Friday, 29 October 2010

Rebecca's Story

Six years ago I suffered a breakdown and was diagnosed with depression
and social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder). I was 17.
The most work I'd ever done was in the village corner shop - a few
hours every week for a whopping £3 an hour, and of course I never had
to pay tax or NI contributions because I was so young.

When I turned 18 I went quickly and rather trivally onto Incapacity
Benefit. I remember going to have a quite hideous interview in a
really unwelcoming building - at the time I was pretty much housebound
and only because I was driven there by my mum was I actually able to
go. Still, I got the benefits and received them until I went to
university a year later. Because of the benefits I was able to get
some private CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which helped me to
overcome my daily panic attacks: but I was far from better; the
treatment I'd had was a temporary solution to a problem that ran much
deeper than just my panic.

University went by, and I racked up around £25,000 of debt along with
most other students. I ended up oweing my parents a good few thousand
pounds that they refuse to allow me to even try and pay back. Because
I was a student, I couldn't receive benefits, even though my health
deteriorated to the point of being placed on suicide watch and under
the care of a psychiatrist. It's possible that I could have been able
to get some disability allowance from my university, but I was never
offered it and wasn't in a state to be thinking about going through
what would have undoubtedly been a long investigation into some help
that wouldn't come to much.

When I left university, and finally started to get some proper
treatment from the NHS, I applied for the new form of incapacity
- ESA. Because it was three years since I'd been on Incapacity
Benefit, I wasn't eligible to go straight back on that and had to go
through the rigmarole of applying again. So I did the form over the
phone with a very helpful woman who was patient with me when I got
upset telling her why I couldn't work. I started receiving benefits
and a couple of months later I was summoned to Croydon for a work
capability assessment. My therapist told me that it would be fine;
there's so much evidence of my ill health (from both the hospital and
my GP) that it would be nigh on impossible for ATOS to turn me down.

Oh, how wrong she was.

For those of you that don't know about the assessment, here's how it
works: you have an interview with a health professional. It doesn't,
actually, have to be a qualified GP: or even someone who is actually
qualified to identify your illness. It's just someone employed by the
private healthcare corporation to tick boxes. To "pass" the test, i.e.
be judged unfit to work, you have to score 15 points. I scored 0. On
the day, I had three panic attacks; one of them right before entering
for the interview. I was in floods of tears during the interview,
couldn't lift my head up, and was shaking. The woman who interviewed
me was rude, impatient and harsh in her questioning.

Thanks to the help of my local branch of Mind, I now have a benefits
advisor who is helping me with my appeal and tribunal process. Amongs
the help he has given, he gave me a copy of the work capability
assessment for mental, cognitive and intellectual functions. He and I
went through this and discovered that I should in fact have scored
well over the 15 points required. These questions include such
statements as:

"Normal activities, for example, visiting new places or engaging in
social contact, are precluded for the majority of the time due to
overwhelming fear or anxiety" - that scores you 9 points.

"Is frequently unable to get to a specified place with which the
claimant is familiar without being accompanied by another person" -
that scores you 6 points.

"The claimant misinterprets verbal or non-verbal communication to the
extent of causing herself or himself significant distress on a
frequent basis" - this scores you 6 points...and by now, you get the

I appealed twice and eventually went up for a tribunal in March. They
have a target of seeing you for tribunal within 16-18 weeks: clearly,
it is far beyond that now. Not only have I continued to receive only
£50 a week, on multiple occasions - despite me managing to put in
regular sick notes - they have refused to pay me either on a seemingly
trivial basis or one that they did not make me aware of. For example,
I changed address; they refused to pay me for 6 weeks until I had
proof of address and a new sick note bearing my new address. In this
time I had to borrow money from my parents to avoid being thrown out
of my newly-awarded temporary
housing from the council, because it had meant that my housing benefit
application was declined.

I now receive full housing and council tax benefit (which will of
course change under the Condems' new plans, as I am only 23). However
my application for DLA was turned down on the basis that I failed my
ESA work capability assessment. For something that is meant to be
separate to ESA, this is pretty disgusting. With that money I could
offset the £10-£15 I have to spend on travel every week.

I have had to subsist on £50 a week - including whilst homeless - for
over a year now. That barely leaves me anything to eat, once I have
paid my utility bills, my phone and internet bills that allow me
contact with the outside world and my support network on those days
that I can't leave the flat, my transport bills which are high because
I have to go to hospital twice a week and cannot drive.

This, of course, is just the numbers. This is before we even get to
the stress and anxiety that my struggle with the DWP, with the
tribunals service, with the council has caused me. Not only do I
constantly worry about money, but I am dogged by one single repeating
thought: "Maybe I'm not ill after all. Maybe I am just lazy, benefit
scrounging scum. I've never made a NI contribution in my life. I don't
deserve this. I'm leeching off people who are better than me because
they get off their arses."

I shouldn't have to feel these things about myself. I shouldn't have
to struggle on and try desperately to scrabble together food. It
shouldn't make me burst into tears when, like this week, my boyfriend
doesn't just bring over dinner for the two of us, but enough food for
me for a week. I shouldn't be sacrificing my health, and more
importantly my chances at getting better, because I can't afford to
reach out to the support networks that I so badly need.

Yet, I do. And the reason that I've written all of this up is that I
know for certain that I am not the only one, and I want other people
to know that too; because if you're not the only one then chances are
you're not making it all up, you're not lying to yourself, and just
because your disability isn't immediately visible doesn't mean that it
isn't there every moment of every day.


Anonymous said...

I feel I have to comment after reading your story. It is a similar story to mine, and yet I would struggle to be so honest. I am currently a higher education student claiming income support because of mental ill health. What shocks me is the lack of knowledge that surrounds mental ill health being acknowledged as a disability. I have managed to get that recognition, but I know it is difficult.

I want to thank you for your honesty in sharing your story. I know how hard it is to share.

thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rebecca,

I have recently started a facebook group "The Unemployed Are Not Criminals: No To Slave Labour."

I suffer from depression and anxiety and have done for a couple of years now. I am seriously worried about not being able to work as I can't bare living independently off £50 JSA a week and £214 a month housing benefits for much longer! (My rent is £243 a month btw!) I know how hard it is.

I have put off applying for jobs for a while because being a graduate getting turned down for jobs working in cafe's and kitchens is pretty demoralising.

I can't stand the stigma surrounding the unemployed. I had no idea how bad it was until I created the aforementioned facebook group. I was called a "lazy cow" a "scrounger" and "a drain on the NHS" and received messages to my inbox with comments like "no wonder nobody wants to employ you." None of these comments were provoked as I had remained impersonal in all my discussions.

It was really upsetting because like yourself I was hounded by my own concerns of whether I really was a "lazy scrounger" and so these comments hit me really hard. I spent 3 days totally preoccupied by the comments that had been made and felt utterly suicidal.

It was only when I announced that I was closing the group that I got a wave of support from members. They were grateful for me creating the group, sorry that I had been attacked and wanted me to keep the group running. In the end I decided to do so and now more members are monitoring the group.

You are not a scrounger, I empathise with you and so do many others. Look after yourself and don't let the bastards grind you down!

shazzy said...

I have the exact same thing. I suffer from Social Phobia and have done since I was about 4 years old. I didn't realise this until visiting a psychiatric nurse prescribed to me by the doctor. Along with it I suffer with depression and anxiety and I have the problem where people just don't seem to understand.
I had to visit my doctor again for another sick note this week and he told me blatantly that he would have to preare me for work because I have appealed after being turned down ESA on the grounds that I only scored 6 points out of 15 when like yourself, I should have scored more than 15. They make you feel like a failure which adds to your anxiety of being a failure.
I don't think my doctor realises how I feel because I'm bad at putting my feelings into words and as soon as I try I get confused and my mind goes blank. I wish there was an easier way, one that didn't involve you repeating yourself over and over. It would be easier to just end it all and be done with it to be honest.

Unknown said...

I've just found myself in a similar situation. I too have social phobia and depression. I can't use the phone, even to talk to friends, I can't talk to strangers at all and feel horribly uncomfortable even talking to friends and sometimes family. If I know I will have to interact with a stranger I can't sleep and spend the time leading up to it a quaking, crying mess. I feel nauseous and panicy. I can't cope with crowds and suffer from panic attacks. I can't even send an email to someone I don't know without feeling extreme anxiety.

But I've just been told that I scored no points and have 'no problems meeting and mixing with new people or going to new places'. I had no idea how the test worked before I went into it, but now I see that when they asked 'can you leave the house on your own?' and I answered 'yes but only if I am very familiar with the area, have been brought there by someone repeated times previously and know I will not have to interact with anyone' it was just taken down as a 'yes'.
Before the interview I was literally rocking in my seat and during I cried, clutched myself, and could barely answer the questions.

I honestly have no idea what to do. There's no way I can work. I was actually planning on starting a small business from home, but there would be no way to support myself on it without my ESA as well and now without it I don't have the capital to even start it anymore. Also if I were somehow to be able to work over 16 hours for myself in order to qualify for working tax credits I don't know if I even qualify as disabled anymore.
I have a job working for my sister doing admin but it is only about 3 hours every fortnight. So basically I have no income (less than £80 a month)

Luckilly I still live with my Mum, but I have paid her rent for the last few years and now cannot afford to.

Since finding out I was failed I've been in constant tears and barely able to get out of bed. It's not just the money, like you said it's horrible for such serious problems to be dismissed and I feel I'm being called a liar. And not only that, but for a long time I have felt guilty and quite worthless because I can't contribute anything to society. Now I feel even worse because I can't even pay my (very low) rent to my Mum.

I want to appeal obviously but the process is just so horrible sounding, I have no idea how I could cope with a tribunal. I can't use the phone so I can't even get in touch with anyone to help and I don't even know who to contact anyway. It's hard not to feel like my life is over. I can't work, I can't get any money to live on, I'm surviving off the charity of loved ones and I can't see anything changing anytime soon.