Cricket in the summers and
badminton in the winters. That’s what Saagar chose to play during his school
years. He was good at both and wanted to be better.
I often went along to watch
him play, even though I didn’t appreciate all the technicalities of either
game. One evening we gathered in the Sports club to watch him play. I noticed
that every time he missed a shot he hit his right leg hard with the badminton
racket gripped in his right hand. That must hurt. I didn’t understand. It
distressed me. I spoke with him later. “It’s only a game, darling.”, I said. He
kept quiet, neither defending his action, nor arguing with me, pointedly focussing
on the piece of ground hit by his obliquely downcast eyes. In him I saw a boy in pursuit of perfection.
Out of the blue he broke up
with his lovely girl-friend of 7 months. That too on Valentine’s Day. His first
love. Sweet and innocent. On being asked why, he said, ”It’s boring.” Soon
after, late one night I gleened tears in his eyes as he hugged me, pretending
not to sob. In him I saw a boy, trying to be a man. Oh! The pains of growing!
After a night out with friends,
one weekend I noticed a cluster of 3 pea-sized fresh burn marks on his right
forearm. Horrified, I asked what happened. He said it was a dare. A few of his
friends were being goofy and challenged him to hold the burnt end of a
cigarette on his skin and he did. He laughed as if it was a joke. I didn’t know
what to make of it. How could this bright kid with an astute sense of right and
wrong be talked into this kind of silliness? In him, I saw a boy trying to fit
in with his peers.
Was there more to see? Did he
tell me everything or just what he thought I could handle?
Frantically searching for an important document, I rummaged through all my papers up and down the Study. My mind can’t be trusted with anything anymore! My memory is shot. I exhausted myself and all my options. Over a cup of tea, I thought about all the places I had not looked through. A box full of Saagar’s books and diaries. I never read through any of his personal stuff. But that day, before I knew it, I had read all his musings from his travels to Uganda with a friend. They were there for 2 weeks to help at a local school supported by their College.
It seems when he was struggling, he wrote. Like me. He wrote exactly as he spoke, leaving some words half said and stretching out the first letter of unspeakable words. His diary was reading itself to me in his voice. I felt like he was in the room. I was an intruder. It wasn’t my place to read it. It was personal to him. But it was also my conduit to him even if it was written 27 months prior to Day 0.
It was clear that the boys
were totally unprepared for the massive change. This is the note from his last
30/7/2012. 2300 hrs.
“Never before have I been able to say the words “I want my mommy!” with as much certainty as now. This sucks ass. I feel like such a pathetic little shit. I hope missing Mother is no more than a manifestation of homesickness.”
A deep feeling. Then a judgement. Then an admonishment and then a substitution. A minimization. A classic example of a young man being brutally unkind to himself even though he is suffering. Being a ‘man’. Not allowing for any fragility even in the face of a harsh reality.
Fact: He missed me. Thinking of me brought him comfort. I have evidence.
How could I ever doubt that? By judging myself too critically. Why do we do this to ourselves?
That was a beautiful gift from you to me on your birthday my son. 25th birthday! Bless you my love.
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.”
(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.
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.
Must’ve been confusing for him, for he was a happy kid.
He had enough joy in him to fill many lives and lifetimes.
His light was enough to illuminate the entire Universe.
He was my sweet child.
He was born to me.
He was mine.
That’s where the pain sits.
In the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’.
There is suffering.
This is my suffering.
I miss himlike hell.
He is greatly missed.
I could’ve, should’ve …
Things could’ve been different.
Only if I had been aware enough.
If we all are aware, we can stop this unnecessary heartache.
The prison of ‘me’ keeps me glued on one blood-splattered spot. My feet forever red. What if I was’nt a woman or a man, grand-father or Aunt, a janitor or a bus-driver, a traveller or a house-holder, urban or rural, a pop-singer or a vagabond, black, brown or beige, middle aged or infant? What if I had no labels. Then who would I be?
Would the pain be as deep as ‘mine’?
Can I break these shackles of conditioning and be pure consciousness? Can I escape this convenient web of fiction and dive into the deepest layers of pristine Beinghood?
Yes. Sometimes. When I allow the magic of the rhythm of the breath to work. To be anchored in this ecstatic moment.
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?
When I look back I can clearly see we were headed this way. But once again, it has taken the shocking death of 14 years old Molly Russell, to call the big bad media companies to account. They claim to be helpful and in some ways they are but their algorithms aren’t.
A few weeks back I was researching base-ball caps for a piece of writing and now I can’t log on to the internet without someone trying to sell me one such cap. I feel like I am being hounded, sitting alone in my study. It’s all about unabashed, indiscriminate, aggressive marketing. “We’ll give you want we think you want and more”, they scream.
In the last week of January, Ian Russell shook the media world by naming and blaming Instagram directly for making a major contribution to the death of his lovely Molly, by her own hands, in November 2017. Even after she had passed, she was being sent inappropriate images and material in response to her previous search for ‘Depression’ and ‘suicide’. The heart-break was written all over him. The very next week, Instagram was hauled up by the Parliament and its CEO agreed to take responsibility for removing and monitoring harmful content. Google and Facebook are yet to follow suit.
As indicated by this data from the ONS, there has been a worrying rise in female suicides, at either end of the age spectrum. The rise has been consistent in young women, 10 to 29 years of age, since 2013.
Last week, at the National Suicide Prevention Alliance Annual Conference, there was much discussion on the same subject. The minister for Suicide Prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price spoke briefly, trying to convince us that she would do everything she can to tackle the issue and we are watching. Like hawks.