I am going to call her Tabitha for the very simple reason that we have never had a Tabitha walk through our doors. Tabitha as a name doesn’t play very big here in
Dumfries. I doubt if
it plays very big anywhere. Which I guess makes it a pretty decent choice as
a false identity.
So we have been seeing Tabitha for ten years now. When she first came in she was in the last knockings of her teenage years, From the get go she had one of those larger than usual personalities. A room would never be a dull place with Tabitha in it. Laughter was never far away. A smile was more or less a permanent fixture. I bet she was a nightmare for her teachers. She would have been at the heart of any classroom mischief. But I doubt if they would have disliked her. Instead they would have been exasperated with her. And of course she was always nailed on to hook herself a ‘bad boy’ boyfriend from the back of the bus. Or from that place by the bins where illicit fags were smoked. Or from the bus shelter outside the Spar shop where the blue valium pills were washed down with cheap cider.
Back in the days when millions marched against the impending
Iraq war, a Dumfries ‘bad boy’ boyfriend was a surefire ticket to
ride the heroin train all the way down to the gutter. Tabitha bought that
particular ticket and took the slide from the mischief of her teenage years to
the bleakness of her early twenties.
Yet no matter how dark her life became, she never quite lost her smile. Her instinctive sunny personality always found a way to shine through. She stayed larger than life and never adopted the nastiness of the drug world.
The years rolled by and a few lines appeared on her face. Methadone helped her to climb out of the day to day squalor of heroin and slowly but surely she found some stability. She got herself a flat. She disengaged from those she needed to disengage from. She collected support workers. She hid from the world and watched daytime TV and read books and ate too much sweet stuff.
The support workers did what support workers did in the days before the storm when Blair and Brown threw cash at everything and told us it would all last forever. They accompanied her to her GP and spoke on her behalf. They explained how she was depressed and anxious and isolated. And her GP gave her the requisite five minutes and no doubt put on a sympathetic smile and wrote script after script. Anti depressants and sleeping pills and all manner of supposed chemical solutions. And of course there was always the most important bit of scribbling…
The sick note.
Tabitha is anxious.
Tabitha is very down.
Tabitha finds it hard to leave the house.
They all followed the popular solution of the Blair/Brown lunacy. Get her signed off sick. Except they didn’t call it the sick any more. By now it was called Employment Support Allowance. In terms of pounds, shillings and pence, it meant another thirty quid a week. In terms of dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s, it meant that Tabitha only had to sign on the dotted line once a month. A five minute job.
In, sign, out.
Job done. All set for another month.
In, sign, out.
Job done. All set for another month.
It helped everyone to tick their boxes. Oh Tabitha’s is doing fine. Great. Super. She takes her methadone once a day like a very, very good girl and it has been absolutely ages since she has appeared in court. We are all terrifically pleased. And all they had to do to keep their stats in line was to rustle her up once a month and take her along to sign on the dotted line.
In, sign, out.
So for years she hid away and watched her daytime TV. Once a day she would take the trip to the chemist for her methadone. Once a month her support workers would take her along to sign.
They parked her up along with all the hundreds of thousands of others. And slowly but surely, the loneliness and the isolation and the sheer constant boredom of her life started to age her. To dull her down. To make her big smile less convincing. To reduce her.
And then everything changed and the Tony and Gordon’s
Disneyland crashed to the floor like a demolished cooling
tower. And all of a sudden, panic set in. She said that she was going to have to
go for a medical and the word was out that the Government’s French doctors
weren’t taking any prisoners.
She came in with a face wracked with panic. ‘I’ve failed my medical’. Then her expression morphed into astonishment when I said ‘
-bloody- lujah’. Halle
You see for years First Base has been the voice in the wilderness pointing out what should have been screamingly obvious. Well it was to us. We went on and on and on at her. For Christ’s sake Tabitha. What kind of life is this? Hiding away and allowing yourself to be dulled down by all those happy pills? No life. A grey life. A twilight life. Sure you’re depressed. Who wouldn’t be? Think about it. What would make you less depressed? Having a reason to get out of bed. A job. Some self respect. A stage to be larger than life on. New pals whose life doesn’t revolve around ‘The Brown’. Invitations to barbeques and holidays and all the trappings of a life.
Every time she would leave the Agency with a spring in her step making noises about a fresh start. Then her support workers would get their hooks back in and put on their sugary patronising voices and speak to her as if she was six. Oh no Tabitha. That isn’t a god idea at all. You’re not ready you see. You’re still too fragile. Best leave it a while. Best not to rush things.
Tabitha’s great. Super. A success story. Pats on the head all round. Park her up. In the brave Britain of Tony and Gordon, non-people were good people. Bung them a few extra quid and pay their rent and dose them on a daily diet of free happy pills and everything is hunky dory.
But like I said. Everything changed. The French doctors took a different view. They told Tabitha that she was fine to work. No more comfort zone. Tony and Gordon had exited stage left. There were new Sheriffs in town.
She told me with tears staining her cheeks that she had failed her medical. And I asked her if she had even begun to consider how completely ridiculous that statement was. What do you mean she asked? Well think about it. When most people go to the doctor and wait on tenter hooks for the test results to come back, they are overjoyed if those results prove to be negative. Most people consider being told that they are OK to be good news. How crazy is it to have got yourself into a place where you think passing a medical means being told that you are sick?
And then we had the usual conversation. Get yourself into the people running the Work Programme. Show them a positive frame of mind. Get your game face on. March in there and tell them that you are completely and absolutely employable. Let them know that you have what it takes. Show them your people skills. Shout it from the roof tops. Come on guys. I’m your dream client. I get along with everyone. Young and old and rich and poor and black and white. Retail, hospitality, sales, anything you like. And I really thought that she bought into it. More to the point, it seemed as if she had no choice but to buy into it.
That was two years ago and those support workers were not even nearly ready to let her go. Not a chance. They told her that what was being done by the French doctors was a disgrace. They told her that it wasn’t fair. They told her that she absolutely wasn’t ready for work. They told her that they would help her to appeal the decision. They promised that they would bust an absolute gut to help her to stay sick.
So she appealed it.
And whilst she waited, she had her benefits halved and kept body and soul together with food parcels and daytime TV and the heating switched way down low.
The appeal came and went.
And the French doctors didn’t budge an inch. They said she was fine to work. And we said she was fine to work. And the support workers said she was not fine to work. And they encouraged her to appeal again. So she appealed again. And the French doctors rejected her appeal again….
It has been going on for two years now and Tabitha is onto her fifth appeal. And still the support workers keep telling her she is too sick to work. And the number one goal in her life is to convince those French doctors that she is too sick to work. There is nothing else. She has put her life on a £40 a week hold for the sake of the dream of being sick.
The problem is that if everyone tells you that you are sick and you really want to be sick, then in the end you will probably manage to make yourself sick. In the end every last scrap of that larger than life sunny personality will be wrung dry. Leaving an empty shell.
Not that the French doctors will ever change their minds.
How many times will she appeal their decision? And for how many years? And one day she will come in for a food parcel and I will no longer be able to encourage her to break free and find a new life to walk into.
The chance will have been and gone and there will be nothing left of the girl who drove her teachers to distraction. Instead there will be an empty shell. A name on a list. A tick in a box.
And after years and years and years, Tabitha will indeed be too sick to work.