Mum’s the problem.

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.”

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Ref: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg185/chapter/1-Recommendations#recognising-diagnosing-and-managing-bipolar-disorder-in-children-and-young-people-2

The Wait.

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In between childhood and adulthood.
In between start and finish.
In between finish and start again.
In between seed and sapling.
In between nothing and something.
In between ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.
In between confusion
And resolution.

In between ‘not knowing’ and ‘knowing’.
In between listening and understanding,
Understanding and assimilating,
Assimilating and learning,
Learning and applying,
Applying and having an effect or not.
In between the impact and its height,
Or possible flight.

In between the flash of lightning and the roar of thunder,
In between thought and action,
In between you and me,
There is travel.
An invisible, microscopic stirring
Of this nurturing Universe
Of this mothering Earth
Of this sun-ward bound energy of Spring
Of this Blossoming of everything
Despite everything.

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.

Gold flecks

Every day since Saagar’s death, I looked for him in my face when I looked in the mirror. I searched hard. I desperately wanted to see him. Just a hint of him. But, no. Nothing showed up. Absolutely nothing.

Last night, I hunted again and I am definite I found a hue of him in the black and golden flecks on the irises of my eyes. Just a shimmer, only visible when light fell at a particular angle. Fleeting but present. The golden flecks weren’t as bright as his. They were somewhat faded but they were certainly there. And they were his.

I smiled. Yes. He was right here.  In my eyes.

Every week day morning and every week day evening, I walk to and from the same railway station where it happened. As I walk to the station, I walk his last walk. As I walk home, I walk the path he didn’t. I send him my love and blessings at every step. He is in my mornings and evenings and in everything in between.

A new Blackbird Bakery kiosk has recently opened on Platform 1 at West Norwood station. The staff are friendly and coffee fabulous. I wish it had been there then. It makes it a happier place. I am glad it’s there now.

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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