One whole month

It wasn’t just a physical transportation but also an emotional one. For four weeks I was not an anaesthetist or a wife. I was just a traveling (Churchill) Fellow, curious to learn everything about ways of supporting vulnerable people through crises, advocacy for struggling families and attempt survivors, intentional and effective peer support, safe care-transitions and timely compassionate support for families, friends and communities affected by suicide.

Two contrasting towns with distinct landscapes. Concord in New Hampshire was a small, friendly town resplendent with autumnal beauty, a quiet serenity and a lot of ‘heart’. New York, a big blustering metropolis with clanking trains, crazy-ass driving (yes, worse than London), much honking and many high-level policy-makers. Hence, more like the ‘head’ of the suicide prevention community.

Rail-trail from Concord to Franklin

Since Saagar’s passing, I have not been on my own for that length of time. Especially as his 5th anniversary fell right in the middle of it. It was not easy living fully immersed in the world of Suicide prevention (SP) almost every day for a month. Sometimes it was overwhelming and ‘too much’. It turned out that I was not alone. I was met with much warmth, kindness and understanding. Some old friends made time to catch up with me and some new friends emerged.

One sunny autumn day I had the pleasure of riding a 3-person- tandem bike with an amazing couple who have cycled thousands of miles in tandem all over the world for the past 27 years. On the 16th Ann (an excellent SP trainer) and I went for a nice long walk in the woods in Derry with Dr Indiana Jones, her Border Collie. This was followed by a much needed brunch at a classic American ‘Red Arrow’ Diner where I had the best ever Tuna melt sandwich.

Polly’s pan-cakes was our destination one afternoon as we set off towards the north – Elaine, Pauline and I. We spoilt ourselves with a rich variety of pancakes before taking a walk along the river and visiting ‘The Basin’.

On my return to the UK, I joined the 50th anniversary celebrations weekend retreat of an amazing charity that supports bereaved parents and their families. It’s called ‘The Compassionate Friends’. The film below captures many aspects of the experiences as bereaved parents/siblings. Changed forever.

“Say their name”

I am happy to be back home and back at work. My life greatly enriched, I hope to share the learning and bring about changes for the better, working with various charities, the NHS and the Mayor’s office as effectively as I can. Right now I am assimilating it all, bit by bit by bit.

Emergency Numbers

Earlier this year, at a Medical school in North India I spoke to staff and students about the stigma and ignorance around Mental Health. At the end of the lecture one of the senior faculty members asked me a question, “Is it helpful for people with a mental illness to be a part of a religious community?”

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Most certainly. Just like it is helpful for someone with Diabetes to be part of a religious community. It might also be a good idea for them to see a doctor.’

Earlier that day Si and I had taken a walk around the hospital and found this list of ‘Emergency Numbers’ prominently displayed on a notice board in the medical library for medical students, nursing students, dentists and doctors.

Need I say any more?  

PS: It is important for every student in every educational organisation to have ready access to reliable and knowledgeable resources if they feel the need to discuss their thoughts and feelings or are concerned about a friend.

Come October

3/10/2019. 6 am: I am excited. At the airport, waiting to board my flight to Washington Dulles. Change to another flight to Manchester and then a taxi ride to Concord, New Hampshire. This is the first leg of my travels as a Churchill Fellow. I have checked in and am having a cup of tea. I have just come across this post from a young woman on Facebook:

“According to my local crisis team, I was ‘too articulate’ to be feeling suicidal.
As a writer, and someone who works in languages, I am a naturally very articulate person. Because I could speak so clearly about my thoughts and feelings, I was discharged from the crisis team as I didn’t fit the bill of someone suicidal, or indeed, of being mentally unwell enough to need their support despite evidence to the contrary.

The Papyrus text line allowed me to articulate how I felt (you don’t have any choice really when you’re using the text service, you have to ‘say’ it how it is!!), and that was delved into so much deeper with thoughtful questions, suggestions and recommendations that allowed me to get through a real low point and see that there was hope. At no stage did they reply with ‘sorry, you’re too articulate to be feeling the way you claim’.

Non-judgemental, kind, compassionate, a REAL life saver, especially in the current climate of NHS mental health cuts.”

Judgement. The ultimate wall. Even a positive judgement can be harmful. A missed opportunity. A lost life. Who fills the gaping holes created by ‘unfit for purpose’ services, NHS cuts and ignored carers?

Charities. Families. Friends.

The needs of young people are different. They need an active, positive and creative interaction to make sense of how they feel. They need to be heard and understood. They need to know in their hearts that they are deeply loved and cared for just the way they are. They need to know that things get better. Educating families is crucial.

4/10/2019

Today’s gem: Mayo Clinic video for parents. All parents of adolescents should see this.

A traveling ‘Fellow’ am I.

Somewhere in the middle of last year, a friend, Angela Samata ( of ‘Life after Suicide’ fame) recommended I look up Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I did. They had a catchy strap line – “Travel to learn – return to inspire”. I checked out their application form. Form-filling is a formidable process but this one wasn’t too bad. I touched base with a couple of people from Australia and the USA who had stayed in my memory from various conferences. I asked them if they would have me visit their organisations, observe their work with the aim of learning and exchanging ideas. They were happy. I filled out the form. Got shortlisted and invited for an interview.

While preparing for the interview I knew I’d be asked to say something about Churchill. I researched and found some relevant facts. He’d coined the term ‘black dog’ to describe depression. That was clever. Also, he had something in common with me. He had survived the loss of a child.

This February I was awarded a traveling Fellowship by WCMT to go to USA and Australia for 3 weeks each to bring back ideas on preventing suicides and supporting families looking after someone with a mental illness. Ideas we can implement in our communities. It was an honour but also quite daunting. I have never done anything like this before. But here I am with 10 days to go, before I leave for the first leg of my travels to Concord in New Hampshire which is home to National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI. I have put my name down for their community walk on Sunday, the 6th of October aimed at stamping out stigma. I reckon that’s the best way to get to know people and get involved. Also, autumn in New Hampshire is meant to be spectacular. Deb and Elaine from NAMI have been very welcoming and I feel their warmth in their e-mails.

Yes. I am excited. With minor trepidation in my heart. And Saagar. Away from home, from Milkshake and Si for 27 days. Haven’t done that in a very long time. But it’s time and I am ready.

[PS: We’ve reached 82% of our fund-raising goal. I am deeply touched by the generosity of all the 151 backers and am grateful to everyone’s positive vibes. Thank you! To find the campaign link, search ‘1000 days’ and ‘indiegogo’]

Constantine Bay

The entire coastline covered in Sea Pinks, bunched together in shapes resembling piglets. They could easily be called Sea Pigs. Poor soil – no problem. Lashing winds – no problem. Salt laden air and water – lovely! These little pink flowers are hardy as hell. Unperishable. Their leaves stay green all year round – sun or rain.

A week in Cornwall, the perfect escape from the Big Smoke.

From the white sands, rock pools and sand dunes of the bay, we could see a classic white light-house standing tall. A beacon of hope for hundreds of years for hundreds of people, lost at sea.

Lovely long walks along the headlands, fresh sea-breeze and delicious sea food. And, lots of exceptional cream-teas- especially the one at Bedruthan steps. Wowwie!!! It was indeed, like a dream. Our Scrabble travelled with us. In London we don’t get time to play it. So, here was our chance.

After dinner on Wednesday, I opened the green cardboard box. We were with friends who were half willing to play. We agreed to form 2 teams of two each so we would be able to consult and won’t have to wait too long between goes. As I unpacked the box, I found some old score sheets in there. They had 2 columns of scores – one for Saagar and one for me.

My heart lurched up to my throat and my eyes stung and burnt. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and smoothened out the contortions of my face. I didn’t want to spoil the evening for everyone. A good game is had by all and we are off to bed by 11 pm.

“I am in a strange building in a strange sandy seaside town. I am wearing strange flowing green garments. Someone says three people are waiting to see me outside. After a while I walk out to see these people. 3 young men are seated on comfy cane sofas in a shaded balcony. As I walk towards them, one pair of eyes glints back at me bathed in recognition. A knowing smile flashes across his handsome olive face.

I freeze and stare. His hair has grown. He has blonde highlights, like he did when he was 15. He is wearing a big tan jacket and looking so good! He stands up and steps gently toward me. I look at him is disbelief. He holds me in his trademark big bear hug.

“You know how much I’ve cried.” I whisper.

“I know.” He whispers in his sweet young-man voice.

I hang on to him, never to let him go.”

Then the flood gates of my conscience are flung open and once again I am staring at a gaping hole. Another day … love … longing … The sea pinks … endure. The light house … hope …

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belfast – Face 1

In 1999, I was 9000 miles from home, building a new life, working 80-100 hours a week looking after the sick. Today I had driven my new, blue, second hand Renault 19 into town for the very first time. After much worry, I had thankfully managed to find the right place to park. It was a Saturday morning in November, cold and almost too bright for Belfast, famous for its ‘jeans and polo-necks’ season all year round. I had my black boots, black denims and a light blue high-necked jumper on. I was looking for the Thomas Cook office. Couldn’t wait to buy plane tickets to go home after slogging all alone in a foreign land for nearly 5 months. My ears were thirsting to hear my beloved Hindi language again and my tongue was dying to speak it with my loved ones. My heart ached for home.

I couldn’t find the wretched office. It was 11 am. I was on a street called ‘Donegall place’. People walked about happily shopping, talking, laughing and sipping their portable drinks. They smiled and chatted as they strolled about with their friends and family. A portly middle aged man walked alone on the pavement with a newspaper tucked under his left armpit. I gently approached him for directions. Even before I had spoken, he retracted, scowled and spat, “I have nothing to give you.”

In that moment, every cell in my body wished to disappear.