We’ve all spent beyond our means at one time or another. For Dena Adams, 38, it resulted in her being declared bankrupt
“It’s perhaps no surprise that I cried as I left court after filing for bankruptcy. It was official – I now didn’t have a penny to my name. But as I walked out into the cold spring air six years ago, it was tears of relief, not sorrow, streaming down my face. For the past 15 years my debt had been an all-consuming secret that had made my life a living hell. And now, that nightmare was finally over.
Being in debt is a scary and incredibly stressful place to be. There were many times over the years when I’d contemplated taking my own life – out of shame, embarrassment and frustration. You can’t sleep at night, churning over the lies you’re telling to loved ones, or dreading what the morning will bring. Maybe I’d find another demand on the doormat that I’d have to hide from my husband – who had no idea of the extent of my debt when we married in 2008. I would get constant calls asking me to ‘discuss the matter urgently’ that I’d ignore until, accidentally, I’d answer one and face an angry voice pressing me for answers.
In the end I owed £30,000, but like most problems, it started small – a £100 overdraft at university, which I frittered away on nights out, clothes and takeaways. For me, it was an act of rebellion – my working-class parents had always been very careful with money and would never have allowed me to get into any kind of debt. As the money disappeared, I kept increasing my overdraft, thinking nothing of it. Everyone else seemed to be doing it, and in my mind things would change once I started earning. When I finally graduated, I owed over £5,000 on overdrafts.
After uni, I found a job quickly, but my wages couldn’t match my spending. When I hit my overdraft limit, I moved onto credit cards, even foolishly paying for friends when they were too broke to come out. Even as the figures reached huge proportions, I remained in denial, paying the bare minimum.
When I fell pregnant at the age of 26, I finally realised things had to change. I was going to be a single mum and knew I had to take responsibility. I cut up my cards, started paying off nominal sums and cut back my spending. But even then I struggled to keep my head above water and meet the repayments. When you’re in debt, you’re scared to tell anyone for fear they’ll judge or call you stupid. You beat yourself up enough, you don’t need anyone else to do it too. It’s such an isolating position to be in.
To cheer myself up, I’d go shopping; I had a Debenhams store card that allowed me to withdraw cash with a £3,000 credit limit. So I’d spend a fortune on underwear and Lancome make-up, then feel depressed. The whole process turned into a vicious cycle.
Of course, the more I buried my head in the sand, the worse the situation became. The stress seeped into every aspect of my life. I’d often be agitated in the day, losing my temper easily because the stress of it all would tip me over, and I would lie awake at night feeling ashamed and alone. How could I possibly have got myself into this terrible situation where I was lying to my parents and my husband? The deceit was eating me up, and the calls were becoming increasingly intimidating too – now when I told them I had nothing to give they asked, ‘What about your dad? Get him to pay.’
Eventually it got too much, my husband and I divorced in 2009 and, one day after my mood swings had become increasingly erratic, I finally cracked and admitted to a friend that I was £30,000 in debt. She was calm and offered to help me instantly. The sense of relief was incredible, like a weight had been lifted. Together we spent a whole evening going through all of my paperwork – four carrier bags of unopened post – which I’d been too terrified to look at before.
After I filed for bankruptcy, I felt like I could finally sleep again. Suddenly life was more bearable now that I’d faced my demons. The process itself was intimidating – you go to court and answer questions, like how I’d managed to get into so much debt, in front of a panel of three people. They weren’t judgmental, but it was dauntingly formal; I felt like a naughty child. But the embarrassment was worth it. I was finally free of the shame and guilt that had been haunting me for almost two decades.
Bankruptcy means your assets are frozen and sold to pay for your debts, you may be ordered to pay a portion of your monthly salary and your bank accounts will be frozen. Even after you have been discharged from bankruptcy (usually after 12 months) it will remain on your credit rating for up to six years. Mine was finally removed from my credit rating in March but that doesn’t mean my problems are over. I’m aware how easy it is to slip back into bad habits, and I’m constantly worried I’m going to get back into serious debt. I have a credit card and owe £2,000 but I’m in control of it now, whereas before I was just frivolous. The effects of bankruptcy will be felt forever – I know I’ll struggle to ever get a mortgage for example – but it gave me a fresh start to sort out my finances. Do I regret getting into debt? Yes, but at least I’ve finally got my life back on track.”
For advice on bankruptcy and debt plans, visit stepchange.org
Words: Georgie Lane-Godfrey
Photography: Sarah Brimley
Hair and make-up: Rose Angus at S Management