This is England

Despite rediscovering my dormant creative streak, I’ve found myself becoming very bored, very easily over the past couple of months. Thankfully, I’m no longer tempted to fill my time with spending hour after hour in the pub (last beer – Christmas Day). Though, if I did go back to my old ways, then at least it would be a change of scenery. Since becoming 99.9% teetotal, I must admit, some days, my life feels terribly mundane. That’s not to say getting pissed gave me purpose, but it did get me out of the house. Following my last post, there’s been a few issues to contend with. Though ‘issues’ seems a rather inadequate word. Mind fucks?

For example, every time I fancy nipping out with my Nikon to take some photographs (which – due to being in constant pain, doped on painkillers or lacking confidence in my abilities – is not very often, if at all), either I suffer a full-blown anxiety attack or, predictably, lapse into ‘can’t be arsed mode’. I was due to meet up with an old friend recently and was really looking forward to it, but nerves and – for no apparent reason – an overall feeling of dread stopped me in my tracks. Then along comes the Department for Work and Pensions, who decided to ‘review’ both of my sickness benefits.

Let me explain.

For several years (and for a number of health reasons), I’ve been claiming ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and PIP (Personal Independence Payment). A while ago, the government overhauled the application process. Previously, application forms would be completed and posted to the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), together with a doctor’s letter as evidence, which would list a person’s health problems and declare them unfit for work. But the process was completely overhauled a few years ago and so now, once the completed applications forms for ESA and/or PIP have been received, the DWP employs one of three outsourced companies – Atos, Capita or Maximus – to perform so-called face-to-face ‘health assessments’ of anyone wishing to claim sickness benefits. There is little – if any – consideration for the claimant’s health problems. For example, if someone uses a wheelchair, they are still expected to travel to an assessment centre miles away and navigate several flights of stairs. If, through no fault of their own, the claimant happens to be a few minutes late for the appointment, then the DWP will automatically sanction all benefit payments until further notice.

The assessment questions are worded in such a way as to deliberately wrong foot the patient and enable the cancellation of their benefits, thus saving the government significant revenue. Over the past five or six years, these rigorous, dehumanising tests have caused monumental outrage amongst the sick and disabled community, especially since it came to light that all three companies pay a bonus if their employees examine a greater number of application forms per day. Inevitably, the introduction of financial incentives has led to numerous claimants’ health issues being overlooked in order to justify their payments being withheld.

Many people have taken their own lives rather than face an assessment or once their benefits have been withdrawn – The Guardian newspaper estimates, on average, there’s been eight suicides a month since the process began. I don’t wish to use this blog to preach politics, but the Conservative Party are a gang of cunts. When people are killing themselves due to government policy, then there’s something rotten in the state of Britain.

To be called in for an assessment and closely scrutinised by one of these companies’ ‘healthcare professionals’ (who, invariably, are medically unqualified in anything even remotely connected to health or disability), is beyond my temperament so, usually, I insist on a ‘paper-only review’. I complete and return the application forms to the DWP together with a stack of medical evidence to support my claim. So far, I’ve managed to dodge the bullet and been lucky enough (and eligible) to continue to be in receipt of both benefits. But with each assessment, my anxiety attacks are prolonged and, therefore, my mood dips lower and darker – so much so that I have contemplated suicide and self-harmed on a regular basis. Considering what happened with Steve, I’m thoroughly ashamed to admit this.

I can only tell you that, for me, self-harming is a release – a physical manifestation of my mental turmoil. Seeing the blood and feeling the cuts helps to extricate the anxiety from my mind. It’s a weird, dangerous practice and I don’t advise anyone to follow my example. We all have our own coping mechanisms, I suppose. Some better than others.

Why am I telling you this?

Over the past 18 months, I’ve grown accustomed to being more honest with myself. I think – fuck that – I know the main reason I kept drinking so much for so long was due to insecurity and deep-seated self loathing. I’ve made a point of recognising and accepting my inadequacies and, consequently, I’ve learned to like myself a little bit more, despite relatively infrequent anxiety attacks (or at least I did until these latest assessments). This, in turn, has led me to be honest with others (within reason) and to discover who my real friends are. Whereas previously, I was too wasted to perceive the questionable motivations of disingenuous ‘pub friends’, now I’ve learned to appreciate and cultivate the friendships of sincere people. My beer goggles have fallen away and I see people for who and what they really are, for better or worse. I believe the basis for any significant friendship is honesty, kindness and loyalty, so good riddance to all those toxic, insincere, booze-soaked bromances I once held in such high esteem.

These insights have crept up on me during the past year and a half. As I’ve mentioned before, I never experienced a ‘moment of clarity’ and I hasten to reiterate that I haven’t given up alcohol for good – it’s more a case of growing sick and tired of being sick and tired. Plus the fact that alcohol very nearly killed me. There’s any number of healthier and more productive pursuits I can afford to spend my time doing and I only wish I’d realised that a long time ago.

It could be that confession is good for soul, but I feel it’s something more – in that I’ve learned to be relaxed with who I am. I’m not afraid to admit to my shortcomings and to broadcast them online and that’s got to be better than hiding behind a ridiculous alcohol-fuelled persona. Though, despite creating a blog, I’ve never particularly enjoyed talking about myself. That’s one reason I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. I firmly believe social media turns us all into attention junkies – as if the whole world revolves around what we’re eating or who we’re shagging. I guess one reason for writing a blog is to leave something of an impression on the world, rather than trying to be the centre of it. Or maybe it’ll help someone recognise themselves and their own struggles in life, so that perhaps they don’t feel so alone.

My thoughts and problems are no more important than yours, but I prefer to help someone with their own issues rather than discuss any of mine. Having said that, this blog is a form of cathartic therapy for me, so if there’s a chance I’ll wake up tomorrow feeling better about myself for getting this stuff out there, then I’ll keep at it. Despite my reservations, we all need a degree of attention sometimes. I can feel my outlook on life and self-worth changing for the better. In the absence of beer, I’ve yet to find a better coping mechanism than blogging.

Up until recently, I believed that people – myself included – were too busy with their own lives to bother with another person’s problems. That’s the way it seemed to me for a long time. I’m generally cynical about people but a few months ago, a couple of longstanding friends and some lovely Twitter folk proved me completely wrong. Without wishing to sound like a martyr or too far up my own arse (as usual), I’m used to fighting my own battles, so their kindness proved to be both unexpected and deeply appreciated.

I digress …

The first time I was assessed for PIP, the ‘healthcare professional’ clearly didn’t bother to read the application form – in addition to all the supporting evidence I’d provided – and quickly denied my benefit award. I kicked up such a stink with the assessment company (Atos) and the DWP that the decision was quickly reversed. A few weeks ago, I went through the whole sorry charade again with ESA, where the award was issued for only six months – as if by some miracle my fibromyalgia will be all better by Christmas. Following a ‘mandatory reconsideration’, the award was extended to two years. Now I’m in the thick of it once more with PIP. Life is on standby, my appetite is non-existent and a good night’s sleep is the height of my aspirations. I can’t concentrate or bring myself to do much of anything because I’m perpetually anxious. My only source of income is being held to ransom by a physiotherapist. Ridiculous.

Why should anyone sick and disabled have to go through all this shit? It’s humiliating – as if we’re auditioning for entitlement and having to dance to someone’s tune to prove our worthiness. We have to demonstrate the extent of our health issues – as if a fully qualified GP’s diagnosis simply isn’t good enough. Admittedly, there are those who lie through their teeth in order to claim benefits, but it’s the sick and disabled community as a whole that is suffering by being subjected to such intense suspicion and hardcore interrogations. We are all under the same umbrella of illness – someone with cancer is as guilty as another with learning difficulties, and I can assure you there’s no comfort or strength in numbers on this one.

I see beauty in the world every day and I’m beginning to think more positively than I used to, but then along comes an anxiety attack which consumes all of that positivity within a split second and I’m left with nothing but fear and darkness swirling around my mind. I can’t function properly and I’m hesitant in every word and gesture. Anxiety makes me feel constantly on edge, as if every minute is the last one before entering the gas chamber. My thought process is firing in eight different directions all at the same time with lightning speed.

In an attempt to manage my anxiety (and brandishing a healthy pinch of salt) I’ve begun therapy. It’s very early days but I’m hoping it’s going to make a difference to my life, however small. I’ve tried it before but because I was drinking heavily and regularly at the time, there wasn’t much scope for improvement and I lost count of how many times I was told that alcohol (specifically, binge drinking) was the cause of my problems. They were right, of course, but now I have new challenges to overcome without booze hindering any progress made.

I feel I’ve created a far too negative snapshot of my life at present. It’s really not all bad. The lingering issue with my benefits will be sorted soon, I’m sure. I’ve booked a few photography lessons for the New Year and will shortly be treating myself to a new Hi-Fi turntable system, which lends me another interest to pursue. The benefits issue is always in the back of my mind, but my conscience is clear and I have the support of a local disability support group.

So, you know, don’t worry.