All Posts by Chris Whit

Narratives, solutions and disability

How disabled people are represented is really important.  The stories, or narratives, we see about disabled people do a great deal, having the potential to impact on attitudes, thoughts and feelings in relation to impairment, for disabled and non-disabled people alike. Earlier this year I wrote about the contested narratives surrounding the representation of disabled people.

In this blog, I return to this topic with an updated theory, with reference to recent events.  I believe there is a battle going on at present to shape how we think about disability and.  The results of this battle, and how we choose to negotiate it, will have a critical impact on the lives and prospects of (and for) disabled people.

Policies

Recent events serve as a microcosm of this battle and the associated conflicts.  This month, the Department of Work and Pensions are holding a month of events to celebrate the value that disabled people bring to the workforce, via its much promoted Disability Confident scheme.  On the face of it, all appears positive.    The battle continues when a narrative is presented and projected.  The Sun reported that disabled people were getting jobs in record numbers because of the scheme.  A news search reveals a wave of events to promote the scheme and a variety of positive headlines.

However, scratch a little deeper and it all gets a bit more complicated.  In short, all is not as rosy as it would appear.  An indication of this comes via Work and Pensions Select Committee Report on sanctions.  This report found that sanctions, which are deductions from benefits paid to claimants, were ‘harmful and counterproductive’ for disabled people.  There appears to be a yawning gap between the policy rhetoric and the policy reality.  On the one hand, disabled people are being celebrated, whilst simultaneously subject to harmful measures.

Further evidence comes from a recent house of commons research paper.  This shows that the difference between the employment rates of those with impairments and those without is over 30%. The ‘disability employment gap’ remains a huge one.

Polls and Solutions

A further frontier of this battle is social media.  The disability community can be vocal about its struggles here, particularly in terms of disability benefits and welfare reform.  I too have been open about the difficulties I have encountered as a result of the PIP process.  It is here, on media platforms, where narratives are constructed.

I ran two twitter polls to ask people, if based on their personal, professional or voluntary experience, life was getting easier, harder or remaining the same.  Clearly there are limitations with Twitter polls, particularly as you can’t verify the respondents or ask them about the reasons for their answers.

What was clear from the polls was that both sets of respondents were of the view that life was getting harder and by some margin (70% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people.)

Stating the problems is in one sense the easy bit. This is where moving away from the battles needs to happen.  Towards solutions.  It is finding the solutions that is critical to moving everyone forward. This is where there is a need for an inclusive dialogue about how best to move forward, which involves disabled people in a meaningful way.

That is the problem with narratives.  They don’t always either a) tell the complete story and b) allow for stories to be told in a nuanced way.  Having narratives effectively serves to obscure and amplify problems by the creation of false positions and often dichotomies (e.g. deserving v undeserving.). The power of narratives lies in their ability to enhance understanding – by opening up our capacity and space to communicate with each other.  We need to do this more so than ever before, by recognising what can unite us and not divide us, in a way that respects our differences and celebrates them.

What is needed in my view is a greater focus on solutions and a greater emphasis on understanding.  Perhaps taking the politics out of things will help too.  Call me hopelessly idealistic if you like, but I think people’s lives are too important to be ‘spun.’

In short, what we need is not battles and polarised narratives, but solutions as to how to make life better. For everyone.

The Final Straw

In this blog, I focus in on current developments around the proposed ban on plastic drinking straws.  I look at this both as an issue in its own right and relate it to wider, more general matters.  In summary, I think the straw ban illustrates how the needs of disabled people are increasingly marginalised, and how this can be responded to.

Without being able to effectively convey their views using the right channels, hooks and levers, there is a risk that the views of disabled people will continue to be marginalised in policy making.

Why it isn’t ‘just a straw’

Simply put, straws are an essential for a lot of people.  My wife is one of those people. Without a straw she cannot drink at all for any purpose from the every day cup of coffee to when she needs to take tablets. Such is the importance of the straw that the availability of them (or otherwise!) has been known to fundamentally alter plans. Now I never leave home without them!

On occasions, we have been supplied with non plastic straws, especially paper ones. The paper ones in particular have almost with exception been very poor substitutes. I often think that people who suggest using them have never had to actually do so themselves.  There are other options, such as reusable straws, which have not proved to be hygienic or practical (using a public sink to rinse them out is not fun!) or comparatively very expensive and themselves impractical (see bamboo straws and metal straws.)

It frustrates me when people refer to them as ‘just’ straws.  Imagine going to a restaurant to be told you had to bring your own cutlery.  Its inconvenient and another barrier to accessing an environment which can already be difficult enough in and of itself.  For me, it is a further example of how medical model based thinking is increasingly reestablishing itself as the default position.  You have an impairment, and it is down to you to provide the solution.  This is a regressive position in my view.

Symbolism

There are also broader symbolic aspects to how the straw issue feels as everyday matter.  ‘You can just ask for a straw the conversation goes.  Of course you can, but it is how it feels to experience that which it is important to grasp.  To ask for a straw after having to ask for help to get into premises, a lower level of or a specific type of seating and/or booking may just be one step too far.

Feeling multiple layers of self consciousness due to the adaptations needed to an environment is not fun – and can deter you from wanting to bother from venturing into places in its own right.  Asking for a straw is like placing the final one on the camel back in some situations, and those layers of complexity and difficulty can lead to not wanting to bother to access the environment in the first place.  Elsewhere I have referred to this as the ‘war behind the door‘ and that struggle is a very real one!

Straws and the policy making process

I see the straw issue as being reflective of a more general set of issues about the policy making process in general, and how the views and interests of disabled people are represented.  Or more to the point, about how they are not.

On the impact assessment of the proposed ban on plastic straws the impact on the people who need to use straws is given minimal reference.  A medical exemption is proposed for those who need to use straws for ‘accessibility needs.’  The consultation continues as follows:

‘It is proposed to provide for these exemptions by allowing wholesalers to import and stock plastic straws for distribution to, pharmacies and pharmacy departments in both hospitals and retailers for supply to those that need them. We will be seeking views on whether online pharmacies should be allowed to supply plastic straws. It is also proposed that we allow catering establishments such as pubs and restaurants to provide plastic straws to customers on a specific ‘on demand’ basis.’

The framing of this exception is both interesting and problematic.  Defining the problem in medical terms means that disabled people will potentially need to have a prescription to buy their straws!  For me there is also a reductive element to this framing, neglecting the wider social aspects to these issues.  There is also a ‘slippery slope’ aspect to framing such as this I think in that disabled people are cast not as autonomous beings, but merely as patients to be dealt with in medicalised terms.

There is also an accessibility issue here.  To be able to respond to, engage with and correct such views, disabled people and the organisations that work with them have to be able to engage with the policy making process to make their views heard.  This may be difficult and daunting for many, and raises a need for training in how to work with policy making processes such as this one to ensure views are heard.

There are many layers to the important debates around the straw ban, which go far beyond face value.

Notes from a hostile environment


I write this reflecting on a range of recent events, some personal, others more general to me.  I first came across the term hostile environment in relation to immigration policy.  An informative publication from Liberty outlines the sites where this hostile environment is in operation, ranging from education to employment to housing.  Of this, the guide says:

De facto hostile environment policies, designed to limit migrants’ rights and deter them from accessing services, have operated for decades

As I’m reading this I nod.  I nod because I think that increasingly the ‘hostile environment’ applies to disabled people.  It applies to disabled people who are denied education at an increasingly earlier stages of their lives.  It applies to the awful Bedroom Tax, which denies disabled people the space they need to store their essential possessions and forces them into unsuitable property.

The disability employment gap continues to yawn away, obscured by technical arguments about statistics.  Whatever the measure used, the fact is that people with an impairment do not fare as well as those without one in the workplace, and this has been the case for years.  As if to prove the point, Inclusion London have today released some research showing that disabled people are being pushed away from the workplace by the operation of the benefit system.

Which brings us to benefits, including PIP and Universal Credit.  Regular readers of this blog will know my thoughts well on the former.  On the latter, figures have emerged suggesting that people will lose up to £200 a month.

Yet still the hostile environment is allowed to continue.  The front pages dominated by Brexit and the antics of someone whose name I don’t even know in Strictly Come Dancing.  Every morning it seems, I read the newspaper headlines and shake my head.

Closer to home, I had to go to a hospital appointment with my wife last week. Without me she was greeted with comments such as ‘Where is your carer?’ With me, she was taken seriously and given time to have her questions answered by someone who actually made eye contact and shook her hand.

There are people who are out there who are making a difference, who are highlighting the issues, whose work I applaud and from which I draw strength. Much more of this is needed.  Much, much more.  Then there is also the notoriously fractious disability community, for whom consensus on the key issues seems to be illusive, to the detriment of so many.

The charges are too easy to sweep away.  A particularly pernicious feature of the hostile environment is its stealthy and subtle nature, its creeping norms steadily chipping away.  It also has a teflon like quality, armoured with an ability to swiftly and confidently dispel any critiques, stubborn enough to resist even the sternest of critiques.

So where are the solutions?  Unusually dear reader, I am not so sure at this point in time.  Something has to change though, and some new responses are needed which are effective in highlighting the numerous manifestations of this hostile environment.

Let us hope some counter measures can be swiftly deployed, and that the responses are forthcoming.  I’m tired of shaking my head.

PIP Journal- An Update

Dear Reader,

Hello!  I hope this finds you well.  I just wanted to give you a quick update on the PIP Journal as it has been a while and a few of you have asked me about this and where it has got to. To give some context, I wanted to do the best job with this I could, albeit on a budget of zero and a limited amount of time!  To that end, it was really important to me to have a draft of the journal put through its paces.

In order to do that, I reached out to a few of the great people I know to get a range of feedback, from the more technical to the views of those who this journal is aimed at.  It was really important to me to get a range of viewpoints so that the design of this journal could be as inclusive and as useful as it could be.  Though I cannot name the individuals at this stage (with their permission I will later!) I have feedback from:

  • Two disability experts
  • A disability focus group
  • A housing association and a range of staff

I’m pleased to say that the feedback was very positive and also reassuring across the board.  The people who I sent this to also made a range of suggestions and observations about improvements which will be incorporated into the revised draft which will be ready for release soon.

My next step will be to work on a draft for general publication as a working draft, which will have a more general consultation window.  This consultation window is designed for people who are using the journal to be able to give feedback on how they have found it and to suggest improvements.  I’m really keen that this is a journal that should be designed with disabled people at its heart, and their needs at the forefront.

I am also trying to write the journal in a style which combats the worst parts of the form. The below is an example of this in relation to toilet needs:

An extract from the PIP journal in relation to toilet needs

My hope is that through injecting some warmth into the journal it will make the form in particular a little more accessible and address what I think is one of the hidden barriers in the process in the way in which information like this is asked to be disclosed. 

Finally, a thanks, for your patience, interest and good will!  What this endeavour lacks in resources it is more than made up for the abundance of encouragement I’ve received, and I hope that by working together we can come up with an end product that will make a positive difference.

If you would like a copy of the journal to be emailed to you when it is released, please complete the following form:

Talking with my inner critic

As I pause to write this blog, I’m in two minds.  I know precisely what I don’t want it to be, which is the flip side to what I normally feel when I write a blog.  My inner critic is saying ‘you don’t want to write this blog, it’ll be rubbish and nobody will read it..’ and so it goes on.

I’ve written previously about my depression, because I believe that being open about mental health issues is a good thing, and that any remaining taboo around them frankly is in need of decimating in the swiftest way possible!  I think one of the impacts of this for me is that there is no real ‘cure’ as such, I have just got better at recognising the signs and deploying the constructive coping mechanisms that I have.  I quite often have to switch off, as overthinking is one of my favourite things to do (if you sort that one, then please do let me know!!!)

So a couple of weeks ago I had a real dip, began to really doubt myself.  I also think one of the skills I have developed is to distinguish between the ebbs and flows of every day life, where it is perfectly natural for my mood to fluctuate (often on a Saturday afternoon at about 5pm after my beloved Sheffield Wednesday have invariably lost) and what might be a bit more of something to keep an eye on.

When it is the latter, that inner critic of mine really gets going.  Though I can only speak from my personal experience, I think its particularly easy for the inner critic to speak up where my impairment is concerned. When you have the mind of a 35 year old, and the body of a pensioner, often the brain is willing, but the body is not.  The flip side of this is that I’ve become particularly adept at solving problems and finding solutions to this, even if its just not straying far from bed at the weekend.

The trouble with my inner critic is this: It is exhausting! When I was 21, I was lucky enough to get into Cambridge.  There was a myth that was particularly prevalent there (and to be fair, in lots of other places too probably!) which we called the ‘imposter syndrome.’  Someone would come up, tap you on the shoulder, and let you know that there had been some terrible administrative mistake, and you shouldn’t be here after all.

I took my imposter syndrome with me, and have only really got to grips with it a few years ago.  I had told myself for a long time that when I got my PhD, I would have all the validation I needed.  Truth is, it was only after then that I had a bit of a eureka moment and found that my certificate didn’t in fact come with a gold plated key to wisdom.  True validation was something that had to come from within and that I had to train myself and work on.

Which brings me back to a few days ago.  My inner critic wouldn’t shut up, and I knew I had to change things a bit.  My standards are infinitely high dear reader.  This is no bad thing, but I needed to change my approach.  I needed to be more compassionate with myself.  I needed to start to re-recognise the good things.  To take time to be grateful for them again rather than taking them for granted.

So I started each day with a list of the positives and ignored the inner critic.  I close each day with listing the things that had gone well, that I had to be grateful for, and which I was looking forward to tomorrow.  The inner critic is still there, and probably always will be, and has its place.  I need to use it to drive me on to better things, rather than coming up with reasons to help me stop from even attempting them.  It’s definitely a work in progress, but one that I feel better for having started 🙂 My questions for the day are now as follows:

  • Morning: What have you got to be thankful for.  List at least 3 things if you can
  • Through the day: Notice your ‘wins’ – what have you accomplished?  Write those things down and tick them off!
  • At the end: Think about what you have worked on – and what has been developed. What have you achieved? List at least 3

Still the trepidation as I hover over the publish button for this post.  As you read this, you know that my inner critic has taken a back seat on this one.

I offer this blog to everyone else with an inner critic that needs to be put in its place from time to time.  It can be done 🙂

The PIP Journal – A draft

Well its taken longer than I’d like, but better later than never hey.  I’ve been working on the draft of the PIP Journal for a while and I’ve given it to Fran, who is great at designing things and making things like this come to life.  I need to emphasise that this is very much a work in progress, and I have paused deliberately at this point to get feedback from the people who matter most, the people who hopefully will be using it!

The journal is designed to guide people through the PIP process in a supportive way, particularly with reference to the form and completing it in a focussed and relevant way. Samples of the draft content are as follows, just click on each image to view it in more detail:

The next stage for me is to get feedback on the full draft over the next few days, using a few people who have been generous (or brave!) enough to give me comments on this.  I will then look to publish the full draft, along with a full plain text version.

If you have feedback based on the above images, please use the following form to give your thoughts, and thank you in advance for your views.  I might not be able to include all of the feedback in the final version, but will read all the comments I get carefully.

Thank you for your continued interest in the project 🙂

1 The PIP Process: The Journal

Hello dear reader.  Something I have always tried to do is to take positives from difficult situations.  Its one of the things that, at risk of sounding very old indeed, has got me where I am today.  So I have been reflecting on my experiences of the PIP process, and how best I can make a constructive contribution.  The feedback on my blogs has been very kind, but that doesn’t seem enough..I still feel the need to make a tangible contribution.

This particular idea has been inspired by Fran, who has been working really hard on producing journals of her own.  ‘Why not do a guided journal for the PIP process?’ she said to me one evening, and that really hit home with me in a good way.  Having done some research on it, there are lots of great guides produced by organisations, which this journal can refer to, but it struck me that there was something missing.

This something was a bit of a first hand perspective, and a guide that could effectively function as a bit of a companion to the PIP process, trying to break it down, and to help people record information on the form in particular, that was relevant when it came to completing the application form.  The application is long and complicated, but if broken down, can seem a lot more manageable.

So this is what I am working on.  Since talking about it on twitter over the past couple of days, this project has already taken on a life of its own, so I hope that it will be helpful when it comes to other people who have to go through the process.  I know that from my own experience, a voice of someone who had been through it and got to the other side was really useful, and I want to capture that.

I’m also looking to test early drafts and get feedback from people, so that this is something which hopefully hits the mark.  I’m trying to set up a bit of an informal testing group so that we can explore things together.  This project is a bit of a personal venture, so I won’t be looking to formally partner with any organisations to do it, and my intention is to make the product free of charge so it is accessible.  Unfortunately, this means I also can’t pay anyone for the time they take to feed in their views, but I am hoping that the promise of a useful product is enough.  What I will do is set up a mailing list, so that I can keep people posted about any updates

I’m not in a position to comment on timescales at the moment, as I’m concentrating on trying to get a decent journal out in an efficient timescale, as well as juggling a few hats in life (don’t we all!). The standard disclaimer applies, this is a purely personal project unconnected to any of those other hats, and the views expressed within it will be purely my own, but then you knew that already, yeah?

If you’d like any further information, please send me an email via the contact me page, and I’ll do my best to get back to you as soon as I can 🙂

6 The PIP Process: Part 6 – The verdict 

So after my assessment I have had a wait which has felt like forever. Thanks to the enduring support of people from Twitter, I knew roughly what range of wait there was to expect. It still felt like an endless one though, and I’ve got off lightly compared to some.

Recovery time was needed from an assessment which left me feeling fragile and insecure. I still do to a certain extent, which is part of the legacy of the PIP process which there isn’t really any formal mechanism for dealing with. The assessor leaves, with yourselves and those around you left to pick up the pieces.

For ages now Fran has been intercepting the post. We knew that the arrival of the verdict was fairly imminent as a couple of weeks previously, we’d had what seemed like an utterly pointless letter telling us that they now had enough information to make a decision. Given the assessment I’d experienced I wasn’t surprised about this, but I was also relieved.

I was in the shower when Fran banged on the door. ‘It’s here, and it’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok!’ We were both in tears. I had got a result that was consistent with my DLA, and a long period of review. It was an outcome that I thought was fair, and I wouldn’t need to go to appeal, which I was very surprised about, as that’s what I was expecting all along.

There was a mixture of emotions. There was relief. There was reassurance that things were as I saw them and felt they should be. There was also a lot of guilt. A kind of survivors guilt. This is something I’m still experiencing. I feel so bad for those whose outcomes were not what they want them to be. I feel bad for the continued waiting that they are going through.

So whilst my own process is over in the short term (that is unless the goalposts are moved again as with DLA!) I am determined to keep raising awareness about the nature of the process.

For me, the right outcome has been reached, but by means which are totally wrong. The process is a damaging, inaccessible and costly one, which is still not fit for purpose. That a just outcome was reached in my case does not change my view on this. If anything, it reinforces my view, given the extensive process that I have experienced, and the extensive extra support (both practical and psychological) that I have needed to complete the process.

My own next steps are to use my experiences to hopefully help others in a personal capacity. As I write this, I’m fortunate enough to be going on holiday for a few days. When I return, I’ll do so with some further reflections and practical suggestions.

2 The PIP Process: Part 5: The Assessment

Hello Dear Reader.

I had my PIP assessment on Friday (8 June 2018) and it is a day that will remain in the memory for a long time.  In writing this post, I must make 2 things explicitly clear:

 

  • That, as with all my blogs, the views I express here are purely personal ones (and not those of anyone else)

 

  • The following comments are based on my memories of the assessment, and of written notes taken at the time of the assessment, only. As a consequence of recording the assessment, I had to sign an agreement that states I can only make use of this for personal reasons.

Some context

Its fair to say that the process so far has been a long, difficult and stressful one.  The prospect of the assessment provoked real fear and anxiety, so much so that I had asked for it to take place in my home, to give me a degree of extra comfort from being in a familiar environment that I knew was accessible to me.  Whilst not being thrilled at having the assessment take place in my home, which is a private space, it represented a preferable option to attending an assessment centre.

A false start

I was startled by a very loud set of bangs on my door on Monday. Worried that there was something wrong, and not expecting any visitors, I made it to the door.  I opened it and was greeted by “Hi, I am [assessor name] and i’m here to do your PIP assessment!”  I was amazed and shocked in equal measure.  I hadn’t been given any notice of this by any means.  I had not had the time to prepare for the assessment and I was on my own.  I explained that this must be a mistake as I hadn’t been given any notice, and the assessor suggested that they could come back at another time.

I then phoned the DWP to explain what had happened, who in turn said to call Independent Assessment Centres (from what I can gather this is a new name for what used to be ATOS healthcare) and explain.  They explained that this had indeed been an innocent mistake, and the assessor had got their diaries mixed up.  They were due to come on Friday instead.  The letter confirming this arrived 2 hours after the assessor had first been at my door.

Second time around

Friday rolled around.  The assessment was due to be between 10 and 12.  I waited in the front room from 0930.  I felt sick and had been unable to eat since the Thursday afternoon.  After an agonising 2 hour wait that felt like 2 years, the same assessor arrived.  I was terrified. Would it be as bad as all the horror stories I had heard, or would I be fortunate enough to get one of the nice assessors that I heard were out there?

I was literally shaking with fear for the first half hour of the assessment, and wasn’t able to make eye contact at first.  This improved a little later.  I sat in the chair as rigid as a block of ice, my body tensed up with fear throughout.

I had a companion with me, who was able to take contemporaneous notes of the assessment, as well as supervising the tape recording onto the old 30 minute tapes and identical tape recorders that had been purchased especially.

The assessment began with a social history, which seemed to take forever.  Reading through the notes, I had to give a complete educational history from the age of 2, which as I’m now 35, didn’t really seem relevant.  After all that, we went through the sections of the form.  I literally had the form in front of me to assist me.  I was also asked how the form was filled out, and when I replied with the help of the CAB, was asked why this was.  As previously documented, the form isn’t an accessible one.

Feeling cross examined

The pace of the questions was relentless.  So much so that I asked the assessor to slow down to give me time to process the question being asked!  I also had to make it clear when I wanted extra bits to be added in.  Not easy when you are shaking with fear.

The nearest description I can get to the assessment is one of a mix of cross examination and my PhD viva.  Having completed the written exam, I was now doing the oral component.  It felt like every aspect of my life was examined.  The long, 40 page form was a mere starting point.  We literally went through the form section by section, bit by bit, examining each part in forensic detail.  Great care was needed, as there were more than a few leading questions that I had to correct to try and ensure the assessor was able to get an accurate picture of my impairment and the impact it had day to day.

There were also odd questions. Questions about hobbies, and weight and sleep.  Tricky questions were asked too.  One question in particular was about how far I could walk and the range of distances.  I could walk the lower distance, but not without pain, not repeatedly, or without a rest, or safely.

I was asked how long everything took.  I had to give approximate timings for everything. I had to account for my movements, how the house was adapted, what a bad day looked like, what a more ‘normal’ day looked like. I had to go into a lot of detail about my mental health. About how I showered and how I washed.  About how I went to the toilet, and cleaned myself up afterwards.

Whilst I appreciate some of this detail was needed, I felt much of it wasn’t, and bore no obvious relationship to my life.  It felt intrusive and demeaning at times.  I wasn’t expecting the amount of detail, so had to check that the person who had attended with me was ok afterwards.  Hearing about everything ranging from my darkest mental health days to how I went to the toilet wasnt what I expected.

Questions were also asked repeatedly, using basically the same question in different ways in different parts of the assessment.  The assessment as a whole took about an hour and a half, concluding with a muscle based assessment.

An assessment of the assessment

Using the notes that were taken and the recollections of the assessment, I reviewed it with someone that I trusted, as I needed to get another take on it. They said they were shocked at what they considered to be an aggressive, intrusive assessment, which they felt was designed to catch me out and trip me up.  This verdict was consistent with the anecdotal stories I had heard, and some of those published in official reports on PIP.

What did strike me was what a profoundly negative impact the assessment had.  I have previously described PIP as a passport to dark places.  The assessment took me lower than that and then some.  It was a reminder of everything I couldn’t do.  I felt on trial and under suspicion.  It will take me some time to get over.

What next?

The assessor didn’t give any indication of what the report might contain.  In any event, the final decision isn’t taken by them, but by a case manager who reviews the report and any other evidence gathered.  I will be notified of the outcome in 4 to 8 weeks.

The wider story

At this point I am reminded about how lucky I am to have had the education I have, and to have a reasonable amount about me to cope with the process.  And yet it was a struggle.  As with the form, a struggle for an Oxbridge graduate with a PhD.  If I found the assessment this challenging, what of others?  How is the assessment made accessible for those who struggle with such processes?

I am left with the feeling that there must be a better way.  Thank you for reading.

4 The PIP Process – Part 4: A passport to dark places

I catch myself with my fingers hovering over the keyboard once more.  Why? Because I have chosen to write not only about PIP again but with a particular emphasis on its adverse impacts on my mental health.  To put this into some context, blogging isn’t an easy thing to do. Particularly when writing about things of a personal nature, and especially when those things are sensitive. I love writing.  Sometimes though, when it is just you and a blank page looking at you, cursor flashing away, it can feel daunting.

A health warning

A bit of a health warning here.  This blog might not be an easy read.  If you’d rather not go beyond here, I totally understand and have been there myself.  Be compassionate with yourself and don’t read on.  If you feel able to, then feel free to carry on.

Some context: My own lived experience with mental health

Though I have written on my mental health before, it still is a tricky one.  That I am gingerly putting pen to paper now is a tribute to my courageous wife.  I told her that I was thinking about writing on this topic and was worried about it, because of the stigma that, unfortunately, still surrounds mental health.  She smiled at me and said ‘but Chris, it is for that reason why you should write it!’ So here we are!

In terms of my mental health, I have lived with depression and anxiety for several years.  I have had a couple of very difficult periods with it, and have been on antidepressants for over a five-year period.  During my first period of difficulty, whilst I was writing my PhD, one of the perverse benefits of being in a particularly dark place is that I had lots of help, for which I thank my lucky stars.  I don’t think I’d be so fortunate now.  I had two years with a brilliant therapist, who was able to give me the tools to unpick a lot of things, re-examine some core beliefs, offer a good bit of challenge along the way.  I had chosen to make life difficult for myself, as, probably due to my own lack of self compassion and regard, I refused to take anti depressants.  Those health information leaflets have a lot to answer for.

My personal take (and no, I’m not a clinician, so feel free to disagree) is that once you have had depression and anxiety, it stays with you.  It’s the ability to manage the symptoms which matters.  It is things like PIP that pose a challenge to the coping strategies I have developed, particularly as a result of what the process requires.

PIP as a passport to dark places

Let me be completely clear on this.  I’ve done many difficult things and successfully negotiated them.  PIP is right up there.  It has probably been harder to complete than my Masters from Cambridge, and could yet rival my PhD depending on how things go.  I have no doubt from my experience thus far (and its the early days!) that the way the process is designed is deliberately so in order to put people off from applying.  It is deliberately inaccessible, and one of the most technically complex processes I have experienced to date.

Due to its unflinchingly personal and clinical approach, the PIP process is also a great passport to dark places.  I understand that it is important to have an overview of how my impairment(s) impact on my life.  It is the way the process goes about them that isn’t right.  I have previously described PIP as an exam on everything I can’t do.  The consequence of sitting that exam is that you are left with a reminder of exactly how disabled you are and how difficult life is.  You question yourself.  You arrive at the realisation that a so called ‘good day’ is one which is marginally less difficult, and a ‘bad day’ is when you can’t get out of bed, except to struggle to the toilet.

When embarking on, and enduring the process, it feels like being Humpty Dumpty.  You have a great fall, and nobody else can put you back together.  That is left to you.   To date, I haven’t experienced any measure that is there to make the process a little less uncomfortable to complete, a little bit more human.  It remains to be seen whether any such measures exist.

Then there is the waiting.  My form has been gone a week, after being sat in my car boot for two.  Only the rapidly approaching deadline forced me to take action, and that consisted of me asking someone else to post it for me.  Every day now I dread what the post brings, which I am sure will be a call to an assessment process that I expect will be every bit as bad as the form.  That waiting, though an inevitable part of the process, only adds to the difficulty.

I should add at this point that I am lucky to have a great support system and am nearing the completion of a two-year counselling course that has been immensely helpful in allowing me to both contend with and contextualize the process.  In fairness, I do over think things (its one of the things that my anxiety specialises in!) but I wonder how anyone without access to that support gets on with the process.

I have said it before, and i’ll say it again…surely there has to be a better way to conduct a process than this one?

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