Nowhere to go.

On the 9th of March, I reached Melbourne for the second leg of the Churchill Fellowship. I had been looking forward to it for ages and just couldn’t wait to get started. I had the taken the whole month off. Despite the long journey I didn’t feel any fatigue. My AirBnB was homely and comfortable. After a good night’s sleep, I was ready for work.

The Beyond Blue Office was easy to find. After a brief introduction to the team, we all went out to get coffee together. I was already one of them and the coffee was great. The following days flew past with meetings, interviews, presentations and briefings. A trip to Headspace. Despite some background murmurings of a virus, I was having the best time, learning and exchanging thoughts and ideas. Then Australia closed its borders. Meetings and conferences started getting cancelled.

On the 16th, I took a return flight to London.  My trip shrank from 3 weeks down to one. I had to miss Sydney altogether. Now, I am back here with a blank diary for 2 weeks and I am loving it. I have volunteered myself to work and I am on standby.

I can now research and look up things I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I can clear out one cupboard every day and get rid of stuff I don’t need or use or get joy from. Unclutter and create space in my house and my head. I can go to bed without setting an alarm. That pile of unread books that’s been sitting atop my table, feeling ignored and giving me dirty looks, can now be tackled.

Part of me is rushing in to fill the time with a list of a hundred things to do but I am consciously slowing down. Having an easy routine. Fitting in things I love doing, like arranging flowers. Making time for friends. Cooking. Walking. Not getting hooked to the media but keeping an eye. Writing hand-written letters to loved ones. Sitting still. Enjoying our home. Truly appreciating the weirdness of our cat, Milkshake. Cherishing having breakfast, lunch and dinner with Si as he works from home.

Simplify. Make easy. Make plain.

The Way Back – supporting attempt survivors – an idea worth adopting.

Who knows?

12 days ago I left my home and husband with a strange sense of ‘last-ness’. Si and I are familiar with that uncomfortable feeling.  We know that the whole world can change in one second. 12 days is a long time.

Melbourne, Australia, was my final destination when I left home to complete my Churchill fellowship. On the way, I broke my journey for a week in India. I find it impossible to fly over India to go to other places without stopping. There, I watched in horror how much India’s centre has moved to the right. It has gone so far that the words ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ are now bad words. My closest friend there is a Muslim gentleman whom I have known for the last 23 years and have never thought of him as a Muslim. But now I fear for his safety. I fear for the safety of all my family as I know that when there is fire, some are damaged by flames but many more by smoke.

So, here I am, in Melboune, at a house, rented through AirBnB and so much has happened in these 12 days. I have never understood the need for 24-hour News Channels as they endlessly repeat themselves, induce panic and heighten pre-existing anxieties. Many people are petrified. They are understandably worried about themselves and their loved ones. The restrictions being imposed are causing more isolation and angst. Italian prison scenario is a very sad example.

This is a good time to observe the effect news has on you, pay attention to your feelings and take a break when you need to, from the constant ranting of various media. I am doing that. I am keeping myself informed, connected and calm. I am not willing to allow the situation to affect my mind too much. I am taking all the precautions as advised and that is the best I can do. WHO sensibly says let’s look after our bodies and minds.

I suspect that death rates from this virus are being hugely exaggerated. They are based on projections from those who have been tested, but many people, all over the world have had a cold or flu over Jan and Feb and have not been tested. So, where does the truth lie?

No one knows. That is the answer. No one knows.

Gullyboy (Street boy)

A Hindi film about young boys growing up in slums, turning into rappers.
(Nominated for the best foreign film at the Oscars 2020.)

Angst escapes as words and song,

To a simple metre they belong.

Expression is art.

Connection at its core.

Honest.

Straight from the heart.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

Keep working at it.

Be proud of what you is.

Know that all will change.

Nothing is too strange.

Dig deep and dig deep.

Be the shark of the deep.

Not a gold fish in a bowl. Yo.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

Our day will come

Every dog has his day.

Doesn’t look great right now.

But it will go away.

Respect …. yourself. Yo.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

The heat of strife will melt your chains

And set your spirit free.

Your friends will stand by you

No matter what may be.

Stay rooted and look high.

Like an eagle. Fly.

No fright. Just flight. Yo.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

Know. Just know.

It’s okay to show.

The wounds that hurt you so.

Someone will understand.

Trust in life and let go.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

You are not all alone.

Though it may seem so.

Prayers and blessings galore

Are sewn into the seams of your clothes.

You wear them all the time

But you just don’t know.

You are a rare diamond.

You are my heart and soul.

You are the sun, the moon,

The galaxy to me.

But you could never know.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

The ocean and me.

That was the winter of 2014-15. This is the winter of 2019-20.

This was the beach in Goa where I sat paralysed for weeks. Some days I didn’t walk or talk. For days, I peered into my laptop, trying to figure out the ugly intruder who had broken into our house and taken my everything, my son. I swam in the whys and hows of this tragedy that had befallen us. The fact that my life continued while his had ended baffled me. I struggled with how that could be and what was the meaning and purpose of what was left. What now? What now? The question marks sprang up incessantly.

Si was with me then as he is today.

In this time, life has revealed that there is no one answer, no single destination, nowhere to go, nothing to do. All there is, is unfolding. The Universe endlessly expressing itself through this beach, the moon, the sand, the pain and me.

After dark, the wave fronts approach the shore shimmering like sword edges of the cavalry, roaring towards me and then breaking apart into a playful white surf and disappearing into the sandy slope. Again and again. Same but different. In the navy blue of the night it appears as though the special effects team has spent hours to make it look like this.

The lukewarm sand between my toes. The dancing waterline swirling around my feet. My hand tenderly held in Si’s. The rhythmic breathing of the ocean. The ins and out of my breath. The moon, an oval light overhead. The sea breeze ruffling my hair. The hint of salt in the air. The humidity, same as that in my eyes.

A pause. A break. A blank.

A moment holding everything within. It’s all here.

Mental – I – zation

He was 15 when his Hungarian parents thought it would be best for him to come to live in the UK with another family. His parents were refugees in Paris and he in London. World War 2 had ended a few years prior. The times were turbulent and many people were having to make difficult decisions.

This boy did not speak English. He landed up amongst strangers, completely inhibited, unable to do well in school. He was teased and taunted by his contemporaries and no one understood him. At 16, he became seriously suicidal. He had a plan. One day a neighbour noticed that he didn’t look great and encouraged him to speak to someone at the Anna Freud National Centre for children and families.

 “The therapist who saw me could see beyond the struggles and see another person, see they had certain competencies and capacities, and that, if you removed some of the inhibitions, the self-defeating behaviours, and got access to my more positive side then I could do quite well,” he remembers.

Prof Peter Fonagy is now a leading contemporary psychoanalyst who has propounded and researched the theory and practise of ‘Mentalization Based Therapy’ (MBT). He is also Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre for Children and families. In simple words, mentalization is the effort an individual makes to understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, beliefs, desires and behaviours. It is the ability to mind other minds, to understand misunderstandings, to see the impact of our behaviour on others, to see oneself from the outside and others from the inside. MBT is said to be especially helpful in the management of Borderline Personality Disorders.

The things that block mentalization are, firstly, the strong feelings of anger, shame and fear. And secondly, defensiveness, not wanting to know what’s going on in another person’s mind.

I can see how mentalization could make each and every relationship work. Not just the ones we have with others, but also the most important one, the one we have with ourselves.

Working from the heart.

I had taken the day off work. The nurturing, peaceful, green lap of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at Hemel Hampsted was where I wanted to be. It was a day of rest, solitude, silent contemplation and meditation. Autumn was at its prettiest best and despite everything, it was time to receive beauty. Receive time.

It was the fourth anniversary of Saagar’s passing. The most difficult day of the year, despite my belief that time means absolutely nothing. But this day always stares at me like the enemy. A wretched, horrid, cruel, ugly thing. A brown sludge that I have no choice but to drag myself through.

Slowly, slowly … most of the day drew itself behind me. I returned home, gazing at the sky from the train window, still looking for answers. Still nothing. Just the unbearable pain of longing.

Switched myself back into practical mode, as the next day I was meant to be working. Opened my inbox and found an e-mail from someone called Dan.

“I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue like this, my name is Dan, I’m a third year medic at Aberdeen University and also the Vice President of the Anaesthetics Society. 

I actually attended your talk at the AAGBI conference this summer. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I found it incredibly moving. The very day before I attended I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and was worried about how this would indeed impact on my studies and working career as a Doctor. 

After your talk, I met with one of the Consultants who was offering a ‘mentoring’ session where I discussed the recent diagnosis. She spoke to me about what I need to do to stay well, one of the things was accepting treatment, which initially I admit I was not that open to doing. 

Anyways, I find myself rambling on, I suppose I just wanted to email and introduce myself. If you have any advice for someone with Bipolar who is wishing to pursue a career in Anaesthesia then I would love to hear it!

I just saw an email which was saying that you are giving a talk in Aberdeen next week about this particular topic, which I certainly hope to attend! If you would be about afterwards and free for a coffee I would certainly love to meet you!

Best Wishes and sorry again for emailing like this out the blue!

Kind regards,

Dan.“

Another green moment – tears mixed with joyful smiles. What a way to end the day. What perfect timing.

We met in Aberdeen a few days later. He was all smiles. Friendly, generous and sensitive. We got on instantly. Had a nice long chat. He dropped me in his little red car to the airport. I told him I was hoping to write a book at some stage. He offered to help me with the research that might be needed.

Last week, I was back there in Aberdeen at Dan’s request, to run a 2 hour-long Mental Health Workshop for a bunch of medical students, junior doctors and researchers. It was a good day. I had to smile when Dan talked about Saagar as if he was an old friend.

1+50+176+?

Merchandise at the Manchester Firing Line. Manchester New Hampshire. USA.

On a board of chess, both sides stand face to face

Using wise moves, strategies and tacts.

No drones, no justified assassinations   

No sneaky cyber-attacks.

Two rooks, bishops and knights, both sides have by rights.

Those are the rules of the game. For both sides, the same.

Some things are clearly wrong and others that are right.

Whether your pieces are black, or brown or white.

The way the moves are made,

the way the game is played,

a knight is often not the first to be slayed.

A murder in plain sight

Yet, everyone kept quiet.

No criticism. No outcry?

The killers had good reason. That is why.

They always do.

But do they speak the truth?

Who knows? Do you?

Vietnam, Iraq and now this.

For what? For who?

He was someone’s dad, someone’s son,

A military leader, not holding a gun.

This was an act of cowardice, just for fun.

Guns are a sport in the land

from where the assassin came.

The killers proudly laid claim

To this, their ‘good deed’.

Knowing full well that yet again,

they are sowing a seed.

A seed of death and conflict.

Within a week, a stampede.

Multiple counter-strikes

Hitting innocent planes and passers-by.

Who are the ones that die?

People like you and I.

While the international bully

Keeps on keeping on fighting

In the name of self-defence,

‘Freedom and Liberty’?

When a gun is fired, two people die.

The one hit by the bullet

and the one who let it fly.

War is not the answer. Please.

How can we tolerate this?

Instead of wrapping the world in daisy-chains,

We are covering it in wreaths.

(Footnote: Sixty thousand war veterans, many of them young men, have died by suicide in the USA in 2008-2017. On an average 17 to 20 suicides per day and the rates are not falling despite massive efforts.

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/09/23/alarming-va-report-totals-decade-veteran-suicides.html)

Patients first.

Credit: Mario Sanchez Nevado (www.aegis-strife.net)

When I speak with gatherings of doctors, I often start with asking them to shout out whether they think the statements below are True or False. What do you think?

  • Sick doctors know when they are sick.
  • Doctors are good at asking for help and following advice.
  • Doctors take good care of themselves.
  • Doctors have strong support networks.
  • Doctors are kind to each other.   

Irrespective of which country I am in, without fail the auditoria flood up with a big resounding ‘FALSE’ for each of the above, accompanied with some sniggering. Isn’t it shocking? One would expect that people who work in ‘healthcare’ would know a thing or two about their own health as individuals and as a community.

These are the highlights of a survey conducted by the Royal College of Anaesthetists in 2016-17:

The NHS Sickness statistics consistently show that NHS hospital doctors have the lowest rate of sick leave as compared to any other staff group.  Here is a list of personality traits of doctors (a broad generalization, of course) that might explain this:

  • Perfectionism (I must do this right!)
  • Narcissism (I am good at what I do.)
  • Compulsiveness (I can’t give up till I finish.)
  • Denigration of vulnerabilities (If I need help, I am weak.)
  • Martyrdom (I care for my patients more than myself. Their needs come before mine.)

The very traits that make us good doctors are the ones that may not be very good for us. But our seniors have not been aware of this and hence they have not been able to help us understand ourselves. This tradition has been going on for generations of doctors. There is a nobility associated with such self-sacrifice, which we all have bought into. The fact is that if your own cup is empty, you cannot serve others well.

Things add up – a dysfunctional department, work pressures, lack of support outside work, ill-health, emotional burden of the job, a traumatic adverse incident, lack of sleep, fatigue, a complaint made against you, poor diet and no time to exercise or pursue hobbies, impaired judgement of one’s own symptoms, fear of letting others down, difficulty in admitting that they have a problem.

Burnout among medics is not unusual. It looks much like depression and sometimes ends in devastating tragedies. But help is available. Sadly, unlike other illnesses, for mental health issues, the onus of getting help lies with the sufferer. It takes courage to acknowledge one needs help and seek it out in good time. It might be the best thing a doctor can do for themselves and their patients.

Sources of support:

  1. https://www.bma.org.uk/advice/work-life-support/your-wellbeing/sources-of-support
  2. Doctors in Distress, a charity set up by Amandip Sidhu in memory of his brother Dr Jagdip Sidhu who was an eminent cardiologist and tragically died by suicide on 27th November 2018.

Could I?

She ran around chasing her multiple ‘to-do’ lists the whole time. She managed to tick things off it with fare speed. Yet her chores never ended. She didn’t allow herself the slightest slip-up. She slowed down for nothing or no one. Despite running herself down she kept carrying on. Yet she thought she wasn’t quite hitting the mark. There was so much more to do. She lived so much in the future that she could never see the landscape of her own heart or anyone else’s. She didn’t know that if your own cup is empty, you can’t fill someone else’s.

She thought she had everything under control. She didn’t ask anyone for help or advice. Even if they offered it, she seldom took it. She did her own thing. Deep down she knew that she didn’t know best but had no idea how to admit it. She took herself way too seriously. She bull-dozed her way around the marshland of her life and crushed a poor little soul every now and then. She didn’t know how to apologise even when she was truly sorry.

She took herself off to far-away places as and when she fancied, oblivious of the impact it would have on those left behind. She just wanted to fly high, be happy, be free. She made it look like she had it all figured out when in fact, she was lost. She had no names for her feelings. Somewhere along the way she had learnt that it was ok to be a martyr and a bully and she managed to play both those roles to perfection. She didn’t know that it wasn’t ‘hard work’ but kindness that made a life good.

She had been unfulfilled and ignorant in so many ways for so many years but she had no clue. She was under the impression that she was successful. There was so much that she did not know. But none of it was her fault.

Could I forgive her?

She was the mother of my son before Day 0.

Could I accept her? Even love her? Embrace her? Could I?

Our own voices

Paramedics and trainee paramedics rotate through our Department of Anaesthesia to learn to manage airways safely. A few weeks ago, I had a young man in his mid-thirties, a trainee paramedic with me, learning about airway management. Out of curiosity I asked him, “What is the most annoying part of your job?” He was straight-up, “When people inflict injuries on themselves, I think it’s such a waste of time. It takes away from others with real problems, who really need our attention.” I just smiled. I wasn’t surprised. I know full well that paramedics do a great job of looking after all kinds of people in all kinds of trouble. But attitudes can only be changed through education.

A professor of Psychiatry tweeted today “Twice in the last week I’ve been told of cruel comments by health staff to people who had self-harmed. I really believe this is unusual now but it shows there is something deep-rooted that we have to eradicate.” A classic example of ignorance within medicine of attitudes within medicine.

No training of first responders is complete till someone with lived experience of a mental illness has spoken with them, be it a police academy, social workers, fire fighters, nursing or medical students or ambulance crew. Lived experience includes suicide attempt survivors, others who have experienced a suicidal crisis and those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Sharing by these individuals can be a powerful agent for challenging prejudice and generating hope for people at risk. It enriches the participant’s understanding of how people with these serious disorders cope with their symptoms, recover and lead productive lives with hope, meaning and dignity. The program also empowers those who are faced with mental illness and provides living proof that recovery is an ongoing reality. Presenters gain confidence and self-esteem while serving as role models for the community.

Disproportionate focus on research and clinical expertise too frequently fails to see the person at the centre of a crisis as well as their loved ones who ride the wave of terror of suicidal behaviour. This needs to change and with urgency.

Lived Experience is an underutilised and underappreciated resource in the UK.

Roses in the ocean, a charity in Australia is an excellent example of harnessing this invaluable resource and making a huge difference.