Mum’s the problem.

Recently I have met a Professor of Psychotherapy, a Consultant Psychiatrist and a GP – all parents of children lost to mental illnesses. Here’s what one mum says:

“Whenever I have seen a therapist, they have gone straight to my childhood, my up-bringing, my parents and their parents. All my behaviours and feelings seem to be explained and understood based on their behaviours, however ‘normal’, for their times. I am encouraged to think of all the ways in which they could have directly or indirectly damaged me.

By that principle, all of my child’s behaviours and feelings should be explained and understood based on the behaviours of his parents. Half of them is me. I agree. I must be part of the problem. My profession is perceived as a bigger problem. ‘High achieving Asian’ parents are assumed to put a lot of pressure on their children. So much so, the medics looking after him didn’t even need to meet me or know the quality of our relationship to be certain that my job makes me a bigger problem than most other mums. They could squarely put the blame on me and actively keep me out of the picture. I asked too many questions. I was the biggest problem. They wrote it in their notes.

However, that does not mean that I cannot be part of the solution. NICE guidelines lay out my role beautifully but do the people on ground read any of these guidelines? In my experience, not. If half of all that is written in Policies and guidelines was implemented, families could engage meaningfully in helping their kids recover.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 23.01.58

Ref: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg185/chapter/1-Recommendations#recognising-diagnosing-and-managing-bipolar-disorder-in-children-and-young-people-2

Visiting my adolescence

Innkeeper's wife

(The mean, very mean wife of the inn-keeper. Nativity play 1983. CMC Ludhiana. India.)

Once upon a time I used to be a kid. A bright and happy kid. I nearly forgot that girl. She used to be fun. She loved singing, dancing and play-acting. She had thick black, unusually curly, short hair. She laughed easily and played harmless pranks. She listened to music on the radio with such ardour that her day was planned around the timings of her favourite programmes on the Urdu service of All India Radio. The last few pages of all her notebooks were filled with scribbled lyrics of songs written at speed to keep pace with them as they played on the old Murphy which was a part of her mother’s dowry. Then she neatly transcribed the messy song-words from the back pages of her notebooks onto a special red diary which was her treasure.

A few months back I accepted an invitation from my alma mater, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, India.  This is where I trained to be a doctor and an anaesthetist, nearly 30 years ago. They requested me to run a Mental Health workshop for about 70 medical students and make a Keynote address at the World Junior Medical Congress they were hosting in early April.

While preparing my lecture, I dug up a few old pictures. They flew me back in time. I saw what I looked like when I was Saagar’s age. It was a strange juxtaposition. So much had changed. Oh, that heart-breaking innocence! The stars in my eyes shone so bright, they nearly blinded me. Who was this lovely girl? Where is she now? She has walked a long way and formed a big circle. She is back where she started, working with what she has – her Love, her Grief and her Self.

MH Workshop

The workshop was four and a half hours long. The sharing was powerful, the enthusiasm infectious. The learning for all of us was invaluable. It was fun! We sang and we danced. We worked and we played. It was just like the old times. Saagar was there. He was smiling his crooked smile.

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” – Victor Frankl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is all a dream.

Dream

When I stood in front of all those people, my arms were branches of an old oak flailing in a wild wind, my throat was shouting out commands like a drill sargeant at the top of his voice, my eyes were wide open and desperate to get through to everyone in the room. My chest was an erupting volcano and my feet had thrown deep roots into the ground. I invited Saagar and all my angels to help me as I felt exposed. The ‘normal’ part of me wanted to protect Saagar and me from people’s judgements. I am sure some were being made as I spoke. That is ‘normal’ too. But the mother in me stood like a warrior, absolutely disregarding any consequence, complete in the conviction that this was the right thing to do. It was difficult but it was worth doing.

Three times this week. Three times I got to show Saagar off to a bunch of doctors – 250 and 18 and 9. So, 277.  They saw the light in his eyes. They now know that many suicides are preventable. They know the stigma and silence of mental illness and suicide. They know that every mention of suicidal thoughts should be taken seriously. That if they notice a colleague, a friend or a family member behaving strangely, they can ask them ‘Are you ok?’ And whatever the answer, they can deal with it.  They know that it’s ok to go as far as asking, “Are you thinking of ending your life?” It’s difficult but worth doing. It might save a life. That no one is immune. That everybody can make a difference. That many doctors are lay people when it comes to suicide and believe in popular myths. That doctors, dentists and vets are very high risk groups and need to take good care of themselves and each other. That the medical curriculum is all about physical illnesses. That Mental Health services are broken in this country and we all need to educate ourselves and strongly advocate for our near and dear ones if, God forbid, the need arises. That charities like Papyrus do a great job of helping young people. That when it comes to suicide, there is only prevention. No cure. They now know when, where and how to find help.

Later on, a young lady chatted with me about how useful she found the content of my presentation and how it helped that it was delivered in such a calm and composed manner. Really? Was she talking about me?

Ref: Art of Conversation (NHS Scotland) :
http://www.healthscotland.com/documents/2842.aspx

A song and a prayer.

images-1

Once upon a time I used to sing. My friends had to beg me to stop. In 1987, a whole bunch of us, medical students traveled from Ludhiana to Delhi to participate in the Annual music festival at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, called ‘Pulse’. It was just the perfect time for us to be and sing together. We belted out song after song for the entire duration of the train ride. Some onlookers were entertained and others annoyed but we were oblivious to them all. By the end of the journey, we were hoarse. I had no regrets that on the day of the competition, I sounded nothing like myself. I had had a great time.

I grew up in a house filled with music. The radio used to be on before we woke up in the morning and we followed the charts closely every friday on ‘Binaca Geet Mala’. My parents loved Hindi film music which by default is the most popular music in India. My mother has an uncanny ability to remember lyrics that I seem to have inherited. The popularity of the music of a film determines its box-office success. Our playback singers are worshiped like Gods.

Saagar found Hindi film music b-o-r-i-n-g!!! He thought it lacked imagination and the lyrics were always about romantic love. True. Yet, he accompanied me in my singing whenever I asked him. Despite the fact he didn’t know the songs, he played the drums or Djembe along to perfection. The boy had a solid sense of rhythm. After losing Saagar, I lost my songs. Some, I just couldn’t bear to listen to. Others, I could sometimes play for myself and occasionally enjoy. But singing was undoable. My tears would come tumbling in waves if I attempted it. For more than 4 years, I mostly stuck with words, Radio 4 and the random weekly music of someone else’s choice on Desert Island Discs. For the last 2 years, Si and I would dance to some of our favourites on Saturday evenings, while pottering around in the kitchen.

A few months ago, some songs came to me. They were devotional and Sufi. Initially, they came with tears of love, sorrow and gratitude. With practice, the tears learnt to hide. My friends accompanied me – Katie on viola and Rajesh on the tabla and finally, last week I gathered the confidence to sing in public after 5 years. It was an exercise in equanimity. It didn’t matter how melodious or off-key the song was, it was an offering from the heart. It was a way of loving and honouring myself, Saagar,  friends and families present and all the lovely people they had lost to suicide. It was a new beginning.

English translation of O Paalan hare

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God

Except you, we have no one
You are our only supporter
You are our only protector
Except you, we have no one.

It is you who has filled the moon with moonlight
The sun’s brightness is from you
The sky is content, you have given it stars
God, if you don’t adorn this life
Then who will adorn it?

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one.

If you listen, Lord, I shall make a plea
Give patience to the sorrowful
So that they never give in to their sorrow
Provide the powerless with protection
So that the powerless can live happily.

Provide our devotion with strength.
Provide our devotion with strength.

As you are the master of the world, please hear this plea
There is darkness in our path
Shine your divine light for us.

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God
Except you, we have no one.

Lyricist: Javed Akhtar
Composer: A R Rahman
Film: Lagaan

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arF8gWNFyZo

Recording: http://we.tl/t-npGeikz9QP?src=dnl

Venue: St Martin in the Fields. 9th March 2019.

Big thanks to Mary Kennedy for recording the song and to David Mosse for organising the Time to Talk service.

Thank you, Mr Bronx.

IMG_6919

He came to us as a little girl in 2004, from Antrim Animal Sactuary. We called him ‘Bella’ for a week before the vet told us he was a little boy. One of his ears had a wedge missing, a sign of having lived rough. That didn’t take his sweetness away. He jumped to the top of kitchen cabinets and mewed in protest for being locked up indoors. He loved being outside in the sun, watching the world go by and making friends with it. He played with anything – hair, wool, food, the mint plant, newspapers, laptops. He brought a light and joyful energy into our house.

He slept under my bed and some mornings I woke up, looking straight into his eyes. We had long conversations where each of us listened and allowed a gap after the other finished their sentence before starting to speak. Saagar was endlessly amused by this intimate interaction beyond language, where everything was being expressed and understood. In the evening, while I sat watching TV, Mr Bronx sat watching me.

Stroking him saved my life. He received love generously. That alone was enough.

He happily adopted the neighbours by pretending he wasn’t being fed at home. One day I found a note through my door. ‘Please feed your cat’ it said. Later I also found out that one of my lovely neighbours had set up a Facebook page to find support for this poor black and white cat on his street! Thank you, Bronx!!!

A few months ago the vet said that his thyroid and kidneys were not working very well. She put him on a special diet and some meds. We ran some blood tests, which indicated that he was slowly approaching the end of his life. So, we made the most of our time together, playing and eating and a lot of loving. Si found out Mr Bronx loved organic chicken. He treated him and himself to it often.

Last Friday Mr Bronx got a bit wobbly on his feet. On Saturday, all he wanted was to lie down. We spent the whole day together in the sun, listening to music and Radio 4, saying hello to passers-by and talking. That night he peacefully slipped away in his sleep. He now rests in his favourite place, our garden. Love you, Mr Bronx. Thank you.

Let’s play cricket. Not war.

athletics-ball-bat-161499071 years ago a random line was drawn across the map of our country by a historical giant who sat thousands of miles away from us and felt compelled to make a decision in a hurry. Not surprisingly, it was a bad decision that left a huge gash on the chest of Mother Earth that still bleeds. That historical icon didn’t care who we were, whether we were Indian or Pakistani, whether we were dead or alive. He is dead and gone but still winning. Let us not let him win. This is a new world. We can change history.

Open your eyes and see. We are one.

Look at us. We look the same. We speak the same language. We share the same mountains and rivers, the same sky, sun and moon. We share the same songs and stories. We are crazy about Amitabh Bachan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. Our TV serials echo the same stories to each other. Our women are the most beautiful in the world. We love to sing and dance and celebrate our families. We work hard and love whole- heartedly. Don’t let the demons of hatred devour us.

Open your eyes and see. We are one.

The dust of our lands has the same heavenly fragrance. The people want to live peacefully and want a good education for their kids. The world recognises us as peacemakers, awarding the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014 jointly to Malala from Pakistan and Kailash from India. We share our passion for cricket and produce the best cricketers in the world. We share the same spices and laugh at the same things. We are home to the oldest Universities in the world. We are an ancient and wise civilization. Let us play music and cricket together, not war.

Open your eyes and see. We are one.

There is enough pain in the world already. Please don’t create more. Please don’t. Please. Wake up and hunt out the arsonists who light sparks and entertain themselves by  making destructive fires. Weed them out from the root and remember, that line which was drawn 71 years ago was artificial. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s not honour it any more with the blood of innocents. Don’t listen to war-mongers.

Let’s open our hearts and see. We are one.

 

Just beneath the skin

upload-a3f02130-8feb-11e8-a1b2-0d4a873dc20d

Dissecting a human body is an enlightening experience. At 17, in the first year of medical school, it was a shock to enter the massive Anatomy hall with 12 metallic rectangular tables, each occupied by a horizontal naked human body covered with a white cotton sheet. 4 students in alphabetical order, to a table/ body. All different but more or less the same, students and bodies. Mine was a dark skinned, muscular young man in his thirties. I wondered how he had landed up on this table in the heart of Punjab when he clearly belonged somewhere else. I wondered what his story was.

The air was suffused with a stench of formaline. It flew through the roof of my nose straight into the recesses of my gray matter to form unerasable maps. It stung the eyes so hard, they wept. I never thought it was possible to get used to that repugnant odour but by the end of the first week, it was a ‘normal’ part of me.

‘Upper limb and breast’ was the first Lesson. Anterior, posterior, medial, dorsal, ventral lateral, proximal, distal were some of the new words added to my word bank. When I took the scalpel to my man’s skin, I flinched. It was an invasion. A sacrifice. An offering. A permission. I wanted to apologise to him and thank him. As I carefully peeled the first layer off, a pale yellow silky layer unravelled itself. I peeked at the next table and it was the same. And the next and the next. Men and women, old and young, squat and fit, brown and black. Whatever on the outside, were the same just underneath. The other thing they had in common was that they were all dead.

It’s the same with us. Whatever we are on the outside, we’re the same just underneath. We cry the same salty tears, we feel the same love for our kids, we yawn and sneeze and hiccup and breath the same way. We all are distinct and yet, more or less the same. Our innermost desire is only to be loved and understood. And one day we will all be dead.

At present, with the identity politics at its peak, my kind, gentle and fairness-loving husband is made to belong to only one box, that of a straight middle-aged white man. Yet, he is so much more than that. Just as black people are so much more than just black and homosexuals are so much more than just that. And Saagar was so much more than just a brown young man.

Underneath all that they all are just human. We have the privilege of living on the most gorgeous planet. Our numbers are higher than ever before and our potential as a race is the highest it has ever been. Yet, we cannot find one suitable host for the Oscars Award ceremony. Because we have paralysed ourselves. We cannot allow people the smallest past or future mistakes and mis-judgements. The amount of energy spent on getting offended or apologising for mistakenly causing offence is frightfully high.

At a time when we need more cohesion between humans than ever before, we are building divisions all over the world – us and them. Be it ‘the wall’ in America or Brexit or Islamophobia. We need bridges, not walls. We need to see ourselves in others – vulnerable and tough at the same time.

Can we make an effort to find the sameness between us? I may be a hippie and you a hipster but we are not that different. Let’s talk.