In the beginning...
"Oh, I think we'll be able to save your house," he said. His tone implied that it would merely be a matter of lifting a finger. One word from Nick and the job would be done.
Nick and his friends at Mind must be wizards of great power! How fortunate I was to have fallen in with them! They would save my house! It seemed rude to ask just how they intended to do it. Besides, I had nothing else to believe in, so I allowed myself to enjoy the moment. Questions would have spoiled everything.
If you become ill, my own experience had shown me, the Department for Work and Pensions will, reluctantly and grudgingly, pay you barely enough to sustain life in a bedsit. No, that's far too optimistic. In a cupboard in a bedsit. You can also, with great difficulty, get a little money towards your mortgage interest. Not enough to notice, but a little. It seemed extraordinarily unlikely that anybody could keep my rapidly sinking ship afloat with such weak and ineffective pumps. You might as well have tried to bail out the Titanic with a bucket.
Of course, the wizards wouldn't perform their magic for me without checking first that I wasn't a warlock or an elf. I had to be referred and allocated and, for all I know, reversed and dislocated, and many other important things. Maybe there would be sky-blue thinking, a crocus group and things done on the outside of a box. Maybe there would be the sacrifice of a goat. Who was I to question their wizardly ways?
Meanwhile, I had nothing to eat. Nick rather spoiled things by suggesting that I contact the Salvation Army to ask for a food parcel but I had to remind myself that the magic hadn't started yet. I applied to my brothers instead. I wasn't sure whether they would have referral procedures and a waiting list but it turned out that they didn't. They brought me some food.
My life was suddenly full of strange names and acronyms that I, a muggle, had little chance of caring about. Mind, the mental health charity, I knew about, but apparently the sorcerers of true power lived at SIGNS, which was also Mind, only not. In the meantime my case would be handled by the Gateway agency who were, for reasons known only to themselves, called Gwalia. I wondered whether I should join in and become COGN (Client of Great Need and also the first four letters of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) but it didn't seem to be required.
The sighs of a mouse
Perhaps you're wondering why somebody as intelligent, resourceful, literate, handsome and all-round wonderful as me would need any help in the first place. It's a fair question. The one-word answer is: depression.
I imagine that, to most people, the word depression conjures up images of somebody who is down in the dumps and in need of cheering up. Eeyore, perhaps. That's the way the word is used in everyday conversation. I should get out more, meet new people, do a bit of bungee jumping, max out my credit card, get a tattoo, buy a cat, swim with dolphins, have an affaire with a dusky maiden - that would fix me up.
As a medical condition, depression means something quite different. Low spirits are part of it but the catch is that none of the things that anybody else might see as happiness-making make any difference at all. Nothing whatsoever has any effect. And, because nothing has any effect, you lose the will to do anything. If watching your toenails grow is every bit as interesting as watching TV, why put in the effort to pick up the remote?
I'm not going to say much more because those who haven't experienced it will think I'm exaggerating and those who have experienced it will know I'm not telling the half of it. In my case it isn't something that will pass or that can be fixed. I'm stuck with it and it gets worse all the time.
My greatest fear is that I will be institutionalised. At the moment I can still go shopping when lack of food or (more likely) cigarettes drives me from the house, although I'll roll up dog ends first to delay the evil moment. When I say I don't want to do something, I don't mean it in the sense of I don't want to mow the lawn, I'd rather do something else instead, I mean I don't want to put my head in the microwave oven and turn it on. I positively find the whole notion of doing anything distasteful, ugly and depressing. Things like putting my socks on, for instance. I'll do it when I have no alternative.
I don't answer the phone unless I am expecting a call
I don't answer the door unless I am expecting a visitor
I sometimes get mildly confused and forgetful
I sleep most of the time and very quickly become exhausted in the few hours each day that I'm awake.
As I write this I am expecting a visit from my brother, Leigh. He is bringing me a car to replace my old one that just failed its MOT. I'm going to see my brother who I haven't seen for months! He's bringing me a car!
I wish he'd stay away and leave me in peace.
A fairy brings food
A couple of weeks later, Lisa of Gwalia turned up. Lisa was no wizard, barely a fairy, but she did bring some food, a guaranteed way to win my heart and stomach at the time. It turned out to be the sort of stuff you poured boiling water on, then wished you hadn't. Even Oliver Twist would have thought twice about asking for more. But it staved off the hunger pangs.
I had been having difficulties with the DWP. They paid me a few pounds when I first applied for benefits, then demanded that I go to Newport to see a special DWP doctor who would confirm that I really was ill. In their view, my own doctor wasn't competent to make such judgments. I said I was too ill to go to Newport. The DWP telephone girl said I would have to go to Newport to explain why I was too ill to go to Newport. If I went and the special DWP doctor agreed that I was too ill to go, they would pretend I'd never been. If I didn't go, a decison maker would cut off my benefits.
A decision maker! Not, I fancy, a High Court judge, but one of a roomful of minor DWP employees charged with finding excuses to deny benefits to the ill to save money for that nice Mr. Cameron.
In these situations there is a lot to be said for having a third party intervene on your behalf. Government agencies will do many things when they think nobody is looking that they wouldn't want other people to know about. It was now June and I hadn't had any money since February. When Lisa called the DWP, they suddenly changed their story. The reason my benefits had stopped, they said, was that I hadn't provided them with sick notes. They hadn't said they wanted any, but it was my responsibility to know that they did, to know where to send them, and to know how often to send them.
It all makes perfect sense. If somebody has lost a leg, how can the DWP be sure, unless they have monthly confirmation from a doctor, that it hasn't grown back again? It is all completely reasonable and a wise and prudent precaution against leg fraud. It wastes doctors' time, but doctors don't work for the DWP and have an entirely separate budget. For the DWP there is no downside. A cynic might say that the DWP is just trying to make it as troublesome as possible to claim in the hope that people will give up and die, but do we listen to cynics? We do not.
Life among the pygmies
When you are in difficulties there is never any shortage of people anxious to take advantage of it. Halifax bank was charging me £10 a day for an overdraft that consisted almost entirely of the £10 a day they were charging me. In the letter they sent me to explain how the theft was entirely reasonable, they said that in some circumstances they would waive the charges. They were careful not to say what those circumstances were. I wrote to ask them if they would waive the charges in my case. They ignored my letter. I can only assume that my circumstances were not the right ones. I imagine the right circumstances would be having your case taken up by a TV program, being able to publish details of their activities in a popular blog, or having powerful friends.
Now I had powerful friends: the Wizards of Gwalia. On her second visit, Lisa took away my bills and bank statements. I wasn't sad to see them go. I hoped she'd give them to the wizards. I still had no money but Lisa had brought me a few food items. I looked into the bag and saw my future.
I went to the doctor to get a sick note. I'd never had anything to do with sick notes before. I wasn't one of the sick note classes. Maybe everybody has them these days? If a cabinet minister falls ill I expect that, on his return to work, he presents Mr. Cameron with a note from his doctor. Does Clegg give his sick notes to Cameron, I wonder, or directly to the Queen? I told the doc that I was having a crash course in pygmy culture. She was sympathetic.
The fairies behave mysteriously
My faith in the Wizards of Gwalia was shaken when Lisa sent me an email asking how much I wanted to pay each month for my mortgage arrears and bills. How much did I want to lose from an income that, even if I lived the most frugal existence imaginable, couldn't even keep up with my current fixed costs? None much, that's how much. I told her so. It patently wasn't the right answer.
Lisa came to my house with another fairy in tow. I tried to explain my concerns. The fairy folk gawped at me blankly. I wondered if I had suddenly started talking Chinese. Maybe I should phone the local Chinese restaurant to check. But what if I was speaking Mandarin and they only spoke Cantonese? It was a problem.
My point was this: I hadn't paid any bills since the money stopped arriving. A strange coincidence, spooky even, but that's what had happened. If the money I was due to receive for the past five months didn't cover the bills for the same period, it meant that the money was flowing out faster than it was coming in. My ship was certain to sink. If I had monthly payments for old bills to make on top of the new bills that were arriving, my ship would sink all the faster.
It was even worse than that, of course. If my entire income, and more, was taken up paying bills, what would I eat? Human beings, even Chinese ones, need food. It was time for the Wizards of Gwalia to come clean. How did they intend to save my house? The fairies patently had no idea.
The second fairy had some good advice. "You have to budget," she said. Budget! Was she joking or was she brain-dead? Did she mean I should write everything down and do a few simple sums? If the discrepancy had been a few pounds a week, maybe there would have been some point to it, but when your income is a third of your outgoings, no amount of saving a few pounds here and there will fix the situation. But she had the evangelical conviction of a fairy who's done a two-day course. She'd been trained. You can't argue with training. In the fairy's opinion, if it wasn't the right answer, she wouldn't have been taught it.
I said that, rather than diminish my pitiful income still further, I would like to pay off as many of the bills as possible with the lump sum I was due from the DWP. Even that proposition caused consternation and distress to the fairies.
"I can't work with you any more," said Lisa.
The fairies fluttered out, bristling with indignation.
I solve the mystery
I asked Leigh, one of my brothers, whether anything I'd said was difficult to understand. He said it wasn't, but then he's a financial controller and doesn't find things like that at all difficult. I'd go so far as to say that he finds them very easy and too obvious to mention. Whatever caused the fairy folk to flutter about, it certainly wasn't my statements made in plain, simple Chinese.
I finally discovered the answer when I spoke to somebody who was used to dealing with Gwalians. "They think you're not engaging with the process," she said. Suddenly it all became clear. The fairies didn't think that my preferred solution would have a bad outcome. They knew nothing of outcomes. What they did know was procedures. This is the recipe you follow, and you follow it to the letter. You follow it regardless of the availability of ingredients, or what kind of oven it will be cooked in, or the food preferences of those who will eat it. It isn't just one of many ways to make a pie, it's the way to make a pie.
Imagine the life of a Gwalian fairy. Most of your time would be spent amongst the illiterate and innumerate. By comparison you'd soon come to think of yourself as an expert, if not a wizard. The last thing you'd want or expect is one of your clients asking questions. Your clients would simply do as they were told or be written off as disruptive.
Therein lies the difference between a fairy and a wizard. A wizard would have broad and generalised knowledge and be perfectly secure in his understanding of the world. He would expect questions, since he would most certainly get them from his own kind and, if the roles were reversed, would ask them himself. A fairy, on the other hand, would have only context-tied knowledge, and little enough of that, and seethe with indignation if anybody wanted to discuss her 'right answers'.
This is the response I might have expected from a wizard.
"Footsie, you are what we in the trade call stuffed. You are so done up that you might as well apply to become a kipper. There's nothing we can do about that. Yes, we can get you a little extra pocket money by arranging a home visit from a doctor, applying for DLA, and so forth, but the amounts will be drops in the ocean. However, details of your long-term torture can wait. You have the immediate problem of unpaid bills.
"We could get the council to drop their demands. Given that the council tax bill alone consumes almost half of your yearly income, that is, by a country mile, the single biggest thing we could do for you. In comparison to anything else we might do, it's Godzilla versus an ant.
"With some effort we could probably get the interest payments back from your bank. Although the theft is government-sanctioned and one of the few ways banks have to make profits, stealing from the sick is a touchy matter for them. That, by a mission to Mars, is the second biggest thing we could do for you. After council tax, in comparison with anything else we might do, it's a trip to Jakarta versus a trip to the kitchen.
"With a lot less effort we can arrange for your utility bills to be paid off in monthly instalments. The good side of this is that it prevents your energy and water supplies from being cut off and buys you a little time. The bad side is that the monthly payments will be deducted from your pocket money, leaving you with an even smaller chance of keeping your ship afloat in future. Since your income is nowhere near enough to cover even your most basic living costs, the situation will recur time and time again.
"Now you have the basic facts, what do you want to discuss?"
In contrast, this is the response I might have received from a fairy.
"I can't work with you any more."
They are two entirely different species.
Where are the wizards?
Lisa didn't turn up the following week. Somebody called Dafydd, who described himself as a manager, announced that he would be making a visit. He couldn't find my house, but presumably driving as far as the village qualified as a valid attempt. I wondered whether Dafydd might be a wizard, Wales is a very magical place, so I wrote to ask him whether he knew of any single instance in which somebody had really kept their house. I wrote several times, but he ignored me. The only reply I ever got was the one to tell me he couldn't find my house. He said he might try again at some time in the future. As for my other emails, he had fairies to deal with clients. Why keep fairies and flutter yourself?
After a further week, Lisa made a final visit to introduce me to my long-term support worker, Norman. Could this, at last, be a wizard? I tried again to explain my situation. Both looked at me in blank incomprehension. Eventually, seeing I required an answer, Norman said, "that's one way of looking at it." My feelings about fairy culture were rapidly descending into contempt and revulsion. I wondered whether fly spray would work on fairies.
Lisa asked me what I used to do for a living. I usually tell people of other cultures that I was a computer programmer. It's a handy response because people can interpret it any way they like. Some people think they're programming a computer when they send an email. I've even had some strange reactions to that. Somebody once replied, "yeah, and I was a bank manager," as if computer programmers and bank managers were so far above the common run of affairs that nobody could actually be one. I might as well have told him I was the Pope or, if I'd gone for something he might have heard of, Jedward. But programmer seemed to satisfy Lisa.
Lisa took to her wings and left me alone with Norman.
The Norman invasion
What can I say about Norman? I am torn between the fact that he was well-meaning and had a good heart, and the fact that he was utterly out of his depth even when paddling in the shallow waters of domestic finance. Speaking of waters, Norman was a water meter enthusiast. He couldn't be sure how much it would save me, or whether it would save me anything at all, but he was a great believer in having one. He had one himself and felt it was an area of expertise. He could do water meters.
What I longed for was somebody who could paint a picture of a potential future for me that was both tolerable and achievable. I had abandoned all faith in wizards by this time. To be told that I could go the homeless route, which is to say that I could live on the streets and hope to be re-housed, cheered me not at all.
Norman's cold comforts soon began to take their toll. My car failed its MOT. Norman told me I might be able to get a bus pass. In a small village with no bus service to speak of, this was not very helpful. I had sleeping problems, I hadn't been to bed for months and was sleeping at any and all hours on the couch. Norman took this as evidence that I didn't need all the space I had in my house. I patently didn't need a bedroom.
In my grim, bedroomless future I would entertain myself by playing the ukulele and attending pottery classes. If I had a TV, I could learn all about grassy knolls, Roswell Area 51 and how they had faked the moon landing. Norman was a conspiracy theorist and had acquired his secret knowledge from a television channel beamed directly and exclusively at him.
In the end I missed one of Norman's visits, having mistaken the day he was due to come. That cut off all communication since I don't use the phone and Norman doesn't send or receive emails. I get by on foolish daydreams of a future where I have food to eat, a bedroom of my very own, and transport. I should be so lucky.
The DWP has stopped my benefits again. In fact, no sooner did they start paying than they stopped again. It's what they do. I haven't had any money for months. They won't just pay you the money and leave you in peace, they want constant attention. You are required to work harder for your pocket money than an employee works for a proper salary. I wonder whether there could be a reason for that?
A couple of days ago I had a letter from the DWP inviting me to a Pauline's pens (see footnote) interview in Abergavenny and threatening me with all the things they'd do to me if I declined their invitation. They wanted to help me get back to work. I laughed out loud for the first time in years. I replied:
I am very concerned to hear that there is such a huge amount of work that needs to be done and that you have nobody to do it. I am, for reasons of illness, unable to help you. Perhaps, if you provided me with details of the work, I could suggest somebody who would assist you with it? There are many people who would be only too glad of a job.
I have survived by using the amount the DWP paid me for the arrears. I buy food with it, little else. I don't pay any bills. When the Gwalians first arrived on my planet I had the foolish notion of sorting everything out and trying to build a sustainable future for myself. Since the DWP is so utterly unreliable, since I have had no housing benefits at all in the past year, and since the Gwalians only wanted to help on their own terms, I have given up all hope.
I know my time is limited. Sooner or later, no matter how frugally I live, I will run out of money. Sooner or later a nice judge or magistrate will give my creditors permission to break my door down and take whetever they want. They won't find much. I just intend to keep going for as long as I can. When life becomes intolerable I will make an undignified exit.
Suicide is a difficult thing to talk about. If you mention it, people attribute all kinds of motives to you. It's a cry for help, it's emotional blackmail, it's attention-seeking, it's just a figure of speech. In my case it is none of these things. If life gives you no pleasure and there is no chance of its doing so in the future, if your illness will only get worse, if your circumstances will only get worse, it's a perfectly rational choice.
I am not sure how much longer I've got. I wasn't expecting to make it this far. Maybe a month? Maybe I'll still be here this time next year, although I don't see how. I certainly won't be leaving my house. I am already without gas. When the electricity is cut off too, when somebody breaks in because NPower's need for profit is greater than my need for heating, when some unforseen event makes my life worse than before, I'll be off. I won't be able to say goodbye at the time, I won't be sure when I'm going to do it until I've done it, and then it will be too late, so I'll say goodbye now. Goodbye! I'll miss you all.
When the Gwalians gather to concoct a narrative about me that will cover their backs and leave them feeling good about themselves, they will no doubt decide that I didn't do enough to help myself. I am, you see, severely depressed. That's why I needed help in the first place. It will also, oddly enough, turn out to be why I am not a fit person to receive any. I insist on behaving like somebody who is deeply depressed. That is unacceptable.
My political manifesto?
In Britain we are not short of anything. We have plenty of food, clothing, energy, holidays, so many new cars that the government has to invent schemes to get rid of them, plenty of iPhones - we have a surplus of everything. There is no need to deny or restrict the supply of any of these things to anybody.
The Gwalian response to that would, of course, be that the country can't afford it. The fact that the previous paragraph says that the country can afford it would be as far above their heads, and that of most politicians, as the stars in the night sky. In a rich country, the existence of poverty is a matter of political choice, not of necessity. What an ugly word that is - political - and how it devalues everything around it! The last two paragraphs are rendered worthless by its presence.
Let us just be grateful for Mr. Cameron and his plans to cut billions from the welfare budget. It makes me proud to be British.
Pauline's pens is a reference to the League of Gentlemen, not the name of a firm offering me a job. Google it. If you despise Google spam, Yahoo it.
Since writing this I have been visited by Sally and Zoë (I'm guessing the umlaut) of Gwalia. Are they the wizards? Only time will tell.