What to say to someone with an Eating Disorder

Even as a former suffer I also fall into the pitfall of saying the wrong thing in my attempt to show I care. Here is some great advice on what you should say instead!

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Invitation to change the world

This pretty much sums up my faith in our ability as humans to all work together to make a better world,  and why this is becoming more and more necessary.

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Reality Check

When I got home from work today I had to try to explain to my three year old son that Daddy has had to go back to work in the UK and that we will see him again, hopefully, in about four weeks’ time.

So it is time to count our blessings:

  • We are all healthy today.
  • My 16 month old daughter, my three year old son and I live in a spacious apartment with a beautiful view across Dubai Marina.
  • Our home is clean, because although I still have to work long hours, I now bring home enough money to support a live-in cleaner/nanny.
  • While we still have huge debts, they are now slowly shrinking, and hopefully will no longer be paying interest by Christmas, and might be completely clear by March 2015.
  • All our friends and family are well. I believe. (I cannot see them until next year sometime, but I have heard no bad news, so hopefully they are all okay).
  • We are all healthy today (repeated on purpose).

Now I feel much better about my son’s sadness at Daddy’s departure, because I know it is for a good reason and that it is only temporary (another 10 to 14 months).

I had a reality check over the weekend as I have indirectly received an excellent response to my “Squeezed Middle” post, from a lady I have huge respect for, who has slogged through the system for many years, managed to build herself a career and simultaneously raise a delightful young man, single handed. I do not remember all of her story, as I cannot claim to be a close acquaintance, but I think I have this much right:

As a rebellious teenager, she got pregnant, and when her family insisted she have an abortion or be disowned, she decided to keep her child. So John (not his real name) was born to a mother who had nothing, no qualifications with which to get a job, no time, in which to work, no partner or family to support her. The system did not provide enough income for them to live on and she took whatever work she could, day and night to make the extra. When I first met her, John was already a funny, polite and bright teenager and she was working by day and training as a nurse by night.

So when she read my “Squeezed Middle” post she had every right to be upset, as I must have seemed like a proper “poor little rich girl”. Sorry, my friend, I did not mean to present the idea that I have had it worse than anyone else.

Where am I going with this? This time next year I hope to be back home with my husband, friends and family having escaped our debt trap living in the Utopia that is; having an income which exceeds your essential outgoings, maybe even with the ability to save up for things like a meal out, or even a car that is economical to run, or start saving for my children to go to university, maybe save for retirement (now I’m getting ridiculously carried away). I understand that John’s mum is now living in this kind of dream, and I cannot think of anyone who deserves it more, or for who, I have greater respect. She is one AMAZING lady.

My point is this: I doesn’t need to be this hard. Not in 2014. Not for me, in the squeezed middle, or for the very many people who have it much tougher than I do. The vision of everybody in the world having access to clean water, nutritious food, healthcare and free education is still a distant dream, but the system that we have now could be changed to vastly improve the lives of so many people, that not to change it is almost criminal.

At the moment there are many things in the system which are not clever and certainly not fair. The obvious example is the welfare system. There is no route to feedback when it is not working, so no route to continuously refine it or report when it is dysfunctional. I was stuck in the trap of still paying maximum taxes at a time when I couldn’t buy food, but because such a large sum whistled through my bank account I was not eligible for relief. If I had not fled the system, then I would have had to give up my job (sufficiently cheaper accommodation within a commutable distance does not exist), sell my house and request state assistance in order to feed and house my family. That is much more expensive for the state, than offering a tax, national insurance and student loan repayment break for people with children below school age who do not have family or friends who could care for their kids while they go to work.

Likewise it would be much cheaper for the state to invest in building low cost housing on brownfield sites (simultaneously providing sustainable work for many different trades and businesses) than paying for people to live in the properties of private landlords making the landlords richer on taxpayers money.

It’s just stupid. And it is unfair. Needlessly unfair. And there are so many examples.

So I am not just going to bleat on about how hard done by I am, and how I wish I could see my friends this weekend, or this month, or this year. I am going to try and do something about it.

I’ve read a few books on politics and economics, enough to know that the people at the top don’t actually know what they are doing, and that centre-left and centre-right doesn’t make any difference to real people’s lives (and we wonder why only 34% of registered electors bothered to vote in May 2014).

What we need is for more people who have experienced life as it is for the vast majority of people to be representing the people. What does a man who went to Eaton know about having to choose between paying the HMRC or paying for your electricity this month? What does a fine arts graduate know about the most cost effective and low carbon emission balance of power generation? Nothing, this is why the UK has had no coherent energy policy for over a decade and a contributing factor to our inflated electricity bills.

We have the wrong people making decisions. These people do not represent us, and they do not have the skills to solve the real, but completely fixable, problems in our society.

So I am planning to stand in the General Election in May 2015. Because I want to make people’s lives better. I want to help make those smart changes that will make the difference for real people between being able to pay the bills and not being able to.

Changes that will make the system more cost effective AND fairer.

Because it IS possible to ask people what will make the difference for them and to find a way to make it happen.

And it IS possible to have both a thriving economy AND green electricity.

17/03/15 POSTSCRIPT: You can view my General Election Campaign Website here.

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Democracy; do you have it?

According to the Oxford Dictionary Democracy is defined as:

“1. A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives: a system of parliamentary democracy”

The same source gives the origin of the word as late 16th century, from the French word démocratie, via late Latin from Greek dēmokratia, from dēmos meaning ‘the people’ and kratia meaning ‘power, rule’.” People Power.

In this world of rule by an elite class in powerful political parties and corporations, I wonder how many of us feel that we are actually living in a democracy, and feel that any of the names on the ballot paper actually represent us?

Does the ability to choose between a handful of similar candidates and their manifestos once every five years constitute a democracy? In a world where thousands of people can give their opinions on a subject and how if effects them in seconds, with the answers analysed and returned also in seconds, surely we can do better?

Unfortunately it seems like the current systems, developed with the best of intensions, in many countries are altogether too protectionist of their elite members, the boards of corporations and their shareholders (most notably banks?). Not at all in the best interests of the majority they are supposed to represent.

To change the system in the UK, for example, would require persuading, not the electorate, but the majority party in government, that change is needed (then telling them how to do it). After all, the electorate only get to influence politics, every five years. Given the huge power a majority party in the UK parliament has, if they wanted to, they could enact phenomenal change in the space of 5 years, especially if they stopped caring so much about the next election and spending time covering up their colleagues criminal activities.

You might argue that the only way to persuade the majority party to change the system is to have the electorate demand such changes. For this to happen, then a huge proportion of the electorate would need to realize that they do not have a very democratic government and that it could, and should, be more effective, equitable and just, well, better. Then the electorate would need to demand that majority party in government “make it so”.

Even better if swathes of industry also lobbied for the same changes, but then that might risk their interests? Not necessarily. While at this time it seems like 99% of the money (and power?) is in the hands of 1% of the population (The Few), the same is largely true in big corporations (maybe 2% and 98%). On the plus side, that means that 98% of the employees making up these corporations are just the same as the 99% of the population (The Many) sharing that 1 or 2% of the money and the power created by their own hard work and ingenuity.

So what, it has been and always will be this way? Its human nature? Power and money will always corrupt:?

Despotic rule, can never last forever. Sooner or later, The Many, will realise that they are strong and have all the real skills and knowledge. The Few will realise that actually their wealth and power are not as secure as they thought.

We have come such a long way that technology, our combined intellect and our humanity can give us the means to enact change without needing to resort to physical violence. There are a great number of resources at our finger tips in 2014. How many people have a smartphone? Even more do not have one but still have regular access to social media. How about we used it to make our lives better, instead of to point out a spec of celebrity cellulite? Let’s work together to come up with something that works for all of us real people, because nobody else is going to do it for us.

I am not saying that it is wrong to spend 5 minutes finding out which Game of Thrones Champion you are most like, I love that too, but we could also spend a further 5 minutes responding to a questionnaire about the major impacts on our cost of living, our major future concerns and how we feel education or the NHS could be improved to benefit our own unique situation.

Put these answers all together, have smart people among us analyse it and put together a system which actually works for us? Now THAT would be democracy. Not easy, but certainly not as impossible as The Few seem to think. We have the technical expertise, we have the wisdom, we have the passion, we have the creativity and we have the ingenuity because we are 99% of the population.

First we need to ask for that fairer, smarter world. We must insist on it. We, the 99%, must insist upon it.

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Squeezed Middle, Professional mum driven out of UK

Taxed out of the UK – it is not only “low income” families who cannot make ends meet in the UK – Why I am in Dubai

In the Autumn of 2013 I checked myself into A&E at the Royal Berkshire Hospital because I had reached the end of my endurance. I had just enough reason left to get there rather than ploughing my car into a barrier on the M4. I was exhausted and had been suffering with severe depression for several months. I could not pay my bills, despite working all the hours possible and not having had a break from either childcare and housework or my engineering job since my daughter was born in the spring. But no matter how hard we tried we were still building debt at a rate of £1000 a month with no power to change the situation.

When we bought our flat, we could afford it. When we started our family, we were both employed and could just about afford it. When my husband’s self-employed job in the movies ended he started his own building company, which did well to begin with. But we were unlucky, and thanks to the current tax and benefit system in the UK we found ourselves at once liable for full tax bills, on a vastly reduced income, and eligible for no financial assistance. The NHS treatments for the resulting anxiety and depression for both of us treated the symptoms but were powerless against the cause.

We didn’t blow our money on beer and bingo, nor did we take out a mortgage we couldn’t at the time afford. We simply dared to have children on my stable income as a chemical engineer (with a first class master’s degree and seven years service with my employer) plus a less reliable income an experienced but self-employed, honest, tax-paying tradesman.

By that time last Autumn we had reached a debt of £30,000 from zero, in the 2.5 years since our son was born. Not including the money we still owed to the HMRC who were sending us letters threatening jail for my husband because we could not pay his £1500 tax bill from the tax year which began before our son was born in 2011, plus their £1000 estimated future tax bill.

I had tried everything, tax credits, independent financial advice, debt consolidation loan quotations, changed utility suppliers and sold possessions on eBay and at car-boot sales.

We had 2 children under 3 in the cheapest available childcare, 4 days a week. In West Berkshire that is about £1700 a month right there. Because our expected annual gross income was above a certain figure, we could not claim anything except child benefit, which was at least a help (I would have lost this had I worked 5 days a week, meaning that our net income would be exactly the same whether I worked 4 days or 5). Equally, because I had previously been very good with money, we were already paying the least possible amount in interest and charges, so moving our debt around would also have made no difference. We did manage to save a little by baking our own bread and collecting firewood from the nearby woods (I’m not kidding).

Here is the bare and honest mathematics which caused this black hole for our little family: my gross monthly income was £3700, minus childcare vouchers and company pension contribution, that left £3320. My husband’s average monthly income for the year had been lower than normal as it was year three for his new company and there were many costs such as new subcontractors, new equipment and so forth required so that his take home pay had decreased significantly. But this should be temporary…the current figure at that time was around £800 per month (gross, since this is below the threshold for paying income tax). So our total gross income was in the region of £4120 per month, on average (that is about £50,000) per year, which sounds like a lot, and is why we could not get any financial help.

My salary was, of course, subject to PAYE deductions, these were £530 income tax, £300 national insurance and £180 student loan. Add £185 per month council tax for the 3 bedroom flat in a converted listed building in the West Berkshire countryside which we bought cheap as a repossession with no water or power to begin with. Then there was the £1010 mortgage for said flat (I had requested payment holidays and filled in some forms, but Barclays stated that having children is an insufficient life-change for them to consider payment holidays, they still owe me for a separate PPI claim they are ignoring). The flat also came with a £1000 annual maintenance charge, so that’s £83 per month.

This all adds up as follows:

  • Total gross household monthly income = £4,120 plus child benefit of £135 = £4,255
  • Taxes, NIC and Student Loan = £530 + £300 + £180 + £185 = £1,195
  • Mortgage and maintenance charge = £1,010 + £83 = £1,093
  • Childcare, 4 days a week, minus childcare vouchers = £1,700 – £243 = £1,457

Therefore our income after taxes, mortgage and childcare = £510 per month.

This needed to cover road tax, car insurance and maintenance (there is no public transport within 2 miles of our home), electricity, internet, mobile phones, and food for one grown man doing a physical and usually outdoor job, a nursing mother, a toddler, a baby and two cats. as well as cover the running of one old banger since neither my office nor the children’s nursery can be reached by public transport in under two hours. It also needed to cover and credit card minimum payments (for debt amassed during 6 months of maternity leave for my son in 2011 and 3 months maternity leave for my daughter in 2013 as my multi national engineering company only provides the statutory minimum maternity pay). We also paid for a TV license, minimal broadband/TV/phone package and pet insurance for our two cats.

Just for food, petrol and power, we could never have got by on that, especially in those months when the car broke down or the hot water heater had to be replaced, or the bathroom plumbing leaked and collapsed the ceiling of the flat downstairs, or the Victorian drinking water system for the estate needed revamping. If my husband had given up his company to stay at home and look after the children we would have been better off, but still not enough to survive on my income alone, let alone pay anyone back.

So by the autumn of 2013 this had been going on for a while, and I had seen it coming from the moment I realised that I was pregnant with my daughter, but still, I had been unable to prevent it. We were getting by on substantial loans from family and friends, with no realistic way to pay them back in the future – at least until the children were both old enough for school…it seemed that there was just no way out on that dark day last autumn.

Once I was back home from my stay in hospital I realised that with £15,000 debt to banks, more than that figure owed to friends and family, more than £4000 debt to the student loan company still, a £185,000 mortgage and £2500 outstanding to pay the HMRC, something had to change dramatically. Slogging away, pinching the pennies and trying our best, clearly was not enough. But checking out was not going to provide a better life for my children. I realised that we faced two choices:

Option 1 was to sell the flat and try to rent something smaller which might just make enough difference to mean that we could halt our slide into further debt. If you work in Berkshire, this would be very hard to find. Our chances of being able to reduce our debts in such a situation would be slight, and it would take many more years of slogging to the bone, being too exhausted to give our children, or each other, the love and attention they deserve, but at least we would be surviving (but with high risk of repeat and prolonged stays on the psychiatric ward).

Fortunately for us all, thanks to my engineering job in a major international contracting firm, we had a second option which was sometimes available. We could leave The UK System far behind. Or at least I could.

Option 2 involved hoping for a position overseas to come up and persuading my company and that particular client that I should be sent for the job. Hopefully that would also be somewhere not too dangerous, and if possible, not too far for my husband to visit me and our tiny children. Very luckily for us, such a position came up and my immediate managers supported my bid to go. So now we have a new life, we can pay our bills each month (in both the UK and Dubai), I work long hours (48 per week), but with the help of a live-in maid the laundry gets done, we eat well, we pay no tax, and I spend some quality time with my children every single day. This comes at the price of the children only seeing Daddy for one weekend each month, and no longer seeing the rest of our family and friends, except via Facebook and Skype.

But I can sleep at night, knowing that by the end of this 2014/15 tax year, I should be able to pay back everyone who has lent us so much money since our son was born. We just have to stay away until my son can start school and my overseas earnings will definitely be tax free. By my engineering estimate we have another 12 to 15 months remaining in fiscal-exile.

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