It’s been quite a few months now since I made my last post, life has been, well, kinda all over the place. But then, if you hadn’t figured it out already, life is kinda all over the place for victims of prostitution. The mental and physical health conditions that we live with after exiting are numerous, the effects they have are powerful and best of all, they intersect with and play off of each other – one gets worse, the other gets worse which makes another get worse which makes yet another get worse; until you’re left with a big, tangled mess that feels utterly impossible to get out of.
This whole process is exacerbated when something happens in the first place – whether it be something basic and day-to-day or something much bigger, but if something happens to set us off, we just keep spiralling until it either works itself out or we reach such a level of dissociation or numbness we just simply don’t give a shit any more. I’m starting to reach that level of dissociation and numbness with what’s been happening to me the last few months, now, but then it partly has actually gotten somewhat better with reassurances from those I love.
If you read my blog frequently, you might remember one of my last posts before my hiatus. It was a post around homelessness and some of my experiences whilst I was homeless as a teenager. In that post, I expressed a fear of what would happen if the DWP and the Tories finally came for me and the disability benefits I receive as a result of my mental and physical health – I was scared of what so much seemed like the inevitable road from losing my benefits, to homelessness, to being forced back into prostitution just to be able to survive.
It appears I somewhat jinxed myself writing that post because less than a month later, a letter arrived in the post with my ESA50 form. For those of you that don’t know what that is, it’s a form the DWP sends randomly to people claiming disability benefits to re-assess them. They’re sent with no warning, no specific reason, no necessity. They’re random, sent out to catch out the so called ‘benefits cheats’ and they’re fucking devastating and terrifying as well as generally being soul-destroying.
I crashed very quickly after getting the letter. Slipping into a severe state of depression and anxiety. I stopped being able to eat or sleep; even when I could manage to eat it made little difference because I was throwing up several times a day from the anxiety; even when I could manage to sleep, it didn’t really matter as I was having so many nightmares I was unable to sleep properly. My immune system took a battering with the stress and within a few months I managed to get two bouts of the flu, a chest infection and norovirus as well as an increase in my general level of un-wellness – allergies, migraines, joint pain, normal headaches etc. To top it all off, my C-PTSD got so much worse, I was having so many more flashbacks and to put it lightly, everything was just terrible.
To explain it mentally and emotionally is hard. I was worrying about and fearing so many different things at once; the form and the letter and the whole situation plus the potential futures it might result in did a serious number on me. The futures aspect is fairly self-evident – I was terrified of losing my income, becoming homeless and being forced back into prostitution, but it was also so much more than that. I was given a safety net; told by the woman I love, the woman I am planning on moving in with later this year anyway, that if it came to it, I could stay with her and she’d look after me.
You’d think the offer of such a safety net (and the knowledge that friends would offer the same if it came to it) would be amazing, but there were points where I genuinely believed that living on the streets and being exploited were actually the better options. This might be difficult to explain, if you’ve never been in a situation where your trust and dependency on someone has left you at serious risk then you’ll never be able to fully understand it. I’ve been independent for more than a decade, now, since I was 16. I’ve lived with abusive partners who have stolen from me and abused me and exploited me, but I’ve never depended on them – I’ve always been the ‘breadwinner’, always the one working and earning. If I was to ever have left them (which I clearly eventually did) I was the one that was going to be financially OK (even if they had robbed me blind and left me with lots of debt), I was the one with the income.
Since the age of 16, I have never allowed myself to financially or for much of anything depend on another person. I’ve been in relationships with them, lived with abusive men, been exploited and manipulated but I’ve never actually depended or relied upon another person. Tenancies have always been in my name, I’ve always been the one with the income (even if it has at times only been benefits) or at least not the one without an income, I’ve never emotionally depended on another person for my own survival. Until recently, I’ve never really even trusted another person.
To put myself in a situation where I completely relied and depended on another person, especially in terms of money and housing was terrifying. She’s my girlfriend and I trust her more than anyone and we are intending on moving in together, but whilst I would only be contributing a pittance of benefits, at least I would be contributing. If I was just living with her, relying on her financially, that would be unthinkable, the thought was so incredibly terrifying to me. I was so scared of allowing myself to be that vulnerable, to be at risk of homelessness (again) after a single argument, to have my entire life in someone else’s hands.
I know this seems awful, I know if there’s anyone I can trust, it’s my girlfriend, but I really just couldn’t get myself to the point where I could trust it, where I could let myself be that vulnerable and that dependent on another person.
I’ve gotten past that, now, or mostly anyway. I still have reservations in terms of the strain that it would put on our relationship if the worst happens and I lose my benefits, but I know that I could accept her offer of a safety net if I need to. I trust her enough to accept that offer.
The form itself sent me completely spiralling in a different direction; in fact, it sent me spiralling in two opposite directions all at once. This isn’t just me, this is the typical response to these forms that I’ve seen from many other disabled people. You see the form has a magic ability to make you feel both like you’re a complete and utter fraud who isn’t disabled at all and just swindling the system and like you’re a useless piece of shit who can’t do anything without help. It both makes you feel as if you’re not really disabled while simultaneously making you feel the full weight and extent and limitations of your disabilities.
The system itself is set up so disabled people are no longer disabled, set up in a way so that as many people as possible get refused benefits. A few years ago, one of the questions was along the lines of ‘can you manage 12 stairs?’, 12 stairs being a normal flight of stairs in a house that many people with various disabilities struggle with, now the question is ‘can you manage 2 stairs?’. How does that even make a difference, really? A person might be able to handle 2 stairs, but if they can’t handle 12 that still means they can’t make it to the top floor of their house, still means they can’t make it to the bathroom without support, still means they can’t live life without constant supervision, but that’s all OK, because they can handle 2 stairs. I’m one of those people that falls in the gap. My knees are screwed from past trauma and resulting injuries and weakness. I can handle 2 stairs, most of the time, though there may be times where they give out or lock or dislocate, but when we reach 12 stairs I often wobble, fall into the side of the wall, my knees give out and I’m generally just a bit wobbly and shaky and definitely not going to be winning any races. But most of the time I can handle 2 stairs, so not a problem.
The questions are dehumanising, unclear and unfair. You fill in the form feeling like you’re a fraud, like you are one of those ‘benefit scroungers’, like you’re going to get caught out at any moment. But on the other hand, it leaves you with a stark reality of your life when you start ticking the questions off. If they’re designed to be almost impossible to successfully get through, then how can you be ticking off quite so many boxes? Realising just how much you’re unable to do alone, just how much your life is affected by your disabilities can be so soul destroying, can leave you feeling so useless and so worthless – which are feelings we already have an abundance of after being trafficked and prostituted.
Realising that actually, I can’t always pick up heavier things with my hands without randomly losing grip (nerve damage); that I can’t walk from here to the tram stop, just over 100 meters without being in a massive amount of pain and so completely exhausted I have to sit down if I can; that I haven’t been outside by myself more than 3-4 times in the last few months because I’ve been that terrified; that I dissociate not just now and then but almost every single day I spend in my own head, barely aware of what’s happening around me; that I’m still a massive risk to myself, that suicidal ideation crosses my mind every single day and whilst I know I won’t act on it, the thoughts are still there as are the self-harm related thoughts – every time I cross the road I think how easily I just could, every time I chop vegetables I think how easy it could be, every time I light a cig. how easy it’d be. Every aspect of my life, the ones above and so many others, where I had briefly acknowledged that I was struggling and maybe slightly disabled, I realised the full extent. I realised that these were things that I struggled with on a constant and permanent basis, not just one-offs. I realised that I hadn’t had a single moment where I hadn’t at least had a background of slight anxiety in my entire life. I realised that I’ve never been fully connected to my body and my surroundings, that I’m always at least partly dissociated. I realised that I hadn’t come anywhere close to ‘recovering’, that ED thoughts plagued me on a daily basis and I’m constantly thinking how easy it would be to just fast, to just skip this meal, to just start losing weight again. I realised that my life is a complete fucking mess and that I’m really, really not well and definitely not able to work.
The combination of thinking that I’m a fraud and the true extent of my disabilities and the lingering threat of losing my income, potential homelessness and the vulnerabilities that brings all resulted in the same thing – unmanageable levels of worthlessness and uselessness, overwhelming depression and anxiety, practically giving up on caring for myself and such an increase in my suicidal ideation. I stopped sleeping, barely ate, stopped managing my home, stopped leaving my home, practically quit therapy and healing and recovery, took a massive hit to my immune system and was throwing up daily from the anxiety.
I’m finally starting to get past that, a little, and starting to be able to put my life back together but I know that I’m going to spend however long it takes living in fear of that brown envelope and I know that when it arrives, I’m probably just going to end up right back where I started with the first envelope.