A Half Full Begging Bowl
Welfare recipients are not supposed to make the best of things.
Being, in the eyes of society, a lesser species,
we are not permitted to smile through adversity, and
should we ever display the temerity to keep our chins up,
the media would immediately sock us in them.
Imagine Pollyanna today, unemployed and playing the glad game
on benefits, cheerful as they come to disconnect her electric:
‘It will give us more chance to really talk without the distraction
of television, and the dark can be deliciously romantic!’
Hell, they’d wipe the smile off her feckless face, make no mistake.
Us lot make a mockery of the whole system.
We lack moral fibre; that’s our problem.
For tears are owed to the taxpayers to season their pound of flesh.
And, should it prove necessary, productive society shan’t shrink from
using threats of starvation to extract payment of this debt. It’s tough
love, that’s what it is; we shirkers don’t respond to soft measures.
We’ve had too many carrots; it’s about time we tasted the stick.
You see, they, with their jobs, have earned the right to label our lives
a paradise of foreign holidays and widescreen TVs, of playing
the system like poker while we pop out kids weekly for council houses.
There’s no doubt that we’re expected to accept their judgement
that we have it made. We’re just not supposed to be pleased about it.
The benefits claimant who eschews a hairshirt in favour
of jeans and a jumper is blatantly making it a lifestyle choice.
Society shan’t stand for it any longer. Oh, they’ll put the shame back
in claiming, alright. They’ll have us idle bastards face-red, head-bowed
and teeth-gnashing, as we were in the workhouse. It’s high time we learned
that joy and self-respect are employment bonuses (like company
cars or pension plans) – those without jobs aren’t entitled
to positive attitudes and, in the interests of justice,
the government will seize them like the stolen property they are,
while the media looks on gleefully and middle class
professionals sip their schadenfreude over tea and toast.
As a teenager, drinking heavily, she was diagnosed
with Bipolar Disorder Type II. Older now and sober,
she knows the phrase does not describe her, that the label does not fit.
She has no prolonged periods of highs or lows, and has never known
moments of normality. Her fits of screaming have their source
in shame, in bewilderment, in an inexpressible sense
that the world works on a system of secret handshakes
into which she has not been initiated. They burst out
of frustration, from unacknowledged language barriers,
limits to her recognition of faces and gestures,
her inability to speak sentiment or small-talk,
her struggles with ambiguity, her sense that conversations
lack clarity, her failure to process the concept of tact
or refrain from airing thoughts as they occur to her,
her awareness that she always gets things wrong
and the pain of being unable to ascertain why.
She is Autistic.
Yet she lives pinned to a label of mental illness, pale in the
shade of misdiagnosis, afraid to seek rectification
of another’s mistake. She is afraid a change in label
could be considered a Change of Circumstance, causing her
to be called for reassessment of benefits, despite
her condition’s remaining the same (a rose by any other name).
She is afraid of DWP medicals, afraid they could feel
like interrogations. She is afraid of questions that seem
incomprehensible and of unwritten rules. She is afraid
of subtext she cannot grasp and games she cannot play. She is afraid
they could choose to interpret her uninhibited frankness
as rudeness, defiance, or, most dangerously, non-compliance.
She is afraid of adversarial attitudes and
political presumptions of fraud. She is afraid of her
vulnerability, afraid of comorbidity, afraid
that the stress of denying mental illness could trigger it.
She is afraid of the ordeal of it, the modern-day witch-dunking.
She is afraid she might have to drown before being found innocent,
or die to be allowed the means to live.
Adele Fraser is a poetry lover who is living on Employment and Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance due to a life-long illness. She has degrees in Philosophy and Literature, and has been writing for many years. She only started sending her work out this year, when the political climate compelled her to speak out. These are her first published poems.