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.

 

 

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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

xxxx

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

Faecal matter(s)

Please excuse the pun.

So, as you may know, I’ve just started an MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Today was the last day of the orientation week (and, coincidentally, my birthday). I feel a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights right now and am looking forward to the first day of teaching next Monday so I can ground myself a bit. The School is welcoming and I’m enjoying being there (I told the guy working on the till in the refectory this morning that it was my birthday and he gave me a packet of ginger nuts to go with my tea – apposite as I am a redhead).

Tasty gingernut (image from Google)

Tasty gingernut (image from Google)

As you’d probably expect the School is hot on hygiene on its premises and the doors in the loos (the ladies at least, I can’t vouch for the mens) are decorated with informative placards like this one.

A little light reading

A little light reading

It works on so many levels really – it describes the sanitary (or otherwise) situation in some countries in the developing world. It mentions a pretty shocking statistic from the UK. And it states what we can all do to prevent ourselves and others transferring this stuff around and making people ill. I suppose a key point is that even WITH easy access to clean toilets, plentiful clean water and antibacterial handwash we don’t take enough care of such a basic thing.

When I was in Kathmandu 4 weeks ago there was a small cholera outbreak that was mostly due to the fact that a few people are having to live under tarpaulin tents on the banks of the river as the recent earthquake has destroyed their homes and, maybe, their livelihoods. These people really DON’T have access to adequate toilet and washing facilities, and the river is often filled with rubbish, with large black pigs rootling around, looking for their next meal.

It’s a bit like that irritating thing that your mum used to tell you when you were a kid and you left food on your plate: ‘there are starving children somewhere in the world who would like to eat that’. Realistically whether we wash our hands or not is going to make zero difference to those people suffering (and sadly possibly dying) from a disease like cholera. Cholera is actually easy to prevent and treat – if you have the resources available. So if we are lucky enough to have access to these resources, then I vote that we should use them.

Young Lawrence by Anthony Sattin

I am absolutely fascinated by the lives of a few historical figures. I will read anything written about Napoleon (negative or positive – I am on the side of Andrew Roberts rather than Charles Esdaile – Napoleon is one of my heroes, albeit a very human hero). I will read anything about Churchill (particularly if it was written by Max Hastings). Similarly I will read anything that is about TE Lawrence.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Sattin’s earlier book ‘The Gates of Africa’ about the European ‘search’ for Timbuktu I was excited to see that he’d written one about Lawrence of Arabia. As the title suggests, the book focuses on Lawrence’s life up to the outbreak of World War One. His later life and involvement in Middle Eastern politics have been copiously written about and described by numerous people, and so it was interesting to be able to read a book that focused on his early years, as he, maybe unsurprisingly, had a fascinating life from the word go.

Lawrence in his Arab outfit (image from Google)

Lawrence in his Arab outfit (image from Google)

TE Lawrence is one of those people whose lives I envy and who I can identify with (in a small way). An interest in other cultures, a love of travelling and finding a ‘foreign’ place that feels like home all resonate with me. Not that I would want to live anyway except London necessarily, but it’s always good to have somewhere else you can go to, where you feel familiar and fit in. I love his confidence, tromping round alien parts wearing a suit and hob-nailed boots. Refusing to do as other ‘tourists’ and hire a load of people to carry his luggage (no tin bath and crates of brandy for him). Not liking, at some points in his journeying, being surrounded by men with guns (to protect him, although it didn’t always work out that way).

Sattin’s book has made the older, more frequently portrayed Lawrence more easily explained, although he will always remain something of an enigma, and no doubt we will never know the truth of some of the events that allegedly happened. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Not knowing is part of the attraction of the man.

There is a wealth of information about the digs at Carchemish, how TE lived there, and his very close friendship (if it was only a friendship) with Dahoum, who educated him in many ways. There is an explanation of his illegitimacy and how this may have affected his relationship with his family, and particularly his rather domineering-sounding mother. There are snippets of other people’s views of him. I’ve read books about and by Gertrude Bell (another hero of mine), who mentions him, so it’s interesting to read his view of her.

Dahoum (image from Google)

Dahoum (image from Google)

The book is supremely well written and is peppered with quotes, both by and about Lawrence, my favourite being ‘To do the best of anything (or to try to do it) is not a waste of opportunity’. Or of time, I would add. And certainly reading this book was not a waste of time – I thoroughly recommend it.

Part 4: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

And so I woke up and it was the morning of my last full day in Bhutan. My flight back to Kathmandu left at 8am the next day, so I had to be at the airport at 6am. At least I would be back in Kathmandu for breakfast!

My final day was the most enjoyable of all. I love hiking, and combine that with climbing 900 metres up a rather large hill to see an amazing building, and I’m happy. Taktshang Geomba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) graces all the travel books and publications about Bhutan. Go to any travel show and I guarantee that the Bhutan agents will have at least one picture of this iconic place, maybe a few from different angles. It certainly is incredibly photogenic, and as you can get under it, above it, next to it, and in it, there are plenty of opportunities for taking great photos.

Up we go

Up we go

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Tiger’s Nest monastery is somehow clinging on to a cliff 900 metres above the Paro valley. Guru Rinpoche was lucky – he flew up here on the back of a tiger to do battle with a demon. I walked. Once he got here he had a nice sit down and meditated for three months. I was there for about an hour and a half and didn’t stop looking at things – it is a magical place. You leave all your technology at the door (no cameras, no phones, no video cameras) and make sure that your arms are covered (I had to borrow a jacket from one of the receptionists at the hotel. It was so lovely that I was tempted to nick it :)).

I’m pretty fit so I was bounding up the first bit, passing another couple of people who had also left their hotel sensibly early. Then I realised that we were climbing quite steadily and I slowed down. We walked through beautiful forest, saw sunbirds and disturbed some grey langurs, who leapt up, staring at us. We were passed by one group of blokes from the Indian Army who rather annoyingly had their mobile phones playing tinny Bollywood hits. We let them get far ahead of us and then continued.

The viewpoint

The viewpoint

After just over an hour we were standing looking at the monastery close up, with the waterfall at our backs. This powers the prayer wheel at the bottom so it never stops turning and prayers are constantly flying off into the sky.

Waterfall on the way up

Waterfall on the way up

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Once we got to the monastery there was a great feeling of camaraderie, as people struggled down across the bridge and then up the other side. First up was where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after he flew in on the tiger. The cave itself is hidden behind a gilded door and seldom opened. Today it was shut but the murals more than made up for that. I have a thing about these wall paintings and there were plenty of them to look at all painted in beautiful, vivid colours. There were a few Buddhist pilgrims worshipping, praying, chanting and bringing offerings for the monks (mostly bags of crisps and packets of biscuits. I hope their normal diet is healthy!).

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

There it is

There it is

Despite being 100% atheist I did appreciate the spirituality of the place and I could easily have taken some of the murals home with pleasure. How on earth the monastery clings on to the side of the cliff I have no idea, but it does. It almost looks like an organic growth.

Going down the mountain was quicker, even being careful of knees and ankles. We stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two at the cafeteria and carried on back down. What an absolutely amazing place. I don’t think a trip to Bhutan would be complete without a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery.

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After another enormous lunch (they feed you a LOT in Bhutan) we went off to see our last sight, the Rinpung Dzong. As it was raining we had the entire place to ourselves, with the exception of one very grumpy young monk, who was manning the charm stall. You can buy a charm to protect you from most things you can think of. Rain wasn’t one of them though. The building itself was beautiful, with more of the exquisite wood carving that adorns a lot of the buildings in Bhutan.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

The dzong was damaged by a fire in 1907, and when the ashes were investigated the massive thangka that is unfurled once a year in the courtyard was found untouched. The murals here are beautifully fresh and vibrant. Some tell the life of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint. Again, these could cheerfully have come home with me, but it wasn’t to be.

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

On my last night in Bhutan I went to a farmhouse a short drive out of Paro, into a more rural area, for some home-cooked food. Part of this involved trying some home-brewed firewater (arra), which I think is an acquired taste! It was good with chura (beaten rice) though 🙂 After eating my fill of chillies it was back to the hotel for my final bottle of Druk 11000 and my last night’s sleep in Paro. The alarm call was booked for 5.15am…

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂