One Month On

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Yesterday, 24 April, we in the UK reached the one month mark in our Covid-19 lockdown. It’s a rather odd experience – are we all in it together, or in isolation…? I’m lucky. I live in a place which is not very densely populated; going for a walk or even doing a shop in the local supermarket doesn’t cause great social distancing problems. And I have access to some garden space so most afternoons at the moment are spent sitting in the sun getting on with my crochet while listening to a podcast. The crochet is a rather complicated shawl in case you’re wondering, one of those projects you put aside until you have enough time for it. Well, if not now, then when…?

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I’ve got loads of podcasts downloaded on to my phone, and I rather enjoy just sitting there listening while my hands are busy. For example, the BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon, all about the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969, and then series 2 about the rescue of Apollo 13 when that mission went disastrously wrong. It’s escapism literally out of this world! I’ll be listening to Death in Ice Valley next, if you want another recommendation, and The Doorstep Murder looks good too.

This all makes it sound as if I’ve entered a kind of dreamlike state within my own personal lockdown, and of course I haven’t. I’m not one of those people who report going stir crazy because they can’t go out, but I greatly miss physical contact with my children and grandchildren even though I do catch the occasional glimpses of them on Zoom. It’s just that the sun makes it all so much more bearable than the early weeks when you were quite glad not to go out because it was cold and wet most of the time. And you would listen obsessively to 24-hour media to hear the same old news and opinions being rehearsed over and over again, as if hearing it for the umpteenth time would somehow change the basic fact that there is a global pandemic and the world is in quarantine.

I don’t do that any more – I catch up morning and evening, and the rest of the time try not to allow the Coronavirus to take over my every waking thought. I’ve learned over the past month that I need to strive to set my own agenda for the day – if I let the news do it I just end up getting all hot and bothered about what should and shouldn’t have been done, is being done now, will be done in the future. The trouble is that everyone has an opinion, from the US President who seems to think that if we injected ourselves with cleaning fluid we could make this whole thing go away, to the great British public who have largely adopted a kind of Dunkirk spirit embodied by the marvellous 99 year old veteran, Captain Tom Moore.

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I remember the moon landing being the go-to news the minute you got home from school in 1969 (I was 15 that year), rather in the way Covid-19 is now, or at the beginning of the year Brexit – remember Brexit? –  before the world changed and we became obsessed with something rather bigger. Back in the sixties families would huddle round our wee black and white televisions watching events in real time, along with, it seemed, most of the rest of the world. There really was a huge Earth-wide collective holding of breath until those Apollo astronauts finally touched down safely after their perilous missions. That’s the way I remember it anyhow.

We tend, we humans, to come together at times of great triumph and disaster – royal weddings, sporting victories, wars, natural disasters, the death of a much revered personage. We remember those events, we remember where we were when we learned of the death of Princess Diana, or JFK, or John Lennon – insert your own iconic figure here – and the memory of them becomes a shared cultural experience that we use as reference points as part of our very identity. Funny thing is we often feel as if we were actually there when in reality all we’ve done is watch it on television.

So with the Coronavirus. There will, eventually, be life after lockdown. We will be like the Londoners emerging from the Underground Stations after an air-raid warning in the midst of the blitz, blinking and coughing in the daylight, battered and bruised but glad to be alive.

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In the meantime, I suppose we just need to do what it takes to get past this. We can’t see enemy planes flying overhead, but the peril is no less real, casualties heartbreaking, those on the front line heroic.  I have misgivings about the curtailment of our civil liberties,  questions about exactly WHICH science it is the politicians are following and what seem like broken promises over PPE or testing. We must continue asking these questions, but for now we are largely suspending our disbelief and focusing on the bigger picture. 

And I am finding a genuine sense of us all being in it together – when you venture to the shops or walk along the street, most people nod and smile as they neatly step off the pavement in order to stay 2 metres away, or chat as they wait in line to be allowed in to the supermarket. When we go out and do our Thursday shout-out for the NHS, neighbours grin and wave at each other – in fact I’ve seen people from across the street that I’d never even met until all this started.

I’m learning to be less hard on myself now that I’ve finally accepted that left to myself my two favourite pastimes are sleeping and eating. Any day is a success which consist of more than just getting up, having breakfast and then going back to bed until it’s time to eat again (I’m not kidding!). I try to write every day, box sets are good, but really, it’s knitting and crochet that are getting me through. Sometimes the only thing that helps is to get the hook out and make yet another rainbow….

 

Suicide, Samaritans & Me – a guest post

Today’s post is a bit of a departure for me as this is the first time I’ve invited a contribution from a friend. Actually I’m probably taking shameless advantage of the fact that my friend hasn’t quite got around to setting up their own blog yet! Anyway, here it is in full, with kind permission …

Suicide, Samaritans & Me.

I think you can say that Samaritans saved my life – in fact I know you can.

Not in the conventional sense though, I wasn’t talked down from a bridge, or off a railway platform or away from an overdose of tablets. I think what saved my life was become a Samaritan.

In 2010, from the outside I had a made a success of my life and career. Happily married, two wonderful sons (one at public school), Director of a Travel Company, four bedroomed house with double garage – all the things one thinks one should aspire to – the trappings of success, all good.

Except I knew it wasn’t.

Following the financial meltdown of 2008/9, the company wasn’t making a profit, redundancies were looming. The huge house came with an equally huge mortgage and if the job went, the house went, the public school went, and everything would crumble to dust. As a husband I would have failed. As a father I would have failed.

And that’s the thing, when you can’t see a way out of the situation the only solution is to take yourself out of it. So, it was on March 15th 2010 (beware the Ides of March) that I was staring at a pile of paracetamol tablets I had acquired over recent weeks thinking, how many is enough…?

Now I had no idea and whatever I may have thought then, I realise now that a paracetamol overdose is not a “nice” way to go. The liver functions shut down slowly and death can be long, slow and painful. Still there I was in the house all alone about to try and end my life.

I’ve no memory of how many I took – all I can recall is going to bed and hoping, naively, that I would slip quietly, blissfully away from life. It didn’t happen though, I woke up later, possibly the following day with stomach pains but very much alive.

Killing yourself is harder than you think – time for Plan B (always good to have a Plan B).

If tablets weren’t going to do it, what about carbon monoxide poisoning? Looks so straightforward in films and on TV – hosepipe from the exhaust, engine running, slowly lose consciousness – that’s what I thought.

So off to Homebase to buy hose, what length? Does it come in exhaust pipe to passenger side window length? No? well 2 metres should be enough, oh and some gaffa tape too, we don’t want the hose slipping off the pipe do we?

Suicide attempt take two. It was a Sunday afternoon, 2nd May 2010 actually, (you never forget the dates you attempt to take your own life) – the house was quiet, I’ll just slip away unnoticed. One of the advantages of suicide attempts by carbon monoxide poisoning in East Kilbride is that the town has a number of light industrial estates that are empty on Sunday afternoons. So that’s where I drove, parked up, connected the hose, turned the engine on and waited to die.  But I didn’t, again – something to do with catalytic converters maybe? After a few hours of not dying I drove home.

And there I fell apart.

For the first time in my life I admitted to my wife that I needed help – I knew I couldn’t go on anymore.

She was wonderful, ringing 999 or 111, I have no idea which, and later that very night I found myself admitted to the psychiatric ward of Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride. And there over the next week, I talked, talked like I’d never talked before, to nurses, doctors, counsellors and, on one occasion I recall, the chaplain – talked about me, properly, about how I was feeling, what I was anxious about, my childhood, everything in fact – and you know what, it felt good. At last the mask we present to the world was lifted – I was opening my soul.

I came out on the Friday, not a changed person but at least a person able to talk – and when I saw my GP soon afterwards, he said, keep talking, find a Counsellor and talk to them – so I did.

First weekly, then twice a month, then monthly over a period of almost 3 years. And you know what? – it was good. We talked about everything, family, childhood, relationships, career, sexuality, aspirations, fears, the whole works. I was being stripped back to the factory setting and being rebooted – and it felt good.

I even opened up for the first time about my deepest concern, that there was something not quite right with me… something I’d known, or at least suspected since I was about nine years old. And she said so what, it’s who you are… and I felt like the biggest, heaviest weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Once you have added suicide to your list of options it never leaves you. In the years that followed occasionally the box would be opened and the idea considered, usually briefly, as life took a bad turn, before the lid was firmly shut.

And Samaritans I hear you cry? It’s in the title yet not mentioned so far….

Well by 2016 I knew who I was and I  knew that if I’d talked about everything over the years leading up to what I was now calling my “episode” I’d never have found myself buying hosepipe from Homebase.

And I got a notion in my head, if talking could have benefitted me, could it yet still benefit others and the idea of becoming volunteer counsellor started forming in my head. I looked about and by chance came across details of an Information Day for Samaritans – what have I got to lose I thought, so along I went.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but some part of me thought it was all about talking desperate people out of buying hosepipes or large amounts of paracetamol, and after a brief induction I’d be on the phone, talking and saving lives.

I came away from that Induction Day enlightened as to the aim of Samaritans, the methods and the potential benefits. If its possible to be hooked, I was.

I applied, was interviewed and accepted. I was now on the path to giving something back to people, people who in some cases would be going through some of the issues I was. (There’s one issue I’ve not mentioned yet!)

First day of training, eight other, possibly anxious, souls. And three trainers, who all seemed to be so kind, supportive, generous and non-judgemental people.

Share something about yourself with the Group they said – and so I did for probably only the third time ever, I said out loud, that I was Transgender (that’s the thing I hadn’t mentioned before).

And the reaction?? Total and utter disinterest. If it is no big deal to these people I thought, why am I making so much of it in my head?

It dawned on me on my way home, here was somewhere I could be the real me, for the first time in my life I had found unconditional acceptance. I knew this was where I wanted to be, this was an organisation I wanted to be part of. Because I also knew that I needed to be the real me. All the apparent reasons for my “episode” in 2010 masked one deeper reason – acceptance of who I really was.

That was in September 2016 and from that day I really felt that I could make my Gender Transition work – and Samaritans of Glasgow made that possible.

Since then I’ve talked to hundreds of people on the phone, and I hope in some small way I’ve been able to help them.

I’ve spoken at the Branch Conference on several occasions, run seminars, mentored new Samaritans and led training groups.  Prior to Transition the thought of addressing over one hundred people in a lecture theatre would have left me running for the hills. But now I do it, I enjoy it and I live my life as deep down I always knew it was meant to be lived.

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And that is down to all the wonderful people at Samaritans of Glasgow – you enabled me to take the first steps on the road to being the true me and for that I will always be so so grateful.

Helena R, April 2020.

I first met Helena when she joined the Samaritans back in 2016, and I was one of the “kind, supportive and non-judgemental” trainers (her words, not mine!) who were tasked with leading that group of nine anxious souls through the intensive process of becoming a Samaritan. I well remember that first session. “That’s a new one,” I thought. And it’s not true that we were disinterested, Helena, but, you’re right, it was no big deal to us. As a trainer, the most important thing about the group of people sitting in front of me isn’t their age or wealth or gender. It’s the fact that they want to be Samaritans. It’s the thing that binds us together. I know, I’ve been one for nearly 20 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Horses

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One of the few poems I remember learning at school is “The Horses” by Edwin Muir. It tells of the aftermath of a nuclear war, but nonetheless has a kind of uncanny resonance for today when a rogue virus has changed our world out of all recognition. When everything we have taken for granted – unlimited travel, the global marketplace,  unconstrained growth – has turned against us and thrown us back on our own resources of resilience and ingenuity in order to overcome a silent, invisible and deadly enemy.

“We listened to our breathing and were afraid”

Of course some of the fruits of globalization and growth are now being employed in our struggle. We use social media when we cannot touch one another. If we can, our work comes to our home instead of us travelling there. We are dipping into our reserves of wealth to support those who can no longer support themselves. Scientists and politicians learn and share their knowledge of what we need to do in order to survive.

It is all halting and imperfect, but I do believe that mostly we are doing our best as far as that goes. They say that Covid-19 affects us indiscriminately. That is blatantly untrue. The virus hits hardest those without a home, a reliable income, a garden, an ethnicity which hasn’t suffered decades of oppression. The disadvantaged remain disadvantaged. And some of them number among those heroic humans who brave the danger in order to render service to others – nurses, doctors, care workers, delivery drivers, binmen, shop assistants… I wish I could list them all.

“That bad old world that swallowed its children quick”

And on the other side, perhaps a re-balancing. Perhaps a world where we do not travel profligately from one end of the planet to the other just to have a meeting. Perhaps a world where our first consideration is towards those with no resources of their own. Perhaps a world where we have learned to appreciate and value what true heroism is.

I know. It all seems too much to hope for, crazy optimism. But I woke this morning with the spring sunshine shining in my window. Those rays seemed full of hope and forgiveness. They seemed to remind me that nature is always there, always has been, ready to embrace us, to remind us that we are part of the natural world.

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We have tried to master nature, and have brought calamity upon ourselves – global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ozone layer, of habitats, of the very air that we breathe. Why has it taken a 17 year old activist from Sweden to show us what we have known for decades – that we were destroying our own ecosystem? I’ll tell you why – it’s because the vested interests of the rich, powerful and greedy have always won out and left consideration for the environment floundering in the shadows. No wonder Greta Thunberg is angry; I’m angry, we should all be angry.

If it would take a global catastrophe to make us stop and take stock, well here it is! Here’s our chance to take a wider view and DEMAND that things must be different when we are finally released from our enforced isolation. Let’s not pretend it would be okay to go back to the way things were. In my crazy optimism I’m hoping for something better than that. I’m hoping for a world where we don’t ignore the consequences of unbridled wealth creation and tragic imbalances between rich and poor. A world of true respect for each other and for our planet, for Gaia.

The Horses by Edwin Muir (1889-1959)

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

A Lady Called Anabel

I met Anabel a couple of weeks ago, the day before our current Corona lockdown. She was selling The Big Issue on Buchanan Street. At first I thought she was handing out fliers for some show or other – she had a theatrical look about her. But no, it was The Big Issue. I bought one and we got chatting.

She’s kind of…unique. Tiny, bird-like, seemingly fragile and yet incredibly strong. As with anyone who finds themselves homeless and on the street, she’s been through a lot. But meeting her was the highlight of my day. Not because her resilience impressed me, though it did; nor because she was so open and friendly and brave, though that too. It was an indefinable something, a connection I felt the minute we began to talk. You know that way when you unexpectedly discover a soul mate and everything they say makes complete sense and relates to something in your own life…

Moments like that seem part of a different life now. Now that we’re stuck at home keeping our distance from everyone else. I have to confess that I didn’t personally look upon it as much of a hardship, being a somewhat anti-social character not much given to hanging out in pubs and other crowded noisy places. So staying at home and not having to feel guilty about it actually suits me just fine. Or so you would have thought.

Truth to tell, unsociable sod that I may be, I’m not really very good at it! I find I miss having places to go, things to do. Even when I’ve had to force myself to get up and out, it’s always worth it in the end because there’s always that unexpected conversation or chance meeting – like the one with Anabel – that takes you out of yourself and reminds you that humans are indeed social creatures. Even me!

So there I was last night banging away on my saucepan doing the Clap for Carers with all my might and feeling that sense of involvement with all the other people who were out on their doorstep doing the same. We waved at each other before we stepped back inside. It felt good to be connected.

And this morning, for some reason, I’m finding the way cleared to do what I’ve been putting off for a while now – write in this blog. It’s not a big thing, but when you keep putting it off it becomes a huge barrier. And when normal inertia is added to the thought that now you’ve got lots of time and no excuse not to get on with it, it somehow becomes insurmountable. But I tricked myself today, I just started writing before I had time to think about it.

And there you are, I’ve managed to conjure up some thoughts about my take on the catastrophe that’s obsessing the whole world right now. It IS like being in some apocalypse movie – things were different before and may never be the same afterwards, who knows? But I’d like to think the afterwards will encompass taking a walk down Buchanan Street and finding Anabel firmly ensconced in her pitch just outside the House of Fraser selling The Big Issue in her utterly charming and unique way.

Click this link to read about Anabel, by kind permission of The Big Issue and the lady herself.

Anabel, 65, House of Fraser, Buchanan Street, Glasgow