Middle class and hooked on benefits: One woman's eye-opening confession…
Last updated at 9:08 AM on 16th September 2010
2.6million people live on incapacity benefit in the UK. Here, CATHERINE HUGHES explains how she became part of the statistic.
Standing at the school gates waiting to pick up my children, I felt exhausted and depressed. All the other mothers were chatting away excitedly, yet I was barely able to register what they were saying.
For they all seemed so happy, healthy and enthusiastic – and all I could wonder was what on earth had happened to me.
Gone was the woman who'd run three miles daily, who loved her five-bedroom detached house in a picture-perfect village in Wales, was happy in her marriage and who enjoyed her intellectually stimulating job – and who, more to the point, had a job.
Frank admission: Catherine carried on claiming benefits because she was given no incentive to work
Instead, I was miserable and tired. And while my children had been at school learning, I'd been surfing the net, ignoring the housework or simply asleep.
The only time I ever showed any enthusiasm was when I went shopping and found myself spending recklessly, buying stuff for myself and splurging on the children.
Whose money was I using? Not money I'd earned myself. No, I'm ashamed to admit, it was your money I was spending. I was on incapacity benefit, funded by the taxpayer. And what should have been a lifeline – something to help get me back on my feet after a series of health problems – nearly destroyed me.
For almost eight years the system turned me into a victim who'd lost every scrap of self- esteem. Even my marriage became a sham as I pushed my husband away, convinced he could no longer love someone so useless.
We ended up barely speaking and, when we did, we rowed horribly. I don't want to blame anyone else – after all, I chose to take the money. But, having been in the system for such a long time, I can see just why Britain has been so crippled by the 2.6 million people who claim some form of incapacity benefit – at a cost of £12.5 billion to the taxpayer last year.
Now, let me say immediately that there are many people who are incapacitated by genuine long-term illness and a compassionate, civilised society dictates that they must be looked after. But nothing will convince me that 2.6 million people fall under this category.
The main problem for me was that there was never any encouragement from anyone in authority to help me deal with my problems, and it was shockingly easy to keep claiming the money, even when – I hate to admit it – there came a time when I was fit enough to go back to work.
That's why I believe George Osborne's decision to cut £4 billion from the benefits budget – and force those who are able enough to go back to work – is the right one.
The brutal truth is that incapacity benefit should only ever be given to those who truly need it. This wouldn't just save taxpayers' money; it would enrich the live of people on the benefit – as I know to my cost.
'I didn't look for work – which I can now see would have been the best thing for me. Emotionally, I was still fragile and I spent my days in a fog of inertia'
My problems started 12 years ago after the birth of my third daughter, Anna. Eager to get back to work, I started a new job as a law tutor when she was just nine months old. We needed the money – my husband Jason, 40, runs his own business as a heating engineer and his work is erratic.
Besides, I've always believed in being self-sufficient and I'm driven. For six years I'd been working as a manager's assistant in a bank and after Anna's birth I used my law degree to find work as an A-Level tutor. I earned a decent wage and found it extremely fulfilling.
But after only three months in the job, I began to feel terribly unwell. My doctors diagnosed me with gallbladder disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome which, on top of the fact that I already had severe hypothyroidism, led to exhaustion, depression and weight gain.
I'd once been 11 stone, but now I found myself creeping up towards 20 stone. One hospital admission followed another as my symptoms worsened. Then one day, aged 29, I collapsed in the classroom where I worked in Buckley, Wales, with a panic attack and was rushed to hospital by ambulance.
It was the result of working myself into the ground while dealing with my many health problems. I knew I couldn't go on and, reluctantly, handed in my notice.
I'd been in the job less than a year and was heartbroken. My plan was to take time out to recover my strength and then look for work when I felt better. Of course, I was worried about money, but my husband's business was doing well and I was confident that, if we tightened our belts, we'd get through.
But then someone – I can't even remember who – suggested I apply for incapacity benefit. I'm sure they imagined they were advising me for the best. No one could have predicted the awful consequences.
Job prospects: Catherine realised the only way to change her life and lift herself out of her depression was to return to work
I knew very little at the time about what claiming benefits entailed. I assumed it was only available to those with significant disabilities. But, with nothing to lose, I applied.
I filled in a form detailing my medical history and my doctor signed a sick note to confirm it. It really was as simple as that – no assessments, nothing. I was stunned when, three weeks later, my claim was accepted.
As I discovered, incapacity benefit covered anyone who was 'too sick to work' – and the definitions are broad.
My fortnightly payments began, credited directly into my bank account. I don't remember how much I received to start with, but by the time I finished claiming I was receiving about £70 a week (over nearly eight years, the amount I received totalled more than £20,000) – and it was a huge help.
At first, the money did exactly what it was supposed to do. It protected us from the horrendous financial fallout from my ill health and allowed me to start recuperating without the stress of money worries.
But after I recovered from various operations, I didn't look for work – which I can now see would have been the best thing for me. I stayed home. Emotionally, I was still fragile and I spent my days in a fog of inertia.
After taking the children to school, I'd return home and head for the computer, where I'd go on internet chatrooms such as iVillage – a forum where you can discuss anything from parenting tips and financial advice to loneliness and beauty products.
Last year, a survey showed only one in six adults claiming incapacity benefit may be ent
itled to it
There, I'd find other people like me – not working, depressed and in need of company.
Retail therapy, using my benefits money for shopping trips, became my one reason to leave home. My husband was frustrated, but didn't know how to help. I was so listless and lethargic he couldn't get through to me.
Slowly, but surely, I became convinced I would never recover. Every year, I was subjected to a medical examination, lasting up to two hours. I was clearly depressed, but instead of offering practical advice to improve my situation, the people assessing me simply approved me for more benefits.
The system is so flawed in that respect – no one is ever encouraged to get back into the real, working world. Even when I fell pregnant with my fourth child in 2002 – despite the huge problems in my marriage – the benefits continued.
I was surprised. Surely, I thought, if I was well enough to have a baby, the authorities would think I was well enough to work. Apparently not – no one questioned it and an opportunity to reassess my capabilities was missed.
So instead of trying to haul myself out of my profound physical and psychological problems, I took the money that just kept on coming.
In fact, it took my mother to change my life. Just over four years ago, she turned to me and said: 'You know, you would be much happier if you had a job.'
Those were her exact words. Although they were gentle, she was the first person in eight years brave enough to tell me the truth. Immediately, I knew she was right.
I was well enough (thanks to yet another operation) to consider working and still be able to manage my remaining symptoms. But would I have done anything if she hadn't confronted me? Maybe not so quickly, because I'd been utterly conditioned to be dependent on the benefits system.
Nevertheless, I set about rectifying a situation that had been allowed to spiral out of control. I rang an adviser at the benefits agency to say I'd decided to go back to work.
She was gobsmacked. She told me that she'd never known a single person to stop claiming benefits in the nearly 20 years she'd worked there.
After congratulating me, she reassured me that I could resume my incapacity benefit if things didn't work out. Surely that was an incentive to fail? My husband was overjoyed that I wanted to pull myself out of the mess I was in. I was determined and prepared to take any job.
In the end, I realised I'd developed communication skills because of all the hours I'd spent talking online – something the millions trapped on benefits like I was would do well to remember.
When I got a job as a manager for a website, I knew that admitting I'd been on long-term incapacity benefit would expose me to massive stigma and so, although I never lied, I allowed the obvious assumption (that I'd taken time out to be a mother) to be made.
On my first day, I was so energised that I felt much less exhausted than when I'd been on incapacity benefits. With the support of my GP, I weaned myself off the antidepressants I'd been taking for years and felt like a different woman.
The world of incapacity benefits had encouraged me to behave like a victim – as I'm sure it does on a daily basis to countless others. But the real eye-opener was the fact that working has enabled me to cope with my illnesses.
After being trapped in a system which convinced me I was an invalid, working – something they should have told me to do years before – has made me happier (and better able to deal with the lingering problems I have) at the age of 40 than I have ever been.
My husband's thrilled to bits to have his wife back and my children have revelled in having a mum who wants to go swimming and on walks, rather than hiding or sleeping at home. I have realised that a job, not benefits, is the best possible therapy.
But how many people are trapped, believing benefits are the only way forward?
Spending taxpayers' money instead of earning their own? My greatest sadness is that I didn't find my way back to work sooner, even voluntary or part-time. I'm still full of regret that taxpayers had to help fund me for so long.
The benefits system should simply have tided me over for a short time, but it failed me. I dread to think how many others like me it is failing, too.