Stories From the U.K. 'Benefits' System: 5.
21st October 2016.
This story may seem a little melodramatic, written a little too large... but I can guarantee it is simply true. The result of an ideologically driven bureaucratic choice; a new benefit for people with long-term illnesses that is being introduced needs everyone to be re-assessed, regardless of their situation or history ...
He has lived with a diagnosis of schizophrenia for twenty years. Heavy anti-psychotic medication helps with some things - causes other problems. At better times the voices he hears go pretty quiet, at others they shout loudly and continuously ... sometimes some of them threaten him. He's just got over a bad period and finally got back to some kind of stability.
Along with this he lives with extreme anxiety, obsessive thoughts and behaviours. He also has a physical disability that, along with the anxiety can prevent him from doing much other than lying on the floor for days at a time. Despite this he is one of the best laughs you will ever meet when he's on good form.
The letter arrives that he's been dreading for months: he will have to apply for the new benefit. Immediately the anxiety kicks in. His mental health problems mean that the worry that any of us would experience when faced with something like this is magnified a hundredfold. 'How will I survive if my benefits are cut? How will I navigate the huge form I have to fill in?'
Constant anxiety ensues. Ha - who would have thought? But when you live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, your thoughts become ... erm ... obsessive and compulsive. The ruminations take hold and simply won't stop. He starts being unable to sleep. The lack of sleep increases all the other things he has to live with when things are bad: social anxiety, an inability to leave the house, answer the phone, read texts, open mail. His usual neglect of self-care increases - the one room where he lives and sleeps is piling up with rubbish ...
It starts with a constant drumming sound form the flat below - it's there all the time. Sometimes he's able to put it to the back of his consciousness - other times it just takes over. It's worse at night. Because of the drumming sleep comes less and less. As sleep comes less and the less the drumming gets louder. Then the voices start again. Different voices from the various flats that border on his. The ones on either side are actually quite friendly, but they do go on. The ones downstairs though - they're threatening, insulting - he can hear them planning some pretty nasty things for him.
Things are getting dark - literally - he's been too scared to leave the house to get to the shop and top up his electricity meter, so he can't turn the lights on. He's also running out of food. For four days he eats nothing but porridge oats, sometimes frying them so he can have a hot meal, (luckily the gas hasn't run out yet).
The cutely named 'PIP' (Personal Independence Payment) form is very long, very detailed and contains many parts that need to be filled-in, but are completely irrelevant to his situation. He finds it incredibly stressful to fill in, not just because it's a demanding form, but because of everything it brings up for him and because the fear of being re-assessed as not qualifying for the new benefit presents such a bleak and fearful future.
Ordinarily, despite everything he has to negotiate as a result of his mental health problems and his physical disability, he doesn't think of suicide. No longer. His highly developed ability to obsess on the worst possible outcome has evolved into a visceral feeling that there is no other option. Every day and night now (because without sleep the distinction between the two is beginning to blur) has become a battle between him and the feeling that the only sensible thing he can do is to kill himself.
Eventually he manages to complete the form. Eventually he gets informed his benefit will continue. By this time he has experienced two months of what I think it's not unfair to describe as hell. After a couple more months he is gradually getting back on an even keel.
Who would have thought that all this was contained within the words: 'You’ll need an assessment to work out the level of help you get. Your rate will be regularly reassessed to make sure you’re getting the right support.' ? Well - anyone who had the slightest idea about mental health I guess ... Either the DWP doesn't, or it does and is being consciously cruel in its attempt to make benefit cuts. Either possibility is criminal.