I’ve met people before who have strongly hinted at me that I should put less of myself out there on the internet for everyone to read. Especially in the last months, I keep feeling like maybe they’re right, and I shouldn’t openly be talking about financial worries and benefit troubles, mainly because I’ve always been taught that talking about money is vulgar (which is a typical middle class thing, isn’t it?).
But here’s the thing. Sometimes life just crashes down around you, and you’re reliant on these things - benefits, financial help from family and friends - for ages I felt guilty about all of that, like I failed at everything - but it was just one of those moments and situations in life where external factors set off a series of events which culminated in us being, for want of a nicer word, fucked.
Now, it was really difficult to figure out how to go through this. Apart from all the feelings of worthlessness for it having gotten this bad, just trying to figure out how to navigate the benefits system was like holding down a full-time job you were not trained for, where the job description is vague and sketchy at the very least. First there was the Disability Benefit, which actually doesn’t exist in this country anymore, so it took us a while to figure out what to actually apply for - ESA, Employment and Support Allowance in fact. And then we had to figure out to apply for income-based ESA rather than contribution-based, cause you can’t get contribution-based ESA if you haven’t paid enough income tax (which was the case). After navigating through the form and sending it off, it took ages and ages to get a reply.
Then I lost my job.
So I applied for Jobseekers, like I’ve done before when I’d lost a job. Except now I couldn’t, because I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have said that I was part of a couple, of which the other half was applying for ESA because they were permanently signed off work by the doctor (keep in mind that through all of this, we were also dealing with the NHS’ mental health facilities, which are laughably almost non-existant). So, apparently, I needed to go on the ESA claim with my partner, which caused no end of confusion because I wasn’t sick, just unemployed.
Backwards and forwards it goes for about two months, then there’s a physical assessment where the nurse tells my partner that it looks like a serious case and he should definitely be signed off work and in treatment. Weeks later, we receive an official letter saying that he scored “ok” in all categories, was fine to go to work, and that the benefit was stopped completely.
At this point I’m now eating crisps with BBQ sauce on them for dinner on more than one occasion. If it hadn’t been for the absolutely generous help of friends (looking at you, J.B. and A.F.), we wouldn’t have eaten. We had ZERO income and the debts - bills, Council Tax, credit card, unpaid rent - were mounting up in a dizzying fashion. I hit rock bottom. I wallowed. I didn’t leave the sofa. I stopped opening letters. I spent the little money I had primarily on booze to take my mind off things - one type of self harm amonst others that I’m not proud of from that time. I had a friend, then, who told me everything I was doing was okay and natural (which is right, but also so so wrong), so I kept wallowing.
Anyway. We appealed. We spent hours on the phone and a ridiculous amount of money on phone credit, because nobody. Ever. Picks. Up. We navigate our way through mean people, ignorant people, stupid people on the phone, every once in a while getting one genuinely helpful person giving us advice on what course we should go next, because fuck knows nobody can figure this out by themselves, the whole process is so convoluted. Finally we win. After three months of almost no income. Add to that the three months of almost no help from the NHS except for ever-changing stints on different try-out drugs which in the end were all inappropriate and just made things worse.
This - all of this - was enough to drive the sanest person crazy, not to mention two people of which one was diagnosed mentally ill after a nervous breakdown, and the other one was quickly heading that way herself. So I buckled, went on anti-depressants, which made me feel nauseous and then made me feel hysterically great and then made me feel not much of anything at all - which helped. Numb, I could face getting my shit back together. I did. I started drawing again, cut out bad influences, started applying for jobs and finally found one.
During all of this I was going through the whole process again with Housing Benefit, because ESA for two people is barely enough to live on, not to even mention paying bills and Council Tax and rent - and as soon as I got that job, it went away, because the government thinks that two people can live on a single person’s low income.
That Housing Benefit finally came through last week. LAST week. After almost 6 months of applying. The last person I saw actually told me that the previous people I’ve seen haven’t done their job properly, not to mention given me a lot of confusing instructions on what evidence to bring to the appointments, meaning I walked away empty-handed and desperate on three occasions before it actually got sorted out (at which point I didn’t even need half the paperwork that was insisted on before).
But now, finally - after nine months - NINE months - I received all the money I was supposed to receive during that time. Except with subtractions here and there for things I don’t plainly understand right now, but you know what, I paid off most of my debts (to the scary debt collectors that kept sending more and more threatening letters to my house) and I’m thankful for that. I only wish I could pay back all the family and friends that helped us out, but I just can’t, and it’s frustrating and makes me feel like a major leech on everyone around me. It’s hard to get rid of that sticky middle-class pride when it comes to money.
So what happens if you don’t talk about this? If I’d kept it all to myself? For one, I would have felt even more isolated and alone - and two, people just don’t know about this. The idea of people on benefit being scroungers is ever prevalent, even in the most liberal people. There’s a stigma to it, a stigma which makes people really unwilling to talk about it or listen to it or even think about the realities of having to rely on government help to merely survive.
What scares me about this is that my partner and I are fairly tuned in, with-it people despite everything. Okay, so I got a panic attack every time I had to make a phone call or go to an appointment, but I was still able to phone and email and go to appointments. My partner was brilliant at talking to people on the phone and at not being intimidated. Between us, we hunted that money we were reliant on down. What I’m trying to get to is, what about the people who can’t manage? Who don’t have the physical or mental facilities to go after it the way we did? Suddenly the number of homeless people in London makes a lot of sense to me. If you’re not with it, you won’t get through, you fall between the cracks, and it doesn’t take much. If you’re mentally unwell and have no family, no friends to rely on and help you out - you’re fucked. You’re simply not allowed to live like everyone else.
And I think everyone needs to be more aware of this, not only to understand the country you’re living in better, but also to know what to do when their life fucks up around them, and to feel like they’re not alone. That was the worst, the feeling of being completely, utterly alone - because suddenly, you can’t participate in life anymore. You can’t afford it, and on the rare occasions you’re out and you do, you can’t relate to anyone anymore. All you can think of is how fucked you are. You can’t bring up the enthusiam to participate in projects or plan projects or even talk about them, if you’re an artist you don’t have the money to get out there and do stuff and go to fairs and conventions, print zines and illustrations, you fall off the scene and of the face of the earth. You feel like you’re easily forgotten.
You feel worthless as a person, in the eyes of the government, in the eyes of your social scene, of society, because you have lost all opportunity to contribute. Apart from losing touch and losing friends, you’re losing everything which you thought identified you as a person, and you become a blob of matter, existing, self-anesthetising with whatever cheap distraction’s at hand. You don’t go out, and lose hope. You lose hope, and you don’t go out. Vicious circle.
I feel like I’m mainly out of it now, and I’ve forgotten what it feels like to feel alive again. At first, you go through the motions of what your life used to be like, and it feels clunky and foreign and exhausting, but eventually you meld back into it, and you put effort into things which the thought of made you break down and cry before. The wheels slowly start turning again, and above all you just feel grateful. And I am grateful, and that’s why I’ll talk about it, to tell people how bad it can be, and how much worse it could be than my situation was, and that it can get better again.
Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken.”
Still marveling at how much this lady figured it out, by the way.