How I survived the ESA/WCA process

Today a brown envelope dropped through the letter box. I wasn’t expecting anything from the Department of Work & Pensions’ (DWP) so I knew what the letter was and I was right.

In the middle of December last year (2013) I had sent away the form that was the beginning of the process that would convert my Incapacity Benefit (IB) to Employment Support Allowance (ESA). It is a bit of a bulky form and it demands information that you wouldn’t normally share with a stranger. It exposes your soul to the world and, if you have a mental health problem as severely as I have, it’s a delicate and easily destroyed soul.

I had filled in the form myself even though I had been led to expect to have help from a mental health charity or the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).  MIND which is the only mental health charity in this area told me quite simply that they didn’t help people. Not they didn’t help people filling in soul destroying forms just that they didn’t help people with anything. I tried to approach CAB but they don’t answer their phone and standing in a queue for at least an hour to see if they’re willing to help you is far too stressful for me. They don’t answer the phone or have an answering machine which I was told was down to resources but for me it means if I could get in to the office (which would make my health problem worse) there is the distinct chance that they wouldn’t help me anywhere. One other charity was suggested to me but the stress involved in taking two buses over to a part of town that I didn’t know was considerable and would be damaging to my health. So I was left on my own to do my best.

An appeal on social networks for help ended in people sending me links to websites, forums and blog that I just didn’t have the concentration to trawl through while the time ticked away and the act of filling out the form got more urgent.

I was advised to look at the form logically and decide what information they actually needed as opposed to that I felt that they needed to know. I wrote all this down on a copy of the form so that I could get it in the right place from the outset. I found that I could frame my answers in a way that told them what they needed to here but also said what I had to say. My local printer Minuteman proved what good friends they were by chatting to me about things that would distract me as they to copied the forms for me to retain just in case.

I posted the form to Atos and heard nothing. Their call centre could only tell me that the forms had been received but not give me a timescale for when I would hear from them. It was agony.

A friend who has Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) over my finance and health & welfare talked to me of how worrying about when I would get the letter wouldn’t make it arrive faster and that projecting about what it would say would not ease the process. I began to be able to detach from the idea of reading the letter and it being bad news. I learned that planning how I could appeal if my WCA gave the wrong result was good but that projecting about how awful it would be was destructive. I saved as much money as I could to give me some sort of buffer in the event that I would lose my already meagre income.

In the news recently it was announced that the company taking over from Atos would not be doing so until next year and I had resigned myself to a long wait and, even though I was taking steps to reduce the stress I was under, I was still experiencing stress.

This stress has manifested itself with memory loss, derealisation and depersonalisation. All painful, distressing and difficult to deal with.

Then the envelope from DWP arrived this morning. I knew, as I have said, that it could only be about the ESA/WCA process. I opened it straight away as putting it off would only prolong the agony of not knowing what it said. It didn’t say in the first few paragraphs that I would have to attend an assessment with a health care professional and I realised quite quickly that it was good news of a sort. Then I reached the sentences that read, “You have been placed in the support group because your illness or disability restricts the possibility of working. This means you do not have to take part in any work-related activity.”

I burst into hysterical tears and read the lines again and again and again. I rang the GP who holds LPA for me and told him the news. That made us both laugh and the stress began to lift from me. I then rang the other friend who holds LPA for me and cried happy tears down the phone at him. In between times I rang and sent a text to my sister. I tweeted it and all the time I was crying and the stress that I didn’t know I was carrying disappeared along with the stress I knew I was carrying. I’ve rung my GP so that I can thank him for the amazing letter he wrote that I’m sure carried a lot of sway with the person who made the decision.

I eventually read the whole letter and discovered that I am going to be better off financially. It’s not the retire to the Bahamas on a private yacht kind of money but it’s enough to be able to live a little better.

The money I have saved is now a nest egg of sorts and there in case I want or need something that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford. I transferred a little money to my sister as there is 260 miles between us and I wanted to be able to celebrate with her.

It’s unusual to get this result when there is a mental health problem involved but, if you’re in the system and you have a mental health problem then please take hope from this result. Remember that the percentage of people who get the result that they need first time around has to come from somewhere. I’m part of that percentage and hopefully more people with mental health problems will be too. When the system works it works well and for that I am truly grateful.

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