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

Just beneath the skin

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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.

Molly. Oh Molly!

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.

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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.

 

Help? Me?

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“Call for help” is the first step in Basic Life Support. At the hospital, I encourage Junior doctors to recognise early when a patient is too complex or too sick and ask for help at an early, rather than late stage.

It took six sessions of counselling to wake me up with a jolt to the fact that I needed to ask for help. Yes. I was a strong and independent woman. Yes. Very self-sufficient. Omnipotent, in my view. I offered help generously but hesitated to ask. Saagar was ill. I was looking after him the best I could while working full time. All our family was in India.  Saagar’s dad stepped in as much as he could. He worked full time too. We had no back-up. No support net-work. No community. We were muddling along till it dawned on me after 6 weekly Talking Therapy sessions of one hour each, that I could and should ask my family for help even though they were thousands of miles away.

I didn’t know it then, but it would seem I didn’t like asking for help. It made me feel weak, vulnerable and inadequate. Exposed. I don’t know why but it seemed like an admission of failure to manage my affairs. But now, Saagar was ill and we needed help.

On the night of the last session of therapy, I wrote an e-mail to all the adults on my side of the family, explaining our situation and finally, asking them for help.

One of my brothers responded. He applied for his UK Visa at once. A few days later he was told there weren’t enough blank pages in his Passport for the Visa to be stamped. He took the document back to the Passport office to get more blank pages added on. That took a few days. He then re-applied for his UK visa and finally got it a further few days later. By now 2 more weeks had passed.

In the mean time I arranged with one of my young friends, Jan to come to stay with us. Jan and his mum attended meditation lessons with me. Jan was a compassionate and enthusiastic young man who had recently lost his job and was looking for something meaningful to do. I offered him our guest room and invited him to stay with us, explaining the situation. He was excited about it. I asked Saagar how he felt about this temporary arrangement.

“It’s okay Mamma. I’ll wait for Uncle to come.”

I listened. I understood. I was tempted to push it. But I wanted to respect Saagar’s wishes. I didn’t want to take away the little control over his life that he had left.

A few days later, the visa arrived. Just in time for Saagar’s uncle to attend his funeral.

Moral of the story: Ask for help openly and EARLY.
Reminder: It takes a village …

Song: Lean on me:

https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTVEIOOBD6Q

My name is Saagar.

S A A G A R.

In Delhi, it was simple and sweet. In Belfast, it had to be spoken out slowly and spelt out clearly. Still, it was utterred in all kinds of ways- Segaar, Sags, Sagsy-Wagsy, Saga, Cigar etc. It is, after all, a proper noun. I would think forgivingly, “As long as you speak his name with love, you can say it any which way you like.”

At about 7 years of age, Saagar came home from school one day and casually, asked “Can’t I be called Aran or something?” I felt for him but laughed. What else could I do? I asked him if anyone had commented on his name at school that day. “I have to tell them at least twice and then spell it out and they still get it wrong.”

I told him the story of his name. I was 24 when I got married. My in-laws lived In Chennai. We visited them a few months later and one evening we all went to a place called Besant Nagar beach. That was the first time I saw the ocean. The vision of a dark blue shimmer below meeting a pale blue glow above in a clean, delicate, straight line made everything else disappear. Its calm, its rhythm, its enormity, its subtle dance, its grace and openness pulled me in. All people and conversation faded away and there I was, completely soaked in the bliss of the ocean. My soul soothed. My body relaxed. My eyes quenched. I was in love. In that moment, I knew that if I ever had a son, he would be called, ‘Ocean’ ie. Saagar.  I told him he was named Saagar because his heart was as large and as beautiful as the ocean. He smiled and hugged me tight.

Saagar and I needed more stories. They could give us a sense of connection with the characters and each other. Feel their excitement and face their challenges.  Make us less alone. Create pictures we could step into as characters. They could show us a map of how to get from here to there. Of how to live in this world. They could make us more human, creating boundaries and arenas within which we could shine. They could make things seem less endless and random. They could take us places we didn’t know we wanted to go. We needed more shared stories.

 

No more; no less.

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It occurred to Pooh 🐻 and Piglet 🐷 that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats 🎩 and coats 🧥 and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood🌲 to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. 🐻 Hello Piglet 🐷” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All.

Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked and Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.” 💜💚

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better. 🥰

Because Pooh and Piglet were There.
No more; no less.

A.A.Milne
E.H.Shepard