Wednesday, 8 June 2016

"Invisible illnesses": turning judgement into compassion

The last few months for me have been swimming in illness. 
Not "hardcore" illness that have you in a wheelchair or agonising in bed or in hospital, or losing your hair through your treatment or losing a significant amount of weight, all of which I am sure you can't understand unless you have lived through it yourself or through someone close to you.

Not completely ill, not completely well
I feel that it is easy to think in black and white terms and judge that, because an illness is not visible, the person is actually well. But what about the in-between, the shades of grey, the people who aren't exactly completely unwell but aren't completely well either?
Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade what I have for any of the above, but if you see me for a couple of hours in the day and I am joking and laughing with you and am seemingly doing "normal" activities, do you assume that this is how the other 22 hours of my life are like (or at least the waking hours)?

My personal condition 
Let me share some of my personal suffering.
I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids 2 years ago, which apparently 70-80% of women have, with varying degrees of symptoms. Many don't have any symptoms or only mild ones, but many others do.
Mine cause heavy bleeding. My periods last for 2 weeks every 4 weeks, and during each monthly period, I lose around a litre of blood. It is the equivalent of donating blood 4 times per month, every month of the year, for 2 years (so far). Sometimes it means going to the loo every 15-20 minutes because the blood has soaked whatever protection you are using.
If you have the same issues and want to know what my strategies for this are, please let me know.
The result is that my body can't produce blood as quickly as it is losing it, and my red blood cells count is very low, putting pressure on my heart to pump faster to make the fewer blood cells carry oxygen around my body. The body uses iron to produce red blood cells, and my iron stores are low: this is anaemia.

Getting on with it
I spent the first year and a half of these 2 years working 50-60 hours a week in my accounting job, ignoring my symptoms as all the doctors originally dismissed my condition as common and benign.
On the doctor's prescription, I took iron supplements to help my body produce red blood cells and just "got on with it".
I felt exhausted most of the time but I got used to it. 
Six months ago I sighed in annoyance when I realised that when I lightly exerted myself, such as climbing a small set of stairs or walking to the end of the road, my heart was pounding and palpitating, lactic acid was pumping into my legs and I felt faint. I thought of the amount of work I had and my strategy to tackle my new project at work, and thought I should quickly check it out at the doctor's and get back to work.
It turned out that my red blood cell count level was a third of the normal level and I was at risk of a heart attack. The GP rang me at 7.30pm on a Friday and told me to pack a few things and go to A&E to have a blood transfusion. 
My response as I was cooking dinner and looking forward to chilling out after a long week was: "can this not wait until tomorrow?"
How's that for "getting on with it?".

Burn out 
After my blood transfusion (over 3 days at the hospital of waiting, chasing for my treatment, sadness looking at other ill women in my ward), and a few more weeks of trying to get back to normal, I realised that I had actually burnt out, and that the acute anaemia was how my body was telling me it had had enough and forced me to stop.
Once I gave in to the need to focus on my health, the exhaustion just submerged me. I haven't been able to function without at least 12 hours sleep a night. 
The blood imbalance and the deeper questions that the experience raised have triggered feelings of depression and anxiety.

I found "proper" care in the form of an upcoming surgery to remove my fibroids, and I am currently undergoing a 3-month GnRH (hormonal chemical menopause-inducing) treatment to shrink my fibroids in order to facilitate the hysteroscopic myomectomy surgery.
I won't indulge in useless NHS-bashing, but we do have to question why the system waits until the illness reaches an acute form to give the patient the right level of care. 
The N.I.C.E. has been encouraging patients to take the initiative to understand their health conditions and treatments in order to support their care, so I have my own copies of blood test results, and prompt my GP for any change in medication, or new blood test requirements that I may think I require. This has given me a sense of control and ownership over my health, but has also been putting more pressure for me to think proactively and chase people while I am ill.
Since I started the GnRH treatment a month and a half ago, the bleeding has not stopped. Generally, if I stay at home and do nothing all day, the bleeding will be minor. On the days that I decide that for my sanity I need to do something and lightly exert myself by taking a short trip to the shops, wheel my trolley around and carry a few groceries home, or other such light mundane activity, within 24 hours I get a backlash of bleeding equivalent to the quantity of one blood donation.

I am lucky, but vulnerable
I am lucky, that there is an end to the tunnel with the surgery in a month and a half, that my company has fulfilled its duty of care over and above expectations while I have been off work, that I have a wonderfully supportive partner and loving family and friends who are happy to see me and forgiving when I cancel plans at the last minute because I am just in the middle of an uncontrollable episode of heavy bleeding or just too exhausted to get up.
In the fewer waking hours of my days, I  am putting up with my clouded mind, my sad feelings of inadequacy for being unhealthy in my youth, my guilt for not contributing in the world while I am ill, my frustration for not being able to concentrate on simple things like light reading for more than five minutes, my anxiety and self-doubt about how I have been living my life to get to this point, and trying to find healthy outlets and healing strategies to get back on top after my surgery.

Denying our vulnerability 
The world sells to me the wonderful stories of people who had much worse illnesses in life than I have, and who beat their obstacles to become Olympic athletes and other incredible achievements. Such stories are inspiring but could also deepen the feelings of inadequacy if you are not able to measure up to these wonderful people.
I am just saying, everyone has a degree of vulnerability, and different people have it in different amounts. Everyone finds courage in their vulnerability in different ways, each person has their own version of how to "get on with it", and to sneer at others' vulnerability is a way to deny that we ourselves are not invincible.
David Whyte expresses this beautifully.
To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. 
Full passage (highly recommended reading):

There has been a lot on social media lately to raise awareness on mental illnesses. Unless you have lived through it yourself or through a close one, you may not understand that the other person is going through hell in their mind and can't just "snap out of it".
A wonderful talk by Andrew Solomon on depression:

A few hours of normality in my day
When you see me behaving "normally", laughing and joking for 2 hours in the day, this is what I've most likely had to do to psych myself up for it: I've spent 12-14 hours sleeping, and the remaining waking hours chasing medical appointments and monitoring medication, trying to deal with heavy bleeding, finding the best way to nourish my body to sustain what it is going through, finding a useful activity for the day that is not too physically challenging, and finding healing for the disquiet in my mind through meditation, drawing, reading and just sitting on the couch looking at the birds and the trees in the garden.
And I am grateful for those few hours of normality in my day.

Compassion and love
I know that I am not alone in my in-between suffering, and I request that we all appeal to our compassion when we feel like sneering at how others should "just get on with it". Because we have no idea what the rest of their day has been like, or what hell they might be going through in their lives and their mind.
Be compassionate today, spread your love.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Do pleasures of the palate trump the yoga lifestyle?

As people are on the last straight of their Lent renouncing, I look back at my many different attempts at living life to the best that I can, and this question comes to mind: to over indulge or to never indulge? Let me explain.

I consider myself an epicurean, someone who enjoys the nice things in life and doesn't apologise for it. 
For me, this love of what life has to offer to our senses manifests itself in different ways: comfort in the house, nice toiletries, expensive make up and perfume, the feeling of speed (go karting, skiing,... never on the road of course...!), and other things, but the way that it brings me the most joy is in the enjoyment of food.
I often encourage my slender partner to eat more by appealing to his love of most things relating to Chinese culture: "Is this all you are eating? How are you going to survive Chinese banquets?". Chinese banquets are a 10 to 12 tantalising dishes affair, and there are most definitely different strategies to approach them. They need physical and mental preparation, whether your goal is to manage to eat as much as possible or to limit the damage on your waistline. My choice of goal is generally the former.

One of my favourite authors is MFK Fisher, who justifies my gargantuan appetite by talking about her "insatiable voracity" in a beautiful and compelling way.
In 'G is for Gluttony', she says: "It is a curious fact that no man likes to call himself a glutton, and yet each of us has in him a trace of gluttony, potential or actual. I cannot believe that there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point, on anything from quail financiere to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beast-like satisfaction of his belly. In fact I pity anyone who has not permitted himself this sensual experience, if only to determine what his own private limitations are, and where, for himself alone, gourmandise ends and gluttony begins."
As a human being, how can you not be attracted to this?

I recently watched an old Oscar-winning movie called 'Babette's Feast'. In the dull setting of a desolate and remote Nordic village in the 19th century, within a community of a Puritan flesh-renouncing sect, a French housemaid cooks a Michelin-star dinner. The tension from the petty discord in their frustrated lives is released by the culmination of a deliciously sensual meal, giving place to joy, goodwill and gracious disposition. 

I do believe that sensual repression can bring the worst out of us human beings. Look at how cranky people who are trying to stop smoking can get, but even more basically, if I were starving, I would probably be more tempted to forego my sense of morality and my respect of other human beings.

Having said that, there is a type of sensual repression which appeals to me, one that fits in a holistic lifestyle.
Two years ago, my sister and I attended a yoga retreat in an eco-friendly farm on the south-western coast of Turkey. The week-long retreat consisted of a daily programme of a very early meditation session, two 2-hour long yoga sessions, one of them being an Ashtanga yoga practice (a dynamic and physically challenging type of yoga), and deliciously nourishing vegetarian food.
My body took a beating in this violent change in regime from my usual lifestyle, to the point where I felt like crying a couple of times from pain and resentment from early rises (I am not a morning person).
My sister left the table hungry every day, but I strangely felt completely satiated from eating very little of food that I found satisfying not only to my physical needs and my hunger but also to my palate.
I hardly slept that week, yet I came back home feeling uniquely strong in my body and clear in my mind. Clearly detoxing is a real thing!
I continued on the path of early one and a half hour long yoga practice every morning at 5am, vegetarianism and teetotalling for a couple of months or so, and gradually, the cracks in my rigid disciplined routine multiplied, and I gave up the vegetarianism first, and the yoga second, in favour of too many hours spent at work (I know, please don't judge me!).
Since then I have often fallen ill, or felt physical pains that many of us who have sedentary lifestyles feel, and I have been finding myself longing for this sensation of clarity and strength that I experienced as the result of a somewhat sensually-negating lifestyle.

Perhaps my perfectionism makes me devalue any experiences that aren't hyperboles. The ordinary is less appealing than the sublime. Damn the media and their advertising, their overuse of "Amazing!", "Wonderful!" and other superlatives that suggest that I shouldn't settle for anything short of exceptional.
I guess I have to face the fact that life is made of the ordinary as well as the sublime, that the sublime cannot exist without the ordinary, and that consequently I must live with compromises in life that give me mostly 'good enough' health and sensual experiences, as well as glimpses of sublime experiences.
My next question then is: How do I strike this balance?
I didn't have a Catholic upbringing, but maybe I should follow the tradition of Lent, maybe that would help me strike the right balance over a year.
Maybe I should just follow a detox programme for a while.
The book by Mireille Guiliano 'French Women Don't Get Fat' illustrates how the French regularly indulge in 3-course meals cooked in duck fat and still come out looking slender and elegant. Maybe I need to get away from the schizophrenic tendency to abstain, then binge and rekindle with my French heritage.
I don't have a good answer, but the more important part of the goal for me is about striking a balance between indulging in what makes me passionate - or in a good friend's words, what keeps "the lights on" (the sublime that gives me a voice, and the accompanying inspiration) but has the tendency to keep me awake and working until too late at night and to worsen my back and neck pain from sitting in front of an electronic device, and the necessary activities and moderation that turn me off and force me to pace myself and disrupt my flow, but sustain my health.
In this endeavour, I feel that routine is my key ally. Where did I read that discipline is the enabler of creativity? 
Wish me luck and let me know how you do it!

Saturday, 27 February 2016

A dream at the acupuncturist's

I like to lie down on that little bed in the little poky room at the back of the shop while the acupuncturist is reading and shuffling his papers softly. It is quiet, the air is a little stuffy, and particles of subtle and familiar Chinese herbal medicine smells hang in the air.

It transports me to afternoons in my early childhood, a time when I was living with my grandparents. 
Can you remember things that you saw and heard as an infant? I think I can. I can't have been older than 2.
My granddad would do that, turn the TV off and have the whole household very quiet for my nap time. Everyone else would have left for work or study or whatever they needed to attend to in their day. Only my granddad, my grandma and I would remain in the little flat.

I could hear and feel the love as I slowly dozed off to sleep, the reassuring sound of silence mostly, punctuated regularly by the turning of pages, a soft clearing of the throat, a brief clanging of pans in the kitchen where my grandma would be preparing a special afternoon treat for my granddad.

Sometimes she would cook him a steak, just for him, in the middle of the afternoon, when no other family member is around. 
We have always eaten very well, every meal would have at least 3 dishes displayed in the middle of the table, and enough for everyone and for leftovers. 
But that was his secret treat, her private way of saying how much she adores him over everyone else. I truly believe that food has much deeper significance in traditional Chinese culture. Many a time I was the privileged witness of the deep and private Chinese love between my grandparents.

Granddad would have that delicious piece of beef with Maggi sauce, and sometimes with a little Dijon mustard. He would feed tiny pieces to me, after dipping them in the soya sauce.

I feel a hand on my wrist. Ah. The acupuncturist is checking that I am alive. He is now proceeding to remove the needles and asks me how I feel.

I feel a bit stunned and spaced out after the session. After the cortisol and adrenaline of worrying are taken away and the Qi energy in my body is realigned, all that is left is my profound tiredness, unmasked and heavy.

Friday, 5 February 2016

My emotional attachment to soondubu jjigae (Korean soft tofu stew)

As I grew up, I was never very keen on spicy foods. I would watch my mother and brother eating very spicy curries, and biting into fresh bird's eye chillies, both intrigued and incredulous about how anyone could enjoy inflicting pain on themselves, especially in an area as sensitive and significant to me as the palate.

Fast forward to my last year of uni, which I spent in an incredible adventure in Shanghai, China, where I made friends, not with Chinese people, but mostly with Korean foreign students. 
The university was a popular destination for Korean students, and consequently the foreign student canteen served a variety of traditional Korean dishes.

15 years later, I am still obsessed with the dish I kept going back to: a spicy soft tofu stew, or soondubu jjigae.
My Korean friends made me try it the first time, their answer to my objections about my dislike for spice being that spice gives you a "fresh" feel at the same time as being warming.
I wasn't entirely convinced but I had intuitively rationalised the concept in my mind, enough to give it a try.

The first mouthful was volcano hot, firstly in temperature, being served still bubbling in the earthenware pot that it was cooked in, burning my mouth and my tongue, and secondly in spice, the deep red colour having warned me of the dangers of the experience. I looked at my friends through a tear in my eye, they were nodding and smiling encouragingly. 
We didn't have a fluent language in common, but body and sign language, and facial expressions turned out to be very effective ways of communicating our appreciation for each other and other emotions that built and strengthened our friendship.
I went back for seconds, determined to share the experience they had described, another way that I had at my disposal to understand them better. 
Sweating and gulping air to cool my mouth down, I finished my bowl of stew, feeling proud that I had conquered the challenge, but also feeling that I had understood an area of the human experience which had been closed to me until then.
The burning spice in one's mouth isn't just pain, it triggers many other things in your body: the heat, the sweat, the struggle of your mouth to cool down enough to keep going for more, as a small challenge that builds your character and makes you feel strong and winning, and the endorphins releasing into your body, making you feel awake, warm and happy.
I had this stew again and again during my stay in Shanghai, developing a stronger understanding of the experience and each time, giving in a little more to the pleasures of this black bowl of red volcano.

Today I take pleasure in this dish for all these reasons, and an additional one, which is the nostalgic reminiscence of those days of sharing meaningful human experience with wonderful people with whom I didn't even have many common words to express myself or my feelings for them.
It reminds me that the human experience transcends borders and languages, and fills me with the belief that the human race is good and that the world is a wonderful place for us to experience.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


I woke up this morning with a slight sense of identity crisis. I have been living in the UK for so long, how much of my Frenchness have I lost?
Here's my list of changes.

I write names as 'Name Surname' rather than 'SURNAME Name'.

I write numbers with a coma to separate thousands and millions and a point to mark decimals, 1,256.35 rather than 1.256,35.

I put the currency sign before the number rather than after: £50 rather than 50 £.

With the rare cheques I write nowadays I put the beneficiary's name first, then the amount, rather than the other way round.

I drive on the left-hand side of the road, sit on the right-hand seat and handle the gear stick with my left hand.

I say "hello" much more often than I say "salut", even to French people.

When I come up to a roundabout in my car and I see a car coming up from another road, I slow down to let them go rather than speed up to get through before they do.

When I see a pedestrian waiting to cross the road, I slow down and gesture courteously to them to cross the road safely while I wait, rather than speed up to discourage them from daring to walk up to the road in front of my car.

When I parallel park my car, I am very careful not to touch the cars in front of or behind me, rather than push them to squeeze my car into a space that was originally just slightly too small for my car.

When I feel down after bad news or a long day at work, I make myself a cup of tea (Yorkshire tea, with milk), truly believing that this will make things better.

When I walk around French department stores or friends' and family's houses in France in the winter, I strip down to a Tee-Shirt or vest top, wondering how anyone can live in such an overheated environment.

I love a good roast and 3 veg on a Sunday.

When I've been away from home for too long, one of the first things I fancy in order to feel at home again is a good Indian curry.

I talk about the weather, a lot.

I cringe when I see too much nudity on TV or poster ads.

I speak in French with a high variation in pitches. And when I was told this for the first time, what I wanted to say was "reeeeeeaaaaallyyy?"(very high tone on first syllable, low tone on last).

I don't think Marmite is weird and disgusting, in fact I like and buy the stuff.

95% of the bread I eat is sliced bread, and 95% of the cheese I eat is cheddar.

I no longer think that it's weird that the Queen and the Royals are so prominent in this modern country when in my mind, royals used to be the people who had been decapitated 2 centuries ago.
In fact, I have a lot of respect for the Queen and think that British politics would be worse off without her.

I watch Harry and Paul and think it's hilarious.

I no longer think that weighing more than 50kg for my 1.63m height is being fat.

I pay an arm and a leg to use public transport and don't moan and rant about it.

I don't mind when people serve cheese and dessert at the same time and I don't even cringe anymore when people cut the nose off the cheese rather than cut it in the length to allow everyone to have a bit of the best bit in the middle.

I drink hot chocolate in the evening before bed rather than in the morning for breakfast.

I eat pretty much only one brand of yoghurt because there isn't a whole huge aisle at the supermarket dedicated to yoghurts which makes my eyes sparkle with curiosity and excitement to try the new appetising products.

I eat parsnips but not artichokes, and radishes are round, not oblong.

For me most of the lettuce comes in a packet of leaves rather than whole.

Crisps have sneaked their way into a very high proportion of my meals.

I know what Rosemary and Thyme, Allo Allo and Dad's Army are.

I know the lyrics to Twinkle Twinkle and I'm a Little Teapot.

I know who Danni Minogue, Cheryl Cole and Myleen Klass are, but don't talk to me about Koh Lanta.

Well. I had better stuff myself with escargots and foie gras and p√Ętisseries and start arguments while queuing at the supermarket next time I'm in France, for I can no longer afford to lose anymore Frenchness lest I truly and completely become a Rosbif!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Don't judge a book by its cover

I have mentioned before that I am a westerner in a Chinese-looking body and that my boyfriend is a Chinese man in a blonde-haired blue-eyed outfit.

This usually puts us in comical situations. A couple of anecdotes below.

As we were wandering around the courtyards of the Louvre during our holidays in Paris this summer, a Chinese lady walked up to me and talked to me in Chinese. My Chinese is shamefully poor, and I looked up to my boyfriend, who said: "she is asking you where the entrance to the museum is". I weighed up my options, and thought that the extent of my vocabulary would not allow me to give a clear enough answer in Chinese. So I turned back to my boyfriend and said to him in English: "tell her she needs to walk round to the other side of the big pyramid to the entrance and go downstairs", which he duly translated to her in his fluent Chinese.
In the meantime, the Chinese lady was still staring at me, expecting Chinese words to come out of my mouth and probably not understanding why the Chinese words she heard were in such a deep voice!
That's what happens when you have a "banana" and an "egg".

Today my boyfriend was showing his flat round to a prospective flatmate, a lovely Russian Maria. I said hello and had a little chat with her, then left them to it. He took care to be engaging with her, and telling her enough about himself and his life and finding out about herself and her lifestyle, to see whether they would get on as flatmates. When she reveals that her boyfriend is French, he says: "my girlfriend is French too", at which point she wears a very uncomfortable and unsure look on her face.
Sensing what was happening, I offered: "that will be me!"
She walked up to me and blurted out with a hugely relieved expression: "oh YOU're French?"
She must have been thinking that he was talking about someone else while I was in the room, hence the discomfort.

Hey that's what happens when your looks don't match your inner nature.
And it's often hilarious.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Love languages and MBTI personality types

You may have come across the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) personality types, used widely by corporations to understand people's psychological preferences in how they perceive the world and make decisions.

The theory defines 4 axes on which everyone is plotted.
- introvert - extrovert: whether you are "energised" by solitude or by other people. A good way of thinking about it is, when you are really stressed out, do you prefer talking it through with others or shutting yourself away to think it through?
- sensing / intuition: whether you are a detailed or big picture person.
- thinking / feeling: do you make decisions based on facts or based on feelings?
- judging / perceiving: are you a planner or do you leave things to chance? Do you need to finish your work before you play or do you play whenever you like? Do you need a structured plan or are you more spontaneous? When buying an Ikea flatpack, do you read the instructions or do you start getting on with the job straight away?

Each of these axes is a scale, where you determine how strong your preference is.
For example, I have a very marginal preference for the Extrovert way of energising and for the Thinking type of decision-making. However I am 3/4 of the way towards being detailed-oriented ('Sensing'), and I am a very strong planner ('Judging').

At the beginning of our relationship, my boyfriend and I discussed this theory. Since he hadn't taken the assessment before, I took a guess as to which type he was, and sent him a long email explaining why I thought he was an ESTJ. A sociable and extrovert, detailed-oriented, organised person who makes decisions based on logic and facts and doesn't really let feelings influence his decisions.
His response to my indigestible email was: "what an unusual way to say "I love you"!".
I found that a very cute and funny response to the geekiness that many of my friends accuse me of.

A few months later, he actually took the assessment with his company, and to my surprised disappointment, he turned out to be an ISTP, someone who is energised by thinking in solitude, is detail-oriented, makes decisions based on logic and facts and does not like to make plans.
The big discovery was the 'P' - Perceiving. I always thought that because his work requires him to juggle with many projects, clients and deadlines, he was a very organised planner. The assessment showed that he actually prefers spontaneity.
Suddenly a lot of things made sense. Before that, I couldn't understand why he would systematically promise that he would be somewhere at a certain time and tell me at the last minute that he would be there an hour or two later, or not be there at all. I couldn't understand why we would agree to do certain things but he wouldn't even move until the very last minute. I thought his behaviour showed a lack of commitment and consideration.
Well, it wasn't any of those. It's just how he is, how his brain thinks and drives his behaviour.

Nowadays when I get annoyed by his lack of planning and forward-thinking, I just blurt out: "you're such a 'P'!!". It actually sounds like an insult too. After that, I feel satisfied that I have made a point, and I can move on by observing that I accept his personal preferences, without getting upset doubting his feelings for me.

Anyway. Must dash, I am off to sort out a present for his best friend's imminent wedding.