How can you tell me you’re lonely?

When I was young, my parents used to constantly listen to cassettes and CDs of Roger Whittaker. He is basically this old guy with quite an interesting singing voice. They used to play his cassettes on a loop in the car while going on long drives to Winnipeg for the weekend, and like all things done repeatedly when you are young, they never really seem to leave you and I had learned every one of those songs off by heart. I think this was around 1989/1990.

Fast forward to 26 years later when now I have my own car but since I live in Malta the longest drive one could possibly go on is probably about 40 minutes, I was giving a lift to my mum and she brought in this old Roger Whittaker CD. I remembered every single verse to every single song on that CD. But at 32, the songs have more meaning than they ever did when I was 6.

One particular song is called ‘The streets of London’ and basically describes different scenarios, not-so-great scenarios involving homelessness and love lost and growing old and then goes on to ask how can you say you are lonely when there is all this suffering around you and next to these people you’re having a laugh.

When I am down and suffering, I must say, it annoys the hell out of me when people tell me ‘it could be worse.’ Even though it is true, things could always be worse, it is not very helpful. For example, if a guy has an ingrown toenail which hurts tremendously and as a nurse I say, ‘well, hey, look at that guy! We amputated his foot!, it won’t all of a sudden take away the physical pain of his ingrown toenail nor will it alleviate the stress of having to get it removed. Of course, we all feel very sorry for amputated-foot-man, and nobody wishes to be him, but it really does nothing for ingrown-toe-nail-guy. I mean, should the sheer gratitude of not needing one’s foot cut off be enough to forget one’s current suffering?

My point is, everyone experiences different circumstances differently. And what might not seem like a big deal to you could be a very big deal to someone else. And that has to be respected.

In the health profession, when studying analgesia we are constantly told that pain is what the patient says it is. Yes, we are discussing physical pain in this scenario but I think it can apply to emotional pain too. There is that awful joke that goes ‘Hey doc, my foot hurts!’ and the doctor hits the patient on the head with a hammer and the patient goes ‘Why did you do that?’ and the doc goes ‘well, it sure made you forget your foot!’ Well, I believe that emotional pain is a little like that…how we experience it really depends on how we have experienced life thus far. If something truly tremendously awful happens to you it will kind of blur other past bad experiences and bad experiences to come. And I cannot give an example because it is up to the individual to describe what is really and truly awful to them.

It is also why this song is quite beautiful. Yes, there is the annoying part in the chorus which tries to ask you to compare the suffering in your life to the suffering of the people found on the streets of London, but there is also the story telling aspect which depicts the different kinds of people and their hardships. He describes a dirty, mentally-challenged homeless woman carrying all she has in two plastic bags. He describes a lonely old man who spends his mornings in a cafe taking hours to drink tea and then wandering home alone and an old navy officer who still wears his badges even though nobody really cares anymore.

And yes, telling people in the face of their suffering that ‘ah, well, it could be worse’ is not the most emotionally intelligent thing to do; at least it is quite truthful.

It is not always the easiest thing, but I try really hard to concentrate on the things I do have rather than on those that I do not. And in the meantime, I simply try to be the best version of myself that I can be.

 The streets of London

Have you seen the old man

In the closed-down market

Kicking up the paper,

With his worn out shoes?

In his eyes you see no pride

Hand held loosely at his side

Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news
So how can you tell me you’re lonely,

And say for you that the sun don’t shine.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind
Have you seen the old girl

Who walks the streets of London

Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?

She’s no time for talking,

She just keeps right on walking

Carrying her home in two carrier bags.
So how can you tell me you’re lonely,

And say for you that the sun don’t shine.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind
In the all night cafe

At a quarter past eleven,

Same old man sitting there on his own

Looking at the world

Over the rim of his tea-cup,

Each tea lasts an hour

Then he wanders home alone
So how can you tell me you’re lonely,

Don’t say for you that the sun don’t shine.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind
Have you seen the old man

Outside the Seaman’s Mission

Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears

In our winter city,

The rain cries a little pity

For one more forgotten hero

And a world that doesn’t care
So how can you tell me you’re lonely,

And say for you that the sun don’t shine.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.


 

In a heartbeat…

Where you work and what you do forms a huge part of your life. The average person’s life is divided into three parts: work, home, sleep. Work is a pretty huge piece of the pie.
At work we meet different people who influence us in different ways, and we influence them. We make friendships and unfortunately enemies, people will love you or hate you or not even notice you. And how you tackle any of these scenarios shows strength of character or lack thereof.

Then there is the nature of the work. Maybe you work with people, with computers, with numbers, with your hands, with tools. Maybe you have a nice boss, a terrible boss, an incompetent boss or maybe you are your own boss. Maybe you work in a place that is mismanaged, or you are part of an institution that lacks funds or the opposite, you work in a place that runs like a well-oiled machine.

Where am I going with this?

The fact of the matter is, your job shapes you and moulds you.

At least that is my personal experience. When I signed up for nursing at the tender age of eighteen, I was thrown onto a ward almost immediately. Each ward is run differently, mostly according to the nursing officer who is stationed there. Some run the place smoothly and calmly. Some run the place like a regiment. In some wards the nurses practice incredible team work and in some wards they just totally hate each other. Some wards have patients who require little intervention and some wards have patients who need constant supervision, like in intensive care or the NICU. I am not saying that some wards have less work to do than others. I am saying that the nature of the work is different and heavily depends on the style of leadership of the nursing officer or charge nurse.  

That being said however, in wards with a very high turnover of patients needing constant intervention within a very short time, stress reigns. Pressure pushes its way in from every angle of the hospital. Nurses call in sick due to burn out, putting further pressure on the ones that are there. Then of course one must factor in the character of the nurses. Not all nurses are hard-working and not all nurses are caring. There is always one in every shift, the person who always disappears or always has an excuse up his or her sleeve. And this person will cause more pressure to be placed on the ones that are hard-working as they have to make up for the slack. Then the person in charge starts to rely heavily on these good workers and the rotten apples stay there, stinking up the bag because touching rotten apples is unpleasant.

And then one of two things happens:

1. The once caring and hard-working nurse stops caring because she/he sees those around them not caring and seem to be benefitting from their lack of work ethic. A kind of, if you can’t beat them join them kind of thing.

OR

2. They get massively burnt out and depressed, stressed and grow old before their time and start suffering from physical and mental manifestations of stress like weight loss or weight gain, hair loss, asthma, peptic ulcers, infertility and many others.

 

Also, nurses in a big unit, especially nurses in charge end up doing many duties that don’t always coincide with nursing but become their responsibility due to the pecking order. Like, a care assistant legally cannot organise and sign for a patient’s medication, but a nurse can do a care assistant’s work. A clerk cannot remove a patient’s sutures but the nurse can update the computer database and order a file and answer the phone. And if the nurse starts refusing to do all these things, a fast-paced unit simply will not run smoothly.  

And that is why all the good people leave these kinds of areas. They would rather take a dive into the unknown than continue to feel undervalued and undermined and worst of all, abused.

Unfortunately, I began to feel like option two. So when I saw an opportunity, I took it. I applied for a post that had just opened, but never in a million years did I think I would get it. In fact, I did not even tell anybody that I had applied. At the time I had run into a phenomenal bit of bad luck so my mind frame was that nothing good could possibly ever happen to me.

Then a few days later, I received a call and was informed that the position was mine if I was still interested and I accepted. On my next day of work, I was called to have my duties explained to me and I was asked to start right away.

And that was that. In a heartbeat, everything suddenly changed. I said my goodbyes to some of the lovely people I worked with and I packed my things and walked into my new office.

And all of a sudden, I got a new lease on life. In the few days I have been here, I realised that my work life does not have to be so much of a burden. It is not unheard of to wake up and be happy to go to work. And this all dawned on me when I noticed how conditioned I am by stress: that feeling of worry if you are not doing something all the time. I am so used to accommodating my place of work that I did not ever entertain the notion that sometimes my place of work should accommodate me. For example, my new team gave me some reading material about the nature of the new project I am about to embark on and I was about to put it in my bag to take home, when I was told no, home is home and I should read up about the project during working hours.  

I am aware that it is early days and maybe a few months down the line I will be thinking ‘dear God, what have I done??’ but I have a feeling that I will not. I have endured a lot, professionally and personally.

Maybe…just maybe…and I say this with trepidation…the sun has chosen to shine on me a little bit?  

  

A champagne supernova in the sky…

I had a rather trying day at work today. Well, really, I do not know when my days are not trying. My bullshit tolerance has reached an all-time low and everybody manages to irritate me. My boss who orders me about, patients with a subterranean IQ level, relatives who are ruder than rude, care workers who smack their lips while having lunch in the pantry…they get under my skin and reside there like some subcutaneous parasite, eventually getting into my blood stream and gushing around my brain. My brain!

And imminently my heart.

And sometimes I’m simply afraid I won’t recover. Because coupled up with the trials and tribulations of my personal life, I begin to wonder if it’s all a little too much.

So when my dad called to go to the beach this afternoon, I took it as a welcome distraction. Also, the long drive to mellieha would help me ease my mind.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my siblings there too, and after we swam we decided to grab some dinner at one of the seaside restaurants. When we sat down, I had forgotten just how long it had been that we were just us, our immediate family without husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends. The restaurant we went to seemed stuck in the 90s and somehow even the food had a 90s vibe.

And all of a sudden a tsunami of nostalgia washed over me. In 1996 we had spent a summer in a flat in mellieha. For three months we just swam, read library books, cooked, went for walks and sometimes watched Italian telenovelas since we didn’t have cable. Some school friends were staying there for the summer too and I made many new friends. I was thirteen and everything was so simple and innocent in a way. And like everything when you are quite young, you have no idea that you should cherish the moment because before you know it, it’s gone. When I was thirteen, I foolishly thought that nothing was ever going to change. I honestly thought that things were going to be the same way forever. Well, actually I did not really think that at all- I took it for granted that life was that way. That I would always have free time to read, swim and enjoy life, I would always be in amazingly good health, tanned and in short shorts, playing volleyball on the beach with my friends.

Now I’m thirty-two. My life feels so heavy and complicated.

I am perpetually tired. I wake up feeling good and not 5 minutes go by in hospital until somebody irritates me. There are some days where I count the minutes until I am able to go home. There are days when I feel like punching everyone and there are days when I just feel like locking myself in the bathroom and crying.

At the moment I’m absolutely obsessed with the show Absolutely Fabulous which started circa 1991. When it got to season 4 in 1995, there is a scene in a particular episode where Patsy and Edina are crying in the bathroom because the world is changing and they don’t want it to. Edina cries that she doesn’t want her daughter to move out and she wants to write letters not emails and she does not want to grow old.

And it got me thinking about how the time just creeps up on you. At one point in time you are a wild, care-free teenager and you think that’s going to last forever and then, before you know it, you are a burnt-out, down-on-your-luck 32 year-old who is really struggling to make her dreams come true. And then you think that is going to last forever too.

Then:

  
But you know what? The shit passes too. And other shit comes along….not necessarily better shit, but at least different. 

And that’s a good thing, because constipation has never benefitted anyone.

And I will leave you with one of my most nostalgia-inducing songs in my collection.

How many special people change?

How many lives are living strange?

…..Wake up the dawn and ask her why

A dreamer dreams she never dies

Wipe that tear away now from your eye

…….But you and I, we live and die

The world’s still spinning round

We don’t know why


No, we don’t know why. And I honestly don’t know if it gets any clearer.

Strength.

Strength is acknowledging that you have been knocked down and feeling the pain of that fall but not let it be the thing that defines you.

Strength is when you cry and cry and cry, wondering if the tears will ever stop and then they do.

Strength is recognising what you have to do to make yourself feel better.

Strength is looking an unpleasant situation in the eye and just getting on with it.

Strength is when something truly awful has happened to you, but you still have the ability to show others love and compassion.

Strength is being able to laugh again.

Strength is picking up the pieces, even of the puzzle doesn’t make sense.

Strength is learning from a situation.

Strength is when something bad happens to you and you use that experience to better yourself.

Strength is getting bad news, spend the night drinking and indulging and make a mental note that it’s only for a night.

Strength is being able to help others.

Strength is remembering the many great things about life. 

But most of all:

Strength is looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing that you will not let anything defeat you. And then blow yourself a kiss. 

  

Don’t pity me.

I have stopped expecting people to be emotionally intelligent. Those who are, are few and far between and if I keep expecting this I will simply become more and more disappointed with those around me.

Part of being emotionally intelligent is knowing or figuring out how to deal with the emotions involved when meeting somebody who is living through an unfortunate situation. As a nurse, I deal with this every single day, so I have had plenty of practice. The main ‘trick’ if you want to call it that is this: don’t cry or give looks of pity…those are things that YOU are feeling. In order to be of any help or use to the afflicted person, you need to tune in to what THEY want. Your pity won’t help. 

In Maltese there is the word ‘Miskina/miskin’. I think it translates directly to ‘poor thing’. I hate that word. It is the most unhelpful and condescending word in existence. When people say it, they are showing outwardly that they acknowledge the other person’s suffering but show no desire to actually do anything about it. 

I also think that ‘miskina/miskin’ is a bit of a power trip. When people say it, they often cock their heads to the side and get a sad look in their eyes and say ‘oh, miskina!’ and then go along their day safe in the knowledge that they are not poor things because they do not have the same terrible problems of others. To me, when you pity someone, you are basically saying in a more polite way and in a cloak of pseudo-caring : oh my God, I’m so glad I’m not you.

Which ofcourse, just makes the afflicted person feel worse. People are not stupid. They realise and take note. And then they avoid you.

So here’s what you can do:

1) avoid the words ‘poor thing’. Substitute with ‘I’m sorry you are going through such a hard time.’ Or say something like ‘you know what’s great about bad times? They pass eventually.’ Or ‘you are a strong person. It’s hard, but you can handle this.’

2) offer to help if you can. But if you honestly can’t, don’t make empty offers. Don’t say things like ‘I’m here for you’ if you actually are not. And if you can’t really help, be honest and say so. Say ‘I have a bit too much going on in my life right now, but if things ease up for me, I’m all yours.’

3) be empathic. Remember, you are not immune. Another person’s problem could one day be yours. Something I have learnt while working in a hospital is that in an instant, the tables could turn. You could very well become the person you have called ‘miskina.’ Be mindful of this. And think, would I really want people to pity me?

Pity is a knee-jerk reaction. When we hear bad news about someone, it is only natural to feel sorry for them. But being mindful and emotionally intelligent is about taking those knee-jerk reactions and turning them into something productive. 

As always, my motto is that before you say anything, ask yourself, is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

Miskin/Miskina are none of those things.

  

Free.

This summer I am making a conscious effort to enjoy every single day. Whether I am at work or not, I make sure to enjoy every single minute and to fill my mind with positive thoughts.

At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to put myself first and I am actually managing. It is a step way out of my comfort zone but I have taken it and I am all the better for it.

And the strange part is, even though this is foreign territory, I feel great. I think all of this has made me a better person and a better leader, because I am able to step back and get a better perspective.

It is always hard to find parking at the beach I like to go to, so today I parked kind of far away. It was super hot and I had to walk a couple of blocks in the sun. When I arrived, without a moments hesitation I just jumped in. The cold sea water felt electric against my skin, the crash of the waves like music and I felt amazing.

Amazingly happy. And lucky. And blessed. And free.

  
Are things perfect in my life? Far from it. Do I have everything my little heart desires? Not really. Are there difficulties in my path? Yes, many.

But still. In spite of all the hurdles, my spirit is strong. And I have always been very brave.

So when those waves of ugliness come, and sometimes they will come, instead of turning my back and running away, I have the strength to face them head on. And perhaps even muster the courage to ride them.

  

Night.

This morning I was saddened to find out that Elie Wiesel had died two days ago. He was a holocaust survivor who wrote about his experience at Auschwitz in a trilogy of books known as the ‘Night’ trilogy.

This man was truly brave. He did all he had to do with the little he had to survive and to help his aging father survive. His books are honest and without flair; poignant and interesting.

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-people-wiesel-idUSKCN0ZI0XH

Bravery does not mean doing death defying stunts for the sake of it. Courage is not about walking through a wall of fire to show everyone that you can.

Bravery is doing something unpleasant, painful and perhaps even undignified in order to survive. It is about admitting when you are wrong and apologizing. It’s about telling the whole truth and being ready to face the consequences. It is about knowing that you are in a shitty situation but you see what can be done to manage it. Bravery is about staring your problem in the eye and knowing that this, too, shall pass.

I think bravery is best described in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’.

  
Perhaps change that last line to make it more gender fluid, but you catch my drift.

I remember one very demanding shift at work where the patients were really demanding and they were coming non-stop and the doctors were being unco-operative. Finally, my junior nurse and I were able to take a break. When our half hour was up, we looked at each other because we were dreading leaving the staff room. But then my junior looked me in the eye and said ‘come on! Let’s not be cowards!’ And we faced the remainder of our day head on. 

And you know what? 7pm came and our day and hardship was over.

I find cowardice such a despicable quality. I associate cowardice with a lack of character, with people who do not live, but just exist. Life is all about challenges and hard times…but also full of triumph and good times. And at these times we can reflect and be grateful that we mustered up the strength and courage to move on.

RIP, Elie Wiesel…one of the bravest men who ever was.