Once again, I found myself in Swansea. The meeting was planned weeks in advance and I had travelled 4 hours to be there. I, a practising doctor, once again, seeking light in the realm of the unexplained. Why was I there? Because I wanted to write a book and I wanted to know what Saagar thought. Does that make sense? Like hell it does. That’s why I had trudged all the way there and would be changing trains for the rest of the day to get back home.
One whole wall in the waiting room was teaming with thank-you cards, mostly from women who believed they had had babies as a result of Acupuncture or other therapies received at the centre. It was a modest space with a tired fawn carpet and upright wooden chairs with plastic, foam maroon coverings. Like all waiting-room-chairs all over the country.
Her big smile snatched my gaze away from the wall and welcomed me into her space. She guided me up the stairs into the same consultation room where we had met more than a year ago. The familiar potted palm, the large window and the same arrangement of the 2 comfy sofas by the fire-place, facing each other with a small wooden table placed in between. Déjà vu, all over again.
I sat facing her and the window. She sat facing me and the door. We started with a brief catch-up and then she connected with Saagar. She said he’s happy. He’s growing his hair and following the cricket. She thinks she can hear him speak French. Is he saying something about Guy’s hospital? He says he enjoyed his time and friendships at Dulwich. He mentioned a particularly close ‘black’ friend. I am sure he means the one coming home to lunch tomorrow. He says he loved the large window by his bed with the great view of the London cityscape.
He felt there was a place for him at the wedding. It was fun, especially the bit by the river in the early morning hours. He must have meant the photo-shoot of Si and I in our normal clothes. It shows us in our ‘natural habitat’. The camera loved the early morning sun. So, we complied. ‘Natural’ and ‘photos’ don’t belong in the same sentence. We tried our damnedest best, seeking inspiration from Hollywood and Bollywood combined, getting confused and dramatic and giving rise to some cracking moments. He was there.
He offers me a Green Tara through her. A Buddhist manifestation of active compassion, Tara is the saviouress, the one who reaches out and responds freely to all who suffer. She is fearless and boundless. He wants me to have a jade statue of Tara. He knows my heart and mind. We walk in the same light.
She says the book will happen. A book of beauty and joy that was him. Of his continued presence. Of hope.
( A 20 minute video of an awareness raising presentation for trainee anaesthetists at a national conference in Glasgow from earlier this month: Being Human)
[E-mail address for Moya O’Dwyer, the medium: firstname.lastname@example.org]
S is for Saagar.
For Simon and Sangeeta.
Sudden shocking jolt
For shameful silent suffering,
Like one strike of lightening
Sucking up a few lives at once.
S is for surreal memorial services
Soul-searching and seeking
Sometimes screaming out-loud
Shattered dreams, salty tears,
And sweet memories
Strewn across the wooden floor
Like techni-coloured glass beads.
S is for simplicity
Sparkling smiling eyes
Salvation and solace
Shiny haloes and surrender
Like the curve of a weeping willow
Stooping down to kiss the ground.
S is for sharing
Speaking out loud
Saffron rice and saag-paneer
Saturdays and Sundays
Self as everything
Like the stars, songs and strings
Of guitars, and drum skins.
S is for solitude
Silence and serendipity
Sublime sun and sea
Sunflowers and sushi
Shirts and silk ties
Subtle messages from beyond
Like smoke signals in the distance
Sent out by friends from before.
S is for stigma of suicide in society.
Stashes of hidden sadness
Shrouded in small dark spaces
So little support and understanding
Such little compassion
Screened behind sports-cars
Suntans and scotch.
Like a corpse in the room
At the age of 51, he was finally consumed by the very thing he loved to consume. He died peacefully in his sleep. Pat, his wife was sad but knew it was inevitable. She carried on.
9 months later her son Kevin went on a Summer camp. He was 15. The camp site had been shut all winter. 2 days before the start date, the camp site had been checked by officials and declared safe. The lads arrived with great memories of the previous year and masses of energy and excitement. They started with a race. With a big smile on his face, Mark flew to the finish line ahead of everyone else and was instantly charred.
Pat’s family wanted to take care of her. They moved her from her family home in Surrey, to a house closer to her brother’s, in Essex. Pat went quiet. She silently and diligently pulled the shafts of her hair out from their roots one by one till she created white little clearings on her scalp. She scratched those clearings with such vigour that they turned into raw, red, weeping craters. She would empty the kettle before plugging it into the mains. She wore her clothes back to front, inside-out. She stood by the window for hours, waiting. She drove down the motorway in the opposite direction. Her family couldn’t help her. They thought she needed to be moved to an Institution for the insane.
A doctor in the Isle of Mann was well-known for his abilities in this field. Pat’s sister-in-law asked him if he would make an exception and help Pat even though she did not live on the Isle. He kindly agreed. He saw her. He unpicked her heart. He unwrapped the wounds in it. It was an excruciating process. She felt he was cruel, forcing her into the darkness of her soul with a torch, untangling the tight knots in her mind, wading through whirlpools of turbulence within.
After 5 weeks he invited her to live in his family home. He encouraged her to walk down the street. The first few times he went with her. Thereafter she walked alone, with her eyes fixated on her shoes. He suggested she try looking up and tell him what she saw. “Blossoms on trees, the church spire, white fluffy clouds, birds, light…”
By the time the hair-dresser had finished with her, she was ready to go home.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Falkner. Requiem for a Nun.
The echoes of past traumas get subconsciously played out by us in our everyday lives. Sigmund Freud called it ‘repetition compulsion’ – an attempt of the unconscious mind to replay the unresolved so that we can ‘get it right’. This mechanism drives its way through generations. Jung also noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away. It gets stored in our unconscious and finds expression in other ways. He says,” When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.”
Here’s an example: Jake was 19. He hadn’t slept a full night’s sleep in more than a year. He had developed dark circles around his eyes and a blank stare in them. He looked at least 10 years older. He had been a star student and a great athlete but the insomnia had left him lifeless. This thing had no explanation and none of his doctors or psychologists or naturopaths could figure it out.
It had started with Jake waking up shivering one night at 3.30 am, frightened to death. No amount of woollen clothing warmed him up. Soon, insomnia became a daily ordeal. Despite knowing that his fear was irrational, Jake was helpless and could not relax. The ‘freezing’ feeling associated with the first episode was quite peculiar.
On exploration of Jake’s family history, this story came out: His mum’s brother, Uncle Colin, whom he had never met had frozen to death at the age of 19. He was checking power lines in a storm in the Northwest of Canada. He struggled to hang on but eventually fell face down in a blizzard, lost consciousness and died of hypothermia. The family never spoke his name again.
Now, thirty years later, Jake was unable to slip into sleep at the same age as his Uncle. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jake, falling asleep must have felt the same. Once Jake could see this link, he was able to free himself of it with the help of healing techniques taught by Dr Mark Wolynn, a neuroscientist with an expertise in breaking inherited family patterns. His book “It didn’t start with you”, describes some of these practical tools.
Scientists are now able to identify bio-markers as evidence of traumas passed down from one generation to the next. Studies on Holocaust survivors and their children have revolutionised the understanding and treatment of PTSD all over the world. Be it fear, guilt, low self-esteem or anxiety, the roots of these issues may reside in the traumas of our parents, grand-parents and even great-grandparents.
84 life-size statues of men were seen standing at the edge of tall buildings in central London in late March representing the same number of men lost to suicide every week in the UK – a hard hitting visual project aiming to bring this tragic loss out into the open from behind closed doors.
Common threads emerged from articles published in April:
“Students more likely to kill themselves” in the Times: Researchers from a Hong Kong University analysed the ONS figures and found that the number of university students in Britain increased by 5 per cent between 2012 and 2016. The total number of suicides among students increased by 32 per cent, from 139 to 183 deaths. A think tank said that a law banning universities from contacting the friends and family of students who are struggling should be revisited.
The number of first year university students reporting mental health problems in UK Universities has risen five fold in 10 years. A combination of increasing awareness of mental health issues, a lowering of the taboo previously attached to mental health services, mounting debts, homesickness, loneliness and a greater sense of anxiety about the future may be some of the reasons for it. Some vice-chancellors still think that mental well being is not the business of universities and it’s just about developing the mind. But developing minds means nothing unless students settle down well in their new environment and be ready to learn.
According to recent ONS statistics on loneliness, people between 16-24 are at the epicentre of the loneliness epidemic in the UK. More so than the elderly. Women were found to be lonelier than men. Other variables were renting a home rather than owning one, being single or widowed, having poor health and feeling disconnected from the local community.
In an article entitled “Doctors knew my son was suicidal. I should have been told before he died” in the Guardian, I raise this question yet again: Is confidentiality more important than helping someone at risk to stay alive? Is it correct for a father to be informed by doctors after the death of his son,”Now that he is dead I can tell you that this was not his first attempt”?
When Saagar was ill, he filled out an online form and referred himself to IAPTs – Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. This programme began in 2008 and has transformed treatment of adult anxiety disorders and depression in England. Over 900,000 people now access IAPT services each year. I have used this service in the past and found it useful. I suggested to him to fill out the form a second time and he did. They usually call back within a day or two. He didn’t hear back from them.
I recently found out that IAPTs does not look after suicidal people. I would like to know what they do when they read a self-referral form of this nature.
There is a vacuum in the NHS. There is little face to face support for those who feel life is no longer worth living. Why do most people with physical illnesses ask for help? Possibly because they trust they will receive appropriate help from the system. Why is it that many people with mental anguish don’t approach the medical services for help? Probably due to lack of trust.
The Listening Place works towards filling that vacuum. A few days ago I visited their premises, a short walk from Pimlico station, in the heart of London. This airy, green, warm and welcoming place felt ideal for anyone in need of care, support and understanding. Here, individuals can speak openly about their feelings without being judged. They receive on-going support from trained volunteers over a number of weeks as deemed appropriate. The volunteers help relieve emotional pain and stress and offer opportunities to consider alternatives to suicide. Anyone over 18 can be referred to them by themselves, other charities, NHS as well as health and social care organisations. They try to give continuity by facilitating you to speak with someone who knows you from before. They charge nothing and keep your information confidential. It is remarkable that they are open 9 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week.
Sarah Anderson, who was once director at the largest call centre for the Samaritans, set up The Listening Place in 2016 and the service has since helped hundreds of individuals with its unique approach to care. During our chat, Sarah’s passion and dedication to the cause comes through, loud and clear.
The world needs more people who give a damn about other people.
(PS: Through the grapevine I hear the future funding of IAPTs is in jeopardy. The vacuum grows.)
During his holidays, Saagar and his friends would be subjected to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 second hand, as their mothers listened. They would later have amusing/interesting discussions about breast feeding, female education and employment challenges. This station was pre-set on the car-radio and at home. It was designated as the ‘old people’s’ radio-station by him. Invariably, ‘Gardener’s question time’ would come on while we were in the car together, travelling over the weekend. It was quaint by its sheer irrelevance to us as we could barely keep our 4 nameless indoor plants alive. Our urban pre-occupations meant we didn’t have a gardening vocabulary.
‘Just a minute’ was our all-time favourite – a panel of funny people asked to speak for one whole minute on a given topic without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The seemingly innocent topics often held great potential for hilarity, for example, billiards, the best thing about cats, how I spread a little happiness, keeping a straight face, my love of the absurd, garages and such. The correct and incorrect challenges posed by the panellists generated tremendous amount of laughter. Our attempts at giving each other topics resulted in great amusement.
On Thursday evening I was asked if I’d like to be a guest on Woman’s hour to talk about Saagar. It was unbelievable. It made me smile and cry at the same time. What a paradox! Of course I’d love to be on Woman’s hour. Under these circumstances? Meeting Jenni Murray was an honour. She was down to earth and professional, looking just as I imagined, in her trademark glasses sitting just above the tip of her nose.I told her she had my dream job. She said Joan Baez had been in the studio the day before, sitting at the same chair as me. How cool! Oops! Saagar prohibited me from saying ‘cool’ as he thought it sounded all wrong coming from me. I wonder how he would feel about this interview if he knew. Maybe he does.
Despite making notes and preparing as well as I could, I was a bit flummoxed by some of the questions. I didn’t say everything I wanted to. I hope there will be other opportunities. This conversation must grow until everyone is a part of it in a meaningful and constructive way. In a way that saves lives.
A recording of the interview with brilliant and committed Mr Ged Flynn, the CEO of PAPYRUS and I: