It took me years to accept that I wasn't well enough to work due to depression and anxiety. Part of me still hasn’t. I know deep down that I'm more unwell than I want to admit, to even myself.
After a couple years out of work, I got over my shame, embarrassment and pride and applied for Employment Support Allowance benefits. Within months I was booked in for a face to face assessment. At the time I was studying to become a Teacher Assistant. I freaked out when I got this letter, detailing my impending appointment, and figured that I had enough financial support to help me until I completed the course and find a job.
It wasn't long before I realised I didn't have the mental strength to read all of the teaching course materials and write the essays. Accepting I couldn’t help support myself, I went through the benefits application again and this time I went to the assessment.
I was asked a lot of questions. About the ability to bathe, communicating, to plan and complete a journey - these were just some of them. I was nervous. I felt defensive. Sitting there in that office I was unable to access my pain and lack of ability to take care of myself.
One question that was asked: 'Can you read a set of instructions for a washing machine?' I answered a cool, calm and collected 'yes, I can.' In that moment if she gave me a set of instructions I would read them, out of fear and nervousnesses. But this assessment wasn’t about what I was able to do under stress of a watchful eye, this was about how I was on my worst days in my own environment.
I tried my best to communicate the challenges my mental health posed, but I ended up instead putting on a brave face. I didn't give myself a chance by not communicating my struggles clearly enough and this resulted in scoring the lowest possible score on their assessment rating system, meaning I wouldn’t get any financial help to support my daily living.
I took it hard and used my disappointment and anger to try and continue my Teacher Assistant course. I even paid for an extension on my essays, hoping I could just use my pain to push me through, yet nothing had changed. I struggled with concentration and the stamina it took in applying myself, and eventually I couldn't go on with my studies.
I'm not sure how many months passed when I reached a stage that I felt strong enough to try and apply for a job. I went to several interviews - each was incredibly stressful, more so than the usual stress an interview can bring. Soon I started my first day at a retail store - it turned out to be my only day there. My head couldn't take the pressure, the learning, the hectic environment - I don't have the words to fully describe my feelings. I did know that I couldn't cope. With the amount of learning required I already knew I didn’t have the capability in that time to go through with it. I made the decision to leave, instead of trying to hang on.
Calling this a setback would be putting it mildly. I was a mess, not knowing if I would ever be well enough to work again. I had thoughts of how will I be able to take care of myself amongst others.
I eventually got the courage to try and get help again. Due to cuts in mental health the only benefit I could apply for was Personal Independent Payment - a disability benefit. I went through the long process of applying, including spending over two hours filling out a form describing in detail why the simplest of tasks can be too overwhelming for me.
Two months later I was told I had to attend an assessment. This time I felt more prepared - I understood that I had to speak up for myself and answer the questions based on my most challenging days. I thought the assessment went OK, in that I managed to convey my difficulties clearly. I felt I could've said more, I guess I would always feel this way.
I was hopeful during the long wait, where they would assess my answers and decide whether to give me financial support. Once again I scored no points for their model of how my disabilities affect me. Not only that, but I received feedback from somebody who I had never met, who sits behind a computer screen telling me that they disagreed with my answers and my capabilities of daily living. To me this just shows how fraught the mental health services is. I’ve also read many accounts where people who are severely unwell are not getting the help they need.
I was devastated reading this feedback. How can somebody, who wasn't even at the assessment, just decide I'm OK to do certain day to day tasks and negate everything I've been trying to say? It feels this system is designed to only help those who fit a certain mould of disability. Maybe this is down to cuts in mental health and the lack of understanding that mental health challenges pose.
I had a chance to appeal, but by the time I felt able to, the deadline had passed. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to get help with trying to submit a late appeal / reapply.
It's been challenging writing this, because I feel so worn down from this experience. My feelings from this are still raw and it frustrates me that I can't be clearer in putting across how difficult a time this was and how it still affects me. I thought by writing this it would be a healthy outlet to deal with my emotions (and dust off my blog).
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