SEVEN years ago, Hazel Ratcliffe's life was turned upside down when her husband walked out on her and her two young sons.

After giving up a career to care for the children, the 33-year-old from Ballingray, Fife, suddenly found herself facing an uncertain future.

At first she was loath to apply for benefits, put off by negative stereotypes in the media which suggested claimants were lazy scroungers. Desperate to prove she could manage, she didn't even tell her parents she was struggling.

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"When I was with my partner he was on a really good wage, he was coming in with £700-£800 a week so going to Asda and spending £150-£200 a week was normal," she said. "Going from that amount of money to the basic income support that I was on at the time was a massive decrease in income.

"I wouldn't say to my mum, I haven't got anything to eat, I would just say, 'Me and the boys have not seen you, we will come down for our tea.'"

Help finally came in the form of a local community group for lone parents, Fife Gingerbread. Discovering she was not alone was a lifeline for Ratcliffe.

Now she is back at college and coping well - but she still lives in fear of the washing machine breaking down or her kids getting holes in their shoes.

l THE stigma attached to those living in poverty forces many to suffer in silence, often alone. One woman, who did not wish to be named, explained how, while her two sons fought on the frontline in Afghanistan, she was caring for a young child without heating or enough food.

Too ashamed to admit she couldn't cope, she didn't tell her family, even when her phone and internet was cut off and she couldn't afford food or heating.

After pawning all her valuable possessions she turned to borrowing money and using food banks to get her and her 11-year-old enough to eat.

She didn't know where to turn and sank into depression, even considering suicide at one low point.

Her life was turned upside down when her husband left and his wages that had supported them went too. Luckily a local charity came to her rescue and got her the help she needed to secure benefits. But the weight of the debt she accrued during that time still hangs heavy.

She said: "It's what it does to you inside. I was depressed … it was horrible time. I was left with a choice some weeks, was it food or heating?"

l IN the past year, Sarah Cawley, 33, has lost three stones in weight. The stress of getting enough money to feed and clothe her five-year-old daughter has taken its toll on the mother-of-one from Dennistoun, Glasgow. At the weekends, when her daughter goes to stay with her father or family members, she saves money by not buying food for herself.

She has been a lone parent for the past four years. For a while she got a part-time job, but the cost of childcare cancelled out the wage she was earning. Most weeks Cawley calls on her parents or her elderly aunt for a few pounds to cover her electricity or heating bills.

"The future seems so far away at the moment," said Cawley. "It is just day-to-day, get through each day as it comes."

l MOTHER-OF-THREE Gina Gibson, 34, has been struggling to make ends meet as a lone parent. As well as looking after her children (aged 14, 10 and six), Gibson, from Maryhill, is a full-time carer for her sick mother. Gibson's problems began when her youngest daughter turned five and her benefits changed.

"At the weekend when your weans' pals are going out and they are telling you they are going to big places for the day, you can't afford to do that. That's where you have to sacrifice."