THE WRITER’S LIFE
Almost exactly six months since the process started, I’ve made progress in regaining the ‘benefit’ of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). There’s a long way to go, and I might have been out the other side of the mincing machine by now, were it not for the Vogon incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions. But I’m one stage nearer to winning a human right back from the Tory social cleansing apparatus. Here’s what’s happened so far, including an insight into the dehumanising methods the machine employs to encourage applicants to give up (on life, to kill themselves).
A DWP decision-maker
In short, it’s like being put on trial when you’re reaching out for support. Meanwhile I’ve survived the last six months on charity, but with little of the independence I had six months ago.
Way back on 3rd September last year, I was required to attend a biannual health assessment, or ‘Fitness for work’ (despite being signed off sick pretty much for life). The assessments are out-sourced to a private company (with shareholders focussed on profits, and whose directors recently awarded themselves £40m in bonuses (presumably for saving the government so much money by denying benefits to claimants)), and the assessors are all ‘medically qualified’. But unlike a GP who might know the claimant personally, or another health care specialist who may understand their patient’s condition, these out-sourced assessors are ‘medically qualified’ as having once worked in any field of medicine. At my most recent appointment, the assessor was a physiotherapist: hardly the best qualification for understanding mental health, which is where my disabilities lie.
The assessments are timed to be around 3-4 weeks before a claimant’s previous benefit period ends. The initial decision takes at least six weeks, so benefits are withdrawn before a decision is made. This deliberate timing is just one of a number of factors which stack the odds against the applicant by making the whole process as difficult as possible.
My depression was diagnosed as an underlying contributor to a number of my life functions back in 2011, following a knife-point robbery after I’d been drinking in Lewisham. After an initial diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my alcohol dependence was linked to depression, where one quite happily fuels the other and often leads to the kind of mental breakdown I had in 2013, when I was unable to cope, so I drank my life away, lost everything and ended up on the streets, where I found many more causes for the multiple PTSD diagnoses I now have. I have physical function, but it’s impaired by my anxiety. This has entitled me to PIP for the last four years, as I’m almost constantly anxious of reminders from a life on the road haunting me with threats of repeat. All of this had gone into my re-application form, and was conveyed verbally while not being able to maintain eye contact with the government-outsourced automaton.
Like so many others, my application was denied, and I was judged to require no help with anything, by someone who’d never met me before and didn’t care to know me. The next stage then is to ask for a ‘Mandatory reconsideration,’ which concludes as the first assessment found, after a second decision-maker has given the initial application a cursory glance (which takes a further 6-9 weeks). It’s just kicking a can down the road. It’s at that point where one is able to appeal to have their case heard at tribunal. This is where the phone calls to DWP’s PIP helpline engage gears in the social cleansing machinery. I was sent the wrong letter by DWP, so was prevented from launching an appeal. On that occasion, it turned out they’d treated my request for a mandatory reconsideration as an initial claim, despite the fact they’d already declined the latter, and asked me to notate the 32-page report from my assessor and decision-maker.
Finding someone who’ll treat you as human at DWP is like a game of telephone Russian roulette. Sometimes you’ll strike lucky, but often you won’t. You’ll fail, or that’s how you’re meant to feel. But back to the telephone system, the largest grinding machine in the apparatus, like a steam punk combine harvester protecting a Victorian dehumanising farm behind it. If DWP were a private company, they’d be as financially bankrupt as their government is morally, all the while committing economic murder.
If the Spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had words, I’d know them by heart, having spent several hours in all on hold. But they play the Karaoke version, at deafening volume, and as though through a really cheap, tinny sound system. That distortion of reality is only the start of a process designed to break you down, without even any direct human contact, like military drones operated remotely and killing civilians.
While listening to Antonio’s work being strangled, there’s no indication of a caller’s position in the queue or the time it might take to be answered. My waiting time has averaged around 20 minutes every time I’ve called, which has been daily for the last couple of weeks. Once you get through, you’re in a minefield.
Ask a question they can’t answer and they’ll cut the line (never lose your patience or raise your voice. My tongue is sore from being bitten many times). Even when you think you’ve got somewhere, once you’ve had your query (their mistake) rectified, they simply don’t do as you’ve asked them to, and which they say they will. In fits of wanton inefficiency, they send the wrong paperwork, lose information you’ve sent in, or forget to act at all. Anyone less able (infirm, with a shorter fuse, with less tenacity) would give up, which is what they want. It becomes like a conspiracy against the person, and with depression and anxiety comes the third of the unholy trinity in my head, the paranoia (that this will never end).
I reached the end of some sort of tether today, when I tried for the fourth time to extract the ‘Manadatory Reconsideration Notice’ necessary to start an appeal, because I’d been sent three copies of the initial refusal in the course of as many weeks. Despite DWP allowing themselves up to nine weeks to respond to applicants, it’s only 28 days allowed when the boot is on the other foot (although it’s more like your opponent removing their outer footwear to lend you their socks). So when it came to asking for the correct letter to be sent by post today (DWP use 2nd Class mail), I had little faith in my fourth attempt being successful, or of the dates on the incorrect letters being changed to give me back the time DWP had wasted. My period of grace to appeal was coming to an end. I was running out of time.
I don’t believe in God, but if he (or the aliens, or whomever) woke me up this morning, they hadn’t finished with me yet. They had plans for me. I didn’t so much pray before I got on the phone to DWP, as prepare myself to break down if I met yet another wall, after a further several minutes of excruciating Vivaldi and of eating my own teeth. The game of telephone Russian roulette got me through to someone who was human, and like any good operator at a functional enterprise, they put my call through to a different department. I feared being lost in the system again, but I’d found myself on the phone to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The divine intervention, the extraterrestrial contact, whatever it was which answered my half-arsed prayer, what happened different today was circumnavigating DWP.
I found myself talking to a human at HMCTS, who told me I could launch an appeal against DWP online. This was news to me, and not information which DWP will volunteer themselves (they don’t want to be sued). But now they’re ‘The defendant,’ and thanks to that (God-sent) human (or alien) at HMCTS, my appeal is now lodged, with me as ‘The appellant’. If I’d been told I could do this a month or two ago, I might be out the back of the machine by now.
There’s a long way to go still. I have to attend the appeal hearing and win, then I have to wait a further 4-6 weeks for my payments to be reinstated. But it’s hopefully more of a downhill slope now than the slow and steep one which got me to this great height and nearly had me throw myself off it. Because it did, and now I can admit it. There were times over the last six months when DWP’s incompetence convinced my paranoid mind that I couldn’t overcome it. I couldn’t see an escape from the frustration, and instead saw a life where I’d have no independence. That was one I didn’t want to live.
It means I can get on with life while I wait. It means I can regain my independence, by spending the time I’d have liked with my parents, and more with my kids (And being more cheerful company). I need to win the appeal, but I have the last two times, and over 70% of appeals are successful. So it begs the question: Why incur the expense? Why put people through it? Because in fascist economics, enough will be beaten that those who make it to tribunal only represent a few of those who originally applied. This is not Britain’s Got Talent.
That’s where I’ve been for the last six months, in some competition where the aim is not to fail, but everything’s thrown at you to ensure you tire and give up. It’s been a constant worry, day and night. I’ve not been sleeping or eating. I’ve not been taking care of myself, which is what happens in the deeper depths of depression, and I’ve become more unwell. That’s lived in my mind with me alone in the midst of it, unable to explain what I can’t understand, and once thinking I couldn’t carry on in that confusion. I reached out for help and I’m still on public trial. How many others don’t make it?
I deal with the life inside my head by employing fiction to try to convey what’s in there, to make it more entertaining than the reality, and perhaps helping me to understand it by getting it all out while not being completely open. It’s my writing as therapy. Now I can write those stories I already outlined, but which I couldn’t concentrate on because a Vogon Bureaucrat would creep in from the real world which was consuming me. I need to rebuild this home I made for myself, by insulating it with words. Our minds are a dangerous place, mine especially so, when I have so much time to dally there alone and excluded.
Your pain could be for a reason, a necessary path which is already predetermined to get you to somewhere you once wished you were. You may not want to exist right now, but someone’s glad you do. Keep moving and try not to dwell, for this too shall pass. Now I can write again.