When I moved to Wellington seven months ago I felt pretty hopeful.
I haven’t worked for much of the last ten years. For most of it, I’ve been on the sickness benefit, going back to my doctor every three months for another certificate saying I was still ill. I hated that benefit. It gave me a couple hundred dollars a week, which was okay because for the last nine of those ten years I was living with family with a reduced board and food in the cupboards, but I wasn’t able to save much and in the back of my mind I knew that moving out would be… problematic, to say the least. But being on a benefit, particularly a sickness benefit when you have an invisible, mental, disability, is soul-destroying. You don’t notice how much ableism is in the media until you look at it from that position in life. I wanted badly to be doing something useful. In school I’d wanted to be a teacher, most likely a high school humanities teacher, and when I was in seventh form I became a peer leader for incoming third formers who only encouraged that desire. “You’d be an awesome teacher,” one of them told me. (This may or may not have been linked to the rain day when I taught them to play poker with plastic counters.) Others confided in me about their problems or asked me for help with homework. Most peer leaders started dropping out after the compulsory program at the start of the year finished; I kept up the relationship that whole year. When the 2002 students strikes hit I ended up teaching a third form Spanish class so the actual teacher could help other staff round up stray kids. The year before when NCEA was introduced, I helped teachers mark unfamiliar papers during free periods or lunch hours. Helping kids grow into knowledgeble, competent adults was a dream.
I don’t remember exactly when I realised it was a dream I’d never manage. I think it might have been the time I attempted to get back into work, attending one of WINZ’s week-long IN2WRK courses, writing my CV (and helping others with theirs, as many of them had never done one before and some didn’t even know how to use a computer) and sending it out to countless retail outlets, food preperation jobs and whatever else I thought I could do. The co-ordinator said I’d be a great secretary, until I told her that my disability makes it difficult for me to use phones – especially with strangers. All of that resulted in an interview at Whitcoulls. I didn’t get the job because of the way I’d left my last ones: in denial, trying to work through panic attacks, once passing out at work, and always moving on to the next job before the old one could fire me. I hadn’t wanted to admit I was sick. I hadn’t wanted to have to go onto a benefit, especially a sickness benefit. During that second attempt at working, I had another small breakdown, and that was probably when I really understood that teaching was far too high-stress a job for me to be able to handle.
Ironically, it was the February 22 earthquake that changed things. It turns out a job that doesn’t have an interview process, that doesn’t look up your previous employers and ask questions about how you parted, a job that is vitally important, a job that distracts you from the utter nightmare your city’s turned into, is really good at motivating you even through illness. That was what the Red Cross offered when it put out a request for hands to do data entry. Which isn’t to say it was perfect – I’m pretty damn certain it only exacerbated my PTSD, and I left work crying far more than once. We didn’t get much training and in fact none at all when the call centre moved to our office. But it was a very situational job, too, and in the end almost all staff were phased out by February 2013. My sister stayed; I didn’t. I’d already gone back to school part time, studying extramurally so I didn’t have to attend classes and only needed to keep track of assignment due dates and final exams. When I left the Red Cross for good I went full time at school, the first time I’d done anything full time since I was 20.
A few months later I was getting off the plane in Wellington. I wanted to get out from the rebuild, the crippled local government, the looming shadow of CERA. I knew a lot of people in Wellington who wouldn’t start conversations by asking how my house was or chat about problems with EQC. I stayed for a few days with two friends, then went to a hostel, then moved into a house. I bought a breadmaker and a computer screen and a panel heater. I went to a couple of tweet ups, got a pass to the zoo, and learned where at least six suburbs were.
Last October or so, I decided I should compound on those successes by getting some real treatment for my pre-existing conditions and the PTSD from the earthquakes. I asked my new doctor for a referral to the DHB psych services, and he said that I would probably be better served by the Phobic Trust, down in Newtown. Nowhere near my house, but in walking distance to the zoo, so after appointments I could settle down by visiting the tiny monkeys. The downside was, it’s expensive. The assessment was about $120, which I put on my credit card and had them fill out paperwork so I could claim it back from WINZ through a special needs grant. I applied for the disability allowance at about $60, which would cover almost half of the $129 a proper appointment costs. And, because things were starting to get pretty tense between me and the third flatmate and it was something that had been suggested several times before, I applied for the supported living payment, which used to be called the invalid’s benefit.
Those forms were all taken to WINZ on December 5. The woman I was dealing with went through each one and had me initial some things I’d crossed out and tick a couple of boxes I’d missed. She double-checked I was allowed to get the SLP while studying. She told me that I had everything I needed. She went to scan everything in, kept some of it, and gave the rest back. She told me I’d hear shortly.
It took two weeks to find out my SLP had been declined.
It took over a month to find out that, in fact, I did not provide enough information for the disability allowance. They have so many different forms it’s almost impossible to know which ones need to be combined.
It’s now been about six weeks of sending emails back and forth, consulting benefit rights advocates, writing letters requesting appeals, and waiting. Always waiting. During those six weeks I think I’ve spent more time crying than I had since I moved here. I’ve considered suicide. I have two plans that I know are workable and plausible. I’ve had to put food on my credit card because I was so low on fruit, or dairy, or meat, I’ve had days in a row where I wasn’t eating because I couldn’t even leave my room knowing anyone else was home, I’ve sat with my phone in my hand trying to ring crisis lines and not able to do so (see aforementioned trouble with phones). I’ve had fleeting fantasies of turning up at the WINZ office and doing… something, god knows what, that would convince them I need help. (Preferably financial, but practically more likely psychiatric or criminal.) I’ve sent long emotional emails to them. I’ve sat on Trademe poring through properties to rent that I’d never be able to afford on my current budget. Right now I’m on the first day of a “1-2 day” extenstion to a history essay I’ve been looking forward to writing for the whole summer semester. I’ve nearly hit the word count, but I can tell it’s mediocre, it’s shallow, it doesn’t explore the things I want it to. I still need to do all the citations. I can hardly look at it.
WINZ is killing me. I don’t know whether or not I mean that literally, but emotionally it’s true. I honestly can’t see beyond a point where I have to drop out of school for the third time. Either I graduate in 2015 and get to find work, or… I don’t know.
Under the current system you can be denied an SLP by someone with no medical training. It might be a nurse, or it might be a social worker or teacher. They don’t have to tell you this and most people don’t know. They’re supposed to tell you you can appeal, but don’t always (they didn’t tell me, but I knew from other sources). If I don’t win the appeal I have a choice of the Student Allowance (for which I must either maintain full-time status or apply for limited full-time) or the Jobseekers Allowance with Medical Capacity Certicate saying I’m unable to look for work – but I won’t be allowed to study, either. Most students receiving the allowance top it up with part time work, something I can’t possibly do, nor can I borrow the living costs component of the Student Loan because the allowance makes me ineligible.
The worst thing is, through all of this I haven’t been able to access any professional emotional support. That specialist I want to see? Yeah, an appointment is literally more than half of my income, and my rent is already at three fifths. It’s impossible. So I’m struggling against a government agency with just my friends to help me, while they don’t even have to pay a doctor to decide I’m not sick enough for a slightly-more-livable income.