Life after WINZ: Week One

Technically, this will be the second week I do not get a welfare payment. I… cannot overstate the changes in my life.

Let me caveat this post with three things. The first is reiterating what I said in my relationship announcement – that despite the shitty circumstances of no longer qualifying for a benefit, I am lucky. I am privileged. I have been privileged the whole way through dealing with the welfare system, because I am white, and educated, and have a strong voice and media skills. That was why I survived. And now I am privileged because I have a partner who is willing to support me.

The mext thing is to say thank you, an endless, indescribable thank you to everyone who has been part of my experiences the past seven years. Whether we had one conversation, whether we talk all the time, whether you’re a Patron of Writehanded (which I will need now more than ever), whether you helped raise the funds for my MRI and my mattress and my specialists and my medicine, whether we’ve never talked but you still listened. I am so incredibly grateful to my community, to those who support me and each other, to those who are doing the mahi to change the system. Without you, all the education in the world wouldn’t have been enough. Because you held me up when I was beaten down. You helped me learn that I have intrinsic value, even when I cannot be a capitalist machine. You reminded me, time and time and time again, that despite all the horrors of the world, there is kindness. That people pull through for each other. That I won’t be alone even if I lost what I thought was my entire identity. I have learned more than I could possibly say from being a part of this community, and I have cried in wordless gratitude more times than I can remember.

Finally, the third thing I want to say is: it’s OK if you’re not interested in reading about me anymore. I worry that maybe I don’t have the same credibility, because I’m not a beneficiary. I’m just someone who lived through being one. And though I know I’m committed to still doing what I can to fix the welfare system, I also know that it’s likely I won’t be writing about it as much. I’m attempting to re-enter the workforce, after seven years of bitsy minimal self-employment, and it’s a huge shift for me. I still want to do my own writing as much as I can, but a lot of my very very limited energy will be being channeled into adjusting to living with someone, adjusting to my new financial situation, and trying to manage my workload and my stress so I don’t slip backwards. So, it’s OK if you’re not interested in whatever iteration of me comes next. I’m not changing who I am and I’m still going to write about difficult things, social issues, and my life. I just don’t know exactly what all that will look like, yet.

So… shall we press on?

I was both amused and repulsed to see someone on Twitter compare relying on a benefit to relying on a partner. “Erm, no” I replied, “Because I wasn’t in a relationship with WINZ.”

As gross as the thought is, I’m coming to realise… I was. And it was an abusive relationship, characterised by the horrific power imbalance, textbook gaslighting and fear tactics, isolating you, controlling you, and spying on you. (Please click that link if you’ve forgotten about MSD’s massive privacy breach affected thousands of beneficiaries, including them illegally obtaining a woman’s intimate photos from a third party and using the images to intimidate her. Because that’s not abusive boyfriend behaviour at all <eye roll hard emoji>).

Being out from underneath all of that is going to take not just significant adjustment, but recovery.

I still compulsively check MSD’s online portal, myMSD, in case they’ve somehow added a debt to me, or reinstated my benefit – unlikely, but it does happen – which would then incur a debt, or that there’s some other information in there that could be hanging over my head like an ax.

So far, the portal says the same thing. Your benefit payments have stopped. 

A sentence that would have invoked immediate panic in the past, and still now causes my breath to catch in my throat.

My benefit payments being stopped means so much more. It means I don’t have the same amount of money in my account every week, pitiful as it was. It means I’m cut off. It means that if I want to have any independence of my own, I have to force myself to do more work than I am really capable of doing.

To some people, it will look like I have a massive safety net in the form of my partner, and I guess on one level that’s true. On another level, I feel like I’m freefalling. My costs haven’t changed substantially, it’s just that I now rely on someone else to ensure that all our basic needs are covered. Even while flatting since my late teens, I’ve often been the only person on the lease, the one who pays the rent, the one whose name is on the internet and power bills, the one with the responsibility. I’m used to extreme money management because I had to survive on a benefit and I also had to account for others. It’s… not a mindset that’s going to change overnight. I like control. Control is my safe place. Letting go even incrementally is both freeing and utterly terrifying.

I imagine that moving in with anyone is a huge adjustment, and a huge part of that huge adjustment is money. How will you share bills? How will you save? What are you priorities? Do you open a joint account? What sort of purchases should be agreed together?

Opening up my finances to someone else would have always been a challenge to me, but doing so when I’ve been a beneficiary for seven years and it’s… kinda just tumbleweeds in my bank account has a particular kind of shame I had to face. I don’t think there is any reason to be ashamed – it’s not my fault that illness stole my ability to earn for a good chunk of my adult life, and that it’s impossible to save while existing on a benefit. But I still had to work through that vulnerability.

We’ve talked for hours and hours and done spreadsheets and discussed priorities and consolidated costs and opened a joint account (which took a painful amount of bureaucracy).

Money isn’t an easy thing to talk about. It has to be done carefully, with kindness, without judgement or anger. It has to be done strategically and with curiosity and purpose.

I am trying to change the way I conceptualise it because my partner doesn’t see money in the same way. I haven’t really figured out yet how we find a middle ground and more understanding of each other, but I imagine that’s just something that’s going to take time, and more talking. (So much talking! Why did no one warn me about all the talking?!)

After living so close to the bread line for years, I am used to weighing up purchases, to always hunting for the cheapest option, to skipping meals and turning down healthcare. My partner is also frugal with money, and I am still going to be doing all of the above – but it’s a lot to go from thinking ‘oh should i spend my benefit money on a $17 skirt I really need for work, bc $17 is so much money and what if people judge me for my spending as a beneficiary?’ to ‘should i spend my partner’s money on clothes?’

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the fact that I am so reliant on him. I have, after seven years of trying to work my way back to it, finally been made a very part-time employee of the PR firm I worked with before I got sick. It is a huge, huge milestone for me – and a pressure I am feeling. The income will be minuscule, not enough to replace what I lost, but it is the only thing that is mine. I will be using it for our joint expenses as well, but it’s my money so that I don’t have to be a 1950s housewife and ask the husband for ‘housekeeping money.’ It’s my money so that I can buy a seventeen dollar skirt without feeling guilty. So, in addition to the stress of losing my benefit, the stress of moving in with someone and the stress of managing a new household, I’m going through another huge adjustment – the commitment of being an employee. Before, I absolutely felt committed to my contracting work and to this writing, but I knew if I fell over, it would be ok. No one was relying on me. As an employee, I still have a lot of flexibility because of who my boss is, but it’s a level up – like all the one areas I’m trying to level up.

So, after Week One? Well, I feel less stressed the further I get from WINZ, but I would say my overall stress has not reduced at all. Hardly surprising, given all of the above and losing my benefit.

But the weight that is slowly lifting off my chest because I’m no longer accountable to MSD is worth all the risks.

I understand now when people write to me to say they have vowed never to ever return to a benefit, even if it means sleeping in their cars. Because I feel the same. I will do everything in my power to not have to go back. And I will try to keep shining a light on the issues that cause suffering for so many.

It’s supposed to be a welfare system.

It shouldn’t be giving people PTSD.

 

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