The 20th of April was one the greatest #letswalkamile days yet. In and around the Glasgow area we had 4 events, involving over 1000 people walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to start the conversation that will end mental health stigma.
We also had a sneaky showing of a shortened version the walk a mile film at the Glasgow Centre for contemporary arts, to whet people’s appetites for the full premiere at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in September.
On top of all this, we had widespread coverage in social, local and mainstream media, that included 9 minutes on the STV 10 o’clock news.
It really was a fabulous few days.
I had bowled along to the events at Strathclyde University and the People’s Palace in Glasgow which turned into some kind of hug fest as people I’d never met before came up and threw their arms round me. The weather was glorious and, in case you’d forgotten, people really are fabulous.
The folk who were there would have seen how confidently and happily I speak in front of big audiences and how I love hearing everyone’s stories.
I’d been saving myself for the review of my disability benefits. My disability living allowance – a non means tested benefit that I’d been getting in the recognition that my life is, er, complicated because of my mental health problem, borderline personality disorder, is being replaced (hopefully) with Personal independence Payment – PiP.
But you just said you confidently spoke in front of 100’s of folk?!
Yes I did.
And you were on the telly, speaking happily…?
Yes I was.
Vanessa Feltz recently stood in for Jeremy Vine on radio 2. They were discussing the application process for the dreaded PiP.
Although the form is 40 pages long, most of the questions are written simply – as such, the intrepid stand in presenter seemed to be unable to get her head around the difficulties that people seem to be encountering with the whole process.
Don’t worry, I’m here to help.
I’ll tell you about what it means to me.
Given the whole striver versus skiver culture that seems to have developed in this lovely country of ours, it’s difficult to remove myself from the guilt, shame and embarrassment and feelings of failure that accompany this application for benefits.
Tie into this my loss of roughly a third – an unpredictable third at that, of my life to this fucking malady, there’s the fear of not getting the benefit.
I mean, who’s going to employ me?
If I don’t get the benefit I’ll be pulled into a world where I’ll have to apply for jobs with employers who don’t understand the random disabling nature of this bastard condition.
So, with that backdrop, I make the first phone call.
I’m asked some security questions, then I’m told our conversation will take around 45 minutes.
Fair enough, you’d think, they need to be thorough asking about my mental and physical health and the like…
45 minutes later and they had nothing more than my personal details. Name, address, GP, and what label there is for my, er, difficulties.
45 minutes to elicit a tiny amount of information – information they already had!
The forms arrived in due course. I put them to one side. It was essential that I was in a good place to fill them out – with Ella to hand. I also knew simply completing the forms, admitting (just look at the stigmatising language I’m using here!) to my condition and what impact it has on my day to day life would be a trigger.
So I built up and built up to the day…finally got to the point where I opened the envelope, only to find it was nothing more than confirmation of the 45 minute wasted conversation I’d had with them a few weeks ago.
I sent it back, and the 40 pages duly arrive. As a social worker, I’d made it part of my job to ensure people got the benefits they were entitled to…I knew the process could be dehumanising and nightmarish…and here I am again…
I remember the last interview I had. I made the terrible mistake of wearing my suit. I wanted to show…fuck knows…that I was….coping? Even though it took me hours to get ready – and I wept my way through the interview, occasionally stopping to bite my arm….
I didn’t get it on the first application – I had to get a social worker to fill it out on my behalf to give it credibility!
Meanwhile, back to the 40 pages The events in Glasgow rapidly became a distant memory…
I knew it was going to be hard.
Self fulfilling prophecy? Possibly. But probably not.
The welfare benefit system has gradually changed over the years from a safety net to an organisation whose primary goal it is NOT to give people the money to which they’re entitled.
The form isn’t designed for people with a mental health problem. The closest they get to it is where they mention ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ twice in the whole, ‘look, I’ve written my first novel’, booklet.
I knew that I may be due a dip after the all round wonderfullness of walk a mile fest…but as I say time and time again – this is a hit I’m willing to take.
I considered filming myself through the application process, just to give folk an idea of…of whatever it was that lay ahead…
All too soon though the wheels fell off. Normally I just miss a gear…but this time…fuck….
I dissociated – that’s pretty normal for me – this me that can’t differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t – Ella takes and puts in a darkened room with loud American cop shows – we batten down the hatches while the storm of invalid thoughts – of violent self harm and suicidal ideation gradually blows itself out over days, weeks, occasionally months.
This time though, things started to go wrong. In my detached state I became envious of the me that could stand up happily and confidently in front of big audiences – who could speak happily on television – I almost hated him…like he was a different person. Even with the dark – the noise – having the lovely Ella nearby – I was losing control…
Ella had used my bank card for something or other…she went off to the loo…I knew she’d been using it, but in the seconds she was away I couldn’t find it…
By the time she got back, I was crying uncontrollably. She tried to rationalise with me but I couldn’t talk without it coming out as a scream.
Before I knew it I’d punched myself in the face possibly 10 times – it felt like I’d been assaulted by someone else.
Somewhere at the back of my mind I was trying to quietly rein it all in…the best I could do though was to bury my face in a pillow to muffle my screams.
As this mental crescendo gradually abated I became conscious of the shocking scene I’d just exposed my lovely Ella to. My bruises would come and go – but I knew the horror of this…self mugging would stay with her.
I want her to feel safe with me – I love her so much – to think I’d put her through this kind of trauma is almost unbearable. She loves my mind, and there I was, wilfully turning it to mince…
With time it passed. The separate me’s seem to have reconsolidated – we’re all friends – we’re all the same person again…
We’ve had Ella’s 50th hoolie which went wonderfully well with so many of the friends and family we know and love hurling themselves around the place at the ceilidh.
I’ve been focusing too on the development of walk a mile as a charity – something that I know will help in the all round battle against mental health stigma…
Watch this space – we’re getting there…
It’s taken until now for me to be in a place where I can even begin to describe all this…this exhausting, mind pickling, this…
It’s not just about the form.
Walk a mile