Friday, 25 October 2013

On Gratitude

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity {Melody Beattie}

Gratitude means to be thankful that your eyes open each day, that you have health, food, water, shelter and the love of friends and family. It means acknowledging everything that you receive. Gratitude shifts your focus from lack to abundance, and turns what we have into not just enough, but with excess to share with others.
This week I am reminded of how much I had to feel grateful for; first and foremost for life. And this morning I received the sad news that my good friend Ian, who had been a constant and committed champion of my work with young people, had died. Although inevitable, and in Ian's case expected, death is still shocking and chastening. It is also a time to celebrate a life well lived. Blogpost recounts the discovery that Ian had an inoperable brain tumour. 

I heard of Ian’s death just as I sat to write today’s post which was initially called 'what a difference a life makes'. It touches on the life of Colin whom I have known for the last 15 years. During this period Colin and I have gleaned the odd snippets of information about each other’s lives but yesterday we swapped stories about growing up in children’s homes.

I had a much better time than he had. In fact Beechholme, an avenue of houses with 15-16 children in each was the best time of my childhood. When I have said that to people they look nonplussed, incredulous and there is stunned silence. This is not the norm for those brought up 'in care'. Just recently I discovered that the word ‘Jasmine’, the name of the house in which I lived, means ‘gift from God’.

Colin is one of those people who had a lucky escape, and with hindsight he can appreciate that. Colin remembers never bringing friends back to his family home without understanding quite why he did not do this. Much later he discovered that the reason why his father was frequently absent was that he was locked away in a psychiatric unit, having suffered a psychotic episode from his addiction to prescription drugs. One particular medication banned in this country was supplied to him by a rogue medic.

In his children's home Colin became part of a ‘band of brothers’ formed to protect each other from the ever present paedophile and other abusers lurking on the edges of daily life. This little group of six toughies from inner London became life long friends, but Colin is the only one who did not end up in prison; he is the only one still alive today. He is also a successful businessman and more than comfortably off, but holds on to his working class roots and eschews all airs and graces. He is one of those rare ‘true north’ people. One can count on Colin to do the right thing regardless of the cost to himself.

Yesterday Colin was telling me how he and his wife had recently fostered or became carers for Ben, a 10-year old mix-raced boy whose eyes had seen and ears had heard things that no child ever should. The little boy was struggling to stand in his new middle-class environment and get use to simple everyday things like sitting down at the table with family to have a meal. Colin has him playing rugby, football and squash to absorb the boy's fieriness, his protective shield. Ben has a ton of issues that could easily knock him into the abyss, not least his own family of origin, but he also has Colin. That will make a difference.

As I listened to Ben’s story, it brought tears to my eyes but also a silent thankfulness that there are people in the world like Colin. It reminded me to be grateful for the constant light which shines in the darkness. Since my own struggle with a critical illness and the need for constant vigilance around my health, I open my eyes each morning with words of gratitude.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Challenging Choices

I am prompted to post about ‘choices’ today because of a friend who is faced with a ‘do’ or ‘die’ situation, metaphorically speaking of course.  But it does feel like a choice between a kind of ‘death in life’ existence, or experiencing the turbulent but fullness of life with its attendant highs and lows, joy and sadness.

I have to remind him that even birth itself is a struggle. The alternative is to remain in that womb~like place, to be stillborn, to never experience the fullness of being and living.  However one looks at it, to live is to take personal responsibility for one’s health and wellbeing – emotional, psychological and physical – and also for the consequences of one’s action.

Some of us may be faced with an intolerable situation such as the daily management of suffering and distress, whether that pain is emotional and psychological, or coping with the indignities and infirmities that comes with a physical illness and/or old age. In the face of suffering the unspeakable indignities that appear with ill health in old age many people are choosing to dictate the time of their own death as a 2lst Century health care option.

Earlier this year a friend who unexpectedly found herself in the role of carer for a very unwell spouse said she had already signed her papers for Dignitas, the clinic is Switzerland which provides the terminally ill with what is supposedly a dignified departure from this planet. I am still not sure whether or not she was joking.

It’s all very well to make that choice for oneself, but what would I do if faced with this option as a loved one’s wishes, which required my help and support? If that person was an adult relative close to me whose suffering seemed more than they could bear, and whose life depended on a machine, the answer would have to be yes.

But there is another circumstance where I think that categorical response would not be appropriate. Last year on the edge of my peripheral vision stood the mother who had absconded with her seven~year~old son in an effort to thwart the courts from taking a decision of his behalf about radiotherapy treatment. The mother held very strong views about the impact allopathic drugs would have on her son’s life experience and articulated them powerfully. Would I have the right to make a choice like that on behalf of my child? I think the answer would probably be no.

That young mother stood on the periphery of my vision because I too am hardwired with a congenital aversion to poisoning my system with allopathic drugs, but in 2008 I arrived at a terminus. I too faced the choice of either ‘doing’ or ‘dying’. It must have driven my doctor to the edge of despair and certainly frustration if not downright irritation with what she must have regarded as a kind of kamikaze attitude to my own health care.

There is a rare form of hypertension described as morbid or malignant – a crisis condition which causes a great deal of damage to various organs in the body. If this is not treated then death can be instantaneous through a massive stroke or major heart attack. I went to that place six years ago.

In 2008 I had to undergo a special 24~hour diagnostic test which revealed that my blood pressure was catastrophically high and explosive. The systolic pressure (the upper number) representing what I call the ‘excitation’ or level of ‘fizz’ in the blood, and the diastolic pressure (the lower number) represented the force with which the blood was pumping through my arteries when my heart beats or contracts, was 231/149. The lowest reading was 146/83 and considered relatively normal nowadays. No two of 38 readings over 24 hours were the same. I was on the edge of a major catastrophe.

The test results were calamitous and to my mind absurd because my blood pressure had gone from 124/82, apparently normal, to malignant within ten days. How could that be?  There was something more going on here, and if I masked it with allopathic drug I would never find out what else was going on in my body.

Needless to say my GP said I must go on medication immediately, that very day. Given the diagnostic test results, she said I would probably need to take three additional tablets, including a beta blocker. Someone, not me, watched as my GP wrote the prescription for the first tablet. She could read the expression on my face, and was quite firm that my condition was very serious indeed and could not be controlled by lifestyle changes, in any event she considered that I had now ran out of time.

When I asked about the side effects of the first drug, she referred to a book on her shelf which listed in over two pages the sorts of things I could expect, some of which I was already experiencing without drugs, including weight fluctuation, urinary disturbance, rash, palpitations, ankle swelling, nausea, headaches, fatigue, dizziness and generally ‘feeling odd’. That was just the first couple of lines of the first paragraph on page one.

The prescribed medication belonged to a generation of generic drugs, described as a calcium antagonist. The word antagonist captured my attention. My T~cells were obviously not doing their job and needed reinforcement, but swallowing this concoction of antagonists, what Americans might call alien enemy combatants, would be tantamount to declaring war on my immune system. That was not going to happen. My T~cells needed friends and allies – agonists – not adversaries.

Everything has a cause, and I was intent on finding out what was causing the blood in my body to behave in such a psychotic manner. That turned out to be a six year journey of discovery, and to understand and accept that I was ‘differently abled’ and had ‘special needs’. It is also a story about the ecological crisis that confronts both the human body and the planet, a body of humans. That journey of discovery is a story important to all of us, because it requires that you turn and face yourself, and really see who you are.