Unlearn: Self-Love is Paramount

Often as children in Jamaica we are not taught to love ourselves. The prevailing mindset is that children should be seen and not heard, displays of emotion are frowned upon (worse if you’re a boy) and the needs or wants of a child in a family with many older members are usually overlooked.

Contrast the technicolor televised images of my childhood where Foreign children are raised with so much self confidence it seems like entitlement, where people are consoled when they cry and where parents/extended family seem attuned to the emotional needs of the younger relatives.

Because I had the privilege to be exposed to this alternate experience of childhood, I was aware that the way we do things here is not necessarily the best way. I also had the opportunity to observe the difference in outcomes when children are raised in a loving and nurturing home instead of a yard where every man is for himself, and I remain convinced that the way we parent in this country is largely responsible for the way we deal with the deeper problems that plague our society.

But why is this relevant.

Most of the time I write because I hope that something in my words will resonate with the right person at the right time. Hoping the current of the universe will push this cobbled craft to the person who needs it when they need it most. A lot my posts start their lives as ‘what I wish someone had told me’ and I’m vain enough to believe that if I needed to hear this, then someone else does too.

So this is relevant because we need to be reminded that it is okay to love yourself. The lessons I learnt growing up as a child in Montego Bay (bloodthirsty and falsely cheerful Montego Bay) are lessons I had to unlearn as an adolescent (and which I’m still unlearning as an adult): sadness, disappointment and insecurity are not things to be ashamed of. Wanting affection, support and stability is not a sign of weakness.

Lessons I am working hard to teach myself are exercises in self-care, developing my psyche and feeding my soul. Giving myself permission to make mistakes, backtrack and be better than I was. I’m being deliberately vague because this process is different for everyone, and in the various stages of your life self-care means different things.

But everyone should start from a position of unconditional positive regard for who they are. There will be aspects of yourself that you think are flawed and fucked up, there will be voices in your head with many negative comments (likely honed from a lifetime of hearing  those comments out loud) but the first step is to open your arms and love yourself.

It is okay to love yourself; it’s actually a good thing. It doesn’t mean you’re prideful or you won’t get into heaven; it doesn’t mean you’re conceited or you think you’re better than people. And newsflash: negating your self-worth will not make people like you more. The sooner you learn this the better.

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Doctors and Mental Health

The lives of medical professionals (at least the part of our lives that we choose to share with the public) are a lot like Instagram posts: lots of happy, successful moments to build the image of being competent and caring. But just like Instagram, real life is never as perfect as that carefully curated snapshot.

If you remember my last post about the things we don’t talk about, there was one really important topic I left off that list:  mental health. Just like physical health, our psychological well-being is integral to the way we function. But while we won’t hesitate to get ourselves checked at the first sign of illness, we balk at the idea of talking about our feelings or worse, spending time in therapy.

Sometimes we don’t talk about it because we feel our patients need to believe that their doctor is operating at peak performance. Discussing our mental health issues openly, or even acknowledging them can have a detrimental impact on the physician-patient relationship. Patients tend to think of doctors as superhuman, somehow immune to the struggles that plague the average person. In reality, doctors have the same problems as everyone else. But we don’t like to be reminded of that. We buy into the con, believing that we are somehow capable of feats no one else can do.

Sometimes that’s allowed, even expected – not everyone can perform brain surgery or resuscitate newborn babies – but other times we overreach. Doctors frequently pull stunts like trying to function normally after 36-48 hours with no sleep. We sweep treatable issues like depression under the rug because of course we can handle it, self-medicating with substance use or else ignoring the problem entirely until it can no longer be contained.

The medical profession carries one of the highest rates of suicide (1.4-2.3 times the rate of the general population). But discussing an issue that can call into question your fitness to practice is absolutely off-limits. In the most ideal and ethical situation, doctors would put the patient’s interest ahead of their own security, but we are human first, driven by the same fears and needs as everyone else. And there is a very real fear that any perceived disability will end or permanently blight our careers.

On top of this is the associated stigma of mental illness that is so very rampant in Jamaica and the Caribbean. No patient wants to see the “mad” doctor who “tried to kill himself”. But if any progress is to be made in erasing this stigma we physicians have to be the pioneers. And since this stigma persists even among doctors, we are the first hurdle we have to clear. After that, education and sensitization of the wider society.

Even though no one seems ready to talk about it* (Megz over at Barefoot Medz is one of the few, doing a really great job) mental health is a discussion we need to have. In such an emotionally draining and psychologically demanding profession it isn’t fair to anyone to have doctors fumbling to look after their mental health alone.

We need to catch mental health issues among physicians from early, as early as medical school even. Mandatory psychological screening for depression, anxiety and PTSD among others should be instituted for all the high risk professions: doctors, police officers, firefighters. We shouldn’t have to wait until a doctor commits suicide or a policeman kills his spouse before doing something. Prevention or at least early detection is paramount.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Efforts have started but they’re halfhearted at best and the government offers little in the way of support. We must be our own advocates and work with other key players to remind the public that there is no good health without good mental health.

*

Further reading: a pediatrician’s experience with psychosis, and a GP’s experience with depression.

*After writing this post, I discovered Dr. Eric Levi an ENT surgeon who is also making strides in the discussion on mental health in doctors. 

Clouds and their Silver Linings

The recent deluge haranguing Montego Bay has put a damper on so many things. Parties are in danger of being rained out, employees have yet another excuse for being late, and most frustratingly I can’t get the sunshine time my laundry needs to dry.

While I’m stuck in this limbo land of weather, I am realizing with greater certainty how important it is to be patient, with the world and myself. All good things take time; seeds and stories and life plans must germinate before they can flourish. Though Montego Bay is utterly miserable in a downpour, the rain brings much needed refreshment to a parched and grimy landscape.

In an effort to remind myself about this need to be patient I started a ‘Future journal’. In it I have been writing down all the things I think I need to have a good life. It seems materialistic, but by writing down these worldly wants I find that I can filter out most of my day-to-day whims (which are never necessities but still somehow make me feel like I’m missing something vital) and focus on the true essentials.

In the middle of this cold front I also managed to get sick again, which has reminded me to pace myself and listen more keenly to what my body is saying. Right now it’s saying that I need a health dose of Vitamin C and more blankets. But I hope the lessons in patience and listening will stick around even after my sneezing fits are over.

 

Apologetics: My Strange Fixation with White Women

Alternative title: Navigating my Reader Identity

When I was a little girl and just starting to flex my writing muscles the first story I ever wrote was called Cottage on the Hill. It was about two young white girls from London who went to spend summer vacation with their grandparents in rural England. Of course, I had never seen a cottage or spent a summer with my grandparents or been to rural England but as so often happens with young black writers the stories we write are the stories we have read about.

It never occurred to me at that age to consider Jamaican characters or settings. I had never read about home outside of those little chapbooks from primary school (you know the ones with the newsprint and sketches) that tried to impart Serious Moral Lessons through Anansi stories and others. But that wasn’t what I wanted to write – I wanted to write proper short stories. And proper short stories were about people from outside of the Caribbean.

I grew up, of course, and developed a thirst for Caribbean literature despite the disinterested way it gets tacked on to high school syllabuses. I actively seek out Jamaican writers and as many women writers as I can. Colonialism may have dictated my preferences but I can change that if I try hard enough. And sometimes the trying is hard. What I want to read isn’t always available, but often what is available ends up being what I want to read.

Transition with me from books to the online world of blogs; most of the ones I’m familiar with (and like) are written by upper middle class white suburban housewives. What the hell is this demographic? I have no idea. Okay, maybe I have a little idea. But as I grapple with this proclivity and the desire to see myself represented in internet writings, guilt often bubbles up. It feels like consuming all this content from a foreign culture only pushes me further away from my own.

Another issue is that I have more in common with these women than I do with people I actually live and work with. Cue identity crisis! Cue questioning my life choices*! This is why I read those blogs, this is why I feel distanced from my own culture: camaraderie and the quest for acceptance. But what is the solution, lock myself away from the world and read only content produced by Jamaicans for Jamaicans?

No, xenophobia isn’t the answer here. It isn’t automatically bad to be intrigued by alternate ways of life. On the contrary, globalization is accepted and encouraged. Where it crosses the line into acculturation is a little blurry, but we’re working on that.

These days I berate myself less and less for my tastes, but unlearning decades of stigma for being ‘the weird one’ is hard. I will probably never stop liking The Bloggess or Neil Gaiman, but I am gradually unwinding myself from the notion that these interests make me less Jamaican. In reality I will always be Jamaican, just a Jamaican who is open-minded, liberal and a little more day-dreamy than expected.


*Life choices like watching Doctor Who, listening to The Chainsmokers, and reading yet another Jenny Lawson/Elizabeth Gilbert mental health guidebook cleverly disguised as a novel.

 

Spring Equinox at the Rasta Village

Barefoot, bamboo pipe and box food – this was the scene at the Indigenous Rasta Village on the outskirts of Montego Bay last Sunday. It was a space for communion, reasoning and celebration.

The Rasta Village is accessible by one of two routes – you can drive through Porto Bello to the Montego River Gardens then cross a river to get to the venue. Or you can drive through Fairfield, down a narrow winding dirt track until you reach the last house at the end of the lane. Behind the house is the village.

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Welcoming is the first word that comes to mind when you step into the circular space that housed the festival. Everyone nods and smiles openly when they greet you, with an enthusiastic clasping of hands in what feels like a physical manifestation of namaste.

The full programme included yoga, drumming sessions and an open mic segment. There were performances by Mentor, Nomaddz and Rasta Village Live. Around the central camp were stalls displaying natural oils and soaps. Two huge jars of cannabis stems rested atop a table under the main gazebo. The smell of cook food and ganja perfumed the air.

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As I sat cross-legged on a borrowed bamboo mat I drank my sip and looked around at the motley collection that had gathered. There were a lot of Rastas, certainly, but also several bald heads (I know, you don’ haffi dread fi be Rasta), more than a few mature upper middle class people, and quite a lot of people my age or a little older.

The vibe of the gathering had put me in a mood for reflection (or maybe it was the contact high) and I was intrigued by the thought that all these people from different backgrounds had come here with the same purpose: to revive, renew, replenish and reaffirm. That everyone would be affected by the experience in different ways, and would take away different things from the event that touched them uniquely, if it touched them at all.

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Nomaddz and Rasta Village Live

I leaned into the Rastafarian faith a little more that day. A lot appealed to me: the ideas of personal divinity, the belief in livity, the impressive respect for life in all its forms and yes, the ital food did taste good too.

But I also couldn’t stop my usual anxious over-thinking. I was convinced that there was a right way and a wrong way to be Jamaican and I was definitely doing it the wrong way. every “Blessings” or “Blessed love” I received in greeting I returned a nervous “Good afternoon”. I couldn’t help it – when I’m anxious my Patois stalls. I felt like a fake, because I have locs but I know very little about Rasta culture beyond what I read in school. Only the warm smiles from everyone (and I mean literally everyone) kept me from running away with my head bowed in shame.

How Agent Sasco song go, “no fashion dread nuffi come a talk bout Selassie”?

But over and over my mind kept returning to the deep seated contentment that shone from the faces of the Rastas I interacted with. They had invited us into their sanctum santorum and were so willing to share their music and ideas and food with us – a little bit of their culture free of charge. Maybe it was the weed or maybe it was the kind of peace that springs from a deep personal connection with faith, but however they achieved it I wanted some of that contentment for myself.

I left the Village feeling inspired and uplifted, on a healthier mental and physical plane. The sip and ital food had warmed my belly and the conscious lyrics of Mentor and Nomaddz had warmed my heart.

Then I promptly went and had KFC for dinner. It’s a work in progress.

on Wanderlust and its Manifestations

so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here
never enough for both
-Ijeoma Umebinyuo “Diaspora Blues”

I am restless in a number of ways. Two of them: I can never sit still (something my cat hates) and I feel uneasy when I’ve lived too long in one place. This is a direct result of my childhood which was spent moving from rental home to rental home, never quite settling down. But it is also, perhaps, the result of generations of restless women who have dumped all their unfulfilled wanderlust onto my lap.

People sometimes brag about having lived their whole lives in one place.

“Yeh, Paradise mi born and grow. Everybody know me.”

Substitute Paradise for Roehampton, Cascade, Trench Town, etc. In response I’m completely baffled by the determined way they fit like fixtures into one neighbourhood, the way they know the history of every ackee tree and eye newcomers with the collective distrust of small towns. Don’t get me wrong – I love making roots and connections and settling myself (temporarily) into the unfamiliar ebb and flow of a new place. But once the current becomes too well-known I yearn for novelty again.

It’s not my fault, entirely. My mother, one of the urban drifters, left her born-and-grow home of Donalva in Hanover for the expanding city of Montego Bay. Once there she moved again and again searching for home, eventually settling for the closest approximation.

My grandmother, born in Hope Bay, Portland then raised on the hills of Fruitful Vale, followed her errant brother to the plains of May Pen and then again to the far flung, frigid shores of England during the great West Indian migration of the mid-1900’s. Dissatisfied and homesick she turned once more to Jamaica settling west in the parish of St. James, first in rural Roehampton then the coasts of Mobay.

My great-great-great-grandfather, a Scotsman and a traveler who wound up in Portland, Jamaica (the same Portland as my grandmother) centuries before.

I could go further back to the forced melanin migration of the Transatlantic Trade, hundreds of thousands of families uprooted and displaced. The result a fractured diaspora that alternates its longing for home with a hatred of the same (or at best a distant apathy).

All of which distill down to me, who moves around so much the thought of settling down kick-starts my anxiety. There’s so much to see, so many houses to be lived in, so many countries and towns and villages to discover, to be a part of. How can I choose one place to spend the rest of my life?

Maybe restlessness is the Afro-Caribbean ethos. Maybe I’m trying to outrun some deep emotional trauma. Maybe I’m trying to pin down that nebulous feeling of Home.Maybe I’m not old enough to settle down (maybe I never will be).

And hold me fast, hold me fast
Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under
Mumford and Sons “Hopeless Wanderer”

But maybe one day this hopeful wanderer will hang her hat on some worthy homestead, and settle down to tell stories of a life well-traveled. For now, though, I’ll keep knocking about, readjusting and starting over. After all, it’s what I know best.

You are (meant to be) here.

I am often overwhelmed by day to day decision-making. Simple choices like what to have for breakfast, or which route to drive home, or what outfit to wear build themselves up in my mind, until somehow they have acquired more space than they should. Suddenly my decision to stop at the supermarket after work has the same weight as deciding to pursue postgraduate education.

Often, too, it feels like all my decisions are the wrong ones. When I follow my instincts, when I don’t follow my instincts – no matter how I try to weigh the pros and cons I still end up feeling like I let the right choice slip away.

Last week I was running late to pick my partner up from work. As usual my series of choices led me down the wrong path: tardiness. But as I crested the hill, I caught a glimpse of the sunset on the horizon. The brilliantly scarlet star was seconds away from sinking out of view, and I got to watch those seconds.

Almost instantly I felt a wave of calm and certainty. All the choices I had made that day – wrong, right or indifferent – had led me to this exact moment, and I couldn’t have timed it better if I tried. It suddenly didn’t matter that I was late – lateness happens. All that mattered was that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

 

Milestones and Metaphors 

For my 25th birthday the universe’s present to me was the surprising and unwelcome reminder that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Instead of a relaxing day of doing nothing circumstances conspired to trap me in work. The horror.

But as I lay railing against the unstructured ebb and flow of life, I reminded myself that we are merely leaves floating down the stream of eternity. Day to day struggles seem all-consuming in the moment but time pushes us ever forward. Yesterday’s trials become tomorrow’s lessons.

What is important, I thought, is remembering to take a break from the rapids that overwhelm us and spend some moments enjoying the feel of sunshine. It’s no good jumping from crisis to crisis and ignoring the good bits in between. The good bits are the whole point.

So here’s to gratitude. And a quarter century of living. And paying more attention to the good parts for the next twenty-five years.

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I love travelling.

I love the quiet stillness that enters my mind when I’m riding along though noisy traffic or empty back roads with serene pastures. There’s a weight that feels lifted off my shoulders, a loosening of the usual necktie of anxiety and suddenly I can breathe. I can think without over thinking. I can decide without second guessing. Best of all, I can sleep.

Travelling in the wee hours of the morning is even better because now it’s combined with the mysterious delight of being awake when no one else is. That feeling also leaves me at peace and content.

Maybe this is a metaphor of some sorts. A reminder to cherish the journey more than the destination.

And isn’t that the whole point of life anyway?

Getting Okay with Being Happy

There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.
-Oscar Wilde

Does anyone else find that they are most miserable when they finally get what they want? I’m not talking about the feeling of almost-but-not-quite-satisfaction when you have nothing else to wish for (and come on, we’re human beings. There will always be something else to wish for). I mean the other feeling. The feeling that there’s something wrong with you being happy.

Am I crazy? Yes. Am I alone in my craziness? I really hope not.

My life has been coming together in a way that is entirely surprising and entirely unfamiliar to me. So far everything is on track (I am knocking on ALL the wood, universe): my career, my personal life, my finances. And I’m a little bit (okay, a lot) baffled by how coordinated it all seems. Granted, on the inside I’m still a wibbling mess trying to pass off as an adult. But on the outside and in the big picture things look kinda sorta maybe okay.

And that freaks me the hell out. Instead of enjoying the good times while they’re here I am anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the storm after the calm. When will this all be dragged away from me, I wonder frantically. How long can happiness be mine??

As if there’s something inherently wrong with me being happy. As if the universe in some way needs to balance out this time of contentment with an equally horrible tragedy. When in reality no one is taking stock of the good times to balance them out with bad, and for God’s sake what is so wrong with being happy?

Freud blames my parents. I blame the messed up way my mind works sometimes, tricking me into thinking that I’m only doing well if I’m suffering. Why do our brains lie to us? Is there some magic way to stop the lies, or at least ignore them?

Maybe the only answer is the daily reminder to be gentle with myself, and appreciate each moment as it happens. Which is a good enough answer for me.