Tuesday 22 January 2019

A life sentence of shame

A reader's experience of bankruptcy 18 years ago, thanks to her partner's spendthrift ways, remains a secret and still fills her with a sense of failure

The shame of bankruptcy has never left, despite the debts being discharged 15 years ago
The shame of bankruptcy has never left, despite the debts being discharged 15 years ago

Bankruptcy is something that happens to someone else. Perhaps someone you know? Then it becomes a relish of gossip, a wonder of scandal and schadenfreude and gratitude that it isn't you. But it was me. In 1989, and for the subsequent three long years, I was a bankrupt, a disgrace.

I told my very immediate family, some of whom distanced themselves immediately, and two friends. No one else knew, and they still don't.

To the rest of the world, I carried on with the farce of my daily existence while everything around me had disintegrated. And even now, 15 years after I was discharged, it remains the skeleton in my cupboard.

Please understand that until I was 40, I had never had a debt in my life or, indeed, any kind of credit, apart from a tiny mortgage in my thirties. I had always been careful with my money. I was respectable.

He, though, was a Walter Mitty: a serial liar and a fantasist. But he was also the love of my life and truly, love is blind.

I'm not the first and I won't be the last. He had all the big ideas and I had all the money.

Naive and gullible, infatuated, all caution swept away by his heady enthusiasm and silver tongue, I didn't read the small print. Even when the bank suggested that I take independent advice before signing an unlimited guarantee.

It didn't take long. Less than three years later, overnight, I lost everything I had earned since I was 17.

Twenty-five years of honest toil, decent salary, savings and investments -- gone. House -- gone. Along with my respectability. I think it was the respectability I minded most.

Stupid? Yes. Dishonest? No, but the law does not distinguish between the two. I didn't even have youth as an excuse. I was almost 42. A bankrupt. I felt dirty, untrustworthy.

After an interview with bankruptcy officials, I handed over my jewellery to be picked over and sold off cheaply at an insolvency auction, and then went home on the bus because I had had to surrender the keys of my car. I lied about the reasons for selling my house.

My name and address were published and the local paper as a bankrupt. I had to hope that no one from work read it.

If people seemed more delighted than usual to see me, I suspected that it was a clumsy way of cheering me up. I hid from social contact and relatives.

Three years later, I became a discharged bankrupt. I had expected to feel different, to feel free and happy, but all I felt was flat and worn out, a total anti-climax. I rang the officials to ask what happened next.

"Nothing" was the answer. "You are free to resume your normal life."

I couldn't remember what that was. I seemed to have been bankrupt for ever. Certainly the stench and the shame has taken its toll.

Murderers come out of jail having served their sentence but they are still a murderer because the person they killed is still dead. I was discharged 15 years ago but I still owe those debts.

I am technically still a bankrupt and there is no time in the future when I will not be one. A social leper. Dishonourable. I live with a life sentence of shame.

My partner left me; I have been alone ever since. How do you say to a prospective new partner that you are an ex-bankrupt?

I ended up moving house, and away from the area. I felt I had to move after someone I hardly knew sidled up to me in the street and said, with some delight: "Saw your name in the paper, sorry about that."

I am sure it must puzzle my new neighbours that I drive a 24-year-old car, live in jeans and rarely go out. They accept me as a middle-aged spinster who lives with and looks after a very old mother, so they don't look too closely.

Now that I am retired, I am not very interesting.If I see my relatives now, I feel ashamed because I know I have let them down as well as myself and, although we all try to act normally, I feel I can still detect the pity and the anxiety, so I try to spare us all embarrassment and avoid them as much as possible.

I have friends but, because they don't know my shameful secret, inside I am isolated and lonely.

Life after bankruptcy goes on, but it is never the same.

Honour and self-respect have died and there is nothing to replace them. Self-esteem -- there is none.

Just a nagging fear of further failure and a floundering effort to live with the daily memory and the lifetime repercussions of my dishonourable past and shameful secret life -- as a bankrupt. Do you have a compelling true life story? Email us at ifeats@gmail.com

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