Kisa Gautami

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In ancient India, there lived a woman. She was happily married to a rich merchant and was the proud mother of a bubbly one year old. After a brief illness, her only son died. Her grief was unbearable. Wailing and weeping, she took her child’s lifeless remains from door to door pleading with the townspeople to bring her beautiful child back to life. No one could help her. She was destroyed.

Someone suggested she take her infant to the Buddha. She did. Through her tears and sobs she narrated her tragic story and begged Him to infuse life back into her bundle of joy. The Buddha listened with compassion and said, “Kisa Gautami, there is only one way. Bring me 5 mustard seeds from a household where no deaths have occurred.”

Her eyes lit up with hope. She hurriedly gathered up her bundle and once again, went knocking on each and every door in town. To her utter disappointment, every family had experienced death in one form or another. She realised the lesson that the Buddha had wanted her to learn. Suffering is a part of life and death is inevitable. Kisa Gautami’s eyes were now open. In the light of this knowledge, she could handle her grief. She went on to become an ardent follower of the teachings of Buddha.

Like Kisa Gautami, I have found myself at the feet of the Buddha. His teachings have brought light and lightness to my being. Along the way other divine souls have helped in unique ways.

This is the festive season for most people. Planning meals, choosing stocking fillers, selecting wrapping paper, posting greeting cards and preparing to welcome the New Year. Yay! It’s all happening. But a Saagar-shaped piece is missing. I feel for all the families who will have that vacant chair at their table this year. I hold them close to my heart. As time goes by, it does not get easier. This excerpt on the subject of ‘Pain’ from ‘The Prophet’ speaks to me. I hope it helps you too. I wish you as peaceful a time as possible.

“And a woman spoke, saying, “Tell us of Pain.”
And he said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the
Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
― Kahlil GibranThe Prophet

 

It’s become a ‘thing’.

For a thousand days I wrote every day. It wasn’t a ‘thing’. That’s just what I did. I didn’t worry about who read it and why. It didn’t matter how good or bad it was. I just did it. Then I slowed down to writing roughly once a week.

Now, I think about writing. I talk about writing. I look up ‘writing’ on the internet. I consider on-line courses. I buy books on writing. I worry about writing well. I listen to podcasts of interviews with famous writers. I am on the lookout for writing tips in newspapers and magazines. I wonder what it must feel like to write properly every day. I envy those who can. What I do very little of, is write. I believe I repeat myself endlessly. I say the same things again and again. I forget things that are important. I hardly know any juicy big words. Why would anyone be interested in what I have to say? English is my second language and I can’t fully express myself in it anyway. My imagination is limited. I haven’t read enough books. I have no writing qualifications. Ms Confidence has evaporated and Mr Self Doubt has surreptitiously crept into her space in the vacant apartment of my psyche.

One ‘expert’ on you-tube suggested the way forward is to just write 3 full A4 sheets every day. She said,”… best not to think too much. Just put down on paper whatever comes to mind”. She called it a ‘brain dump’. She promised that over time it would start to make sense. It would become a story in your voice.

Maybe it’s time to go back to writing everyday. Maybe it’s time to start  my “big fat” book 🙂

PS: My favourite book on writing is ‘On Writing Well‘ by William Zinsser.

 

Confidentiality versus Life

Three years back I joined a club no one wants to be a member of. I became a parent who lost their beautiful child to suicide. He was 20. I didn’t think it was possible. I trusted his doctors to take good care of him. I trusted they would tell me if there was a real risk of him dying, given I am his mother and was his prime carer. I thought they had the expertise to identify and address ‘crisis’ when they saw it. Suicide was not in the script. It was not supposed to happen. I turn the fact of his sudden traumatic death over and over in my head and it makes no sense.

There are hundreds of distraught and bewildered members of this club. Common themes emerge from their stories. The commonest one is:

“They knew our child wanted to end his/her life but they didn’t tell us anything about it.”

Who are they?
Decision makers – Medics. Universities.

Why?
Because he/she is over 18, hence, technically an adult.
Their ‘confidentiality’ is paramount.

Is it?
Is it more important than helping them stay alive?

The Hippocratic oath states:
“I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.”

According to experts[1], these are the essential components of an effective suicide prevention safety plan:

  1. Discussing the reasons for living
  2. Safe environment
  3. Identify distress triggers
  4. Removing ways to harm yourself
  5. Activities to calm/lift mood or distract
  6. Contacts for general support
  7. Specific suicide prevention support
  8. Professional support
  9. Emergency contact details
  10. Personal commitment to follow safety plan

Most of the above cannot be implemented without the help of carers and families if the person in question is seriously unwell. This has been recognised by the Department of Health, Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists, GPs and Nursing along with The British Association of Social Workers and The British Psychological Society. Together they published a consensus statement entitled[2] “Information Sharing and Suicide Prevention” in 2014, the same year that my son, Saagar Naresh[3] passed away. It clearly states that practitioners should disclose information to an appropriate person or authority if this is necessary to protect a child or young person from risk of death or serious harm.

“If the purpose of the disclosure is to prevent a person who lacks capacity from serious harm, there is an expectation that practitioners will disclose relevant confidential information, if it is considered to be in the person’s best interest to do so.”

This is still not being practised. The world of medicine is a conservative and defensive one. Until the regulatory bodies, NHS Trusts and the Government come forward to reassure practitioners that their decision to share information appropriately will be supported by them, nothing will change.

While the world carries on, innocent youngsters die from lack of support and understanding from the very people who are best placed to help them. PAPYRUS, a UK charity dedicated to prevention of young suicides[4] demands that information be appropriately shared with carers and families by all who take care of vulnerable young people at risk of suicide.

Confidentiality versus Life. It’s a no-brainer.

References:

[1] https://www.healthcareconferencesuk.co.uk/news/newsfiles/alys-cole-king_1219.pdf

[2] https://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/social-welfare/pdfs/non-secure/i/n/f/information-sharing-and-suicide-prevention-consensus-statement.pdf

[3] www.kidsaregifts.org

[4] PAPYRUS (https://www.papyrus-uk.org/)

Treatment versus Care

In her entry to this year’s BMA News Writing Competition, a consultant psychiatrist relates the experience of her postpartum psychosis and explains that, although grateful for her treatment, something was missing from the care she received.

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The Human Factor

I am a consultant psychiatrist. Two years ago, I had a taste of my own medicine.

Three sleepless nights after the birth of my daughter, I became acutely ill. I slowly realised I couldn’t sleep — something strange was happening. Within six hours, I was experiencing a kaleidoscope of symptoms — elation, fear, heightened senses, delusions. I wanted to kill myself and my daughter.

Postpartum psychosis is a medical emergency and a consultant perinatal psychiatrist was at my house within the hour. I literally ran to her ward in my socks, my mum running behind, having forgotten her shoes too.

My first night was terrifying, but the staff were fantastic. As I rode an emotional rollercoaster, they reassured me, calmed me, gave me the sedation I desperately needed. Soon, I settled into a mild mania. Though at times it was very scary, I was fascinated. I noted with curiosity how my brain behaved. I felt great love for my daughter, and beneficence for my fellow man. I enjoyed all the activities the ward had to offer.

Five weeks later I was happily home. But what goes up, must come down. Gradually, I became unsettled, filled with self-doubt. I became convinced my baby was autistic. The anxiety became intense, and I considered suicide. My consultant coaxed me into hospital again. ‘It will only be two weeks,’ she promised. ‘I think you need to start lithium.’

You cannot breastfeed on lithium. One day I was connected with my baby, the next she fed from a bottle. My heart broke as my breasts filled to burst. It was a symbolic change, from wonderful to awful. She smelled wrong, artificial. I began a tiresome regimen of sterilising, preparing and cooling bottles, when all the while my baby yelled, to my great shame. As if in protest, she vomited spectacularly after every feed.

This time, the ward seemed an unfriendly place; swelteringly hot, noisy, tedious, excessively rule-bound. The other patients seemed uninteresting and depressing. My eldest son was bewildered: he wasn’t allowed on the ward. Why wasn’t mummy coming home? He became rejecting and oppositional. My heart broke some more.

I begged for leave but developed extreme insomnia and could not get well. I remember one night getting up, sitting down, and getting up again for seven hours, unable to decide whether to wake my baby for a change. A burly nurse was recruited to force me unceremoniously to move to a room near the nurses. I was told I would be sectioned if I tried to leave. An informal patient, I was allowed out for only half an hour each day.

I told my consultant I wasn’t depressed, her ward was the problem. ‘You’re depressed’ she repeated, implacably, and brought in a second-opinion doctor. I was desperate to leave as soon as I arrived, yet those two weeks became two months.

Having a mental illness is one of the most disturbing and frightening experiences one can ever have. The rug is truly pulled out from under your feet. Suddenly you are somehow lesser, rendered powerless. I was one of the lucky ones. I knew what was happening, and was more able than most to speak up for myself. I got treated very quickly. Many don’t.

My consultant was a former colleague of mine, a peer. She was kind but paternalistic, and my care became a battle of wills. She believed her plan was faultless and that her ward was entirely beneficial. She conducted her ward rounds like job interviews and treated me like an adolescent. I watched helplessly as she pathologised my normal behaviour and denied promises to get me to comply.

We were fragile mothers, but were often shamed like naughty children for not ‘doing the right thing’, sometimes berated across the ward for all to hear by opinionated nursery nurses with little sensitivity to our mental state. Mothering a screaming baby during an intense crisis of confidence was a tortuous task, yet it was rarely considered that our babies were exacerbating the problem. Scared and disturbed women were managed by intimidating rapid response teams.

I lost trust in them, I hid symptoms. One night I nearly killed myself but never told.

I now can understand how my patients feel when they say they no longer want to go back to ‘that place’. How lack of insight guides them away from reminders of restraint, coercion, scrutiny and endless questions. How it is difficult to trust people who don’t treat you as fully human.

Despite all the positives and the expertise in my care, an important element was missing. Care needs to be more than medication, therapies and keeping people safe. Now I’ve had a taste of my own medicine, I always ask: ‘What is this like for you, what do you really need to help you get well?’

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Me and the Mountain

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A friend’s house on a mountain has been our home for this week. A little bit of water and electricity flows through it but no phone signal or Wi-fi. It’s more than a kilometre away from the nearest motorable point. It’s made of wood and stone and surrounded by cedars, pines, oaks and rhododendrons on all sides. Every room has a fire place and all the windows are single glazed. It’s about 50 years old, quaint and basic. Since the sun went into hiding yesterday, it has been icy cold and we have been magnetised by the lone wood-burning stove. The overgrown garden around the house still has colour from clusters of wilting maroon dahlias, symbolising the past glory of the house within. Every window looks on to a landscape that could be a picture postcard.

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There is nothing to do but go walkies. Jacob, a neighbour, dropped by to say hello. He is certainly the most energetic 70 years old man I have ever met. An Austrian anthropologist and a tour guide by trade, he has been living on this mountain for more than 40 years. He has a lovely Austrian wife who gave birth to their 4 sons on this mountain. The sons went to the local Tibetan school and then moved on to fulfilling careers.

A Buddhist monk has been living in silence and solitude in a cave on the side of this lush green mountain for the last 15 years. The only visible indicator of his presence is an oil lamp that lights up every evening.

Tea is consumed by the gallons here. It’s milky and sweet enough to float a boat. Its calorific value is high enough to eliminate the need for food. People here have peace, time, clean air and fresh spring water – luxuries for most city dwellers. Stories are exchanged, transmitted and created over cups of tea. They keep the bush telegraph alive and kicking.

There is a distinct beauty and stillness about this mountain, called Dharamkot, in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas. The sharp contrast between my inner and outer landscapes is unsettling. I teeter closer to the edge of insanity than usual, feeling ill, walking the scenic slinky mountain tracks every day. Good old grief is bubbling up big time, threatening to push me over the edge. I am plummeting down the roller coaster at the speed of light and the only way seems to be down.

Since ancient times sages and sadhus have recognised and chosen the Himalayas as a seat of peace and enlightenment. The Dalai Lama’s residence and monastery are visible down the valley from this mountain. Smiling monks amble in ochre robes, lending an atmosphere of calm and serenity. The spiritual energy here is palpable. It’s doing its best to hoist me out of my slump.

I sit still, struck by the scale and magnificence of the giant Himalayas. What am I in front of these ancient icons? Insignificant. One little turn in the weather for the worse , one slight ruffle in the tectonic plates beneath me, one tiny miscalculation of a footstep on the mountain slopes, one temper tantrum of the mountain breeze is enough to make me disappear.

How big am I?
How big is my sorrow?
How many stories have these mountains witnessed?
How many more are yet to unfold?

What if the answer is to dissolve the ‘me’ in the mountain, in the basic elements that make up everything – earth, water, fire, air and ether. Be nothing and everything.

Yes. It’s different.

A few days before the wedding Si asked me how I felt about getting married. Smiling, I said “Well, it’s a good way to finally get to know you.” When two people get married after an 8 years long relationship, they hope like hell things stay the same. Do I feel any different after the wedding?

Yes.
It’s like becoming an important part of something much bigger than me. I feel entrusted with a higher level of responsibility and I feel confident that I can live up to it as I feel deeply connected and resourceful. I feel closer to Si than before if that’s possible. I feel stronger and well supported by many. It feels a million times healthier than being the ‘lone wolf’ I have been for a long time.

Our loose 10 day itinerary explores the godly province of Himachal Pradesh in North India. Today we are at ‘The Mirage’ in a tiny village, Andretta.

Andretta is a traditional hub for painters, actors, potters, ceramic and other artists. Norah Richards, an Irish play-write established this focal point in 1924 through her passion for local art and culture.

The artistic heritage of Andretta is evident from the presence of a fascinating pottery museum and a quaint art gallery within half a kilometre, on the village “High Dirt-track”. Being here is tranquil and uplifting. People here are warm, kind and eclectic. They smile generously and look content. Their simplicity is exquisite. Si and I dream of spending more of our time around here.

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Silk resembles love.

Rose petals

Couple of years before he died, Saagar thought I needed to see a therapist. He didn’t explain why. At the time I couldn’t figure out what he meant. I guess he could see that I did not know how to access the sweetness of life. I allowed preoccupations of work and practicalities of life to fill my time, leaving little room for love.

Painfully delicate and surprisingly strong, silk resembles love. The silkworms destroy the silk they produce as they emerge from their cocoons. That is why farmers have to make a choice between silk and silkworms. Often they kill the silkworm while it is inside the cocoon so as to pull the silk out intact. It takes the lives of hundreds of silkworms to make as scarf. But for the silk to survive, the silkworm has to die.*

At a small and sweet ceremony, in the middle of nowhere, in the presence of twenty people, holding the holy fire as witness, Si and I tied the knot yesterday. It was a joyous day, a celebration of love.

On the previous night the moon was full. Saagar was with us.

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” – Rumi

*Ref: ‘Forty rules of love’ by Elif Shafak.