As though the universe just cannot bear to stop toying with me just yet, the very day I got a letter to say I'd been awarded higher rates of DLA, after a 19 month appeal, an ESA50 form drops through my door.
I've been claiming Incapacity Benefit, the old, out of work, sickness benefit since 2000. The last assessment I had for IB involved the same scary letters from Atos, the same assessment (yes, SHOCKER : Sickness benefits were always assessed) and the same worry.
The letter back in 2010 was very scary too "If you do not complete this form, you may lose your benefits/If you do not attend your assessment you may lose your benefits.... etc.
The letter said I had to take any medications or aids I use with me. I called the man at Atos :
Me "Really? I have to bring everything? Only there's rather a lot A repeat prescription form won't do?"
Him "Yes, you have to bring everything."
Me "But I have inject strong painkillers and chemo - do I really have to bring needles, syringes and opiates into the heart of Brighton? I'll get mugged!"
Him "Yes, everything."
Me "But sometimes I use a feeding pump and tube, but I don't have one at home, surely I don't have to bring that?"
Him "Yes, bring everything"
The people at Atos helpfully provided directions to the "testing centre". I could take the bus, then walk for 7 minutes or I could take three trains then walk for 19 minutes. With a feeding pump and two carrier bags of medications, it was clear I'd have to rely on the taxi-of-Mum. Yes my friends, somehow, my Mum would have to drop me outside the door on the Red zone of a jammed one way system, with no disabled parking within hundreds of metres. So we did one of those mafia-style body drops where I'm sprawled on the pavement as she screeches away.
I joked at the time that it was like a 16th century witches ducking trial - if you get to the assessment centre at all, you are clearly well enough to work. If you don't, they stop your benefits anyway for not turning up.
So, last time, when I was finally called in from the urine aroma and barred windows of the waiting room, the lady told me to show her my meds. I tipped half a pharmacy onto the table and she told me I'd "passed" there and then. She looked embarrassed. She told me "You're lucky this is still IB, if you were in the room across the corridor, having an ESA assessment, losing an arm isn't enough. You have to lose an eye and a leg too before you might just qualify.
So here, at last is the mythical form. The ESA50 that is striking fear into the hearts of sick and disabled people everywhere.
And it is remarkably odd.
Before it even gets to the "real" questions, it asks if you "misuse Drugs alcohol or other substances"
Why? Is alcoholism or substance abuse no longer an illness? I have a sneaking suspicion answering "yes" to that one won't bode well for the rest of the form.
Next, under moving around it asks "Can you go up or down two steps?"
Erm, yes, I have bowel disease? Or are there jobs requiring two steps to be climbed just the once in a day? If there are, I might be able to consider this work lark after all! What if I can climb up but not get down? The question only asks "either" "or"
No 4 asks if I can pick up a pint of milk. Erm,,,,, yes or I'd never have another cup of tea again. I'd never even be able to lift the kettle and frankly, I'd be dead without tea every hour or so. It's often the only thing that keeps me going - they know we're British right?
No 5 asks if I can turn the pages of a book or pick up a £1 coin. Ace! If there are jobs where you sit and read, and people give you a £1 every time you turn the page, I'm in!!! Sign me up!
Question 11 asks if I can learn to set an alarm clock. Important one that one eh, or all us festering layabouts would never get to work in the first place. Perhaps THIS is what has been holding us back? We never learnt to set an alarm clock!!
I really like this one : "Can you manage to plan, start and finish daily tasks?" Is there a Mum on the planet who could answer yes to that one? I often plan a task, occasionally I even start them, but I rarely finish them. Somehow I get the feeling they're not talking about my household management though.
No 17 asks how often I behave in a way which upsets other people - does the DWP count? Only I imagine I upset them most days.
Anyway, the point of all this is to show how utterly bizarre the criteria for ESA are and most importantly how, if you have no advocate, know nothing about the changes and think you can just fill in the form with what comes to mind, things probably won't turn out awfully well. It is a veritable minefield of traps and tricks.
So, if like me, you just got yours, call your GP and find a welfare advocate who can help you TODAY. Don't wait, they only give you four weeks to fill in the form and get all your evidence together.
Now I just have to hope the universe wouldn't be cruel enough to take away with one hand (IB) what it just gave with the other (DLA)