Carly lives with terrible pain, but when her benefits were taken away the appeals tribunal was at the same court handling the sexual abuse case
The thought of going to court makes Carly feel sick. In her 30s, she has been building up to it for years. When she was a child, she was sexually abused, and – after three decades and a breakdown – she finally went to the police last year. “I hid it from everyone until then,” she says when we first speak, a day before she goes to court.
She doesn’t regret her decision – but it has taken its toll. Flashbacks and nightmares from the abuse are vivid and the thought of going through it all in court is “traumatic”.
“It takes everything I have just to get through the days,” she says. However, it’s another “court case”, of sorts – at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – that has led to Carly not only struggling with her mental health but to keep a roof over her head.of childhood abuse has left a physical as well as psychological mark. “My body’s never been able to cope,” she says. Her adolescence and 20s were filled with ill health – throat infections, bone pain, and mood swings treated with antidepressants. And in 2013, after years of tests and trials (at one point, she had to go on low doses of chemotherapy), she was diagnosed with the rare bone disorder SAPHO. Sometimes the pain is so bad that she cries all night. “Like a knife being stuck in my bone and being twisted,” is how she describes it.
For almost 20 years Carly worked as a nanny. At times, she’d leave a job and then take another because, with memories of the abuse, she gets anxious around men – but by 2014, with the breakdown hitting on top of her physical illness, she finally had to give up work completely and go on the out-of-work benefit, employment and support allowance. She was judged to be so ill that the DWP put her in what it calls the support group: people found to have no chance of being well enough to work.
Money was tight without a wage, but another bit of social security, personal independence payments (PIP), helped Carly get by with an extra £54 a week.
That was until March this year when – just 18 months after being awarded PIP – Carly was told that she had to be tested again. If it wasn’t so grim, it would sound almost efficient: an assessor turned up at Carly’s home, filed a report, and by the end of spring Carly had lost her benefit. DWP rules meant that not only was her PIP stopped but her severe disability component of ESA too: that’s over £110 a week gone in total.
To appeal against the decision, Carly had to attend a tribunal in August. It would be intimidating for anyone to sit in a court in front of strangers on a panel but for Carly, it was devastating – it was the same court that was dealing with the abuse case. When she found she’d been sent back there for her benefit appeal, Carly tells me she “just lost it”. By the time she was at the tribunal, she was shaking and crying uncontrollably. “It was as if I was on trial,” she says.
To add to her anxiety, the medic on the panel was a man, and when he asked questions she couldn’t get words out to answer. “I couldn’t even look at the doctor,” she says. “How could I give an account?”
That night, she had flashback after flashback of the abuse. By the next morning, she’d told the police she was pulling out of the sexual abuse case. “I said, ‘I can’t do this.’” Before deciding to continue with the trial, she was in such distress she was close to being sectioned. “I’d packed bags,” she says. “I don’t know where to. I just packed.”