Let me start by saying I wish I didn't have to write what I am about to say. I have been fighting my condition for nearly 8 years now and during that time I have lost many battles. Many of you know that having a long term condition is a daily fight and struggle between your mind and your body. You fight pain, fatigue, low mood, lack of understanding, lack of sleep and fear of the future to name just a few. But when other battles are thrown into that mix it can make things so much harder to cope with.
Protests and negative statements are made about our UK government on a daily basis about a number of issues facing society. One of the most important issues, which have been a topic of discussion for some time, is the so called welfare reforms that are supposed to make those on benefits be better off in work. Our conservative government want a better society where people earn their keep, I get that. In fact I agree that there appear to be many individuals who are living off the state when they are more than capable of working and contributing to society. I also understand that it is often not that simple to just ‘get a job’ and there are many barriers people have to overcome. Circumstances are different for everyone but when it comes to living with a long term condition, staying in work is not simple. A condition that presents new challenges with your health daily mean finding a job or keeping employment where your employer both understands and supports you is incredibly difficult.
The past few weeks I have discovered the truth of the matter behind the theory that you are better off in work. The truth is, for me and many others, you are not better off. Not at all, in any way. And this won’t be the case until better financial and all round support is provided to those that are being put on shuttle buses off to the job centre.
I have always wanted to work. I have ambitions and determination like most people my age. I have suffered huge set-backs in my career due to an illness I did not ask for. I didn't want to take time out of work. I was forced to by my deteriorating condition and a period of severe ill health. At my worst, I was claiming benefits, because I had to leave my job, my condition was out of control and I no income at all. I lived alone where rent and bills had to be paid. I didn't want to 'scrounge' off the state but it was my only option without a partner. I don't have rich parents or a wealthy family. I don't have savings and at the time I had nothing but debt from my time at university. I was supposed to be starting a career that was supposed to justify what I had spent on my degree. By the way, I paid my own way through university with part time jobs and student loans. I had no help from the state or wealthy parents to pay my fees but I didn't qualify for reduced fees either. My career was intended to make all that hard work worth it. But it was only a year after university that disaster struck and my life changed forever.
I vowed to get back to that career someday, convincing myself that once treatment was found everything would be OK and would go back to normal. It's now 8 years on and so much has happened. I have two artificial hips, an artificial shoulder (and soon another one to match). I ran my own business for 4 years because I had little confidence in being employed with a condition that varies day to day and would require a lot of time off. I became my own boss so I didn't have to worry about the restraints of my condition and letting people down. I worked through two huge operations to have my hips replaced and several types of aggressive treatments. I bettered myself by slowly regaining strength, confidence and finding treatments that worked for me. This took time but I finally came to a place where I felt able to work again and that I could have control back of my life.
In November 2014 I started a new career. A fresh start that, despite my degree and experience of work, sent me back to the beginning. I wanted to work for our health service because I felt it would be giving back for some of the amazing support I received from them over the years. I was more than happy to learn new skills and work my way up because I worked with some fantastic people and I felt fully supported as an employee. Then my shoulder became a problem. All of a sudden I was struck down again and unable to work waiting for my operation to replace my shoulder. It was a set-back but didn't deter me, I just felt incredibly guilty for letting others down. As soon as I could, I returned to work and even celebrated a move up the ranks last year gaining more valuable experience.
Then it became all too much again. I wrote previously about the fact working full time was having a severe negative impact not only on my health but on my life in general. The exhaustion and pain on top of a full working day was a battle I could no longer fight. I gave it one hundred percent and was incredibly reluctant to admit defeat but, for my wellbeing and happiness, I made the decision to reduce my working hours. This was an incredibly stressful time and a difficult decision, not only because of my emotional distress at the thought of my condition beating me, but financially I had to prepare myself. I obviously did my research, there are plenty of things out there that tell you working even a few hours is better than nothing and you will be supported by your government. They tell you that you will be better off in work and rewarded for your contribution to society. As I mentioned earlier, sadly this isn't true.
I am fighting a new battle with my local council housing department and The Department for Work and Pensions, amongst others, for some help and support to simply top up my income due to the loss of income now I have reduced my working hours. Again, this was not my choice or hope for the future. I want to work. I want to work full time and earn my own wage and be able to live a normal life. I want to be able to save for the future and perhaps buy a house someday, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that this may just be a distant dream.
After months of letters, phone calls, submitting evidence of every part of my life (the council especially have access to my bank accounts, payslips, medical records etc.) I was told last week that I am pretty much entitled to nothing. Even though my income has decreased substantially, I fall a few pounds above the threshold that is set out by government for entitlement to help with housing costs. To put it into perspective, I now take home less than £1000 per month and my rent alone equals 75% of that. Whilst I receive personal independence payments, this is mostly spent on my car costs each month because the government decided I wasn't entitled to a mobility vehicle at one point. I had to lease a car instead to be able to continue to travel to work, I live in a small town with very little public transport and I need my independence in the form of transport to be able to attend the hundreds of medical appointments I have per year alone. On top of the lease payments I have to pay insurance, repair costs, MOT etc and this is not cheap. However, if I had been awarded my PIP mobility element from the start, I wouldn't have these payments to make each month. Late last year I finally won my battle against the DWP where a high court judge decided their decision not to grant me mobility payments was unjust and wrong. Despite winning my case, I was in a difficult financial position still because of being tied into a lease for the car I now have after my Motability car was taken away.
In all honesty, I was better off completely out of work and claiming benefits. I am in a worse off financial position now than when I couldn't work at all. The council won't help me. The DWP won't take my complaints seriously, when all I ask is for help to recover the costs for the car I had to lease when they forced me into a corner following their bad judgement. Everything I have coming in goes straight back out and our government do not care one bit about this.
They have gone back on their word to support people who want to work and contribute to society. It is perfectly obvious to me why people remain on benefits, why should they work when they are better off not doing so? But what about those who want to do something with their lives? Where is our incentive or support when our income only just falls over your threshold so you aren't required to help?
I don't expect everything to be handed to me. I have worked hard pretty much all my life apart from a period of severe ill health. I started work at the age of just 13 in a local hairdressers. I don't expect lots of money to come to me for nothing each month. I, like so many others, just need that additional bit of support to bridge that gap between part time work pay and full time which I can no longer do because of a genuine health reason. It's made me consider going back to full time just so I don't have to deal with all this and worry about money. The stress on top of my health issues is overwhelming and not something that will help my illness at all. I know it would be unsafe and a hindrance to my employers if I went back to full time because I struggle even working 25 hours a week. I have to sleep every afternoon following work just to regain some energy. I am constantly exhausted and I fear what would happen if I continued down that path and pushed myself to the limit.
The worst thing is... Our government and local council do not care. They have their targets and their thresholds and tell us everything will be OK when it isn't. It's so far from OK when someone like me is put into this position. I have seriously hit a low point in my mental health this week because of all this but at least I have people around me who care very much about my wellbeing and offer me support. I fear for those who don't have this because having financial worries on top of health issues is just not right or fair. What is happening to society that those who want to try and make something of their lives are doomed to succeed from the start because of cut backs and lack of support? Where is the support from the government when we need it most? I will continue to fight as long as I am able, but I fear this is a battle I don’t have the strength to win.