Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ramblings: Sweet Dreams

I’ve always been a prolific dreamer. Not daydreams or optimistic fantasies. I seem to have lost the ability for that as I get older and more haggard, but night time dreams. As a child I was known for my night terrors. I’d often wake up to find family members looking at me oddly, only to realise that I was sitting up, staring blankly and screaming loudly.

The dreams carried on through my teenage years and I’d have fantastic complicated nightmares which rambled on and on. The screaming carried on too and I’d wake up startled and clammy, knocking over lamps, water glasses and even snapping light switches as I violently pulled on the cord over the bed. Partners often found this disconcerting. I can’t imagine why. It can’t be that bad to sleep next to someone who wakes up, sits bolt upright like a heroine in a Victorian horror story and lets out a blood thirsty screech, can it? The thing that seemed to always annoy people most was that I’d then instantly go back to sleep whilst they were left awake and puzzled.

I carried on dreaming throughout my twenties: recurring nightmares, fragmented nightmares that would carry on when you went back to sleep, realistic dreams and fantastical ones too. The advent of going a bit madder in my late twenties bought with it prescriptions for anti-depressants with labels warning that they could cause vivid dreams. I already had those didn’t I? That didn’t seem like a worry. I was more concerned about the warnings about increased sweating. I didn’t want to ruin my clothes.

The dreams, however, became more vivid. Now they were Technicolor, absurd and often relentless and initially I’d wake up exhausted and bewildered wondering if they were dreams or reality. I learnt to keep a clear bedside table. My partners learnt to dodge and to sleep with one eye open, prepared for the shouts and yells and on a few memorable occasions for me jumping out of bed and running out of the bedroom in blind panic. Paul commented on me smoking in my sleep recently. I apparently sat up in bed and smoked an invisible cigarette, taking long drags and flicking imaginary ash into my cupped palm. It kept me happy. There’s worse things I could have done.

It settled down in time but I still have nightly dreams. Rarely a day occurs when I don’t remember a dream suddenly at some point during the day. The first coffee of the day is also a time for me to trash the previous night’s dreams. I hate in when people say “I wish I could recall my dreams.” Be careful what you wish for. If I could give them mine I would.

The issue is that my history of vivid dreaming has left me with no interest in other people’s dreams. I think dreams are the brains way of burping or vomiting when it gets too full. They’re about as interesting as a plateful of vomit too, mostly. An example: I dreamt about a stranger who was on fire in my kitchen last night. He was burning his own head on the gas ring and staring at me and as I tried to turn off the cooker more rings came on and he burnt more. It was quite terrifying but essentially very dull and easy to evaluate. Whilst cooking my dinner I’d accidentally turned the wrong gas ring on twice before hitting on the right one. That tedious fact lodged in the gullet of my brain and I hacked it back up in the night. Sadly my twisted brain decided to add a scary man’s head to the scenario but it would wouldn’t it? I think he was a character from a creepy novel I’d been reading just before I slept.

When people tell me in detail about a dream it’s hard for me not to develop a glassy eyed stare and drift off. If a novel has a dream sequence I skip it with a yawn. I feel cheated if a filmmaker rolls out the weak device of it all being a dream and count myself lucky that I didn’t ever watch Dallas on TV or I’d have been really cross when Bobby Ewing jumped out of the shower (Google it if you’re too young to remember, it’s a great example of terrible and lazy plotting).

I anticipated problems when meeting my last therapist who’s a psychoanalyst. The Freudians love a dream. The stereotype is of the patient lying on the couch and the analyst explaining that their dream about a frog meant that they secretly wanted to have sex with the newsagent. I knew there wouldn’t be a couch (it’s on the NHS) but dreaded the dream stuff. Thankfully he respects my boundaries and we rarely mention them. If it does crop up, I briefly outline one and then mark him out of ten when he interprets it. He generally gets above a six and doesn’t seem to mind this. We get along.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ramblings: Dying to talk to You

(I've written this piece for a work project but thought I'd also put it out on my blog. Hope it's not scary reading for anyone.)

When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m always tempted to just say “I’m a nurse.” It’s easier. If they go on to ask what kind of nurse I am, then that’s where the awkwardness sometimes begins. When I tell them that I’m a specialist nurse who works with dying people then they tend to react in one of three ways. Firstly they might change the subject very quickly, a glazed look in their eyes. Secondly they might offer a platitude about how special I must be to do my job, effectively ending the conversation, as well as making me feel a little bit uncomfortable. Thirdly, they may show intense interest, throwing question after question my way. I like the third group of people best of all. They seem like a sensible group. I understand the others, though. It’s their prerogative. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable and we all have our histories and motivations.

I was a bit like most people when I was younger. I knew death existed but it certainly wasn’t something I ever wanted to contemplate. The idea terrified me. I started my nurse training aged 21 and was very quickly exposed to the fact that people die. Strangely this shocked me and I felt ill equipped to cope. I saw sudden unexpected deaths and slow gentle deaths; deaths denied or embraced; deaths which were graceful and peaceful and deaths which were a little more turbulent. I saw mourning in all its forms and rituals from the stiff upper lipped and apologetic, who didn’t want to put anyone to any trouble, to the open outpourings of raw emotion.

It all intrigued me and my thoughts often turned to why it was all seen as so shameful and taboo. We’d bustle around people, avoiding them, blocking them from talking by being too busy with tasks to be interrupted. There seemed to be two basic rules underlying our behaviour: Firstly, death was a final failure in medicine. People had to kept alive. It was an embarrassment if we let people die. Secondly, the dying were somehow different from us and as such frightening and to be avoided. We needed to avoid talking about it. We might say the wrong thing or make it all worse. I found myself nervous around people who had life limiting illnesses, coyly avoiding the subject that I was hoping they would avoid too.

I recall meeting a young woman with recurrent untreatable cancer who made me feel very inadequate. I was a young and eager to please student nurse. We’d talked a lot and got on well and then her diagnosis came to light. Suddenly I found it harder to talk to her. I was petrified of her asking me something or talking about things which I felt unable to address or respond to. In reality, I’m sure now that she expected no revelatory answers from me, just a listening ear.

I’m older and I think differently now and so does medicine, thankfully. It took experience and ageing to make me see that we’re all dying, just at different rates or times. The hardest fact to come to terms with was that however hard we evade it, it’s an inevitable and integral part of life, not a separate add on. So why don’t we talk about it? Why does society deny its existence and does this ultimately cause us harm?

I see and support patients now who have life limiting illnesses and interact with them one to one, trying to alleviate any distress and make things better in any way I can. I invariably can make things better, even if only in the smallest ways and approaching death doesn’t have to involve suffering and trauma. If I can’t help I usually know someone who can, whether it’s a specialist financial advisor, a psychologist or even a home help or a simple piece of household equipment. One thing this job has taught me is that the scary conversations we don’t want to have with people are usually much easier to instigate than we think.

Life in modern times is complicated. We have so many choices and a higher level of freedom and choice than ever before and this applies to our manner of dying too. The diversity of human wants and needs means that we all have our individual preferences and desires. We have more complex family situations; our relationships, our beliefs, our finances and our living arrangements are all unique. This should apply to the circumstances of our deaths too. Indeed, these factors influence what will happen when we die. One size isn’t go to fit for all and unless we make our wishes plain we can’t always hope to have our needs and wants accommodated.

They’re difficult questions which we tend not to consider, especially when we’re relatively well and death is an elusive presence which we believe won’t happen to us. It’s hard to think about a world without our presence but unfortunately it will happen one day and we need to prepare. Talking about it can be surprisingly easy, much easier than you’d think in most instances.

There are lots of things we can think about. Who will care for those important to us if we can’t? Whose responsibility will it be to sort out our finances? Who will speak out for us and advocate what we want if we can’t do that anymore? Where would we want to be if we were nearing the end of our lives?

These questions became very important to me in my own life. My father died four years ago after a long illness and throughout his illness it was the unspoken rule that we didn’t acknowledge that his death was approaching. We didn’t sit down and formally discuss it. We didn’t labour the point that he was dying; he knew that all too well and was rueful of the fact, adjusting to it slowly as people often do. There were things we needed to know and things he needed to tell us and we must all have worried in our own ways about what the end point would entail. We didn’t want to think about it but unfortunately thoughts aren’t easy to suppress and when an event is coming towards you at alarming speed you can’t avoid it forever.

As it happened his wants and needs came to light in dribs and drabs. Life is often more random than we hope and formality doesn’t always facilitate the best communication. He let us know gradually, in his own time, what he wanted and we were able to respect what he said. It was so easy to talk about in the end that I wondered why we’d worried, protecting him as he tried to protect us, when in reality we were all avoiding what we needed to say. It wasn’t like in a Hollywood film. We didn’t have cathartic moments or major emotional breakthroughs. We dealt in practicality and pragmatism, a family trait.

He instigated amending his will and selling his collection of classic cars. He addressed his religious needs. He encouraged my mother to move forward, advocating outside interests and widening her circle of friends. A couple of lengthy stays in hospital lead him to state that he didn’t ever want to go back there if at all possible. This in turn lead us to ask if he wanted to be at home at the end and it lead to a healthy conversation about under what circumstances he’d want to be at home and how important this was to him. He informally set parameters for us and we were able to respect these, keeping him at home, ultimately, with community nursing care which eased him towards a peaceful and natural death in the place he loved to be, surrounded by the things and people he loved.

My mother is a realist and her experience of the respectful way we accommodated my father’s wishes surrounding his death have led her to be proactive and pragmatic. She has complex legal arrangements detailing what she needs and wants, her finances are orderly, funeral arranged. This might seem alarming and morbid to some as she’s in rude health and will most likely live a few decades longer, but to me it makes perfect sense. Although she would trust me to make the right choices it’s infinitely helpful to have some guidance while she’s able to provide it. I’ve made my own plans and wishes clear too and I also intend to be here for a lot longer too, if I can be.

Talking can be difficult. We’re all different and we all go about things in our own ways. There are ways and means of making your wishes known. There's a great group called “Dying Matters” who's campaigns inspire me with their simple approach and the availability of sensible advice which is accessible and easy to follow. I’m glad we now have more awareness and more resources.

If we do ever meet, perhaps at a dinner party or reception of some kind, then feel free to ask me about my job. I’m happy to talk or not to talk. I won’t impose on you or make you face things you’d rather not. I would however tell you that my job is a privileged one. I get to help people, am offered a chance to be a part of their lives in challenging times and meet some amazing people. I’m thankful of the opportunities I’m given.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Poems: Mesalliance

This poem is for my favourite vetinarian, a good friend who's helped me out through the odd crisis or two. I'm sure she doesn't often feel like this about her faithful pooch but I suspect she has her moments.


by Connie Bensley

I am divorcing my dog
He never cared for me: we were
unsuited. His lickspittle allegiance
lies wetly elsewhere, his easy bonhomie
bounces over others

I am barely acknowledged:
a mere opener of tins,
prison warder, valet
In front of other dogs
he is subordinate

I mean to dispose of him
by auction. He suspects this:
sniffs and sighs as I batten down
for the evening. (A window left ajar
and he's gone.)

The back-up plan involves garden work
He peers into my excavtions
glaucous-eyed and curious,
but feints and weaves at my attempts
to catch and measure him

Ramblings: Dib Dib Dib

I was reading in bed last night when a panic overtook me. It wasn’t an existential worry, a desperate regret or a fear of illness. I suddenly realised that I don’t have a gravy boat. The book I was reading mentioned a gravy boat and I felt a cold sweat as I realised I do not possess one. OK, I rarely eat meals with gravy; I’m a vegetarian. Who knows though? I’d hate to be caught out without one.

I find shopping a chore but am actually very good at it. I’m almost an oracle. You want to know where to buy a spotted neckerchief in mauve? A coffee table in the shape of Russia? A globe shaped drinks cabinet? An Art Deco dollhouse? I’m your man. Just ask. I’ll try my best. I suppose it’s my memory. I have a very good memory for some things (trivia mainly) and I spot stuff on my travels. They wedge in the murky recesses of my brain only to float back up when demanded.

I have a strange sense of needing to prepare. I should have been a Boy Scout. Their motto is “Be Prepared”. Unfortunately that’s the only Scout thing I liked. Hanging about with other children and doing outdoorsy stuff didn’t appeal at all as a child. I do feel a need to have things in the house in case of need. I have a cupboard full of picnic ware, various candles, kitchen implements galore. I have a latte maker (never used), a blender and a set of serving and casserole dishes which is unrivalled in the Western world. I have a nutmeg grater, a selection of cards for every occasion (birth, death, defeat, amputation, house move) and at least 40 mugs. You never know when you might be called upon to host a massive coffee morning.

My pill collection is quite impressive. Come to me with colic, diarrhoea, migraine, nausea or travel sickness and we’re good to go. My bag weight contributes to my sore neck. I have a vintage satchel which groans on my shoulder with the weight of items. Pens, novels, notebooks, tissues, pills, umbrellas, Swiss Army knife etc. You never know when you might need that handy little implement for getting a stone out of a horse’s hoof or might need to make a vital list. I suppose it relates to anxiety and control. If I’m prepared I can be in control. Sudden death or disaster will surely be less traumatic if I have a pack of Handy Andys in my bag.

The household paraphernalia is all the fault of Ikea. Entering Ikea, a mystical force comes down upon you and invades your brain. I suspect they drug the food or air. You enter that strange hinterland, a normal person, and leave a dribbling wreck. For a starter, you’re cut off from all sensible influence as you can never get phone reception in their giant shed. You then shuffle round following the prescribed route of arrows and woe betide anyone who deviates. It invokes small riots. Suddenly, at the peak of exhaustion, you enter “The Market Place”. A strange mindset comes upon you and you forget everything you ever knew.

Browsing through the goods you decide you need a set of Mason jars for your dried foods, a baking set for baking day, a jug for Pimms, a cocktail shaker for those lazy afternoons on the sun lounger. You desperately need a cake stand, a cheese board and a tea light holder. In short, you believe in a life you don’t have. You lose the ability of reason; the ability to think: I don’t cook, am teetotal, never sunbathe and lighting tea lights is a total ball ache. I still buy them

I think I’ll go and look at my griddle pan now. It’s just a shame I forgot to buy any food to cook on it. Food is a frippery, you can do without that. It’s good to have pristine never used cookware though.

Poems: The Very Happy

I've mentioned before that I mistrust the inanely happy. Those constantly smiling people worry me. Either they know something good which I don't or they've failed to learn anything at all from life about all the bad things. Either way, this amusing little poem has made being awake at 6am on my day off work more tolerable.

The Very Happy

by Janet Fisher

                             always have kind grins
when they catch themselves in the mirror
running their fingers through their hair.
Nothing is too much trouble. Though
they've planned to spend the day sunbathing,
when they sense you need to talk
they'll listen seriosuly, offer good advice,
the sort they'll never need themselves,
If you break your leg they say how lucky
it wasn't your neck, and if you break your neck
they teach you to paint with your teeth

Monday, 5 March 2012

Poems: The Case of the Distracted Postman

I love this quirky little poem. It makes me smile

The Case of the Distracted Postman

by Connie Bensley

The postman is in love
and all of us are bearing the brunt.
My newsletter from the Secular Society
went to the Vicar. The Vicar’s bank statement
arrived at Number 33, who steamed it open
then put something extra in the collection
on Sunday. Coarse seaside postcards
have caused offense to Lavinia, who was
in mourning, and I personally was expecting
a love letter rather than
the Bus Timetable, copies of which
I keep receiving, day after day.
We are getting together to offer him
counseling. Every day he is seen
Staring into the pond, his disordered letter-sack
trembling on the brink.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Ramblings: Let's Get Quizzical

I've always wanted to go on a TV quiz show but suspect this could be disastrous if the dream was ever realised. 

There are three problems inherent in this plan: 
1) I might embarrass myself with an accidental sweary moment and end up on one of those out takes show 
2) I might show myself by unabashed and shameful flirting with a good looking quiz master 
3) They may ask a question about sport, in which case I would fail miserably.

My knowledge of sport is second to anyone’s. I know next to nothing. I’ve never seen a sports match of any kind either live or on TV, haven’t played sport since escaping school (and even then avoided it mostly) and wouldn’t recognise most sports personalities if they stood next to me in the supermarket queue. I’ve inadvertently met a couple of famous sports personalities in the past and didn’t realise either one was even remotely famous at the time.

Cricket is incomprehensible to me. The rules make no sense and it seems to involve people standing around in unattractive knitwear in warm weather. The language is bizarre and nothing seems to happen. I can’t understand why you’d want to stand still and try to defend yourself with a wooden stick whilst someone lobbed a solid leather ball at you at high velocity. Surely common sense would advocate running away quite quickly or calling the police. Mysterious.

Football mystifies me most of all. It’s like an odd tribal religion involving grunting, chanting and shouting. I hate the noise of it. It makes me think someone is about to throw a Molotov cocktail. It has a primitive horror to it which is so ungainly. Personally, I’d rather have a Cosmopolitan. I hate the inter-town rivalry that is pure nonsense. What is it with Nylon too? Like many sports, football seems to involve wearing a lot of nylon clothing. They must get terrible rashes from those cheap looking manmade fibres which seem to cost so much. Don’t even get me started on the jolly sporting nicknames, the cost of the policing and the effect on the traffic and parking. I can’t begin to describe my hatred of the whole footballers as celebrities thing either. It’s tawdry and dull. I’ll just point out that there has only ever one riot at a ballet and that was in 1913. See my point?

Rugby has incomprehensible rules and a weird playing style. I think they do it backwards or something. The men are quite cute but the washing must be dreadful after. They must get through some Vanish pre-wash. Tennis is terrible. It brings out the worst in people too (A.K.A. Cliff Richard doing an acapella sing song). Jingoism and misplaced nationalism abound and people get fired up over seemingly very little. Mind you, the male players do seem to display some nice buttocks but a quick glance and I’m over that.

Men’s diving and gymnastics always held a minor appeal for many gay men but the availability of internet porn has surely superseded that for most of us. I’m bored of the Olympics already. Please make it stop. It’s invaded everything and they’re even closing plays in London for the duration which is grim.

The thing I struggle with about watching sport is there isn’t a plot. It’s predictable and the scenery doesn’t change much. Two teams try to win, either one wins or neither wins or they both win. It’s in a field. Tell me why I should get excited? People have made far more interesting films, honestly. They have plots, scenery and dialogue.

As for my own sporting career: a dislike of pain, a dislike of excessive movement and a total lack of coordination make it an unattainable pastime even if I were remotely interested. It’s not even that I’m not competitive. I’m competitive in the right circumstances such as at job interviews or owning the best crockery. I don’t really need to try to prove I’m better than someone in Leeds or Lapland at repetitive physical motions to feel good. 
Now board games are a different matter of course. Just watch my friend Fran I and play Yahtzee and you’ll see my mean streak come out as we both reveal our slavering inner desire to win. Now, International would be an amazing spectator sport.