2016 Grateful 29

Life goes in cycles. There was a time when being at my desk at 6am after a 20-mile commute was nothing out of the ordinary. There was another time I could arrive at work at 9am having been out till the early hours of the morning with no more than three hours sleep and still function. There was even a time when I could do this two or three days straight. But all that’s history.

exhausted pigeonThese days, I work better at night. I was finding it difficult to drag myself out of bed in the morning and even after 12 or 14 hours of sleep would lag in the afternoon. I was beyond tired. It was the sort of exhaustion that comes not from too little sleep but from something physiological.

Western medicine told me that I was depressed. The answer to my ailment was a course of antidepressants. But I’ve had depression. I know what it’s like. I know my symptoms and the warning signs. I know my body. And no matter how many times I told the various doctors that I was NOT depressed, their questions were all geared towards telling me I was in denial.

Do I have friends? Yes. Do I have an active social life? Yes. Do I have a good support system? Yes. Do I have financial troubles? No. Am I worried about my job? No. Am I concerned about my relationship? No.

Yes, I have a lot of work on these days and it is the lot of a freelancer to take the work when it comes in because you never know when it will disappear. Yes, I’m travelling a fair bit, but then that’s nothing new. Yes, if I chose, I could be out seven nights a week, but I’m not.

And still the prescription is antidepressants. Has this become the default treatment for everything?

A Hare Krishna friend of mine [and I only state his religion because his beliefs go a long way towards explaining the serenity that surrounds him], suggested I go see an Ayurvedic guy here in the city. He said he’d know what was wrong and he’d be able to fix it. He himself had been suffering from chronic knee pain and was now pain free and nimble.

At a loss of what else to do, I went. Yer man felt my pulse, thought a little, waited a while and then listed every symptom I’ve presented to regular doctors in the last six months, culminating with exhaustion. He told me my body was toxic. And if I cleaned it, all would be well.

I’m a borderline Kapha apparently. And too much Kapha makes me  sleep excessively.  I needed to change my diet. He also recommended weekly treatments for ten weeks to right me.

I can eat chicken, fish, and turkey. I can have goat’s cheese and rice milk. I can have vegetables except courgettes, cucumbers, avocado and sweet potatoes. No tomatoes. No heavy fruit. No salads. Nothing cold or raw. Nothing from the fridge.

I also have to take a horrible green powder mixed with honey to fight the fluid retention, a nasty dry powder to lower cholesterol, and a vile concoction for something I can’t quite remember.

My first two treatments were 45-minute massages followed by 15-minute saunas. Invigorate the toxins and then sweat them out – that was the plan. My third session lasted two hours – a Ruksha Udvartana (a dry powder massage) followed by the 15-minute sauna and a very vigorous head massage. All the masseurs are from Kerala in India and the ones I’ve met come from long lines of Ayurvedic practitioners. They seem to know what they’re doing and have a certainty about them that I found lacking in regular doctors who seem to favour consultations and second opinions. [And given our propensity to sue, I can’t say I blame them.]

Three weeks into it all, sticking to the diet as much as I can given prior commitments and travel, I’ve rediscovered plain, old tiredness. I’d forgotten what is was like to be tired from lack of sleep. It’s so much more pleasant. Now when I lag during the day, it’s because I had four hours sleep the night before. My body is detoxifying. My humour is improving. And the fluid retention has abated. I’m losing weight. My skin is so much fresher. And I’ve regained my ability to focus. 

On some surface level, I always knew that my diet affected my body, my mind, and my emotions, but the want was greater than the need. I never really bought in to the connection. But bottom line is that there is no getting away from the fact that we are what we eat. And how I eat is my choice, therefore how I feel is my choice. I alone am responsible. Sometimes we need to question our prescriptions and not blindly take what’s offered. We need to consider the diagnosis and whether it sits right with us. I’m looking forward to having my cholesterol checked again at the end of this period and justifying my refusal to take statins when it has returned to normal … the natural way.

For these realisations  I am grateful. For the massive improvement in energy levels, I am grateful. And for life sending me the right person at the right time to prompt this course of action, I am grateful, too.







2015 Grateful 30

Are tattoos to bodies what graffiti is to walls and buildings? I’m not sure. There’s been a lot in the press lately about tattoos and how they colour our judgement of a person who sports them. I’m not sure how I swing on that one, so perhaps this is why I found myself more attentive than usual this week to the tattoos worn in Budapest. For the most part, I don’t give it much thought, except to wonder why anyone would tattoo their face – that’s beyond me. But a couple I came across were particularly fascinating [and this doesn’t count yer man who had Ferencváros italicised across his chest…].

The first was on the décolletage of a young girl of about 18: a blue owl about 6 inches high, with its wings extended to her shoulder blades. It was beautiful, but I wondered how cool it would be when fashion became an issue. A statement that blue would certainly limit your colour pallette although, on reflection, a blue sky goes with everything. But how does she cope with the world staring at her chest all the time? That would freak me out.

The second was a gym-body in his mid-thirties. On the front of his left shin, he had a knee-high pair of hands clasped in prayer. On the calf, he had the beatitudes, in English, although he wasn’t speaking English. I’ve seen crosses and all sorts of religious emblems before, but never a full transcript of the beatitudes. And were I to stereotype him, it wouldn’t have been as a churchgoer but then you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beatitudes.

But each to their own. I flirted briefly with the idea of getting a tatt when I was in Hawaii one year, but I didn’t. There was nothing original in book I leafed through. And if I was going to mark myself indelibly for life, I wanted it to be with something that no one else had. And that would require more thought than I’m prepared to give it.

In TIMG_0315 (600x800)uscany recently, the graffiti was just as strange, ranging from clever witticisms to painted anguish. For a while it was as if I was reading instructions on how to live my life. I should have come to Tuscany years ago.IMG_0233 (800x600)

I’ve often wondered what goes through a  mind before the spray can or the paint brush or the stencil is lifted? Do they have a design, a plan, a burning need to share? Do they know how a few random words on a wall might impact a life?

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This one in Palma had me thinking for quite a while. I actually went back a second time and a third time to see if I could decide if it was the work of one person or two. It took me back in time to my trip to the Holy Land and the graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem. The sense of hopelessness jumped off cement and stopped a few others in their tracks, too.

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This one, in the walled city of Lucca, the furthest place from Planet Shit you could imagine, had me laugh out loud at first. And then, later, as the heat got to me and I passed it a second time, I had visions of a collective suicide and that sobered me up. Goes to show though, that even in paradise people are miserable.

This week has been a different one. I’ve been (and am) in a strange mood, not sure which end is up. I’m not depressed, down, or dispirited in any way – and for that I’m grateful – really grateful. I’m actually fine. It’s just as if my people plug has been pulled and while I can happily relate to one or two, anything more leaves me completely blahed. I’ve been crowded out. It’s taking way too much effort to be sociable. It’ll take another week of this horrible 32-degree weather before I can blame it on the heat (and don’t you dare tell me to be grateful it’s not minus 32 – that I could live with). Perhaps in this heat-induced lethargy,  I’ll start thinking about my tattoo.

2014 Grateful 4

Last week started off well and finished well – but the bits in between I could live without repeating. If I’d charted my emotional well-being, my mood, my perspective, I’d have gotten a somewhat erratic line drawing with highs and lows and bits in between. And as the highs and lows were extreme – it was exhausting – and I’m knackered.

Some time ago, when the best of medical minds were wavering about how to treat my MS-like symptoms, given that I don’t have MS, they came up with the bright idea of anti-depressants. Those little white pills would, apparently, make me feel right again. No more pins and needles, no more fatigue, no more legs giving way, no more mind/brain disconnect where my reactions are a second behind my brain’s instruction to the point when I drop stuff and burn myself. Just one pill a day and all this would disappear. Or so they said.

Strangely, I wasn’t at all tempted. I’m not a doctor. I don’t have a medical degree. And I’m not that into a Google-ised self-diagnosis. Many lifetimes ago, however, I did suffer from depression and for two years took those pills and lived in a world that was flat – no highs, no lows. They gave me time to heal, took away the anxiety, the paranoia, the despair. They helped me function. For that period in my life, they worked. And I was grateful for them because I was depressed. Today, I’m not.

The symptoms still come and go and always the recommended treatment stays the same. But I’ve gotten attached to my highs and lows and can’t imagine going back to flatlining where everything was the same. Instead of popping little white pills, I prefer the company of good friends who understand the madness and don’t feel the need to fix me.

WheelSaturday was a case in point. What was to be a quick spin around the Christmas market at Vörösmarty tér turned into dinner at a restaurant I’d not been to before, followed by a turn on the Eye (another thing off my bucket list), followed by some good music and great conversation. Lost in another world on the way home, I missed my stop and ended up in a part of the VIIIth I’d never seen. Walking through the streets of Budapest at daybreak on a cold December morning was all the tonic I needed. To see the world slowly waking and to have the time to pause and reflect on my part in it was therapeutic. To have people in my life who can turn my mood and make me laugh and bring me out of myself when the doubts set in is a blessing. To know myself well enough to be able to avoid the pills and ride the waves – that’s something for which I’m truly grateful.


Ending it all

I read this week that in Galway, a county on the west coast of Ireland, there were five suicides last weekend. Last year, the county had 31 deaths by suicide. This year so far it has had 22. And it’s not even June. This news left me reeling.

Curious to see how Ireland compares with Hungary, I checked the suicide rankings. (That the world collects such statistics is a clue to how messed up our society is.) Hungary is at 9 (2009 figures) – Ireland at 36 (2011 figures). This didn’t surprise me.

The caricature of the depressed Hungarian is one that runs deeps. Go back to 1933 when Rezső Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, which found world fame when it was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 and became known as the Hungarian Suicide Song. Urban legend has it that many people committed suicide while listening to it, and more still left its lyrics as their final words to the world. In 1968, 35 years after writing the song, apparently Seress himself committed suicide on his second attempt. It’s said he jumped out a window in Budapest but survived, to choke himself to death with a wire later in hospital.

Most at risk in Hungary are men in their 50s while Ireland tops the charts for teenage suicide in Europe for both boys and girls. What is wrong with the world? When does it get so bad that life is no longer worth living? That there is no hope left? That people have absolutely no one they can turn to?

In my early teens, I remember being really angry with my parents for not letting me do something or go somewhere. I went so far as to write a note and find a large bottle of aspirin. I was all set to swallow the lot but when I took out the cotton-wool filling, there were only five tables left. I didn’t want to kill myself; I wanted to punish my parents. How selfish can you get? And yet I wonder how many young people have died needlessly for the same reason – to prove a point?

There are those who think that suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness, that the victims are not the ones who have died but rather those who are left behind. But to suffer from a deep-seated depression or unhappiness that drives you to take your own life – where is the selfishness in that?

Depression is a serious issue. That feeling of apathy, of doom, of hopelessness is one that has to be experienced to be fully understood. The isolation, the futility, the frustration experienced by some who might appear to lead perfectly happy lives is difficult to empathise with unless you’ve been there.

Be it Ireland or Hungary or anywhere, it can be difficult to spot the signs, particularly as so much of our interaction is now virtual. But we can pay more attention to those who are going through radical changes like the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job or a mortgage foreclosure. We can notice when someone becomes withdrawn, or starts to bring up the subject of how to commit suicide, or speaks of wills and readying their affairs. We can listen when someone talks of feeling lonely or isolated, or expresses feelings of uselessness, failure, or loss of self-esteem. We can notice if someone seems obsessed with problems that appear to have no solutions. Above all, we can make time for people and show them that someone does care.

First published in the Budapest Times 30 May 2014

2013 Grateful 14

I do some of my best thinking in bed. I’ve always been particularly fond of my eiderdown and when I graduated to a duvet, I thought all my birthdays had come together.I’ve been known to take to my bed mid-afternoon, if the world becomes a little too unwieldy. I’ve been known not to surface until late afternoon, if nothing else beckons. I’ve even been known to spend a whole weekend alternating between bed and sofa, surrounded by books and DVDs, quite happy in my own company. And I never see it as a waste of time. To the contrary.

Bed, as a refuge, is much underrated. A tendency to spend too much time in bed is often seen as a sign of depressi0n. I’ve suffered from depression and know the signs that herald a major downer – thankfully it’s been years since my last bout – but my fondness for my bed is something different.

snoozeAt a workshop recently, one of the participants gave a presentation on sleep and sleep habits. They maintained that science has proven beyond doubt that the snooze button is dangerous. Apparently we’re much better off leaping out of bed when we first awake  rather than hitting the snooze button and getting that extra ten minutes of partial slumber. I consciously set my alarm for an hour before I have to get up just so that I can create the illusion of having a lie in. And according to science, I’m depriving myself of true wakefulness, and reducing the affect of proper sleep. Odds are, according to the research, that I will always feel tired.

But the flip side is that during that hour, I get to have what I rarely experience during the day – a period of undisturbed thinking. Be it planning what to pack for  trip, or deciding what to cook for a dinner party, or mentally scripting the opening lines of a book that will one day be written, this bed-time is invaluable. In that period of semi-wakefulness, I have had some of my best ideas, resolved many difficult problems, and come to life-changing conclusions about my life and those with whom choose to share it. My bed is more than a refuge – it’s a thought sanctuary, an ideas incubator, a therapist.

duvetWhen I was an active member of the corporate world, I was an avid proponent of duvet days and think that any company worth its salt should offer a limited number of duvet days to each employee, days off that can be taken when going to work becomes a chore, something that cannot be faced or only faced with supreme effort. This is not a new idea. The first recorded instance of the term duvet day that I could find dates back to September 1996 when the Financial Times ran this paragraph:  To staff at Text 100Italic, a PR company, there is a third option. They can take a ‘duvet day’. Each employee is allowed two days a year when they can play hookey with their employer’s blessing.

What’s the point in showing up for work if your heart isn’t in it, if your mind is on another planet,  if you know you’ll spend the whole day doing nothing but watching the clock. Why not simply stay at home? As an employer, I wouldn’t want you around and I certainly wouldn’t want to have to clean up the mess that would inevitably result from your distractedness.

As my own boss, I have granted myself an unlimited number of duvet days and, as a result of my taking myself up on my own generosity, I am reaping the rewards of clearing thinking, increased productivity, and a more positive frame of mind.

This week, I’m grateful for my 1850’s bed and the comfort it offers. I’m grateful, too, that when I go to bed and draw the duvet around me, it’s as if I’m closing the envelope on yet another day. Whatever problems I might have are shelved until the morning, when they may or may not be solved. Despite my best efforts to do this all day every day, this is one of the few times when I am actually present – living the moment. Forget the diamonds, the designer handbags, the fancy car – all it really takes to keep me happy is a comfy bed and a decent duvet.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52