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Money woes left me cut off from the basics

It was at 3.30am on a warm summer's night when all of my neighbours were rudely awakened by a series of piercing wails emanating from my house alarm. It wasn't shrieking like a Jedward fan because someone was trying to break into my house -- it was howling because my electricity had been cut off a day earlier, and its battery was now being drained. And on that never-ending and embarrassing night, there wasn't a thing I could do to stop it.

The utter mortification of that incident came back to me last week, with the news that the ESB is currently cutting off power to 900 households a month where electricity bills are in arrears. That's 30 extra homes a day who get to enjoy the reality of being "de-energised", as the ESB delightfully calls it. Far from being the exciting sci-fi experience that this term suggests, having your electricity supply cut off is a traumatic and paralysing experience.

Anyone at risk of being cut off is in the throes of financial difficulties, as I was when it happened to me a couple of years ago. In my case, a call to my wonderful, long-suffering mammy, also known fondly as the Bank of Eileen, saw me re-energised again, but in the 48-hour period in between, I became painfully aware of the extent to which we depend on electricity.

I live by myself and can't cook to save my life, so all I lost when the fridge started defrosting was a few Lidl ready-meals and a tub of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Depressing as that was for me, particularly as it was my favourite Phish Food variety, can you imagine the distress for a family with young children, watching the food in their fridge being spoiled before their eyes?

I couldn't have a shower, so felt dirty, and the house was eerily silent as I was unable to watch television or listen to the radio. I was prevented from working, as the computer lay idle, and couldn't use the house phone, read a book, or listen to music. I couldn't even make a cup of tea, and was devastated to miss the Big Brother eviction!

It was most inconvenient and embarrassing, but thankfully it only lasted two days. And I'm quite sure that there are many people out there who are not as fortunate as I was in having a lovely family who could help out.

I had also spent the whole of the previous winter with no heating, as Bord Gais had cut me off. Again my parents gave me the money, but unknown to them, I used it to pay something else that was being threatened. I can't even remember exactly what it was used for now, because those years of threatened repossessions, judgments, disconnections and prosecutions have melded in my head into one lengthy, ghastly nightmare.

I spent the evenings huddled under the duvet on the sofa, along with my furry cats and dogs, and then bought two small electric blow heaters. They were cheap, but it was a false economy, as it turned out, because I had no idea that they eat electricity until I received a bill for €600. And truthfully, I might as well have had two hair dryers running, for all the warmth they actually generated.

Despite their worthy protestations to the contrary, I have never found utility providers to be very sympathetic when it comes to arrears. Some of them are far too quick to disconnect, including UPC, formerly Chorus ntl, whom I find particularly unfair.

My monthly payment for their combined home phone/digital TV/ broadband package comes to €63.74, which is very reasonable. However, you must pay within two weeks of the bill being issued, and if you are late in your payments, they penalise you and are very quick to cut you off. This is a real pain for me, as much of my income is irregular, due to the freelance nature of my work,

I was most recently cut off by them on July 28, because I owed €48.74 from the June bill. I had made a payment of €25 in early July on the bill of €73.74, which included a €10 fine for not paying the previous one in time. They then cut me off, and applied a €10 penalty to my account yet again, and I was hugely inconvenienced by not being able to access my emails to send work in to my editors.

It is very easy for them to suspend your account as they simply block the digital signal, and personally I think it is extremely punitive to suspend services so swiftly and apply fines a mere two weeks after the bill has been issued.

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We are all going out less and spending more time at home, so to have the very basic household utilities suspended is terribly distressing and humiliating. We're talking here about the fundamental ability to cook, stay warm, work on the computer, watch TV, see in the dark and stay clean, so the Government and utility providers would do well to be more proactive in helping the people affected.

After all, in these recessionary times, there is a very important distinction to be made between those who won't, and those who simply can't pay their bills.

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