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Life Less Lived

by Dakshina Gammanpila

Sepia tones characterize our days at present. We live in a state of sheer frenzy or else apathy which comes from unbroken routine, broken sleep and little in between. Decision-making is ever present, but our ability for rational thought seems truncated. We yearn for the middle ground of balance. Yet why does it feel so elusive? The more we seek the less we seem to find. Still, all is not lost.

It has seemed particularly hard this week to put pen to paper, thoughts to words, fingers to keys. Not that there is nothing to say, but so much. Where to start, and how to make sense of the chaos, panic, fear, anxiety? It is not lethargy but paralysis, a form of limbo to which I am unused. But scribble I must, for no other reason than I am able.

As a mother, the duty of loving care to my children is first and foremost. It is an exceptional driver that propelled me during the year we have lived through. I say lived and I mean it. Although it seemed like survival at times, we were living; and although we lost, we gained too. In truth it has given me purpose. Never before have I felt that innate instinct to protect. Primal is a much misused word, but it was that sense to survive and somehow thrive that lay at the core of my momentum (which I confess felt stalled or sluggish at times).

In May last year I wrote about ‘Parenting in Covid’ for a magazine, then in October a group of 17 and 18 year old students invited me to write a follow-up. Strangely, owing to much changed circumstances, the months since then have been the most difficult and were I to write a sequel, it would be a very different piece altogether.

This state of unreality, of hyper real and seemingly endless abnormality, has caused fatigue in us all. Chronic fatigue has consequences. Constant messages and news from around the world reporting on India, and Delhi specifically, leave us drained. Le Monde, the Washington Post, the Guardian, headline after blazing headline. Social media, and the bombardment of bad news, inevitably takes its toll. To live and breathe this is exhausting.

Friends, naturally concerned, ask whether we are well. It is wonderful to hear from them, to know we are thought of, loved, but tiring to respond. Like walking in quicksand. The situation has changed from acute to long term and that is a different beast altogether. I have lived with long term illness personally for all my adult life, and professionally for half of it, I know the drill when asked ‘How are things?’ Only answer truthfully to those who can handle the truth, or when you can. Otherwise it’s that tried and tested line ‘I’m fine’.

Managing our present situation is akin to a long term condition and the good news is there are many ways to do so positively and proactively. How can I be so sure? The answer (truthfully) from my own life, and the experiences of millions. That is not to simplify things or bring it to a common experience, there is immense suffering and loss of life all around, but even at the darkest hour there are things one can do, as I gently told a grieving friend earlier this week.

In the late 90s and early 2000s I was involved in a pilot project that was eventually rolled out to every primary care trust in England. Working with people who had cancer, heart disease, lung conditions, HIV, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, depression the list, believe me, goes on, I saw lives truly lived once more. I remember speaking at a conference to doctors who said I made a compelling argument and seemed almost evangelical about how the programme worked. Well yes, when you have been in an environment as a barrister in a courtroom seeing the worst side of human nature, it can be a revelation, as a health coach and educator, to experience the best of what humans can do for one another. 

Tools and techniques exist to move us forward and break the monotony and never ending sameness of days. It may be frivolous to talk about books and films, but with World Book Night on April 23rd and the Oscars I was reminded of things that offer distraction, keep us entertained and anchored, but also give our life meaning. The solace offered by a book, film or piece of music has had a spiritual quality during bleak times.

More long term strategies work too. The programme with which I was involved was stepwise and led people through methodically with kindness, trust and results. It was community based thereby fostering a sense of togetherness. Real change I am convinced happens at grass roots levels. It felt like a movement, going beyond healing to give quality, meaning and in some cases purpose. To feel part of something is crucial, more so at times like these. Beauty and efficacy can lie in simplicity: techniques with measurable, perceptible, ‘feelable’ outcomes.

I witnessed real differences day in day out, week after week, month after month, year on year. Incremental improvements and monumental change through the entire spectrum of illness and wellbeing. One distinct story was a woman who had not left her home for 4 years, she had a plethora of conditions and sat isolated for the first few sessions in her electric wheelchair, speaking rarely. After the third session she handed me a ballpoint pen sketch she had drawn of me with the words ‘courage, strength, patience’ written next to it. She was a shining example of the positive decision to move forward and seize back her life. There are hundreds of stories like that: people who had been written off, or worse still written themselves off, and were defined by their illness.

As a Lead Trainer I was privileged to work with people and their conditions but also to coach them to become trainers themselves. Seeing people who lost their careers, livelihoods, sense of purpose and self-esteem make changes, enabling them to be in a position to work and help others was life-changing all round. It fosters self belief and forges a feeling of community, that we so badly need right now.

The inertia of life lived in suspended animation is debilitating. I look at the gecko which I have photographed for you this week. A blend of intense activity and stillness, a state of poised balance in readiness.  As a child on my first visit to Sri Lanka I was scared of geckos, and apparently asked what those little crocodiles were doing high up in the corner of the room. My great-uncle placed a tiny ball of cooked rice on the end of a bamboo twig and we befriended the gecko. When my own children were small and geckos were abundant in our home in Brazil, we too were friends with them. I didn’t go so far as the feeding, we were content to let the geckos share our home, eschewing (or should that be chewing?) mosquitos not rice. My older self looks to ‘the crocodile in the room’, recognizing when to be still and when to move.

Relish and be thankful if you are safe and healthy; if you have Covid mild or moderate do what you need to do to become well; if symptoms worsen seek assistance; if you are caring for someone or if you are grieving try to make time for yourself, if only to prevent illness (I know it’s easier said than done). The anguish of lost life, opportunities and aspirations is very hard to come to terms with. But it can be overcome or at least lived with.

Earth Day on April 22nd seemed eclipsed. I read something written in the mid 90s about averting climate disaster. We damage the planet, cutting down habitats so that animals come in close contact with man.  The virologist Professor Shahid Jameel said this week “3 out of 4 new diseases we are seeing are zoonotic”, meaning its source lies with animal to human transfer. We are inextricably linked to our environment. Covid is a harsh lesson that we have not taken care of the planet and the planet cannot now take care of us. Perhaps it is fighting back. In our acquisitive, individualistic search for bigger, better, more, things implode. But how to live in this ultimate act of self-sabotage?

This column is not about gloom and doom. There are many things that we can do in the short term for eventual long term gains benefiting everyone, not just the few. Small steps and techniques will be discussed in the coming weeks and the main one right now is to get vaccinated. This is a huge leap in terms of your physical and mental wellbeing. Take whichever one you can get. Each vaccine offers protection from the worst case scenario, to quibble about percentages is to miss the point and maybe miss the boat. All the vaccines, regardless of modality, are efficacious. Simply put they all protect to give us a fighting chance and this virus is canny, it is outwitting us. Vaccinations help us reverse the odds.

To live more and live well that is the quest. Even in the midst of a pandemic (and beyond) isn’t that what we all crave? It can be done.

Next time more about mental health and wellbeing.

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