I thought I would share the experience of attending an assessment as part of claiming Employment Support Allowance or ESA benefit, which happened on Tuesday. Perhaps it might help you in the future or just raise your awareness of this.
After being advised to apply for ESA shortly after I left work last year, the first stage was a phone call with the DWP. That went okay, they completed an initial questionnaire with me, which then came to me for checking and confirmation of details.
Subsequently I received a full questionnaire , which is a hefty document and is quite difficult to complete. I can imagine that it can be daunting for some people, it’s a complex form and split into many sections. You have to explain clearly what the issues are, why you can’t work, the daily implications and impacts. This can be difficult with depression, days range in a scale of bouncing around the room to just wanting to be under a duvet. And it opens up many things around my depression, especially self-worth. I found it painful and distressing at times to answer.
Several weeks after returning that I had the invite to a health capability assessment. The assessment will help inform the DWP determine which group you go into : one is to support you prepare to look for work in the future and one is where you won’t work again.
As the day came closer I got nervous and distracted , it played its part in a down period that kicked in during the week before. Even though I thought I was handling the anxiety and not thinking about it, in reality it was churning away in the back of my mind.
The day arrived. I had prepared and noted everything I needed to take as a step towards managing the anxiety, making sure I didn’t need to do any preparation on the day itself.
The centre was over the other side of the city, in an area I don’t know, which has a poor reputation. I decided to get the bus from the village, even though I find buses uncomfortable. I don’t mind trains as much, but there is a closeness on a bus that I find slightly claustrophobic. I tried to remain self-compassionate and support myself, but was glad to get off. I don’t like the big shopping centre in the city, so managed to walk around the outside towards the area where the centre is. As I walked through a couple of side streets to the centre the reputation of the area became loud in my thinking. The group of lads standing on the corner, the large guy walking towards me, my whole threat system was now in overdrive. If you add the assessment anxiety I was close to actually running, just running. As that came to a head, I found the centre.
Ringing the doorbell to be let in I was greeted by a security guard, who didn’t speak other than when I confirmed my name. He was a very big guy, slightly menacing. All I could think was he was like a bouncer and my name was on the list, so in I could go.
The receptionist was helpful. They were running late, was I okay to stay? Given the build up then yes I would wait it out. So I joined the folks sat in a sparse waiting room.
Earphones on, not catching anyone’s eyes. Radiohead may not have been a good choice though. Switch to Muse ? Would need to immediately fight the urge to do air guitar. Coldplay but then the need to whirl around like Chris Martin isn’t going to endear me to the other people waiting. Stick with Thom and the boys.
Actually I want to run away, fast, but I also don’t want to come back another day.
So I started writing this. It really helps me to focus, to write how i feel and plus the observation is a kind of mindfulness, of being present. This moment may not be comfortable, but it’s the present reality I am in.
The only things to look at were a few posters, from the Samartians and Time to Change plus one from Public Health England asking “How are you?” Not great, thanks for asking. There was also the usual fire evacuation poster and map. I think I studied that so long I could have actually done the evacuation blindfolded. Oh and the warning posters about CCTV and acceptable behaviour. The chairs were those standard ones you get in GP surgeries and hospitals, the kind which provide a numb feeling within minutes of sitting down. The carpet that kind of mottled pattern favoured by office spaces, the florescent lighting that gives a headache. A half-filled leaflet holder, hanging on a wall the colour of curdled milk, a shade of magnolia I guess. A water cooler with no cups, you have to ask for one.
Time slows down. Surely it was fives minutes since I last checked, not one minute. It feels like the watch hands are weighted down by my anxiety, moving slower than normal. The waiting room starts to empty as people are called through. As each one goes in the nerves in my stomach dance faster, it means my turn is getting closer. The door is not far away from my chair, it’s tempting to get up and leave. And then I am called…
It was about 45 minutes long, but felt like a day. For the first time in talking to someone there was little response back. Don’t get me wrong the assessor was polite and it must be difficult, to hold interview after interview. At times I did my usual thing of trying to crack a joke, a light heartened comment to deflect the seriousness. Not a smile, not even the slightest faint hint of one. Tough gig. Odd questions too and always the worry am I giving the wrong answer…is there a wrong answer? No multiple choice either. And I am making light of it even now, it was hard. Brain frying, headache inducing hard. To talk about the worst times, the intrusive thoughts, the fears. Some of it sounds stupid to say out loud, even though actually it’s about a life. My life.
It was dark and raining when I left. I walked on autopilot, ending up walking back through the shopping centre to the bus station. The shop lights were too bright, the people walking past seemed to know where they were going, what they were doing. I had just poured my heart out to a stranger in an austere office room. I was numbly walking, my forehead thumping. There was no internal monologue happening, just silence in my head.
I got on the wrong bus, the driver was nice about it, pointing me in the right direction to get the one I should be on. Perhaps my recent experience was written on my face. Perhaps he was just a nice, kind person.
I sat on the bus, in traffic, the low level humming noise and people’s conversation, even through my earphones. And I felt disconnected.
Until I remember this. To allow the internal monologue to start, with the voice of self-compassion. To imagine sat next to me on the bus is Chris on a good day, being deliberate, aware and balanced in what he does and thinks. That he is there to support me, to congratulate me for doing what I needed to do, even though painful. To see that pain and meet it with compassion. To understand everything that has lead to this moment, to accept it with all the flaws and imperfections it brings. Not to change it, but to accept it as being there.
And to help me say ‘I did this, it was hard and emotional, but I did it. Despite depression, I did it.’
I got off the bus, walked through the dark and rain across the village to home, wrapping myself in this compassionate bubble. As I opened the door the dog came running and did the weird little howl thing she does when I come in, it’s her version of asking ‘And where have you been without me?’. That howl was the sweetest sound.
I wrote the above all on Tuesday, during and after the assessment. As I come to publish it today (Friday) I realise something else. I haven’t replayed the assessment interview, not berated myself for saying something, no wishes to have done it differently or that I should have said this or that. That is why I believe so strongly in the self-compassion approach. It supports you to be courageous, to allow vulnerability and flaws to exist, with a kind awareness of them, while living your life with all of its joy and challenges.