I used to wear contact lenses to stop my Mr Magoo impersonation. Since I signed on, though, I’ve been unable to afford them.
I’m in receipt of contributions-based Jobseekers’ Allowance and, you might be surprised to know, means I’m not entitled to free eye or dental care. Contribution-based Jobseekers’ Allowance is paid out based on Class 1 National Insurance contributions in the two complete tax years before the claim – I’m getting back what I put in.
Thankfully, I do own a pair of glasses. Unfortunately, the nose pad is broken and the metal frame sticks into my nose. This would be ridiculous enough … but I’m also allergic to the metal so the little bit digging in causes a rash to boot.
I responded to this problem with intelligence and creativity – I use a folded-up piece of toilet roll wedged between the metal bit and my nose. It looks absurd but it works.
I often forget it’s there. You see, Chaplin has no concerns about my appearance; he tolerates me not getting dressed in the morning and I tolerate him coming in covered in bits of garden. But when people knock on the door, from the local church offering to pray for me (I’m thinking about accepting) or bringing a supermarket delivery, I sometimes answer it with toilet roll in place. No one comments. They don’t say a thing, just look briefly from my eyes to the loo roll and back without saying a word. Only then do I realise it’s there.
I tend not to comment and, to be honest, thought little of it. That is until I popped to my corner shop with the loo roll in place. It was a tatty bit that I’d been using a while and had disintegrated a little but doing its job. My corner shop is not run by the kindest of people – I’ve seen them spray air freshener when old people they say smelt of wee offend them.
“What’s that?” The owner pointed at me, laughing wildly, as I tried to pay for my tinned tomatoes. Then she looked to her family for cruel back-up.
I touched my nose and realised my social faux pas. I had no time to explain and I don’t live in an area where I can pretend to be boho and eccentric.
“That’s daft. Get your glasses fixed. What’s wrong with you?”
Her cackle went through me but I just mumbled, “I lost the bit, besides, I can’t afford to -”
It didn’t stop the laughter. I felt like I was in primary school having wet myself in assembly for all to see. The last time I felt this self-conscious I was standing, dressed up to the nines, at a tabloid party where everyone else had arrived “casual”. Or when, as a teen, I tried to dye my own hair blonde and it went purple.
It got me to thinking about how my self-esteem is doing. Unemployment knocks the wind out of one’s sails. As far back as 2009 the Evening Standard reported that the recession led to a dramatic increase in the prescriptions for anti-depressants (although those on contributions-based benefits don’t get free prescriptions so might not be able to afford them).
The links between unemployment and health have been studied for much longer, says a 2010 TUC research on unemployment and health. It points out that in 1937, a correlation between unemployment and maternal and infant mortality was identified and, in 1940, a link was established between unemployment and deaths from rheumatic heart disease. It goes on to explain that, by the 1980s, considerable research was conducted and the World Health Organisation concluded that “it is almost certain that unemployment damages mental health and probable that it damages physical health”.
I do sense panic after another angry call from a creditor who won’t take “I’m skint” for an answer. Now I wonder if eighteen weeks without work is when one’s self-esteem starts to take a kicking, although I can find no evidence for this specifically, of course.
I can’t say how I’d react to such a glasses incident if I were working because I doubt it would happen but I was genuinely mortified. I momentarily saw nothing funny in it at all. Thankfully, years of being a hack gives you thick skin and I did eventually laugh. I resented giving my benefits money to these people, but I laughed.
It’s odd to realise how people see you: that neither you, nor they see you as you once saw yourself. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when you’re not making the effort to look smart because you’re not going anywhere: a dirty T-shirt and baggy pants can scream “jobseeker” or worse depending on someone’s attitude to the out-of-work.
It’s not like a break-up when you wallow short-term: I can’t listen to Joe Jackson’s Breaking Us In Two and write a list of my positive and negative characteristics. I can’t meet friends and get obscenely drunk and slag off the reason I’m in a mess then phone the reason before I pass out. I don’t think unemployed cat-lover would get me a place on Match.com.
I now look like I’m unemployed. I used to be spotted by other journalists across a crowded airport and they would know I was a fellow hack. I doubt they would now and that bothers me. Many won’t understand the kick us journalists get out of spotting each other in a bar before a press conference, of answering “what do you do” with a swagger before saying, “actually, I’m a journalist”. People who hate us might not realise we feel this way, but we do.
Amount I spent today: 50p. This did not increase by ten pence since I last moaned about my poverty but, like a lot hacks, my maths isn’t great
Amount I might be owed by my bank: £30 at least
What I intend to buy: Dreamies, shampoo, toothpaste enough food to feed an army (but costing no more than £40)