Lifesavers

I have had some form of mental illness for as long as I can remember. When I was a young teenager I developed trichotillomania. Pulling out my hair gave me something to focus on, something I could control. I had no idea that it had a name. I had no idea other people did it too. I didn’t even really think about it being strange. I remember talking to a friend at school one lunchtime: she looked more and more distracted, until finally she reached over and pulled a hair out of my mouth. ‘Weird’ she said. Was I? When the patches on my skull became obvious I was taken to the dermatologist, who thought I might have alopecia. Nobody ever said anything about it being a psychological problem. Over the years the pain of pulling went, replaced with a dull ache, which mirrored the one in my head that I was unable to get rid of.

When I was 14 I went to my first therapy session – 2 days at something called ‘Teen Training’. It was hell. I’d been sent with an equally unhappy friend, thanked for supporting her, but in retrospect I think it was probably me they were sending to get fixed. I refused to go back after the first day. I couldn’t see the point of sitting in a circle talking to people I’d never see again about my ‘issues’, my ‘problems’, all of us giving ourselves a pat on the back when we managed to say something ‘difficult’. I thought it was a complete waste of my time.

I managed to do relatively well at school. I went to university and hated it. I was still so young, far too young to plan the rest of my life out at the age of 17, filling in the UCAS form. I switched courses after the first term, changing from English and French (not concrete enough for me) to psychology. This was a mistake. I was bored. I couldn’t believe people were given grants to study the kind of things they were teaching us about. It had no relevance to the real world, to my world. I did badly.

I had the first of two nervous breakdowns. I refused pills. The GP sent me to have cognitive-behavioural therapy in a small room in a building with ‘Mental Health’ plastered all over it. I saw people there who looked ill, who looked mad. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t ill, I just couldn’t get on a tube train. Found it hard to talk to anyone. Felt miserable all the time. Didn’t really want to be here. I was just realistic. The world really was that depressing. The CBT made me worse; the practitioner was contemptuous, he seemed to think if I could just stop concentrating on myself, I’d be okay. I had to get out there, do things. Being told that when you can barely get out of bed is not helpful. I was just another name on his over-long list of appointments.

I went back to work with a small packet of Valium in my pocket. I took one pill, once, so I could get on the train to get there. Someone in the office commented on how happy I looked. I couldn’t wipe the stupid Valium smile off my face. Inside I was screaming. I just wanted to die. I didn’t.

I spent nights lying awake, wishing, hoping that I wouldn’t wake up the next day. I always did. I was always angry. I tried to escape. I read voraciously. I avoided friends I’d known forever. I went to live on a different continent. I did stupid things. I could never get away from myself, no matter what I did. I wished I had a magic, painless pill that would take everything away. Nobody would miss me, it didn’t bother me if they did. I just wanted it all to be over.

A few years later I had a more severe episode. I was pushed to the top of the ‘needs help now’ list by my GP. We had weekly meetings to try and prevent any suicide attempt. He was wonderful. I went to see a different cognitive behavioural therapist. We had fortnightly face-to-face meetings and weekly phone calls, with homework for me in between. I spent one of our meetings unable to speak, choked by tears. She was wonderful. Together they saved my life.

Now I’m in my early 40s. I work in public health, trying to do something useful. I have two MSc degrees in complicated subjects from prestigious places. I have succeeded at some things. I’ve made it this far, and when I’m well and feel able to praise myself, I think that’s an achievement. When I’m not I despair of likely having to live through the same amount of time again. I still pull my hair out, but not as much. I still have days when I look at the Thames floating under Waterloo Bridge on my way to work, and I have to make a conscious effort to keep walking. I have days when I am happy, or at least that’s what I think that feeling is. We none of us can know what that really means for anyone else.

That pill, that magic, get-rid-of-all-the-pain pill, that pill that doesn’t exist – I still think about it, and there are occasions when I would still take it. To know that it would all just go away. But most of the time it’s not like that anymore. Most of the time I’d be angry if I died now. I am fiercely disappointed that I won’t get to see what’s going to happen next century.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, but it’s more likely to be because of possibilities: all the places I want to see, all the books I want to read, all the things I want to experience. I’m angry that I’ve spent so long not registering how important all that is. But I’ve stopped beating myself up about it because I’ve finally realised that there’s no point.

Those two people, that doctor and that therapist, probably don’t remember me. Why would they? In our overworked, under-resourced NHS they must see hundreds of people a year. I was one deeply troubled person, someone who needed help desperately, and they gave it to me. And they saved me. And I can never thank them enough. All I can do, all any of us can do, is keep going.

 

 

Kindness makes the world go round

As you undoubtedly know (how could you not?!) I’ve been crowdfunding to raise money for my rat project in Nepal, which will start next January (see my last blog post for details of the project: https://freshlysqueezedworld.com/2018/04/03/researching-rodents-in-nepal/). Thanks to the generosity of many people I have now raised £2000, which I’m hoping should be enough to make sure we get some useful results out of the fieldwork we’ll be doing.

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The amount that pushed me up to that total was donated by a kind, caring man who comes to visit our market stall every month. He and his lovely wife always used to stop for a chat, and she had a collection of our animals, but she very sadly died just after Christmas. He has been unbelievably brave, coming back to the market every month, tracing their footsteps, no doubt seeing her, hearing her, talking to her every place he goes. He makes sure he always has time to say hello and have a hug.

Any paper that gets published, any abstract that gets accepted, any piece of data that helps anyone, anywhere, will be dedicated to her memory, with my huge thanks to both of them. For being those people.

With much love, Anna

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Researching rodents in Nepal

Hello all

It’s been a LONG time since I wrote a blog post. Things like work get in the way, unfortunately. If only I was a millionaire…but that’s rather unlikely (also unfortunately). That brings me nicely to the point of this blog post. As I’m not a millionaire, I need to raise some money so that I can go back to Nepal early next year and do some rodent research.

Rodent research, I hear you ask, what on earth are you talking about? Well, there is a serious lack of baseline information on the role of rodents in disease outbreaks, such as scrub typhus and leptospirosis. This means that people die unnecessarily, because not enough is understood about how these diseases are spread. Rodents pollute water courses with their faeces and urine, spoil crops in the same way, eat or otherwise destroy crops, and carry parasites on their fur. We need to understand all these things to enable people to cope with, or to prevent, these issues.

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So, in January I will be going back to Nepal to work on a rodent survey, learning, among other things, which species live in urban and rural settings, which diseases they may spread to humans, either directly or through parasites they carry, and how they may affect food security through spoiling and eating crops. This knowledge will help people to deal with the effects of rodents in their lives.

I’ll be working with a brilliant Nepali NGO called the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF). This organisation was started and is run by a group of young Nepali professionals, from a small office in Kathmandu. They are a seriously inspiring bunch of people.

I will be supporting myself financially; both in the UK (mortgage and bills) and in Nepal (flights, accommodation, food, travel etc) and so ALL money raised will go toward equipment and other project expenses.

If you are interested in helping to fund this crucial work, then please do visit my fundraising page here: https://www.gofundme.com/ratsnepal. And I will love you forever 🙂 xxx

‘Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka’ by John Gimlette

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The ancient name for Sri Lanka was Serendip (or Serendib), and finding this book was indeed serendipitous. I’d just finished reading a book about the Sri Lankan civil war and, not being happy unless I have half a shelf full of books waiting for my attention, I needed to get something else. So I was happy to wander into Waterstone’s and find Mr Gimlette’s latest book in paperback. I admit to being a fan of his other travel books, which have taken me places (in my head at least) that I wouldn’t necessarily have had on my travel list before. As well as being very good at describing the places he visits, local flora and fauna, the journeys he makes, the people he meets, the food he eats, his thoughts and emotions, the author really brings the country alive through his explanations of the history of the island, both ancient and more recent. And Sri Lanka has a lot of history.

The book is unsurprisingly dark in places, although balanced, taking nobody’s word at face value. Mr Gimlette does not shy away from asking some uncomfortable questions, for instance while talking to the former second-in-command of the Tamil Tigers, who changed sides and now holds a position in the government. This was surely quite an ideological jump to make. The saddest parts are those that make you picture the life for people caught up in the war, neither Tigers nor government soldiers, who just wanted to get on with living their lives. One of the last chapters, about the so-called ‘No Fire Zones’ is particularly good at this, and upset and angered me in equal measure. The writing is so clear that it’s easy to picture the people and the situations, sometimes against your wishes.

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One impressive aspect is the amount of groundwork the author obviously did before going out to Sri Lanka. He meets many people and develops contacts. He visits his local temple at home in London and drinks tea with worshippers. While travelling round the country he has access to members of the most prominent families, but is also happy chatting away with random people he meets. I particularly enjoyed (though I don’t think he did!) his interactions with one of his drivers, Sanath. In the end their mutual incompatibility means they go their separate ways.

Despite part of me feeling as if I’ve been to Sri Lanka after reading ‘Elephant Complex’ as soon as I’d read about half the book I went back to the bookshop and bought the latest Lonely Planet guide. ‘Elephant Complex’ has made Sri Lanka top of my travel list and I’m looking forward to visiting some of the same places as Mr Gimlette did and comparing my experiences with his.

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Poetic prose from a master craftsman. 5 stars – highly recommended.

All photos courtesy of John Gimlette.

Shwedagon…and on…and on

I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing places in my life – the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza, Machu Picchu, Mount Everest, the Potala Palace, Khan Tengri, Swayambhunath, Rakaposhi, Ushguli, Paro Taktsang – are you noticing a bit of a theme (or rather two) here? Mountains and ‘spiritual’ places? Well, the latest addition to the (hopefully ever increasing) list is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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People (including me) maybe overuse the superlative ‘breathtaking’ but this literally did take my breath away. I am an inveterate atheist and nothing, not even an incredible, gold leaf- and diamond-encrusted pagoda is going to change that, but I admit to welling up and my knees feeling just a little bit wobbly as I got to the top of the stairs. The quiet beauty of the place just gets to you.

I was supposed to visit Myanmar in the early 2000s, but history got in the way. This year I was lucky enough to finally get there. And Shwedagon was worth the wait. Leave your shoes at the entrance, climb up the stairs with everyone else – monks, little kids, old ladies, young canoodling couples, everybody – make sure you have plenty of time and absorb it all. The first time I went very early in the morning when it was relatively quiet, with just a few people lighting incense and praying, kneeling on the soaking wet marble.

Possibly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world (so some say) Shwedagon is believed to house various relics of the Buddha, including four hairs, and is 110 metres high. The pagoda holds eight planetary ‘corners’, one for each day of the week, with Wednesday split into morning and afternoon. Each day is also represented by an animal. I was born on a Saturday so apparently my animal is a giant snake (naga). I don’t mind snakes but I’m not sure I’d want to be one.

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When you come down again (literally!) don’t forget to collect your shoes – I almost did. Whatever you think about religion, whatever beliefs you do (or don’t) hold I don’t think you could leave this place without feeling at least a little moved. And then you can go on to the next place feeling enlightened…

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All photos by me 🙂

 

So here it is…

Blimey, I wrote my last proper post last year – time flies when you’re having fun. Since October 2015 I’ve been studying for another master’s degree, this time in public health (well, control of infectious diseases, same difference). To say that this was a good decision is the understatement of the century. I have absolutely loved it – never been so inspired, never met so many people with, well, infectious(!) enthusiasm, I’ve even enjoyed commuting (huh?? Oh, time to read a book). Also never been so knackered but that feels like a small price to pay right now – and I’m in the middle of revision (ahem) so that says a lot. This time next week the exams will be over and I can focus on the next part of the course. And then try and figure out what I’m going to do with the rapidly disappearing (or at least that’s how it feels) rest of my life.

Turning 40 this October is terrifying, not because of the wrinkles and white hairs (got plenty of those already, particularly after revising statistics…), but because I wonder how the hell I’m going to fit in everything I want to do. Life expectancy is increasing, but I doubt it’s going to be 300 by the time I get to 80 (2056…aagh!). There are just too many places to see, too many things to do, too many conversations to have, too much wine to drink… I spent so long telling myself I should just apply for the course, try and see what happens, follow my heart etc etc, all that ‘romantic’ stuff. And of course the ‘sensible’ bit of my brain (the bit with the mortgage) kept telling me that I had a job, that what was I thinking of, going back to education at the advanced age of 39?!? Was I mad?? Had dementia set in already??

Sometimes you just have to say ‘get lost’ (or words to that effect) to that ‘sensible’ bit of you, and get on with it. And now, well, bring on whatever happens next, I’m ready.

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