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I Was Like a Man Falling off a Ferry – I had MS


8 Minute Read

Sometimes I think Job has nothing on me. All he had to contend with was a questioning of his faith in god in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. I have been faced with much more existential dilemmas than that.

I took early retirement about seven years ago, at the age of 55, due to various ailments that I couldn’t put my finger on. Ironically, it was my finger that first clued me into what was wrong. Just the very tip of my right index finger was sore and plagued by a painful numbness, if that doesn’t sound like too much of a contradiction. I was beginning to find it difficult to type and my work as a lecturer and researcher was being affected as a result. The pain gradually extended further down my finger and then into my other hand followed by my toes and my feet and it was becoming clear that something was seriously amiss.

The next thing was the tests and the MRI scans, until eventually the GP sat me down and handed me the letter he had received from the hospital and said ‘maybe you had better read this.’ And there it was: a diagnosis of demyelination (myelin is the fatty covering on your nerves) and the strong possibility that it was Multiple Sclerosis. Bit of a hammer blow. I struggled on at work, of course, that’s what we are meant to do, isn’t it? We pretend that everything will be alright. But of course it wasn’t.

I found it more and more difficult to get upstairs and the fatigue was so bad that I made a little bed under my desk. Often students would knock and find me rubbing my eyes and coming back to life to answer their questions about essays and coursework. Within a few months the brilliant HR department at Sheffield was offering me early retirement on a full pension and even though I still did not feel as though I was disabled, I took it. As with all retirement, it is necessary to take a good run up at it and think your way into a new purpose in life. But rather than having several years to get used to the idea, I was pitched into it like a man falling off a ferry.

I had joined the army at 16 with no school qualifications, had left at 21 and become a lorry driver, before studying German as a mature student. If the army gave me nothing else then the ability to speak German and drive lorries turned out to be worth their weight in Bitcoin. After that I got a job as a lecturer in post-45 German history and it was all downhill from there. In that sense my entire adult life was consumed with either physical or intellectual labour and it has proven really difficult to break that habit.

I have largely got there now – as anyone who knows me will be able to tell you – but still I feel as though I should be writing books, if not rushing up and down the highways of Britain delivering concrete or tarmac. The initial anxiety dreams of having lost some important piece of military kit or misplacing my lorry have largely faded now and I sleep a largely untroubled sleep. My ex-wife and I used to talk about how we were both so brilliant that somebody should pay us just to be ourselves. Well, now they are. It’s called a pension. The problem is that I am not myself anymore.

It’s amazing how quickly I dropped any pretence at academic work and when I now read the research I did, I feel as though it was a different person writing it. That’s because it was, and I don’t really understand most of what I wrote or why I wrote it. Not because of any cognitive decline on my part but simply because I was so much older then and I’m younger than that now.

Since that first MS diagnosis, there have been plenty of others as well, so that it becomes difficult to disentangle all the symptoms. I have also had sepsis in my arm from a cat bite, which needed quite a nasty operation (I have pictures if you need proof). When they investigated why I was getting such serious infections they found that my blood was basically empty. It had hardly any of the things in it that it needs to do its job. Pancytopenic, they called it. When they investigated the reasons for that they found in turn that I had a very rare form of leukaemia; hairy cell leukaemia. No, I hadn’t heard of it either.

The doctor said to me ‘Oh well if you are going to have cancer then this is the type that you want. It’s not even proper leukaemia.’ I think that was meant to be reassuring. It kind of was, in a way. Anyway, a series of injections and infusions (the first of which sent me into a spiral of reaction in which I thought I was definitely goner) and a couple of weeks lying down and all was fixed. Full remission. If it comes back in another 15 years – which is possible – they will simply give me the injections and infusions again. Mind you, by then they will have probably invented something else and all will be well. I’m hoping that by then they will have also found a cure for MS.

Because that’s just what one does, isn’t it? It’s the principle of hope. One hangs on for dear life, squeezing every drop you can out of it, trying to have experiences and to fill up the empty hours you have suddenly been gifted. The empty hours are there because of illnesses. But had I not had these things and had I struggled on for a few more years until I was 67 (another 5 years of work – inconceivable – and I do sometimes wake in a cold sweat wondering whether they will make me go back to work if a cure for MS is found) then I would still be doing better than my father, (who died at 62 – the same age as me now – which seems to have some deep significance that I can’t quite explain) or my uncle – his brother – who also died in his 60s. My younger cousin has just died of the dreaded c-word as well and I have reached that age we are all familiar with when all around me people are beginning to drop off the perch. Although at the same time, I feel freer and more in control now than I ever have in my life and I have also become Zen-like in my appreciation of what is around me – to the extent that I can do nothing all day and think it good – there is still a big hole where the whole should be.

I taught German philosophy as well as history at university and I spend a lot of time – probably far too much time – looking out of the window and thinking about Heidegger and Hegel and Being and Nothingness. Although that is all great fun, and something to bore my grandchildren with, it doesn’t butter many parsnips. But life is funny like that. Camus recognised the absurd nature of our existence and the randomness of the things that befall us and I find it difficult to think of it in terms other than that. I even invented a term for it during some extended discussions at a particularly drunken conference; namely, the metaphysics of contingency.

In other words, stuff happens and then we make grand stories up about why it had to happen, how it is all part of some great plan for us both as individuals and as a species. But there is no plan, of course. Heidegger adapted Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) into sum moribundus (I die therefore I am) to explain our purpose and, as the old army song has it, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here, and as retirement shows us, our existence is completely pointless. It’s what I call an unnecessary necessity.

Everything that has happened to me over these years has been necessary to make the person that I am now, but my existence was not necessary per se. If I had not been born the world would have carried on – indeed, my poor, mismatched shotgun parents would have gone their separate ways as they should have done – and the universe would have carried on expanding without even a blink of the eye.

I don’t know what the advantages of age actually are other than a recognition that nothing really matters and that it becomes much easier to accept the banality of life than when one was young and everything mattered so very much. ‘Life is what it is’, as they say today, but you only pass this way once so it is important to make the most of it etc.

The worst thing would be to lie on your deathbed feeling and knowing that it was all for nothing. Despite all the things that have befallen me I am neither desperate or unhappy. Sometimes life feels like the trials of Job crossed with the labours of Sisyphus and Hercules thrown in for good measure. But it has been a hell of a ride  and it’s not over yet.

Shedding the Old Skin – My journey into a new, exciting stage of life


1 Minute Read

After my mother’s death, I started reviewing what I had done with my life and what I wanted to do with the time I had left.

For the last ten years, I’d put a lot of energy into working with a charity called A Band of Brothers (ABOB), doing rites-of-passage weekends for young men involved in the Criminal Justice System in order to help them move on from adolescent behaviour to healthy masculinity. It was powerful and rewarding mentoring work around life transition. A group of us would go to the woods on a Thursday to prepare the physical and emotional ground for fifteen or so young men to arrive on Friday. Most of the young men went home on Sunday evening with the hope of a new beginning in their lives and a willingness to be mentored into a healthy community. I loved the challenge of the work, the processes we used, and the camaraderie of building community together.  I made deep connections and considered myself fortunate to have my ABOB family.  

But then there was a problem.  At the age of 70, I was finding the long days and nights camping in the woods with a demanding schedule that sometimes didn’t finish until after midnight too much. Of course, I didn’t want to admit it. I tried to keep up with my brothers’, who I generally considered my contemporaries, but they were often thirty years younger! I was struggling and even the younger men were knackered at the end of a weekend. What I could do when I was sixty-five was no longer possible. I would sometimes take on the ‘elder’ role, but the physicality proved too much for me.  I felt like I was failing myself, my colleagues and the young men. I felt shame at being too old to full participate, though I was never going to publicly admit it.

I would still turn up for meetings, but I started to feel critical about the work and I would long for the event to end. The feeling of connection and joy that I had felt for many years had gone, and I felt huge grief at the thought of losing my tribe. I had spent nearly ten years of my life contributing to the organisation, and now I felt alone and past it. Like many people who have to retire from the work they love, I felt like this was the beginning of a slow decline to the end of my life. These were dark times for me. The joy of life had gone but it was in this darkness that a new seed started to germinate.

What did growing old mean to me? I could no longer pretend to be middle-aged. I realised how unaccepting I was of ageing and how unprepared I was for this stage of life. Why was I surprised to be this old? I thought of my friends and me, and how we engaged in distractions to avoid the reality of our existence. News, celebrity gossip, sport, box sets – anything but the truth of our existence. The idea of fully accepting my age was a challenging one, but I started to explore how I could shed my old skin and move forward into a new stage of life.

As luck would have it, I was offered a place on a brilliant course in supporting people at the end of their lives. Through being alongside people who worked with the dying, I started to come to terms with my mortality. I was able to let go of some of the old attachments and this gave me a new lease of life and a surge of creative energy that I hadn’t felt for decades.  

In 2018, I wrote and rehearsed a show called The Seven Ages of the Dance of Life and Death with a community of actors, dancers and musicians. We did fourteen public performancesand the show attracted an appreciative audience. This was a creative and joyous time of my life and I forged some new and deep connections. I had let go of the past and moved into a new and empowered stage of life.

As I had been involved in helping young men transition from adolescence to healthy adulthood, I started to wonder if there wasn’t a need for a rites-of-passage in later life in which participants could let go of their old beliefs and identities that no longer served them. I read books by psychologists and by the pioneers in the conscious ageing movement. I researched some of the anthropologists on ritesofpassage and found that within many indigenous tribes, the process of marking key stages in life was seen as absolutely necessary for communal well-being.

I felt certain that myself (and possibly others could benefit) from a deeper exploration of the stages of life and our role in the community, so I completed a facilitation training course with The Institute of Noetics Sciences. After that, I was fortunate enough to meet a wise, elder woman who was already working in the field of conscious ageing. Together we devised and marketed our first workshops, which were well attended. We found that in each group, there was so much that connected each of us even though the participants came from diverse backgrounds. The future looked really exciting until February 2020 when the fear of a new virus took hold.

In isolation, I spent the next few months writing and sorting through my ideas so that in November, I was able to publish The Power of Ageing.  It sold around a hundred copies, but more importantly, it brought together a small group of like-minded people who felt passionately about the subject matter. We started a monthly discussion forum from which the Life-Stage Project was formed. Having lost my tribe a few years back, I finally felt reconnected again.

As we emerge from the pandemic, Life-Stage is offering regular workshops, an online course and a free monthly forum. We continue to explore how to empower ourselves in later life and now, we are taking the work into Retirement Villages and are hoping to spread the word further so that instead of us fearing ageing and death, we can become fully alive with wisdom, courage and a love of life.

Attachments and Letting Go workshop 30 April 10.00-3.00 in Glynde, Lewes, Sussex. Find out more about the Life-Stage Project at  www.life-stage.org.  

Navigating Loss Around My Health


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I’ve been mulling over how to tackle this piece for some time now. Procrastination has been easy and finding excuses not to start writing has afforded me some distance from the intensity of feelings that I was experiencing when the notion of writing first appeared in my thoughts.

And then, one evening, at a small gathering of friends over supper, I was entertained/enthralled/appalled (in equal measure) to hear the views espoused by one of the guests (a new acquaintance) who talked at length and with great enthusiasm, about his very real intention to have his head cryogenically preserved immediately after his death, to upload the contents of his brain to some future supercomputer or AI system.

When I asked him ‘why?’ he couldn’t believe that everyone wouldn’t want to live forever in this way – if they could. (This currently costs £100K, so not exactly accessible to all!) He was also hugely animated and excited at the prospect of advances in medicine that would prevent ageing, rid the world of chronic disease and prolong the human lifespan by many decades.

I found myself wanting to mention minor details like the climate change emergency and looming nuclear war but that felt a bit churlish so I just listened. in that space, I found myself wondering why we humans can’t seem to help ourselves becoming attached to just about anything and everything. The idea of loss, leaving, giving something up or surrendering is often an anathema to us and yet, in so many philosophies and faith traditions, the ability to do just that, let go and simply be, is the key to bliss, to heaven on earth, to enlightenment.

My personal journey with loss is a constantly evolving one and I have come to regard loss as part of the ebb and flow of life; a process that bestows as much as it takes. This insight doesn’t make it any less painful but somehow easier to live with. I have learned that there can be layers of loss – from the catastrophic and life-changing, through the intensely personal landscape of relationships and love, to the shared sense of loss of control that (for me) came with the global pandemic.

My own experience of life-changing loss came with me being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease at 51 after months of increasingly failing health. I was shocked at how quickly my body could go from being strong and resilient (able to run marathons, take on endurance races, scuba dive, look after a family and hold down a high octane career) to hardly being able to get out of bed each day and struggling to walk down the road. There was a strong sense of relief when the diagnosis (vasculitis) was eventually made and I finally had a recognised label rather than a troublesome set of symptoms. Surprisingly (to me), being acutely ill was the easy part. I have a background in nursing and I know how the system works, what good medical care is capable of achieving and that advances in science usually mean that what is tricky to treat now may well be mainstream within a decade.

And so it was. I adopted a project management approach to making myself as well as I could be whilst getting to grips with living with a long-term condition. I negotiated a change of work, moving into a part-time role facilitating the development of an education strategy and coaching the teams that would deliver it – pretty much all of it doable from my bedroom office via WebEx (this was pre-pandemic, pre-zoom).

I spent the next ten years surfing the waves of being well and on top of things, dealing with the impact the condition was having on myself and my family and friends (they too had to learn the new normal, they had lost the old Nadia, the woman with never-ending energy and they had to get to know the new, slower, tamed version) and coping with bouts of severe relapse caused by minor infections.

I was hospitalised with sepsis three times and each time I focused on what had worked before: rest, diet, building mental resilience, some work, some exercise and being with my family. After the third episode of sepsis (I nearly died this time) I decided to take the early retirement option that came with my NHS pension and I started to do some occasional teaching with my local university on the nursing degree programme.

I used myself as a living case study to illustrate the journey of someone with a long-term condition. I hadn’t anticipated how much I would learn from this experience and, at the same time, how painful it would be to regularly revisit my recent past and relive the feelings of loss that accompanied the changes in my life. I often found that I came away from one of my lectures exhausted, pulse racing, heart-thumping, needing to find a quiet place to decompress and let the sense of panic inside me recede enough for me to be able to drive home. I suspected that I may have PTSD and I decided to stop working altogether. It was such a huge relief.

When the pandemic hit, I had already spent several months in wind-down mode – dog walking, baking, gardening and visiting my family and grandson as often as possible. I loved this new way of being. I felt relaxed and able to breathe. My health was (relatively) good, and I felt fit, certainly fit enough to take on lockdown. And then I found myself waking in the middle of the night with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and loss of control.

It didn’t matter how well I looked after myself, if I caught this virus I would at best lose my kidneys (vasculitis having caused chronic kidney disease) and at worst not survive at all. The sense of loss was immense and engulfed me (it makes me tearful to remember it). Suddenly the things I had taken for granted were no longer certain, medicine and science were struggling to deal with the unknown, we couldn’t go to see our family and simple pleasures like sharing a meal with friends or going to the cinema simply ceased to be.

I had to find an anchor, something to help me recalibrate and gain some much-needed perspective. This came in the form of sea swimming and practising gratitude. The sea swimming was easy, a no brainer for me. It gave me the chance to be outdoors in nature with one close friend and to simply be. In that being, my mind started to be still and a space opened up in which I could see things to be grateful for – and there were many. I didn’t beat myself up for having felt such a sense of loss, I acknowledged it and was grateful to be able to feel it and still be safe, housed, warm and well-fed and not be suffering financially.

I realised how lucky I was, I am, I have been and how much harder life is for so many people. This isn’t to say that if you’re fortunate you somehow give up the right to feel the pain of loss. It isn’t a competition. Each of us will experience the impact of loss during our lives, whatever our circumstances. I believe that our ability to navigate loss is not necessarily dictated by those circumstances. It is more to do with learning to surrender and, in doing so, becoming aware of some innate wisdom that is hidden in plain sight – the wisdom of the annual cycle of nature; the dying down and wintering in order to rebuild and rebirth in spring and grow in summer through to harvest; the wisdom of your body, especially your gut – when it is telling you to stop. Even if you just stop for a bit it makes a difference. I became aware of the wisdom in rediscovering old joys and discovering new ones – who knew that there is so much to see on a walk to the shops or a busy commute.

My most recent relapse has taken me down some deep holes and involved another layer of loss because it coincided with a family trauma. I have done my best to hone my navigational skills and to learn some new ones. I have found myself drawn to and interested in the power of prayer and incantation, I have gained huge comfort from practising the universal loving-kindness meditation and I have surrendered to the process of a new treatment regime and the possibility of needing a kidney transplant in the not too distant future. I have learned that I will never really know what ‘living with covid’ is actually supposed to mean for someone like me.

Each layer of loss has bought with it a new gain, and so it goes. I tend my garden, I write, I walk much more than I run and I am still swimming.

The link to the Universal Loving Kindness meditation

https://www.mindful.org/this-loving-kindness-meditation-is-a-radical-act-of-love/

 

What I Learnt About My Gut


1 Minute Read

I have had a lifetime of learning about my gut, in particular my bowels, and I know that I am not alone!  I am quite sure many of you reading this will have had debilitating and hard to understand issues with your gut at some point in your lives. Like me, you have probably tried all kinds of supplements, nutrition adjustments and food restrictions to help your gut work in a comfortable and effective way. Like me, you may have become frustrated with how little impact all this has had and not know what to try next. Maybe like me, you have discovered that talking about mental health and bowels in the same breath is a good way of ending a conversation.

It was only when I realised that my gut was illustrating and responding to my emotional status, both current and historical, that I began to have some understanding of what was going on. It was only when I began to understand that in Eastern traditions the lower belly is considered the centre of emotional and spiritual growth, that I began to see the potential there and to feel the emotions there.  It was only when I studied the anatomy and physiology of the gut that I developed awe and wonder for its incredible beauty and complexity.  And it was only when I read some of the recent research into the gut microbiome and the enteric nervous system (aka the second brain) that I began to understand how the different tissues in the gut were able to hold onto difficult experiences in the past that impacted our gut function from that moment onwards, that this all started to fit together into one huge puzzle.

If I tell you that every moment of every day your gut is responding to how safe you feel, that every moment it is remembering times when you did not feel safe and sometimes this all gets mixed up together into a tangled experience that is hard to fathom. Does that resonate with you?

My gut has memories of a traumatic childhood and then a near-death experience later in life (I was scuba diving in cold water and started breathing in seawater) which left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or as I like to call it now Post Traumatic Gut. Many nights were spent waking with palpitations, nausea, dizziness, cramps, diarrhoea, then days feeling depleted and sore and only just functioning. I was feeling isolated and helpless often and not knowing where to turn for help.

Our bowels and our mental health are intimately connected, one reflecting the other all the time. As a child not able nor allowed to talk about how I felt whilst witnessing the emotional explosions of others, my gut was often constipated and its enteric nervous system moved beyond fight and flight and into freeze as I dissociated from the people and the world around me. As a teenager with anxiety and depression, I remained emotionally stuck. Later in life, and after my accident, I began to do my emotional work and my gut came on that journey with me. I am still travelling, but I know I am not alone.

As a CranioSacral Therapist, I was also seeing many people with mysterious chronic gut issues in my practice. I decided to take action. After a long period of research and trying out strategies and bodywork techniques for myself and clients, I wrote a new curriculum for the Upledger Institute, ‘CranioSacral Therapy and Listening to the Enteric Nervous System’ which I now teach internationally to support other practitioners help the people coming to them. I also wrote my book, published by Upledger Productions in the USA and UK, It’s All In The Gut which is for anyone interested in emotional stress and the gut. This is written through my personal story in an effort to make it engaging and relevant but also contains much of the recent research, the anatomy and physiology and, of course, strategies and meditations to help anyone reading with a gut issue.

Alongside this, I have a YouTube Channel Colon to Cosmos, which has some visualisations and meditations to support people on their journey of exploration with their gut.

So what can you do? The fundamental way to help yourself is to do your emotional work, through CranioSacral Therapy, talking therapy or any therapeutic practice that works for you. Emotional stress is the number one thing that has a negative impact on our microbiome and our enteric nervous system and all the layers and cell populations in the small and large intestines. This includes stress from the past as well as the present. It doesn’t matter how many avocados you eat, it will make little difference if you do not address these fundamental issues.

Alongside this work, you can support your gut health by being active, especially outside in nature. Your gut bacteria love being taken for a walk, just 30 minutes a day will help them. Learn to breathe. Eat a clean diet (avoid processed anything or anything with a list of ingredients as much as possible!) and drink plenty of water. Make time to do anything that makes you happy whether that is singing, yoga, knitting, cooking, gardening or anything at all that you love.

All of this will support your gut health and your vagal tone which is also important for healthy and happy gut function. We have so much more power to help ourselves than we may think.

So is my gut health perfect now? No more than my mental health. I am still anxious often and my bowels can be fast and uncomfortable. I also have periods of calm and normal function. The difference is that I now listen to the message my gut is sending me and do my best to deal with the emotional issue if I can or at least recognise it, as well as doing the things that help. For me these are yoga, weight training, walking by the river, talking to friends and so on. Like I said, I am still travelling.

If you would like to learn more about how this all works and how you can help yourself, you can buy my book It’s All In The Gut here:

www.nikkikenward.store

And ask any questions, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

How Many Miles? Rolling Home Here I Am


9 Minute Read

So, my dear friend Rose nudges me to get writing something for AoA.

I say nudge, but it feels more like a poke. A benign poke, but a poke is more staccato than a nudge, and is always a gift. I always say yes, and then I’m writing to some kind of deadline, which serves the writing of the piece.

Maybe boundaries she says, something about boundaries.

Humm, says my mind, mind… yes, says my deeper and quieter voice. Just yes.

I mean, I don’t really write self-help, and that’s where my mind went. I come from a field of trauma so unspeakable that I didn’t know what a boundary was, and I certainly didn’t know I had any right to say no to anything. Especially, as it happened, anything sexual. I am a long way down the road from there, and I am in many ways, the more obvious ways, pretty good at saying no when required. I have had to say it a lot (too much) over the last 3 or 4 years before my back surgery in 2020, because so many simple pleasures became impossible to manage.

I teach, in a manner of speaking, some of my psychotherapy clients a few bits and bobs about boundaries.

So, the whisper of yes, that this is the thread to pull in the writing, well that’s me going down below what I think I know. What I do know, because I don’t want to disrespect the effort it has taken to learn about edges and space between, and the beauty and freedom to be found in the simplicity of saying yes, and no, and I’m not sure yet, let me think about that.

Underneath, and underneath more, there is a place where I am only a beginner at the slippery business of saying the no, that is saying a just born yes to what has been waiting a lifetime to see if I make it.

Yes, I do finally see you there, so utterly alone, so defeated. I finally see the disembodied homeless and hopeless. Me. Caroline the Compassion Queen with all my talk of welcoming and fields of kindness, only just got to the place where you became visible. I can see you through a vale of tears. I only just made it, and I know there is comedy in this. Tender comedy, tragicomedy… we are all, in the soap-operas of our little lives, trying to get home before we have to go.

My perspective. It might not be yours.

Remember, I am not in the self-help section.

I didn’t know how to listen to my body, though I probably would have told you I did… I got parts of me home. Dear God, my life has been a pilgrimage, and the many homecomings have been anchoring, rooting me into this earth, the ground, leading me to a sense of place that wasn’t defined by violence and self-murder. I found kin along the road. I wasn’t alone. I started to see myself in the mirrors of my ragged fellow travellers. The original mirror was argued with, bits of it fell off, shattered, got swept away.

If we lived in delusional Disneyworld, where all was linear and orderly, where we get a psychological fact and that’s that, well, we wouldn’t be human.

Nothing at all about my post-surgery experience has been as I might have written it. I didn’t write it, because I didn’t believe I would have a life rolling on for very long post-surgery. As many of you know, I had planned to leave – had surgery failed to significantly improve the constant agony that had become my reality. The chaos of my NHS surgery being pulled on the day, the despair, the undefended asking for help, the outpouring of generosity from so many through crowdfunding – like an enormous wave of unconditional love that had me 5 days later in my surgeon’s Harley Street Clinic, receiving the very best version of the spinal fusion that is currently available. All of this brought me here.

Here.

Here, to where I didn’t expect to be, so I hadn’t written myself in, I’d written myself out. It has been more than strange to turn back towards a life I wasn’t expecting, and find it full of fragments of old stories.

I have stopped tapping on my keyboard. Ground to a halt.

I’m looking for a word that captures that first year of afterwards. The one that won’t go away, even though I’m pushing hard, is torture. I don’t want to say it. Hyperbolic, my critical mind says loudly, but truth be told, it is the right word. So much of what and how I understood things started falling away. I probably spent that first year trying to hang on to them. That felt like torture.

With the love of some straight-talking mirrors, you know, my people. My kin. My heart buddies, I started to allow what was already happening. I stopped fighting. Not just like that, but I did turn a corner. I turned towards my most homeless, abandoned and separate self… the one that was turned away from at the very first breath, by a mother that could only feel hate, revulsion and horror. I come from that lineage.

Along to highways and byways of slogging onwards, of course I came to learn and understand that I had turned away from myself in that very same way. And, yet I had missed the embodied abandonment, until instead of deciding to take my own life because the NHS couldn’t give me what the same surgeon could if I paid him. At that point, I couldn’t not meet myself in the unoccupied house of my own ravaged body. The surgeon said my lower discs were dust, that he could sweep away and build structure and architecture. That this would hold me straight for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know this then, but only if I got it. Only if I saw the one I turned away from, because I didn’t know how not to, because I couldn’t stay with the overwhelming experience of arriving in the world in a tiny body, constantly flooded with sensation, if there was no-one there to stay with her. I internalised revulsion and absence. It was all I had to breathe in. I took that into every cell, fibre, blood and baby-bone of me. Understanding the absence and revulsion and the marks it left on me, I learned how to stay with much of what wasn’t stayed with. I found fields of kindness that caught me when I fell out of the fighting not to be depressed.

I just never, ever noticed that the pain in my body that has been as true and baseline as depression has – is the embodied expression of the same simple, unbearable, tragicomedy of my little life. I pushed on through everything, every moment of everyday, not listening to a single cry or whimper, not hearing my body pleading for mercy. Even on the dance-floors of redemption and in the kitchens of love, everything always hurt, and hurting got louder and I got deafer, and in the end the discs at the bottom of my spine were dust and I could barely move, and I literally could not continue to stay alive if this was my lot

Back to the boundaries.

I am surgically repaired enough to revert to pushing through, so I had to turn towards that baby that wasn’t stayed with, and ask her to forgive me for the very long wait, and ask her to show me how to listen. I had to stop fighting with ideas about becoming someone better (physically) and appreciate I am here already and that words like limits and capacity are love words, not dirty words. I live with pain. I never thought in my wildest occasional dream that I wouldn’t, but I live with pain and that is not all there is of me. That is a very big difference. I manage with medication, prayer, physical and energetic support, disciplined and simple core strength maintenance, but mostly by listening to this 63-year-old body that has been waiting a literal lifetime to be heard.

Attuned.

A word that brings tears to my eyes.

A word that shatters my heart into pieces of tenderness that are unfathomable because they belong in the tiny, helpless, wordless and lonely body of a baby, that I can actually feel from the inside of her.

I don’t fancy living many more years. I’m not going to get old, old.

And, I am here living now, and I am attuned to the SOS from the toil of getting here. I’m listening. The message is singing its purest note. I will work less. I am saying no, and I’m sorry I’m not taking any new clients for the foreseeable future. I am making the work – that I’ve come to love and trust myself in more and more as I land by my own fireside – fewer in numbers. If I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life giving too much holding, and spend the space in-between recovering rather than being Here.

Here to breathe.

Here to finish my one little book.

Here to see more of the ones I love.

Here to not know what’s going to happen next.

Here to yield to This, over and over until This is the end of being in my forgiving body.

My body will always hurt.

Sometimes that feels overwhelming.

At this moment, really allowing the truth and the grief to be here, I am flooded with something I don’t have one single word for. I find myself here more often though and am so very grateful. In the absence of one word, or anything elegant, it’s the ‘Everything in This’.

I don’t often spell this out, but a lifetime of clenching against embodiment has left pain everywhere. It was my back that collapsed, and that has been the doorway to Home, but everything hurts: head, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, eyeballs, joints… That’s how it rolls, and all of the hurting has been so lonely, and isn’t anymore.

I listen, imperfectly, and love, imperfectly, every hurt, every clench, every soften and re-clench and soften. I have given up fighting to be a different me, though sometimes I forget I have, and then I remember again…

Gratitude.

Humility.

Hilarity.

It’s all I’ve got.

What the hell is Tre?


5 Minute Read

Have you heard people talking about Tre? I have. So I invited Tre teacher, Sylvia Tillmann to explain.

How are you post-pandemic? Well, not so post.

I spoke with friends the other day about how we were – and still are – coping with a global pandemic, a couple of lockdowns and the ups and downs of life.

We are a mixed bunch of people between the ages of 50 and 70.

Some people have dogs and enjoyed the company and the daily walks – at least something was dragging them out – some people are very much into gardening, others kept sane by swimming in the sea all year round. I noticed that nobody in this group complained about this era and the ‘new normal’; in fact, we all welcomed the more reflective mode, fewer commitments and concentrating on what was really important in life.

As for myself, I reassessed my life and reorganised my career during the first lockdown. With a business background and on furlough, I was grateful for the time I was given to take stock.

First I enrolled in various business courses, but then I asked myself: ‘What does the world really need? Surely not another business guru!’

I concluded that we all need laughter, optimism, community and a robust immune system – and I trained as a Laughter Yoga Leader.

That was fun and being interested in alternative health, positive psychology and what makes us tick, I found it amazing to see how much research has been carried out on the benefits of laughter.

I loved it, but I wanted to take it further.

Having listened to many lectures, presentations and discussions on trauma – after all, we had all just experienced a collective trauma, I rediscovered TRE.

What is TRE? I hear you ask.

TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises by Dr David Berceli) is a somatic stress management tool I had experienced once, about ten years ago.

I honestly can’t remember if I didn’t get it at the time or if I totally dismissed it because ‘I had never experienced trauma’ – or so I thought!

Now I was convinced that TRE could be an amazing self-help tool to support anybody who’s struggling – psychologically or physically.

I decided to go for it.

This training took everything I had learned before to a whole new level. My go-to modality had always been talking therapies, I had counselling sessions myself and then completed the foundation training as I wanted to train as a bereavement counsellor.

Learning TRE addressed everything I missed when working cognitively. The mind is super busy, the thoughts are going round and round and … well, at least for me, it didn’t help me massively.

Why not give our busy minds a rest and concentrate on the body?

And that’s exactly what TRE enables us to do. Practising TRE means – literally – to shake off tension and stress.

To shake it off? Really? How does it work?

The easiest way to explain TRE’s principle is by watching a dog.

Yes, please bear with me …

A dog who experiences a stressful situation immediately shakes off the excess stress after this encounter and then happily gets on with life.

Animals do it automatically, but people have un-learned this process, although we are genetically encoded to tremor – and it would be so good for us.

That’s where TRE comes in, as it activates our stress release mechanism.

Over the course of the training, I also learned that trauma isn’t just big T trauma, i.e. the truly awful things that can happen. The simple fact that we are human beings means that we all experience trauma to some degree – think of family/relationship issues, work/money stress, health scares/illness, divorce or death etc.

This time I really got it. TRE is making so much sense because mind and body are intrinsically linked, so let’s include the body.

Let’s explore it in a bit more detail: When we experience stress, we mobilise energy to defend and protect ourselves, which is helpful. But if we want to run or fight and we can’t, that energy doesn’t get used up and stays inside of us.

The result is that we stay on high alert, i.e. high on adrenaline and cortisol, always expecting danger, constantly ready to fight or flight – we might have sleep issues, psychosomatic pain or avoid certain situations that caused this response.

This is exhausting and only when we are able to complete the cycle, i.e. use up the excess energy, the body can find its equilibrium again.

By practising TRE in a safe and controlled manner, this energy can be accessed and discharged.

How to practise TRE?

TRE starts with six warm-up exercises to fatigue the muscles and prepares the body to tremor. This is followed by a grounding exercise and then the actual TRE process. By lying on a mat, feet sole-to-sole, knees out, the tremors emerge. Your brain might perceive it as unusual, if not weird, but for the body, it feels quite natural. Afterwards, participants report a deep relaxation.

How does it make me feel?

I’ve been practising TRE for well over a year now and it only takes about ten minutes a day. I credit TRE with becoming more resilient – I’m just so grateful for having TRE during the pandemic – and also with the disappearance of my lower back and hip pain.

Over the last few years, I struggled with pain and sometimes it was so bad that I thought I have to stop playing tennis – which I love – and wondered if I need a hip replacement.

TRE helped me to shake off that tension in my back and hips – I don’t know what I was holding on to, and I don’t need to know; that’s the beauty of TRE, there’s no need to verbalise anything.

Curious to find out more? Check out Sylvia’s website on www.tremendousTRE.co.uk. She runs regular TRE courses, mainly online, so you can stay in the comfort of your own home.

Is Etiquette Dead?


5 Minute Read

I’m a swimmer. A pool swimmer. I’m proud to be part of a world – a swimmer’s world – where etiquette and codes of conduct prevail. There, at the foot of the swim lanes is a sign, Pool Rules. It’s clear and simple.

I pride myself on etiquette in and out of the pool, and thankfully there is a place I can go where civility is recognised and respected. That said, alas, lately I’ve noticed that even pool rules are being flouted and broken, and that is when I feel as if I am completely alone. A lone shark, seeking solace and a sign that etiquette is not yet dead.

I have had more than one incident of a ‘surprise sharer’ – someone who thinks nothing of getting in and starting to swim without asking – I would never share a lane without first getting a thumbs up from the person who was there first – that’s what we do! It’s a common courtesy.

Quite often, if I’m asked, I will agree to share – but please ask first. Once sharing has been established, there is no certainty that the rest of the codes of conduct will be observed. Beware of the powerhouse swimmer – who I’ve agreed to share with but who still breaststrokes across the entire lane, or freestyles so ferociously that swallowing their kick water is impossible to avoid.

Then there are the little fishes outside of the swim lanes but who seem to have a strategy to flip for fun over the ropes into the swim lane at the exact spot and at the precise moment I’m passing, resulting in near misses with precious children, and a ‘what if’ shock to my system. Contra-indicative to doing exercise for health or activity for relaxation, to say the least!

There are also, what shall we call them, lane hogs who clog up the lanes and cause traffic. Lane hogs like to think they are swimming but they are mostly taking up valuable swimming real estate. They may swim a lap, but then they stop, and stand. There’s no rhyme, no reason, there is no pattern to their process unless you call swim, stop, stand and chat a pattern. They might swim another lap, but then again, they might not. That’s not lap swimming, sorry!

I want to continue to swim, so I keep my opinions to myself for as long as possible. I have even tried going to another pool club! But there is increasing evidence on my arms and legs of lane-rope cuts and bruises from avoiding collisions with humans; audible yelping, like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, ‘I’m swimming here!’ which no one seems to hear. I am left feeling stunned, shocked, nearly defeated, and dare I say, invisible, what are my choices?

I do not want to be invisible. I want to be seen and heard. And I want everyone to observe the pool rules!! Why is it so difficult? I watch and I wonder, is it just me? I’m new here. I am not an influencer here. My mind spins and seeks solutions.

I spot Marilyn, and the clouds lift. Marilyn swims. She also knows and talks to everyone. She lives in both camps. She’s got all the gear – the mask and snorkel, the fins, the webbed fingers. When she’s not swimming, she gets into the pool in a full outfit, including hat, long-sleeved shirt, leggings and shoes, to walk and chat! This is a sight to see. It’s quirky, and it serves a purpose – it’s a new trend to avoid sun exposure. The sun mimics a light bulb over my head.

‘Marilyn,’ I say, ‘we should have a fashion show and you should definitely be in it.’ She laughs out loud. As one hilarious idea leads to the next, a fashion show is born – and the theme is Pool Rules.

I talk to Mikey, the entertainment director. He is cautiously enthusiastic, whatever that means. Maybe he knows something I don’t. I talk to some of the others, Sue and Donna, and they love it! They start to list some of the ridiculous rules at the club and discuss which rules should be changed. Like, NO Restaurant Food on the Top Deck. Like, the Snacks Only rule. Like, NO Wheels on Beach Bags. It’s not long before Sue and Donna have their theme – Sue will wheel Donna in as if she’s on a parade float. Their rule will be – NO Wheels on Beach Bags. And they will campaign to change it. It’s pretty wacky, and I’m not feeling so alone anymore. Together, we hatch the idea of a Pool Fashion Show and Water Escapades Show. It will be a variety show. We will involve the lifeguards, and Mikey will recruit all the young families with children. I don’t know what I’ll be wearing yet, but I will be campaigning hard for in-pool rule adherence.

At the end of the day, I sit with Donna and Sue in the cafe, and we chat further about the show. Then the mood changes; clouds descend again. Donna is concerned that this theme might expose her as a rule breaker. She is not so sure it’s a good idea. Sue and I muse, ’Oh really? What rules are you breaking?’ Donna goes quiet. Time passes. I take my cue from Sue, and I don’t press her any further. We do not get an answer. And we never do the show.

An Unexpected Hospital Stay in the Middle of the Pandemic


1 Minute Read

Foolish me. I presumed I had it under control at 85. I planned to live for about ten more years and then, in my mid-90s, die of a heart attack. After all, I was in rude health, ate healthy food, exercised and walked a lot. After all, I was in charge of my body. And then my illusions were shattered when, after doing some maybe too energetic Qigong, I was suddenly debilitated by a smarting chest and pain down both my arms. It was aching so much that I even took a painkiller.

The next morning, the 11th of February 2020, I was a bit tired, but not worried. Still, worried enough to tell my children who insisted I get in touch with my GP immediately. I didn’t want to, I have forever avoided doctors, but let them talk me into it. The GP sent me to UCLH for a check-up that afternoon. I thought it wouldn’t take long, so much so that I did not take my phone charger with me.

At first, the medics who examined me said that there seemed to be nothing wrong, and complimented me on my health. Then, after hours of various scans, a painful angiogram, x-rays and what have you, they told me that I’d had a heart attack, and had blood clots on my lungs. Which explained why, for years, I had breathing difficulties, which I’d put down to age.

Before I was aware of what was happening, I was wheeled to a ward, given hospital pyjamas and slippers and told to put my clothes in the cabinet next to my bed. When they then connected me to a beeping machine I felt that my life, as I had known it, was over. I was now an invalid. Not valid. In-valid.

To my question: “How long do I have to stay here for?” I was told that I would have to go to Barts Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of heart conditions, to have a stent put in a blocked vein leading to my heart. As, at the moment, there were no free beds there, I’d have to wait here until one was available.

This was a bad state of affairs, but what preoccupied me the most at that moment was the low battery signal on my phone. What would I do if my phone died? It was my lifeline to the outside world. The free world. But I still had enough power to WhatsApp Johnny, a friend who lived nearby and asked him please to go to my house and get the charger. “It’s the white one plugged in the extension under my bedside table. And also please bring me essential oil of tea tree, lavender and frankincense, which are on the bedside table. Also, a sleeping mask and earplugs. They’re in a small, brown cotton pouch on top of the cupboard in the bedroom.  You can leave them at the hospital’s reception desk. And please turn my computer off, and bring me the book on the settee in the sitting room. Thank you so much, Johnny, I really appreciate it.”

Providentially, I have a key-lock by my front door so he was able to get in and bring me what I’d asked for.

My phone fully charged, I WhatsApped my children and other friends to give them my bad news. Everyone was shocked. And given fucking Covid, no one could come to help me.

So began my lost days as I waited for a free bed at Barts Hospital.

After weeks of lockdown, I was suddenly in company. My Covid-free ward was jumping with comings and goings. Patients spoke to one another, and jolly nurses chatted to me as they brought me medication (I had never taken a pharmaceutical till now), checked my blood pressure, injected me with blood thinners and tested my ailing heart with machines.

The nights were another story. Some of the nurses were not going to make the patient’s life pleasant. They talked loudly to each other, were brusque when they came to check my blood pressure and the peeps on the machine. In no way helpful or willing to say something nice, or anything at all. Others hardly got out of their chairs. They are getting us back for the years they’ve been treated as second-class citizens, I thought. And who could blame them?  One night, when I lost my bearings as I was trying to find the lavatory and asked a nurse for help, she vaguely pointed in some direction which did not make it any easier. I knew that had this happened during the day, the nurse would have taken me to the toilet herself.

During the interminable days – which I tried to handle by reading and WhatsApping a lot with my children, one in Italy the other in New York which meant I had to handle my condition on my own – I thanked the heavens for cell phones.

Young doctors, accompanied by a student or two, came around in the early afternoons. They didn’t have much to say except that no bed was as yet available at Bart’s.

I’m used to taking a daily shower, but there was no way I’d make do with the hand-held shower in the cold bathroom, so I washed in the basin using a paper towel provided by the hospital. I wished I’d asked Johnny to bring me a face cloth and my face oil.

As everyone knows, hospital food is disgusting, so I’m not going to go into it, except to say that it’s beyond me why there’s no awareness in the NHS about nutrition. Fortunately, a friend sent a rescue package with yogurts, kefir, green grapes, two novels, hair scrunchies and a white cashmere shawl.

I’m used to walking and exercising daily, so I walked as much as possible around the ward and did a bit of stretching. The others looked at me as though I was doing something abnormal. But then, I’ve never been regarded as ‘normal’.

The large windows at the end of the ward faced a nearby building, so there was no view on to the street. I never knew what the weather was like outside.

Patients came and went daily in the ward, and on the night when all hell broke loose, a middle-aged Polish woman, Anja, was in the bed on my left. She was at all times on her phone. In the bed in front of her lay a very old lady who seemed on her last breath. The compassionate male nurse, Silvester, from the Congo, was forever waking her up asking her what date it is. It’s the 14th of February, I said to myself, a fact I only knew because it’s my grandson’s birthday. Next to the old lady, a rough-looking working-class woman, Louise, in her early fifties, was constantly wailing for the doctor because she had pain, she said. The Polish woman told her she was given liquid morphine at night. Louise, looking displeased, went to the loo and came back with a long strand of lavatory paper stuck in her anus. She did not wear pyjama bottoms so we were treated to a full view of her large, varicose-veined legs.

Our lights were already out and I was about to put my sleeping mask on when suddenly screams and crashing of furniture came from the male ward adjacent to ours. I bolted up in my bed.

“Oh dear God,” Anja said. “What is happening? Did you hear that?”

How could I not have heard such a din?

The guy continued screaming and throwing stuff about. Finally, policemen and security guards marched in loud, authoritarian droves down the corridor. The man screamed more, the cops screamed back at him. “We’re going to take you back to prison.” He screamed “NOOOO”, and I thought, oh my God they brought him here from prison!

After they finally managed to drag him away, it seemed peace had been restored. But it hadn’t. Louise got out of bed, threw a faux-leather jacket on her shoulders and said, “I’m going out.” Nurse Silvester didn’t seem bothered and shrugged his shoulders. I told him, “No, you can’t let her out. It’s freezing outside.” Again he shrugged his shoulders and avoided my eyes.

“I’m going out,” she repeated determined. So I went over to her, and putting my arms around her I said, “Sweetie, you can’t go out, it’s freezing. Now, take your jacket off and get into bed.”

I was quite proud of my authority, as she sat on her bed weeping like a small child.

In the meantime, Anja called Silvester and said the old lady was coughing very badly and maybe she had Covid. Silvester went to check, I put a scarf around my nose and mouth, Anja got on her phone, Louise continued weeping, Sylvester, rolling his humorous, dark eyes, brought me a mask. To our relief, the old lady did not have the dreaded Covid.

The next day I emailed my son the horror story. “I felt like I was in a Beckett play.” I wrote. “Although I’d rather be in a Chekov one.” “Waiting for Stento,” my son wrote back.

What I found out later when Louise again put on her faux-leather jacket and a cap on her short-cropped brown hair – was that she was actually allowed to go out because she needed to have her fags.

No wonder I’d made her spill so many tears as I’d prevented her from feeding her addiction.

Before she came back, they had unplugged me and wheeled me to another ward where I waited two more days before going to Barts.

Anja came to chat with me in the new ward. “She’s a very odd woman,” she said about Louise. Louise came also, I had now become her best friend as I’d put my arms around her. She said she was going to the shops and did I want anything. “About four mandarins please,” I told her and gave her money. I wasn’t expecting to see any change, and my expectations were verified when she brought me the fruit. Once she left, nurses came over to tell me everyone knew her at the hospital as she came in and out and was a difficult patient.

The windows of this ward faced the street and my view was of rain on roadworks.

Finally, Barts had a free bed and I was ambulanced over. I was the only one in the ward. It was very quiet; the few nurses were busy at their desks and no one spoke to me as I waited in trepidation for my stent operation.

A nurse brought me a document to sign, a release form that stated I would not sue if something went wrong with what they were about to do to me. I signed without a second thought. I had given up any will. I was a leaf blown about in the winds of the system.

After about an hour, a doctor came to talk to me. “The ink they put into your body in order to find where the stent should go is damaging to the kidneys,” she informed me.

I didn’t know that, and frankly, had I known I would still have gone on with the procedure even though my kidneys were not in the best of shape. “It’s an age thing,” my GP had told me some time ago. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Would you like to participate in an experiment we’re doing regarding the kidneys?” the doctor asked.

“Sure. What do I have to do?

“Beetroot is very healing for the kidneys. It contains niacin. I’ll give you beetroot pills to take daily and you’ll have to go to your surgery to take blood tests once a week.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. “I honestly don’t want to take blood tests every week, so I’m sorry, but  I won’t participate in the experiment,” I told her as I made a mental note to drink beetroot juice daily when I was back home.

Finally, I was wheeled along deserted corridors to the operation theatre. The surgeon in charge explained the procedure. “You’ll be put on a table in front of a large screen. You’ll be turned on your left side so you’ll be facing the screen. You’ll see your heart on it. Then you’ll be injected with a red dye so we’ll be able to look for the blocked vein.” There were more instructions, but I lost him. He then proceeded to tell me he needed to go somewhere else, “But you have a very expert team that will take care of you in the best possible way,” he said as he rushed off.

The six people in the operating room were jolly, put me in the right position, told me not to worry they knew what they were doing, and injected me with morphine.

In my drugged state, I could vaguely hear them talking amongst themselves. Seemed an obstructed vein wasn’t easy to find, but finally, they got it and put the stent in place.

Back in the quiet ward, I felt very tired as I waited impatiently for some hours for the ambulance to take me back to UCLH, where the sweet nurses welcomed me back, “Heh, Hanja, how did it go?”

The next day, Thursday the 18th, I binned the horrid hospital pyjamas, changed back into my own clothes, and waited impatiently for the ambulance to finally take me home.

 

 

The Vaccination Story


8 Minute Read

Each generation leaves a legacy behind them – there are tales of love and war, myths of gods and goddesses but it is only written or oral words that can really give us a real narrative of what happened.

The history of human health can be analysed through forensic investigation. Current scientists can work out what our ancestors ate and what diseases they died of and this will be true of the future. To think about the next generation I want to take a look at the past, then explore our current health narrative.

I will be discussing vaccination in a positive light and making an argument as to why we need to think about disease prevention for the people who will be following us, once we have departed. If you have doubts, then please take the time to read what I have to say, as I believe I have a lot to share with you. I am going to start my exploration with a story of a milkmaid and a doctor.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is credited for the development of the smallpox vaccination. However, apparently, it wasn’t him who made the connection between using the serum of cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox. It was one of his milkmaids who told him she knew getting cowpox gave her immunity from smallpox.

Jenner took this idea forward and developed the world’s first-ever immunisation. He was what we would call today an outsider scientist. He took his idea to the established medical community, only to be laughed out of the room. Eventually, his idea was accepted and smallpox was eliminated from the world in 1977.

Nonetheless, the day immunisation was invented, the anti-vaccination movement commenced. Soon after nonsensical myths started, such as parents believing that the vaccine would give their children bovine features or at worse turn them into cows. Infant deaths were associated with the inoculation months and years after it was given and as we will see, there are similar myths today.

I argue that many of us in the West live behind a golden veil of adequate healthcare, especially those who live in the UK. Before the World Wars, people still lived in fear of becoming infected with life-crippling/threatening diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, pertussis, and measles. Life expectancy was short and if you did make it to older age, it was probably grim.

After the Second World War, Bevan developed the National Health Service alongside Public Health Services and these included vaccination programmes; the idea being that vaccines prevent us from having to be hospitalised. Anti-vaccination beliefs still continued, especially and not unsurprisingly with the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s, however, uptake did remain high until the 90s.

In 1992 Andrew Wakefield, a pro-vaccination Consultant at the Royal Free Hospital published an unethical study in the Lancet. He had a financial interest in selling the single vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella; so he set out to discredit the MMR, a single jab containing all three vaccinations. He claimed that it upset gut bacteria and was an underlying cause of autism. It is important to note that the underpinning paradigm of science is to disprove theories, not prove them, and since then study after study has found no correlation between the MMR and autism. However, the combination of his falsified research, sensational journalism and wider use of the World Wide Web, led to a more powerful anti-vaccination movement. Wakefield now makes a fair amount of money from his anti-vaxx campaigns, but I must emphasize, he had a financial interest in the single vaccines.

Anti-vax, vaccine hesitation is a complex matter and I for one have had many heated debates on social media. I have very good friends who do not like vaccines for all sorts of reasons and I respect their views. I do know there have been unethical practices, injury and death. But lessons are continually learned in the science community and as we have seen from AstraZeneca and Pfizer human trials, strict protocols and independent monitoring programmes are in place to ensure public safety.

People should also be able to challenge and ask questions, but my beef with the anti-vax movement is the spread of myth and lies. With the spread of COVID infection and the development of the new vaccines, myths have started to appear. I could not believe it when an old friend of mine put up a petition to stop Bill Gates putting a microchip in his vaccines. Another was that the Pfizer vaccine changes one’s DNA. Do these myths ring any bells? If these myths prevail and spread, this will prevent vaccine confidence and reduce take-up, this I believe will have disastrous consequences for the people in the future.

Many of the diseases, which we are able to prevent, are treated with antibiotics and antimicrobial medicines. It is a well-known fact that we need to reduce our use of these. I am a mere nurse, but what I do know is that current scientists watch how diseases behave and work out how organisms can be manipulated not to harm us. The Pfizer vaccination is a perfect example of this, as it can look at the genome and behaviour of a virus and the vaccination gives a message to the cell to tell it how to defend itself.  With this incredible piece of science, I believe that it won’t be long until we will be able to reduce our antibiotic, antimicrobial use.

Not everybody is a lover of science, and of course, many people would like to live a natural lifestyle, so vaccines and medicines are counterintuitive to this ideology. I question what natural means in this sense? I know that if I were dumped in the Amazon for a night, I would be munched on by all sorts of weird bugs pretty quickly. Equally, I live in a city and if I were deprived of clean water, sanitation and vaccination, invisible diseases such as cholera and diphtheria would also be sitting at my bedside waiting to get me.

The obsession with our individual natural health can be coined as healthism. This is the notion that one’s own health is a priority above anyone or anything else.  The Internet is awash with natural health advice and one recent argument I have fought against on social media is that herd immunity is a more natural way to beat COVID-19 than vaccination.

I have seen arguments for herd immunity based on the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, citing it was over within two years. When I have tried to point out numerous times, that up to 15 million people died, and the deceased were mostly the poor, pregnant women, old and ethnic minorities, I was rebuffed. I noted that people feel that they are unlikely to get ill, as they have a great immune system, which they attribute to a good night’s sleep, healthy diet and lots of exercise. This is a perfect example of healthism, I am afraid no amount of downward dog or yogi tea, will prevent or halt COVID, it is a game of Russian Roulette and you just do not know who you are going to pass it on to.  I really encourage people to start to think of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

History is sadly repeating itself. Here in the UK, COVID has disproportionately affected the old, the vulnerable and those who are living in poverty, who sadly always have poorer health outcomes. Additionally, we need to look at developing countries, as we hoard our vaccines and get vaccinated, this means less for others and this is termed vaccine nationalism.  Contrary to the anti-vaxxer myth, Big Pharma has no interest in vaccinating the developing world, as there is no money there, hence charity organisations such as the Gates Foundation who make their mission to share vaccines out.

From the Rock’N’Roll 50s, Swinging 60s, Punk spitting 70s, Romantic 80s, to the Raving 90s – our generation has had the privilege of sharing close spaces, we haven’t had to concern ourselves with not breathing over each other. Back in the last century, our elders feared TB, it killed and maimed and they had to distance themselves for fear of a suffocating disease. The only passable infections that my social group ever worried themselves with were sexually transmitted disease, which meant a trip to the clap clinic.

COVID has now killed over two million people, which is probably a low estimation. Vaccination is the opposite of healthism; of course, it is important to eat healthy food, exercise and live well, however, vaccination shows that we care about others and those in the future. The world is rid of smallpox because our ancestors got the jab; are we the generation that could have rid the world of measles and polio, but decided not to?

What concerns me is whether to vaccinate or not doesn’t really concern my generation; we have made it to middle, older age. The late Ian Dury is the last person I physically saw who was crippled with polio, I have never seen someone scarred from smallpox. TB remains a worry, as I do come across it at work. I was recently shocked to find out that TB medication is now being appropriated to treat COVID patients in the West which deprives those in people in Eastern Europe, and their death rates are rising.

I am not here to try and persuade anyone to vaccinate as it is a choice and I hope it will continue to be. However, what I do ask is that as a generation – we need to think about what we leave behind and how our actions will affect those who come after us.  Sadly Jenner’s statue was moved from Trafalgar Square in 1862 as the anti-vaccination movement opposed it, so now it sits quietly in Kensington Gardens. If I had my way, I would happily push his statue back to Trafalgar Square and add the clever milkmaid and her cow, for it is they who saved billions of lives.

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