Twenty-seven

Dear Saagar,

It was your 27th birthday, last Thursday. You would have been 27 years old. You were 27. You are 27. Which one is it? None of the above? All the above?

You were a Presence eons before you were born as Saagar and you will be one for ever more. You are Awareness, beyond form and name. I am the same. There is no separation between us – both ageless, placeless and traceless. Untouchable. Unknowable.

Didn’t take that day off work this year. Woke up and thanked the blessed day for you, your life. On the beautiful bike ride to work, the heart overflowed with love and gratitude. Had a full productive day at work and another lovely bike ride home. Sat on your bench in the evening under the circle of trees bathed in the slanting rays of the setting sun. Felt the love.

Thank you for bringing me the true experience of love.

Yours,

Mamma.

“When love beckons to you, follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams

as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

… Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make you naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks.

He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant;

And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.”

  • Khalil Gibran

PS: Please like and retweet the link below if you can. That will give a media presence to this short documentary film, ‘1000 days’, which is based on this blog and has been made with the intention of bringing us all closer together in love, kindness and understanding so that no one reaches a point where they can’t find a way to live another day. You will be able to see the film in late summer, once it has done the rounds of a few film festivals across the globe. Thank you very much.

Changing the Conversation.

First versus second.

Medical versus human.

Symptoms versus experiences.

Problem-based versus Trauma-informed.

Here is an example of language, describing the same thing in two different ways.

First:

“I was 15 when I started to suffer with mental illness. I went to see a psychiatrist who told me that I had something called Schizophrenia. For a couple of years my symptoms got really bad and people were afraid I was going to hurt myself so I was hospitalised. They stabilised me on meds and shock treatments and sent me home. For a long time, I didn’t get sick again.

Later, as an adult, I started to get symptomatic again. I got pretty psychotic and once again got put in hospital. They told me there that I was really sick and should go on disability. For a long time, I was pretty sick but then started to be able to manage my symptoms.”

Second:

“I was 15 when I started feeling different than others and really alone. For a couple of years after that, I would do things in pretty extreme ways. They made sense to me based on what I was thinking and feeling but I guess it was scary for others who didn’t really understand what I was thinking and feeling. I got put in a hospital. There I really lost hope and beliefs about being a ‘regular’ person. They put me on a lot of medication that made me sleepy all the time. After I left, I threw out all the meds and put my intensity into music.

Years later, coming out of a difficult marriage I started to have similar kinds of experiences as the ones I had as a kid. I had really strong feelings and felt pretty separate from others. I got put back in the hospital again. I was told I had a major mental illness and that I should go on disability. Though I did that for a while, I realised that I was just going along with their beliefs rather than looking at how I’d come to think in certain ways. Little by little, I figured out what to do with my intensity and I’ve been really growing ever since.”

Each one of us is simply at a different place in our growth and development. Using language that is personal and descriptive of our experiences enables shared understanding. It forces us to think of ourselves and others more broadly as human beings, free of labels and assumptions.

Reference:

Intentional Peer Support: https://www.intentionalpeersupport.org/?v=79cba1185463

It changes. And changes again.

Over and over I asked myself – Now what? Now what? What happens after a severance such as this? How long do one’s bones bleed? Do the tears ever finish? What does ‘recovery’ look like? Is it even possible? How does one keep placing one foot in front of the other? Where is the road? Where does it come from? Where does it go? How long and meandering is it? When does the screaming in my head stop? How long can I keep up the facade? Pretend to be sane? Is this what a new diagnosis of a terminal illness feels like? Is forgiveness possible? Self-forgiveness? Acceptance? Surrender? All these big words! Surrender what? To whom? Who am I now? What do I do?

No answers. Silence. The tilted earth keeps spinning around its imaginary axis. It keeps cradling me. The sun stays at the center of its orbit. My son stays at the center of my being. My breath keeps coming and going. I grow new eyes. My bones carry my weight even though they bleed. The road appears under my feet. It reveals itself one step at a time. Rumi and Khalil Gibran come and hold my hand. The screaming softens. The wall of bricks that was my body, loosens. I come to know the terror and the joy of being insane, catch glimpses of being free. Respect for those who went before and sadly others, who follow. I stop fighting with the big words and keep it simple. Watch. Observe. See. Open. Let the gash in my heart, allow the light in.

A recent talk for The Compassionate Friends, a charity dedicated to supporting bereaved families.

Less than 3

Si was flummoxed by the ‘<3’ sign appearing repeatedly in the chat box on a zoom call with friends. Sometimes all by itself, without context, without a before or after. It took him a while to realise what it was. I suppose you know already. Don’t you?

“Love thy neighbour as thyself” implies that respect for one’s own uniqueness and integrity is inseparable from the understanding of anothers. Yet, it is widely believed that it is virtuous to love others. But to offer that same love to yourself is somewhat indulgent. In fact, this misconception goes as far as to say that the degree to which I love myself, I do not love others. Self-love is commonly understood to be synonymous with selfishness or narcissism. The French theologian, John Calvin speaks of self-love as ‘a pest’. Self-love bad, hence, unselfishness good.

Selfishness and self-love are opposites. When selfish, one is incapable of loving others and incapable of loving oneself.  

Only recently have I come to know this to be the truth – I am deserving of my love. In fact, I cannot fully love and respect another, until I love and respect myself a hundred percent. I don’t need to buy expensive gifts for me to experience it. Sitting quietly with myself is an act of love. It does not need evidence. It is free of all obligatory burdens. It is freedom itself.

On this day, I hope you can be your own Valentine. Happy Valentine’s day! Today and every day.  

 “If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself. As long as you love another person less than you love yourself, you will not really succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all alike, including yourself, you will love them as one person and that person is both God and man. Thus, he is a great and righteous person, who, loving himself, loves all others equally.”  

Poverty and the Mind

Vikram Patel is a psychiatrist and a Professor of Global Health who works tirelessly to improve the mental health of people living in low and middle income countries like India and Ethiopia.

His recent research has found that all countries are ‘developing’ countries when you look at the low proportion of the health-budget they spend on mental health. Some wealthy countries may have better systems of care for maternal and child health but overall, mental health remains universally, at the end of the queue.

At present, COVID has overtaken all other agendas. However, now more than ever before, there is a recognition of the two-way relationship between poverty and mental ill-health. This may be a historic opportunity to get this right.

The relationship between poverty and mental ill-health is a complex one. How can we distinguish a normal response to poverty from a disease process? Poverty can increase the risk of poor mental health via multiple pathways, for example, poor physical health, high levels of noise pollution, violent neighbourhoods, insecurity and humiliation.

Can an increase in income improve mental health? Yes. It can but it needs to be sustained.

The fact that having a mental illness may induce poverty is less well recognised. It may affect one’s education and hence, employment opportunities. In low and medium income countries, health care is paid for by people. Due to the length of time it takes to find an effective treatment, much effort and money is wasted in doctor-shopping. Depression is inequitably distributed in society but not recognised as such because wealthy individuals also get it. We accept that long term expensive therapies cannot be delivered to the poor, so what’s the point in studying them?

After nearly a year of job-losses, the number of people below the bread-line all over the world will increase by tens of millions. In India alone, the gains made in economic growth over the last decade are predicted to be wiped out this year. The historically disadvantaged will fare worse, suffer more.

We can expect a surge in mental health problems like we did after the 2008 global financial crisis, mainly led by suicide and drug misuse. Sir Angus S Deaton, a Nobel prize winning economist wrote extensively about these deaths of despair. Economists and global health experts warn that this one will possibly be far worse.

In India, while the state is spending all its energies on the pandemic, livelihood-based organisations are finding very poor mental health in their members. Taking a broad, multidisciplinary approach to depression and anxiety rather than viewing it through the lens of a medical specialty is the need of the hour. Policies all over the world need to de-medicalise the emphasis on specialists and empower front-line providers and communities to enable them to foresee, identify and address this problem.

The bi-directional relationship between mental health and finances means that appropriate mental health interventions can improve finances. Can we persuade policy-makers world-wide to listen to global health experts and economists, look at this fast-approaching  avalanche and steer policies to protect those who are being and will be hit by it?

Talk: Poverty and Depression (https://voxdev.org/topic/health-education/poverty-and-depression-how-improving-mental-health-can-help-economic-wellbeing) – this talk was available till last night but has since disappeared.

Research Papers:

  1. Angus Deaton on the Financial crisis and the well-being of Americans (June 2011):

https://www.nber.org/papers/w17128

2. Vikram Patel on Causal evidence and mechanisms of Poverty, Depression and Anxiety (May 2020):

https://www.nber.org/papers/w27157

The Season of Giving

In July, looking for inspiration to think and write beautifully, I spent an hour on 3 consecutive Sundays listening to David Whyte, a wise and warm poet of English/ Irish origin who speaks and writes, seemingly from his spirit. I thought he was some kind of a magician as I felt mesmerized, awakened and soothed by his presence and his words.

He described the simple involuntary act of breathing as a life-sustaining exchange for the planet – inhaling is receiving and exhaling is giving. Generosity and gratitude – reciprocity in every moment. Last Sunday he spoke on the seasonal subject of ‘giving’ and I can’t help but share the synopsis of his talk in his own words here.

  1. The foundational understanding that giving is not just a logistical act of transferring something from one person to another, but an art form to be practiced. Like all art forms, practicing it takes time and spaciousness and the ability to create a relationship with the unknown, the invisible and the unspoken.
  1. To learn to give is often the simple, heart-breaking act of giving again.
  1. Giving is an essence of relationship. To stop giving is often to call an end to relationship.
  2. Giving asks us to have a close relationship with both time and timelessness. All gifts change with the maturation of both the giver and the receiver.
  1. Giving is an imaginative journey into another’s life with all the implications accompanying that journey.
  1. Giving can be a form of blessing, a way of empowering another life. The blessing is made through giving what a person does not even know they need themselves.
  1. Giving, in the words of Shakespeare, is ‘Twice Blessed’. Through exploring the edges of our own generosity, we come to understand where we have trouble receiving ourselves; and this teaches us to ask for what we ourselves might not feel we deserve. In the enriched relationship, giving becomes a reciprocal harvest where giver and receiver are not so easily distinguished.

(PS: On 3 Sundays in January 2021, he speaks about resolutions for new beginnings. Recordings and written resources available if you are able/unable to attend the live event)

To my brothers … lean on me.

This video was made after a spate of suicides by senior NFL players in the USA as they were starting to feel the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Michael Irvin spoke from the heart without a script and his truth is visible.

If your isolation is getting the better of you, know that you are not alone. You are loved, silently. Reach out your hand and they will be there.

No flu this year?

Lock-down, we thought it would last a few weeks and then life would resume as normal. Then it was a few months and now it’s questionable if it’ll be a few years or for ever?

Confusing messages came at us from big people who made big decisions – the same people who then blatantly broke the very rules they made and yet, expected everyone else to follow them. First, we were doing it to protect the NHS and now we’re doing it to protect our loved ones. We are law-abiding citizens and want to do the right thing. We are considerate and we follow the rules, even when we know that they are not based on good science.

The government is working on the ‘worst case scenario’. Well respected scientists with a nuanced view on the validity of lock-downs, such as Sunetra Gupta(Oxford), Ivor Cummins(Dublin), Mark Woolhouse(Edinburgh) and Carl Henegan(Oxford) are rubbished by the media and subject to ad hominem attacks.

What about us, the common people? What drives our behaviours? Are we well informed or are we plain scared? The news doesn’t tell us that most people who get the virus get better. It doesn’t tell us that the average age of death in the UK is 82 with or without Covid. It doesn’t tell us that there is no ‘gold standard’ test for the virus and that if you test positive does not mean you have the plague.

Also, we need to have a grown-up conversation about death, which is the only definite fact of life.

November is the month we pay homage to all those who gave their lives to win us our freedoms but this November, we are seemingly, willingly giving our freedoms away.

Fear is a tool for manipulation. It overrides love. It can easily be transformed into hate. Despots throughout history, including Nazis and the Stasi used it effectively to make common people like you and me, enemies of each other.

George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” I, like many others, have been forced to consider how far I would be driven by my fear – snitch on a neighbour, not see a friend who might be recently bereaved or hurting for any other reason? Am I willing to live the rest of my life being told what I can do and what not? Is this the freedom for which those we remember died?

Now, the World Economic Forum in partnership with the global elite is setting out ‘The Great Reset’ on their website. At the same time BBC and New York Times are calling it a Conspiracy theory. Who am I to believe? This picture was taken from a short promotional video taken from a clip on Twitter, posted by the WEF. When I went back to look for it, it was gone.

Whatever the truth, I refuse to let fear rule.

In my world, love rules.

Civilized. Are we?

An anthropologist, Margaret Mead was asked by a student “What do you consider the first sign of civilization to be?” He expected her to mention things like clay pots, fish-hooks and grinding stones but she replied, “A femur that had been broken and then healed. In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger, get a drink from the river or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg for long enough for the bone to heal. A bone that has healed indicates that someone took the time to stay with the one who fell, bound up the wound, carried the person to safety and tended the person through to recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”

She also said that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Over the last weeks and months, there have been thousands of job-losses, much sadness caused by separation and bereavement and much suffering due to limited social contacts and falling away of normal support systems. Perhaps explaining this tweet by London Ambulance Service.

May be this is the time for us all to step up and be there for those who are affected. Sharpen our radars and pick up the subtlest signs of despair around us. However small, there is something we can all do – start a conversation, smile, share a hot coffee, offer a few coins or share information on useful resources. There will always be a reason to not do it but you are a member of a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens who are going to change the world. Slowly. Slowly.

Resource: PAPYRUS: A charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide: https://www.papyrus-uk.org/

Shushshsh…

In June 2020 Sher et al said “Social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties may lead to the development or exacerbation of depressive, anxiety, substance use and other psychiatric disorders in vulnerable populations including individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders and people who reside in high COVID-19 prevalence areas … COVID-19 crisis may increase suicide rates during and after the pandemic.”

This possibility is slowly starting to unfold. The number of calls being made to crisis help-lines of all kinds is up by about 40%. Economic uncertainty, insomnia, stress and suicidality feed into each other. The previous financial crisis of 2008 had a tragic outfall in terms of the toll taken on human life, essentially due to job losses. Now we are heading into another one. Unless governments all over the world wake up now, lives lost by suicide over the coming months and years could be more than those lost to COVID-19. As per the ONS data from last year, the England and Wales suicide rate remains statistically significantly higher than the rates seen in recent years.

Active outreach is necessary. If you know friends or family who might be struggling or worried, please do reach out to them with your time and open up supportive conversations. Sending a text or WhatsApp message is not enough. Having a proper check-in by telephonic or video link, possibly meeting up for a cup of tea or a drink fosters proper connection. If you find yourself in a tight spot, please know – this too shall pass. It is a temporary problem. Life still holds promise and beauty. Do reach out to your friends and family for support. More than ever before, in the present times suicide prevention is everybody’s business. Take care of you and yours.