It was a massive baptism of fire, going from having a good job to having nothing. We weren’t well off as kids, but we didn’t want for anything. We had meals on the table, a roof over our heads. My parents worked and later, I always worked. You suddenly realise how big that gap is between having enough and having nothing when you experience both sides of it in a short period of time.
No matter how much money you do or don’t have, if you’ve got a good group of people around you, you can survive pretty much anything. The worst periods of my life were when I distanced myself from my friends and my family because I didn’t want them to know how bad things were. I stopped talking to people about things. I isolated myself and became quite lonely.
It might sound cheesy, but I’ve always tried to hope that things can get better. For a long time I was quite despairing and really unhappy. Then I found that by having a more positive outlook, saying ‘yes’ to things and being more hopeful, more opportunities have come my way.
In my family, when I was growing up, if there was a child who needed dinner, there was always an extra space at my parents’ table. I grew up in an environment where if you had a little bit, it was totally normal to do what you could to help somebody else out.
We always had dinner around the table; it was always a family affair. It was a very social, nice thing and I’ve tried to carry that forward into adulthood. Irish chef Denis Cotter has a line on the back of one of his books that says ‘Nothing says “I love you” like preparing meals for someone’ and I think that’s true. I often have friends round for dinner – it was one of the worst things about not having any money. I felt I lost a massive portion of my social life because beforehand, I was quite happy to have 10 people round to dinner and when suddenly I couldn’t afford to do that any more, I didn’t really know what to do with myself.
I’m pick-and-mix about spirituality. I was brought up in the Baptist church, but I wouldn’t describe myself as religious. I’m attuned to the outdoors and what comes from being outside. I go for long walks to de-stress. I practise yoga. It’s about finding things that work for me.
I visited Tanzania with Oxfam recently, where people are out in their environment rather than holed up in little boxes, sitting in their flats with their gadgets. I’d rather follow that model – my own favourite way to be outdoors is pootling around by the sea.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt as a parent is that children are born innocent and naive – they’re not born hating anything. They learn those things from their environment, so it’s important not to let any prejudices rub off on them. Allow them to explore the world and keep an open mind.
People can have this fixed, stereotypical image of what benefit-claiming means and it’s perpetuated by certain parts of the media and TV programmes like Benefits Street. Half of payments paid out in benefits are to elderly people. You’re not going to say your nan shouldn’t have a pension or help with heating bills. Many people who claim benefits are in work, too.
When will society stop judging a woman’s worth on her appearance and start judging her on the things she does and what she says? Why not attack the message if you disagree with it, rather than how the messenger chooses to wear her hair?
The bits of the world that I would like to help change – given half a chance – are attitudes to people who are out of work or living in poverty, because there is a stereotype there and it’s a damaging one. I’d also like to see the end of food banks in Britain. It’s one of those things that just sprung up and has magnified over the past few years. How are we even at that point that people in Britain are so hungry, that they have to rely on their friends and neighbours for charity? I’d just like to learn how to bridge that gap – it’s a gap that desperately needs bridging. But it’s like eating an elephant, as someone once said, you’ve got to do it one mouthful at a time, haven’t you?
For more on Jack Monroe, go to A Girl Called Jack
Photograph: Pål Hansen