As many viewers of the BBC's Watchdog programme will have seen over the last few years, electricity and sometimes gas bills have been a continuing disaster. The highest I've seen shown a few months ago was for an elderly couple, and if I remember correctly, that was for about £1,200. Well, I beat that back in 2003.
Around the middle of the year 2001, my sister was in poor health, and I was her carer. The house, through the housing authorities, was in her name.
One day while I was out shopping or whatever needed doing, a man from the electric board called. My sister didn't tell me, so I had no idea what she had done at the time, but I was soon to find out.
A few days later an engineer came to change the meter. I thought it was just a replacement, or update, but it wasn't. My sister had signed up for an 'economy seven' meter, and it had five settings, if I remember correctly. There was one for daytime, and one for night time, that the man said would be cheaper, and two or three other things I didn't understand.
It wouldn't be until 2002 and 2003 that these settings and readings would play a part in the fiasco to follow.
You're probably thinking, it will be better. No way: the problem was, we didn't have any radiators or central heating. That came much later.
For the first three or four months, everything was going all right, and we paid £7 a week for electricity alone.
The second meter reading went all right, but then in 2002 the fun started. The bill was £300, then three months later £400, and the amount we paid went up to £10 a week.
I rang the company and said 'Something's wrong, take the meter out', but they said only my sister could order it, and she wasn't able to do that in writing as they required. So on and on the electric went, and at the end of 2002 my sister had to go into hospital, and later into a home. On 17 June, 2003 she passed away.
I took over the house, and even before my sister passed on, I was in big trouble. The bills went up and up, and by May 2003 the bill was over £800, being paid off at £14 a week. Then on 22 May, 2003, the nightmare was complete, as the bill stood at £1,812.
And still they wouldn't take the meter out, they just kept coming to check it and said there was nothing wrong with the meter, over 20 times.
I wasn't sleeping, I didn't want to cook meals, my lodger was the usual pain in the butt and wouldn't cut down on using the PC, TV, video and so on.
I hit rock bottom, and sat down and thought: what, or who can I get to sort this mess out.
Then a lady at the electricity board suggested I ask for a tribunal, and a full check on what's gone wrong. So I did, and they froze the bill and readings.
It was then that the full fiasco was uncovered: the meter shouldn't have been passed, and fitted, and the meter reading had twice been misread, causing the knock-on effect.
The next day the meter was taken out, after the last reading was taken, but they had frozen the readings, so fun was still to come.
About October 2003, I was asked to attend a meeting, so they could show me what had gone wrong, and what was to happen now.
By the time the meter was taken out the bill would have been £2,900. They said they would write off all but £600. I said, 'What!!??', and they explained that even with the situation now sorted, a standard meter in, with the unfreeze, and not paying bills, I still owed £600 for electricity used. And it had to be paid at £5 a week.
I had been paying £14 when it was frozen. An increase to £19 was impossible, as I only had £75 a week, and £30 from the lodger, and still had the gas, water, and cable, not to mention food to buy.
I said I would go to the papers or get legal aid. They asked me to wait outside, and when they called me back, they said I could pay £200, at £1 a week.
Months later the main accounts department rang me, and told me that although I still had still about £150 to pay, a decision had been made to forego the remaining amount. The reason was that the bill was my sister's, and I wasn't responsible for her bills. As she had passed away just after the whole problem fully came to light, I would be reassessed.
At about this time, having taken over the house from the housing board, and taking my niece's son on the books, I got another belly swipe. As he wasn't my near relative, I could only take £15 a week off him for the gas, electric and water bills. He had just got a good job, and a new water-cooled computer, and other things, so I was still having large bills until January 2009, when he left after getting married.
Now my lodger has gone, I'm on a 'spread and warmth' tariff, and my meter does me well, so I'm getting back the £200 in a way with interest. But I never want go through another two years like that ever again, worrying when they would come and turn the electric and then the gas off, or if I would have a roof over my head. My lodger didn't bat an eyelid, he could have just moved on back then. All the time this was going on when my sister was alive, I never let her know, the shock would probably have triggered a heart attack. I starved myself in a way to make sure she always had food on the table.
I hope anyone who gets to read this never has to go through half of the worry and wondering what was going to happen next. It was so bad that one day I went to an area that was once Shipley Glen, and walked along the canal, thinking 'one step to the left, and problem solved'. But then, who would look after my sister, so I reached a café, had a cup of tea, and caught the bus home.