My past few blogs have been hard to write concentrating as they have done on my struggles with the DWP and my mental health, however I think these are issues that need to be talked about more and widely – too many of us who are disabled are becoming increasingly more invisible and less able to cope. Those of us who can must tell our stories and get them shared as widely as possible – the government and their supporters are prepared to swipe away whole swathes of people they see as inferior. We mustn’t let them win. In my previous post “I Won Against the DWP. There’s No Victory”, (trigger warning – suicide is discussed), I was able to that say with some small relief that I had finally “won” my 21 month battle with the DWP and had been placed back into the ESA Support Group. Despite the Tribunal result I felt far from victorious and suffered what the medical profession call a mental health crisis but most of us would better understand as a nervous breakdown or collapse. I really would like to be writing about the issues I had intended this blog to be for – anti-austerity, community, equality and campaigning – but instead the blog has become a journal on the theme of me, my mental health and my struggle with the faceless bureaucracy of the DWP. For this I apologise. But these are issues that affect countless numbers of people without a voice and so I feel, however difficult it is for me, I should share my story via the small platform of this blog and Twitter to highlight the effects that this government’s vindictive and unnecessary policies of benefit “reform” are having on so many disabled and sick people.
Following my ESA Tribunal at the end of November last year the pernicious build-up of stress over 21 months that began in February 2016 with form-filling, waiting, assessment, waiting, Job Centre interviews, waiting, training centre interviews, waiting, stopping of claim, waiting, lodging of appeal, waiting, Tribunal one, waiting, then finally Tribunal two in November released a crippling depression as I finally had no more need to be strong and stoical – I had, after all, finally won. Well no, not really. I had finally persuaded the DWP I was entitled to receive the small amount of benefit they deem it possible to live on. I had, mostly, hidden from even my closest friends the effect that the whole process was having, apart from a shorter and less severe depression following cancelling of my claim in October 2016, and the build-up of anxiety in the final six weeks leading up to the Tribunal in November 2017. What followed from the end of November has been a very difficult time where a sudden and severe depression took hold and made my life, already controlled and restricted by pain, even more restricted and narrow. Mental health referrals are increasingly difficult, and as I presented no real danger to others it seemed in December that regular appointments with my GP and a course of antidepressants, (an increase in the dose of medication I already take as a muscle relaxant), might well be the best course of action. It took some weeks for the medication to kick in, and even then it was only a slight effect, during which a small core of trusted friends took the brunt of my panic and anxiety and the Samaritans became a lifeline. Going out was a problem, leaving the confines of my council estate took huge effort and travelling on public transport created waves of panic and nausea. My default setting was weeping and apologising, I barely functioned. I had also started to realise that over the previous six months I had paid little heed to my finances, my home was in dire need of a decent clean and, to cap it all, just before Christmas my computer packed in and my now main form of communicating with the wider world was narrowed further. I sank further into depression. When I say I paid little heed to my finances it was nothing profligate by normal standards, I had simply stopped timing the heating and hot water, if I needed new shoes or liked a shirt I just bought them, I didn’t buy the cheapest food and I allowed my pay-as-you-go phone and internet access use to creep up. It was a matter of less than ten pounds per week that built up into an overdraft I couldn’t pay back, even when I cut expenditure which included stopping internet access. Being disabled and on benefits is far from normal standards, there has been no increase on ESA since 2010 which effectively means a cut of almost 20%. I became even more needy and frightened, for the first time in my adult life I couldn’t cope at all. I treated some friends abysmally yet those same friends were amongst the first to step in and help.
And then, immediately after the New Year, the PIP process started with the arrival the 40 page application form and continues with a face-to-face interview this week. The whole process from receiving the form to interview has been just one month, breathtakingly fast by DWP standards, giving me no time to rest and recover from the ESA debacle. I have become even more anxious and withdrawn since receiving the appointment letter less than ten days ago, so much so that my GP has now prescribed me diazepam and may make an emergency mental health referral when he sees me later in the week. This past week I have withdrawn from social media, stopped reading or listening to the news and managed to travel on public transport on two occasions when absolutely necessary and only after taking diazepam. Even meeting a friend of over 30 years for lunch within easy walking distance required medication, as has writing this. All this is down to the reorganisation of the disability benefits system and the requirement of all disabled people to have to re-apply for benefits that are replacing those we had already been thoroughly assessed for and in many cases, like mine, had been granted for life because our disability would not improve – indeed many conditions worsen with age.
This is a system where the government has made mistrust the key driver, where disabled people are the scapegoats for austerity and those who know the people best – their carers, nurses, GPs and consultants, fully qualified and trusted professionals – are ignored, and outsourced agencies such as Capita and G4 provide “health professionals” who are entrusted with deciding the disability and its effects on people they have never met before.
I am usually a solitary and shy person who cannot readily discuss personal matters or admit my fears, even with my closest friends, and my current behaviour isn’t me. These issues, though, are more important than my pride so I have to say how government policies towards disabled people truly affect the vast majority of us – my experiences are not unusual – and how the processes designed to improve benefits for disabled people are, in fact, worsening their financial stability and endangering their mental health and physical well-being.
I am incredibly fortunate to have the support of truly remarkable friends, something in recent times I have all too often lost sight of and in some cases treated incredibly badly, a supportive GP, a top-notch and brilliant welfare rights advisor and some incredible strangers. Despite that I have been propelled into this foul fog of depression and anxiety where I am totally lost. But as Matt Haig says in his great book “Reasons to Stay Alive”:
“Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.”
If you are depressed and need someone to talk to contact the Samaritans – they really do help, as I know well. I have been grateful for their help.