Note: As well as talking about suicidal feelings related to the PIP and Universal Credit systems, this post briefly mentions self-harm and gaslighting.
Let’s start from the beginning: the first time I claimed benefits, when I applied for PIP in November of 2017. PIP, managed and awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions (or DWP) is awarded to disabled people when their disability makes their day-to-day life more difficult. It stands for ‘Personal Independence Payments’; you can imagine, especially if you read my post on the myth of independence, my disdain for the name, but that quickly became the least of my problems.
I vaguely remember that the man on the phone who set up my claim was nice and inoffensive, but I remember with clarity which part of my university I was sitting in when I made the call, my back to the vending machines as I sat on some chair or sofa made of prickly, cheap magenta fabric. I remember these details, because for me, claiming PIP was a big deal. It was an acknowledgement of my complex additional needs and a big step on my journey to accepting that I’m disabled, and that that’s okay.
Except, uh, the government had other ideas.
To claim PIP, you first fill out a 33-page form which asks you, in excruciating detail, “how your disability affects you”. The form asks about your toileting habits and your abilities to keep yourself clean, which makes it more than a little uncomfortable to fill out, especially if you’re asking somebody else for help with it. You get a hearty 3 months to fill it out and return it, which is a bonus, but the process is miserable however long it takes you. Afterwards, you send off your form and wait patiently for an assessment appointment, which takes insane amounts of time, and then you attend your assessment.
This is when you learn that what you put on your form did not matter.
They ask you more or less the same questions they asked on the form, but this time in person (or, during these times of Covid, over the phone) and you answer them. You’re allowed to bring another person for support and to help answer questions, but the assessor gets to run the show, and one bitc–valuable employee of Capita didn’t allow my partner to speak at all until the very end, something I was absolutely not prepared for.
Don’t worry, though, because that doesn’t matter either! Regardless of what you actually say or how you actually behave, they’ll send you a decision letter (many weeks later) that will make you want to kill yourself. Mine described my demeanour as “relaxed and calm”, which is a very odd interpretation of “so anxious that I was actively pulling scabs off of self-harm wounds”, and contained some outright lies as well as some fantastic leaps of logic (like, I mentioned enjoying video games so they decided that I didn’t have any problems with self-motivation. I think I brought up video games as an example of something that distracts me so much that I forget I’m hungry, thirsty, in pain or in need of a wee, but they hear what fits their agenda).
This is the bit that makes me want to kill myself: when I have been vulnerable and poured hours into a 33-page, honest reflection of my life as disabled person, and then I receive a letter that makes me doubt my memories of the appointment, informing me that I actually don’t struggle with anything. From that, my disordered brain extrapolates that I must be an abled person who is just being an over-sensitive baby about the fact that they can’t cope with adult life. It takes my support network a lot of labour to help me stop spiralling in that direction.
If you want to appeal (and you probably will), you first send a request for “mandatory reconsideration”, which you also spend extremely painful hours writing. You send that off, you wait more weeks, and then, usually, you get rejected again. If you haven’t already committed Capita-gaslighting-related suicide or starved to death, you might choose to take it all the way to a tribunal.
Remember those weeks of waiting I described earlier? Weak sauce. To get a tribunal date took me, I believe, over a year. I phoned every couple of months to check they hadn’t forgotten about me, and each time I asked I was told some absurd number of weeks by helpline workers who ranged from bright and helpful to sounding genuinely annoyed I had called. I don’t keep good records, but it looks like I was preparing for my tribunal on the 30th July, 2019.
That is not a typo. I started my claim in 2017, and after months of waiting and panicking and doubting my own reality, I finally found someone who would listen to me. In the middle of 2019.
The tribunal was, oddly, the most painless part of the whole affair. Apart from the general terror induced by being in a new setting and trying to communicate with real adults, I felt at the time like they were listening, and I was proven right when their decision came through: I did, and do, qualify for PIP. It was a huge relief.
Until late in 2020, when PIP stopped appearing in my account. I phoned them, and apparently I had been sent a letter about a reassessment, to an old address that I no longer lived at. They didn’t, at any point, seem to think that they hadn’t heard back from me because, oh, I dunno, I’m too disabled to keep all my records up-to-date? They didn’t think that maybe they should try my phone number, which they also had on file, to check I had received the letter (or at least to check I wasn’t dead). So instead of reassessing me and continuing my claim, they stopped it altogether, and set me back to square one.
The word count on this post is getting daunting and I haven’t even ranted about the bitch who didn’t note down my use of the Nottingham Sexual Violence Service because “we can’t report on anything that happened previously, including promiscuous behaviour”, but I don’t really need to study her in detail, because she is one cog in a violent machine.
And I haven’t even started on my rant about Universal Credit.
Universal Credit is what you get if you don’t have enough income to stay alive. They were, when I applied in the summer of 2020, orders of magnitude quicker than PIP, but the problem with Universal Credit is that it’s seemingly designed to make your life so miserable that you give up and get a job. You’re assigned a work coach, who phones you too often and with too little notice to chide you about not having a better job yet. (Mine did not, but I think only because I’m disabled and was in crisis.) They’re meant to help you through the process of being declared “Not fit for work”, which grants you an extra £300 or so a month – this was less painful than PIP, and I was successful first time, but it still involved filling out a long, miserable form. They also tell you what you need to do admin-wise, such as turning your claim into a joint claim when you move in with your partner.
Turning my claim into a couples’ claim when I moved in with my fiancee meant losing the “housing costs” part of my Universal Credit, but I expected that. What I did not expect was for her income to be used as a reason to give me literally no money. The “Not fit for work” component gets deducted from just like the rest of it, so if your partner earns money, you get nothing. If you have trauma about being dependent on someone else for money and housing, this may make you want to kill yourself.
If that doesn’t, maybe this will: if someone in the household is earning, they don’t necessarily pay you the same amount every month. On average, you get about four days’ notice regarding what they’ll be paying you this month. It doesn’t matter if you need to budget! You spend the whole month not knowing what money you’ll have next month, and then you have four days to do some very intense maths. Maths that makes you a little suicidal, you know, because you know that even if you can make ends meet this month, next month might not yield a penny of Universal Credit.
My entire experience with this system has been negative. I want to be fair, but there is literally nothing nice to say about the UK benefits system. It is killing people. It is trying to kill me. I just wanted to share a brief (believe me) summary of my experiences with the DWP; I don’t have a grand point to make here besides, “Wow, this fucking sucks. It’s disgusting that the government is making people suffer to this extent simply because they’re disabled and/or poor. There are better ways to do this, but they’ve been foregone for a reason: the cheapest, easiest thing for a government to do is to drive people away from claiming benefits wherever possible, regardless of whether they need or deserve them. This just really fucking sucks.”