Friday, 9 May 2014

Enough of ATOS

     Last Wednesday was… rough. Massively rough. One word. ATOS. It’s enough to drive me into a trembling, sweaty, puking, panicstricken puddle of fear and terror.

     It’s been four years since I had my first Work Capability Asessment. I sat, zombie-like, words bouncing off me, completely blank. I was dosed to the eyeballs on Valium, anti depressants and sleeping tablets. There were two ways of determining whether or not I was alive. 1. Hold a mirror in front of my mouth to check for condensation. 2. Look at my right hand, the nails tearing into the flesh of my left wrist. Scratching, plucking, twisting. Blood ran down my palm and onto my fingers. I didn’t even notice.

     Neither did my assessor. Despite it being a mere eight weeks since my suicide attempts, despite me still being regularly visited by the Mental Health Crisis Team, despite the psychiatrist’s report stating that under no circumstances should I return to employment, I was assessed as ‘Fit for work’. My benefits stopped within ten days of my appointment.

     I asked for a copy of my report, and despite the medical evidence provided by qualified professionals who knew me well, I found that apparently I wasn’t depressed ‘enough’. My clothes were clean. My hair was washed. I didn’t become distressed. I didn’t visibly sweat. I had a partner. I was capable of cooking a meal, on a good day. Obviously there was nothing wrong with me. I was trying to be a drain on society, a sponger, a scrounger. Scum.

     I appealed. Six months of no money coming into my bank account (my credit rating is officially ‘KLAXON’ as a result), but eventually I ‘won’. And every year since, I’ve had an assessment, and been found too ill to work. And that’s it. No other support, help or suggestions of what else to do. So I hate ATOS. I cheered when they lost their contract for determining Employment & Support Allowance suitability. But not long after that, the letter arrived. An appointment had been made for me. I sweated. I panicked. I phoned up to change the date of the appointment to something more suitable. And once you change your appointment once, that’s it. You can’t change it again. No matter if you have a sudden relapse. Or your child becomes ill. Or any other unexpected calamity befalls you. That’s it. You get one shot.

     And the day came. And I felt sick. And I cried. Fuckloads. And at 10:20, I presented myself to the hardfaced cow on reception who flicked her eyes over my sweaty and tearstained face, and told me to sit down. I sat in the corner, shrivelled up in fear, trying not to make eye contact with the other occupant, who took pity on me.

     ‘Don’t worry, love. They’ve just got to check. It’ll be fine, honestly.’

     I nodded, gulped, tears streamed. I was in fucking pieces. And just to make sure it was as agonising as possible, I was kept waiting for twenty minutes. And then the door opened. And it was THAT moment in Jaws. You know, THAT moment. Fucks sake, this moment…

     It was her. The woman who had decreed I was in rude health four years ago. I actually dryheaved, before bursting into tears like a twat. She ignored the tears. At that point.

     I’ll draw a discreet veil over what followed. It wasn’t great. So not great in fact that she forced me to take a box of tissues with me.

     And I stumbled, wildly, out onto the streets of Norwich. My legs felt wrong, like my knees were on backwards. My eyes were full of tears. Somehow, somehow I made it onto Colegate and found a little patch of sanctuary, sitting on the steps of the churchyard in the sunshine, and gave way to helpless weeping. People might have seen me. Or heard me, even. I don’t care.

     Because that’s what ATOS do to people. The assessment is designed to be painful, distressing and damaging. The force you to confront every worst aspect of yourself. Everything you hate about what you’ve become. Focus on all the things you can’t do. Everything you try not to think about. The bad stuff. How you are at your worst.

     And the thing is, you wouldn’t normally share this stuff with anyone, except perhaps a qualified psychologist or therapist. You wouldn’t open up and reveal the dark side without being sure of a soft landing. And you don’t get that with ATOS. They cleave your soul, draw out your demons and then… That’s it You’ll get a letter in a month or so. So your entrails spill out before you and there’s no one there to put you back together again.

     It hurts.

     Contempt. That’s how it feels. As though one is nothing more than a specimen to be examined, notes taken, and conclusions drawn, then discarded. Do you feel bad enough? Do you feel weak enough? Distressed enough? Do you look destroyed enough? So I sat, and I howled, and tried to swipe away the tears with my fists, and I bent double, just in so much fucking anguish from having to tell that fucking woman how I felt.

     Where should this music be…
     This music crept by me upon the waters,
     Allaying both their fury and my passion
     With its sweet air.

     St. George’s, Norwich-over-the-water. I used to know it well. I sang there a few times when I was in the CHOIR. I wrote about it as part of the Local History module in the first year of my GCSEs. There was music, organ music, playing inside. And slowly, I calmed down. And sat, listening to the music, in the sunshine. I don’t believe in god, or fate, or any kind of preordained path for people to follow. As far as I’m concerned, we make our way through life, and things just happen. That’s it. But I do believe in serendipity. And the power of one stranger to reach out and touch someone, just in passing, unintentionally, unknowingly, sublimely unaware. ATOS might have tried to break me. But the organist put me back together.

UPDATE: 12/05/2014 A letter arrived today from DWP. I've been awarded Contributions based Employment and Support Allowance. Also, wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who's been in touch, both at the time of the assessment and since I blogged this. If I thanked you all by name, this would sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, but thank you all more than I can say. I feel very humbled by the support and encouragement I've had, and I'm lucky to have people like you in my life.


Anonymous said...

This is so powerful I want to suggest you share it on Facebook and let it go viral.

But it's also very personal so a hard thing to release publicly, I know.

In awe of you as always x

Lucy Benedict said...

Thank you, it means a lot to know that my words reach someone. I keep my blog and facebook separate as much as possible, because it means I can be honest. I'd never tell anyone this stuff in real life!

Thank you, truly. I feel quite humbled by the support I've had from people online just lately.

@unpreparedmum said...

This post makes me livid, I used yo do some pro bono support for benefit applicants appealing capability assessments and as a union rep in my workplace. I was amazed at some of the outcomes and the effect assessments can have on people . I'm not against them, of course its right to assess but they shouldn't be this stressful it demonstrates an inappropriate level of support and failing system, sorry you had to go through this.

Lucy Benedict said...

It's a terrible system, set up by someone who has no idea about health, disability, MH issues. People need to be assessed, of course they do, but there really needs to be more acknowledgement of other medical professionals opinions, and support for applicants/claimants.

Sam said...

As I said in my previous comment mental health assessment (and I am in no way any kind of expert on this) is really difficult. It seems so unneccessarily distressing - but I guess when it comes to money the auditors want their pound of flesh. Does the tone change with different governments? Glad to read that you got your entitlement approved and sorry I didn't read this til today - I don't think I can subscribe directly to a blogspot blog when I use WordPress. Hugs X

Lucy Benedict said...

I love you quite a lot Sam x. My first assessment was in the fag end days of Labour (who set the system up), and TBH, it hasn't changed much since then. What has changed is that obvious distress in the WCA is taken note of. I suppose as well that I was so zombie like in my first interview that I couldn't articulate things very well.

I was quite taken aback by how physical my reaction to the letter was. Ridiculous amount of adrenaline just from seeing the brown envelope.