and rent.
Caught in a spending cycle
My bad spending habits didn’t disappear. I was always chasing that dopamine hit from a reckless shopping spree. As soon as pay day came, I would skim a clothes catalogue and splurge over £300 a time.
I wouldn’t ever get round to returning anything because it was just too overwhelming. Then the guilt and shame would creep in. I would budget, then blow the money, feel guilty and then re-budget again. It would repeat in cycles.
At 26, I met my husband and we married six months later. He knew about my difficult upbringing, and helped me work out a plan to pay off my student loans. I was so grateful.
But I soon slipped back into bad spending habits when I discovered the 0% fixed term interest credit cards and store cards. I would go on a spending spree without giving it much thought – it didn’t feel like I was spending real money. With a store card, I could have anything. I wouldn’t keep track of the bills. To be honest, it never really occurred to me that I needed to pay it back.
I became a new mum the next year, and that gave me another excuse to shop. I enjoyed being able to provide for my baby and I’d go off shopping for toys and gifts for him. He wasn’t spoilt, I just wanted to make sure he had the things I didn’t. Although I did once splurge on a bouncy castle for the garden which was a bit crazy!
I also got a real buzz out of receiving mail order deliveries. I wouldn’t hide the shopping from my husband, I wasn’t devious. My behaviour was impulsive and addictive.
I masked any mental health issues but inside, my head was frantic. My moods over the years would rollercoaster – when I was up, I felt great, and then I’d come down and the world would go dark. I kept digging myself deeper into a dark hole.
I’d had chronic depression and anxiety since my teens, but I never got a proper diagnosis or treatment. I took Prozac, but it didn't help. During really dark times, I struggled with an ongoing eating disorder and self harm too as I’d internalised the shame. I now know I was a functioning depressive. I had this brilliant ability to mask everything so nobody knew how ill I was.
Sometimes the reality of my debt would strike in the middle of the night and disrupt my sleep. I’d lie awake for hours panicking about how I was going to sort it out and battled with feelings of self-loathing.
Dropping the bombshell
Then I reached a turning point when I was 42 and was diagnosed with autism. Suddenly my habits seemed to make more sense. It’s really common for people who are neurodivergent to find financial management difficult.
But the next big shift in my life happened when the credit cards statements started piling up. Staring at the five-figure invoices sent my anxiety soaring. I had completely messed it all up and it was entirely my fault. I couldn’t carry this on any more.
Six years ago, my husband came home from work one night and I nervously delivered the news to him that I was £22,000 in debt. I was so ashamed. I sat shaking as I waited for him to tell me our marriage was over. I remember the look of shock on his face. Then after a few minutes – but what felt like hours – he calmly asked questions, listened and started to come up with a plan. He knew about my dysfunctional childhood so fortunately was very sympathetic. I’m so lucky to have him.
I saw an advert on TV for the debt advice service StepChange and made the call straight away. I was determined not to be bankrupt and to pay the money back. They provided me with a repayment plan and support I needed.
Of course there have been setbacks – it’s never a linear process. When you’re juggling debt it takes up a lot of time and energy. I still have to be very mindful of impulsive spending now. Last year I was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) so I have medication which massively helps.
The pandemic has had a disastrous impact on people with mental health and money problems. The charity StepChange says it saw the number of people who are in severe debt soar from 1.7 million to 2.4 million from March 2020 to January 2021. And with rising living costs it’s only going to get worse.
There is absolutely no way I'd have survived without the benefit support system in the 80s and more recently, the emotional support from my husband and friends. So many take their own lives because of debt – I know this, because I myself had suicide ideation.
Thankfully my husband was bringing in a secure income, so I didn’t feel so vulnerable as some. I’ve also managed to receive therapy since my diagnosis which has been a real bonus.
Although I had to leave my job in lockdown due to my mental health issues, I now work supporting others with financial issues and helping to remove the stigma around debt. I also work for a domestic abuse helpline and I’m researching autism for a new book with Bristol University.
For the first time in my life, I have savings in the bank – I’d love to visit friends in New Zealand. It's not easy facing up to the mess you've made of your finances. I had to do a lot of work and take responsibility for my money, but I'm much happier now.
If you’re looking for debt advice, check out www.stepchange.org or call the helpline on 0800 138 1111.