Increased risk of independence

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).

Vogon assessorA 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 Β£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 The initial decision takes at least six weeks, so benefits are withdrawn before a decision is made.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 couldΒ 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’tΒ make it?

Discouragement conspirator

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.

Buy me a coffee one off

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When your best friend is fictional

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While I remain in the government’s social cleansing machine, now in my sixth month of battling to win back my personal independence (a ‘benefit’ which some might call a human right), I’m not normally expecting anyone to visit me unexpectedly, so I was surprised when my doorbell rang earlier. Then I remembered I’d replaced the batteries.

This-Little-Girls-Disturbing-Drawings-of-Her-Imaginary-Friend-Will-Freak-You-Out-FEATTheOccultMuseum

Whoever was there (it could have been anyone, given I was expecting no-one), I was always going to be surprised when I opened the door, but I hadn’t imagined I’d be as surprised as I was to see who it was, which was surprising in itself, seeing as I’m a writer who’s meant to be able to see these things. But I write best when everyone else is asleep.

It was Doctor Hannah Jones, a character I created originally for Cyrus Song, and who’s appeared in various short stories, where she’s met Simon Fry many times. He’s been over before (first when he suggested we meet, when we had Pi, then when we made flans), but I’d never met her, until now. She was just as I’d imagined (I wrote her): attractive, smart, and disarming.

β€œHi,” she said. β€œWhat happened to your face?”

β€œHello Hannah,” I replied, β€œnice to see you too. What about it?”

β€œWell, I’m used to seeing you in character. Now I can see what’s beneath the words.” Which was odd, as I was at pains to explain.

β€œThat’s odd,” I replied, β€œbecause I knew what you looked like before you ever started talking, but when you did, the way you looked changed.”

β€œWell, you wrote me.” Which was true, but Hannah had actually written herself, which I could never really explain. She sat at my desk. β€œWhy did you ask me round?”

She’d brought her own drink, which was handy. And Hannah swigs from the bottle, because she’s a thug. So we drank, with her at the desk and me on the couch, like it was her office and I was her psychiatric patient (she’s a vet).

β€œTell me about your childhood,” Hannah said. β€œCould no-one else be bothered to come over?”

β€œPeople visit,” I replied, β€œbut I can’t really engage with them at any depth.”

β€œAnd you find me deep?”

β€œI thought I might see if I could do what you do, and write myself.”

β€œBut you’re you; why would you need me to do that?”

β€œBecause I don’t feel like I know myself lately, and I need a way to do that.”

β€œAnd that’s me?”

β€œI suppose it is.”

β€œBut who am I? Aren’t I a part of you?”

β€œOnly a small part. Each of us is partly everyone else we know. Not just because we’re all connected to the universe anyway, but none of us is truly ourselves. We’re all a montage of other people and their stories.”

β€œBut we each have our own lives and history, which surely makes us what we are?”

β€œYes, but what if there was no-one else around to know that? See? We’re all made of the people we know, including ourselves. Most of us are afraid of that if we’re honest.”

β€œThat’s deep, Simon.”

β€œSteve.”

β€œOh yeah.”

β€œI don’t get many visitors, and little conversation. I can talk to myself and to my blog, but I find it easier if I’m talking to a person, even if I don’t have anyone to do that with. And I can be more open like this, writing fiction which isn’t really that, but real life told as such.”

β€œIs that you ducking the issues?”

β€œFar from it. I spend too much time wrapped up in myself and getting confused. This is my way of clearing my mind, getting things off my chest, confronting myself.”

β€œSo you don’t really need me.”

β€œI need someone to talk to.”

β€œYou need someone to write for. This is an outlet for you, a means to write.”

β€œIt’s my coping mechanism. Even when I do see real people, I can’t open up. They’d have to have immense patience, I wouldn’t get everything out, I’d feel I’d burdened them, and I’d be in their debt.”

β€œSo you invited me round to be a captive audience.”

β€œI wasn’t even sure you’d turn up.”

β€œIs that why you’ve not cooked tonight?”

β€œYeah, I normally do that when I’m on my own.”

β€œBut you’re not.”

β€œOther than you, I am.”

β€œBut when you’re here talking with me, you feel like a writer?”

β€œYes, because I’m writing this.”

β€œThis is quite surreal.”

β€œI’m a surrealist.”

β€œDo I have free will?”

β€œOf course you do. Even though I wrote you. In fact, I wrote you with more freedom than I’ve ever known.”

β€œI need to eat, so you’d better get some food in. But never forget, I don’t really exist.”

Doctor Jones decided to hang around for a while to help me, but she’d sleep on the couch.

Maybe I can keep writing, despite outer influences intent on stopping me. Only if I let them. To be continued (again).

imaginary-friend-e1382016524975

BunchFamily

Doctor Hannah Jones first appeared in Two Little Things, the short story which spawned Cyrus Song. She’s also cropped up in various related prequel (A Story Tied by Strawberry String), sequel (Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters) and sideline stories (The Invention of the Pencil Case).

Calling occupants of writing craft

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While my offline self continues to deal with real-life situations I needn’t trouble the world with, the one who’d like to tell everyone everything was suffering writer’s block. And I’ve been revisiting my favourite science fiction universe in Firefly, the demise of which I mourn daily, just like Sheldon Cooper.

Serenity_Pierre_Drolet_06-1This sci-fi geek modeller is my favourite person right now: He’s made a model of an aircraft carrier and parked Serenity on the deck (Pierre Drolet Sci-Fi Museum)

I read an article recently on hobbies to help with anxiety and depression, and writing wasn’t one of them, which was strange, because it’s been writing that’s helped me most over time. In the beginning, it was all I had.

That was five years ago, when I begged money on the streets to buy exercise books from Poundland (and white cider), and stole some bookies pens. When I used to sit in various warm, dry and light places, I planned to turn my story into a book. Then I got over myself and realised no-one would be interested in a Charles Bukowski fan boy (although I’ve been compared to him since, and many others in fact: some of the greats in the genres I write). In any case, The Paradoxicon was a fair stab at a semi-autobiographical flash fiction novel, allowing me to move on, and I’ve written four other books since.

Much has changed since then, and life has got easier in many respects (somewhere to live helps), but without the constant distraction of life keeping you on your feet, there’s a tendency to get stuck. I’ve never lapsed back to drinking, but I know why I did, when I’d sometimes rather blank something from my mind which won’t sleep. But I’m a writer.

Unless you’re writing for a mass market, it’s a very internal affair, and prevented from writing about much in my real life (the privacy of others), my solitary offline life gave me little else to think about. Well therein lies the paradox I’d created for myself: As a writer, I can write anything. And as a blogger, that can just be a diary entry.

Right now I’m perched on a cushion on my chair, not just because I’m short but because the air canister has emptied itself, so it’s lost its power of levitation. Nevertheless, the dead chair is full of memories that I’ve written while I sat at this desk on many other late nights. I’ll keep my old seat, because I can’t afford another one anyway, but most importantly, it’s where I am now.

I’m aware of the weight distribution in my arse on the cushion, and because I think different to most, I feel speed. Because what I can feel below me – the weight of my backside on the seat – is the feeling of my own gravity in relation to that of the Earth. So in another way of thinking, the pressure I feel is not me bearing down, but the entire planet pushing up beneath me. Like this world and everyone else on it, I’m spinning at 1000 mph and hurtling through space at around fifty times that. These are the things which keep me awake at night, sometimes joyfully.

If I get it right, I can sometimes lucid dream, and within my mind I can explore the universe (there are articles dotted about this blog). It’s getting to sleep that’s the problem, but writing is good for insomnia.

I’ve got sufficient followers to guarantee at least one will be interested in what’s on my mind, because they’ve chosen to follow me and be a part of another virtual life. And in a life cut off from most human contact, for someone like me, that’s a comforting thought.

So even if I am rambling, I know that someone besides me will be reading, then I feel less alone.

This blog was originally that of a writer with depression, like so many others, and yet it was the illness which prevented me dealing with it. Such is the power of the mind when it’s cracked. But other times, living with a Kintsukorai mind (one which is more beautiful for having been broken) is one long lucid dream.

Whenever I question what’s in my head existentially, I’m reminded of a documentary Stephen Fry made about his own brand of depression. At the end, he posed a question: If there were a big red button, and hitting it would just restore you to β€œNormal”, would you? Same as him, I don’t have to think for long: No.

Paul Auster once said he’s happy with a day’s work if he has 500 words of perfect prose at the end. I’m happier when I’ve pumped out 850 words of pulp thoughts in an hour and cleared my mind for others to read. A problem shared, is one divided or multiplied.

Suffer in silence

Now Serenity awaits, somewhere in the universe. If I can just dream, I can hitch a ride, with friends, the captain, a shepherd, a doctor, and a companion or more.

The saddling doubt of salmon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a festive mental health message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

That’s me in the corner (B-side)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is four weeks since I was in the spotlight, having my brain prodded to determine if I’m entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP, which I’ve been receiving for the last four years). The social machine is tiring and I’m in danger of losing my head.

Losing head LegoSilvia Borri

I’ve been restless since the beginning of this year. It seems longer, but it was two years ago yesterday when a tribunal judge awarded me PIP, until September 2018 (reassessments are every two years). Ever since I’ve known it’s 2018, I’ve been more on edge than usual (and even my usual on-edgeness is not normal). For the last two or three months especially, I’ve been stumped, laid low and crippled, afraid to start anything lest my money is stopped, and unable to concentrate even when I do.

I’ve plotted stories but not written them, started some and not finished, and written endings with no beginnings. Nothing fits together and it’s all spare parts. None can be cannibalised and given life. I can’t keep my mind straight, and I may yet have to go through the rinser at another tribunal.

I’m hoping there’s a human in the system who sees I’ve been through it twice already and won, so they don’t put me through it again. Waiting to find out if you’re ill enough to be paid to be unwell is a cruel and inhuman process, but it’s designed to wear a person down so that they give up, the social and ethnic cleansing of those who were already socially excluded and only partially visible.

Kept in the dark, I’m cutting myself up, sawing bits off, and trying to reassemble myself. They hope I’ll fall apart, but I’m just about holding myself together. It’s all in my head, and they know this. It makes mental illness worse, and that’s the plan. Our Tory government are the real cannibals.

That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight. Until they put me out of my misery, I can’t sleep.

Losing head Coffee