The Year of Zinc

I’ve not blogged in ages. I keep reflecting, but it’s stored in hidden word documents on my laptop – sometimes making an appearance at a conference, or on my Facebook – in the safety of friends and not just the internet-public.

But I’ve been thinking about getting to 30. Alive. I really can’t believe it.

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On the periodic table 30  is the element Zinc. Roughly one third of all metallic zinc produced today is used in a process known as galvanization. During galvanization, an object that is subject to corrosion, such as an iron nail, is given a protective coating of zinc. I like the idea that my new decade is started with the year of Zinc: an element that is most useful in trying to stop corrosion.

5 years ago, an event happened that changed my life. Some of you where there, and others have followed the progress reports. But, honestly, i think it’ll take a full ten years for me to understand the impact and outcome of that one event.

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Life in many ways is like a paint by numbers book, where you can colour, one tiny bit at a time but within invisible lines. The whole picture emerges much later. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

A decade ago, today, if you had asked me today if my life would turn out the way it has done — I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. In many ways, life has been so much better than I ever really thought it would be!
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Getting to 30 isn’t really big news, but it’s a biggie for me, and ANY of my friends will vouch for me – I never thought I would make it to here. I thought this at high-school. I guess living in abject poverty makes you feel like this – like there’s no future. And this was even before I fell sick. But then when I did fall sick, I would look at what was happening to me and how i felt and thought for sure I wouldn’t be alive by now. At times, I actually didn’t want to live. Like, I just felt like I couldn’t live with this kind of pain – for the rest of my life – without someone understanding what this experience was doing to me with me.

So, I’m really grateful to be getting here.

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Despite this being kinda big news for me, i’m surprisingly anxious about it all too. I still feel 21 in my head. I still get I.D’d for booze at bars & M&S when buying BucksFizz, and if I’m really trying it on, I can still get Teen cinema tickets at the local Odeon.
My life is that of an 18 year olds. I moved back home, have no kids, no pension, basically a few $ in savings, the worst credit history – ever. I’m still a student, albeit I prefer researcher now (PhD). But getting really sick in my 20’s kind of funked things up a bit. I lost time for making and meeting people and things. I lost confidence, and money and I spent a whole lot of it when I got it — YOLOing or trying to find cures for my fatigue (all didn’t work BTW).
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By societies standards, I’m not a success. And I can feel it. I should have *done more* by now. People my age are consultants and own houses, and head-teachers and more. And it’s hard not to compare yourself. But in my own standards (and I think this is what matters) I’m relatively happy with where I am right now.
I mean, I am alive. I do think about that a lot.
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Confronting mortality makes you ask some fundamental questions of yourself and your relationships. It makes you a lot more honest with yourself. It forces you to say no more often, for you know the fleeting nature of life, the minuscule time we have on the planet and what matters is how we choose to spend it. And how you choose to act aswell.
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But 30 years is a long time to have witnessed change and fragility.  Over the past 5 years of ‘illness’, I realised that BEING alive and FEELING alive are 2 different things. And what I’ve learnt over 30 years is what Oprah’s words from her Golden Globes speech encapsulated:

“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have.”

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I recently read Dr Rod Kersh’s response to Henry Marsh’s guardian article  on the treatment by the legal system and the media, of a transplant surgeon scaring in his initials into patients livers.

And it got me thinking about empathy, and dignity, and teams and Zinc. Rod is one of the most compassionate (& innovative) doctors I know.  I first met him like 5 years ago. It was my 3rd time ever at a hospital appointment. I still hadn’t learnt how to “behave” in these situations (i think i still struggle with what to say and what not to mention even now).  But I still remember our first clinic with clarity, exact words and phrases. He told me how he was going to treat/talk to me (like an equal).  And it properly threw me. I thought about it for weeks afterwards. It was a weird thing to say. But it properly made me feel like I could trust him, that I (my life) was important. This phrase was further backed up by his actions, because in trying to describe what was happening to me, i described it more in how these symptoms was really hindering my life. And he was super intrigued by this. He’s the only doctor (except the ENT doctor this week who was genuinely concerned with my massive hearing loss and my quality of life/future) who seemed to gauge what was important to me. I noticed that when people didn’t hear me out, it made me feel more desperate. (That’s not to say everyone else I see or have seen don’t care… because that’s simply not true at all, but there’s a difference in acknowledging).

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He, and a few of my HCP, inspired me to be the best healthcare professional I could be. I subconsciously learnt what was good care and what wasn’t as good as that. And now everytime I am with a patient, I remember what is important to me when I am in this system. And the differences in actions and languages. And I want to make sure people feel seen and heard. Feel like whatever they’re telling me that is bothering them in their lives, that it matters. That they matter. Despite whatever is happening. Because often people just want to be heard.

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Many forget that it’s a rare privilege to find something you care about so deeply and be able to make it part of your life. For me, I realize that it makes sense that 30 is Zinc.  I am so endlessly grateful. These years have gifted me experiences, skills, lessons, and friendships. I would not be me without them because these people: my friends, teams, colleagues, working together – have acted like Zinc. 

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They have provided me with a coating, that has helped to ease the corrosion of life (from art, to work, to learning, to sickness and more). And in doing so have taught me how to be Zinc too.

You will never regret offering dignity to others.

We rarely get into trouble because we overdo our sense of justice and fairness. Not just us, but where we work, the others we influence. Organizations and governments are nothing but people, and every day we get a chance to become better versions of ourselves.

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And yet… in the moments when we think no one is looking, when the stakes are high, we can forget. It’s worth remembering that justice and dignity aren’t only offered on behalf of others.

Offering people the chance to be treated the way we’d like to be treated benefits us too. It goes around.

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The false scarcity is this: we believe that shutting out others, keeping them out of our orbit, our country, our competitive space—that this somehow makes things more easier for us.

But today, value isn’t created by filling a slot, it’s created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.

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The false scarcity stated as, “I don’t have enough, you can’t have any,” is more truthfully, “together, we can create something better.”

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And going forwards in setting the tone to my next decade is just that. To be Zinc: to help, share, collaborate and support. To be compassionate and empathetic.  I will do whatever it takes.

I just like to take this moment to say thank you to everyone in my life who have gotten me here too (from everything). I love y’all! Keep being awesome!

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1 year older, Casting Lines.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m getting old. I found my 10th grey hair today (yes I’m counting) But I’m still here. I’m still alive.  And it amazes me. But there’s a lot I don’t know. And there’s a lot I’m still learning. I’ll be Nickel on the periodic table. Nickel is a silvery white metal that takes on a high polish. It is hard, malleable, ductile, somewhat ferromagnetic, and a fair conductor of heat and electricity. Ni-64 is used for the production of Cu-64 which is used in radioimmunotherapy. Ni-61 can be used for the production of the PET radioisotope Cu-61. Which puts me in good company.

But turning a different number has less significance than having your first child or losing a family member. Those are real Life milestones.

When I was younger, I was worried I was going to be behind. I was always in hurry to do everything. Most people get a foundation degree before art school. I managed to convince art schools I didn’t need one. Then I mixed my masters with my undergraduate degree & completed them at the same time – it made me one of the youngest people in the UK with an art BA & MA at the time (First class, too). I went to summer camp as soon as I was allowed to apply for a J1 work visa. I went to NYC as soon as I was allowed to rent a hotel room alone (and worked 2 jobs to pay for it). Now I’m so behind my peers. And I want to slow down time. I sometimes wish maybe I should have taken my time & not rushed things. Smelled the roses, as they say. But There’s never enough time.  And now I’m in a place where I feel like I’m living on extra time I wasn’t expecting — which is pretty sweet. 

When I look at my photos of 2015 I think of the juxtaposition of beautiful scenery with private pain. Emerging from this exacting year, I am grateful (but still pissed off & frustrated with having pain) for the suffering because of how much it has taught me – and continues to do so, and how it made me even more compassionate to others. The kind of tumult I’m in is both a physical and an internal one, and it doesn’t detract from my gratitude that I am able to live a life involving new places, meet new people, laugh with friends, care for people in need, learn new stuff, see delightful sights and eat beautiful meals (most of which are cooked by my mom). It’s taught me that it’s always possible to find wonder in the world despite things being tough, because the world is full of wonderful things and people. These fleeting moments of awe, strung together with acts of kindness, kept me afloat.

I can’t help but feel severely indebted to everyone who’s helped me along my journey, especially in my search for a resolution. For all those people who ‘took a chance’ on me. For everyone who has replied to my late emails or who’ve reached out to me. For all my friends who’ve been right beside me, whether it be when I’m having a good time or when I’m tucked into my bed, drenched in my own cold sweat .

Who knows what 2016 will bring, but as my last day as 27 winds to a close I have learnt more, dug deeper, and thinking of my next year ahead. I want to take the an opportunity to redefine many things as well as to recapture certain values and certain things that are potentially important for me and for people in general…The importance of giving back is starting to be theme for me. I want to be generous to the people who have helped me out. I want to make sure not to ‘ghost’ on people either. In order to be credible, you must be authentic and true. I’m starting to write my proposal for my PhD in creative practices as a means of moving health research evidence and interventions into everyday practice. I’ve already applied for 2 of my first radiotherapy posts (probs. won’t get interview, like). Moderation in everything. Don’t be an asshole and don’t be a pushover. Change is the only constant in Life. It moves forward regardless of how hard you resist. Be kind. Be empathetic. Take care of your parents. Cultivate relationships with those that matter, those that genuinely care about you. Embrace them with your whole heart.

My birthday’s tomorrow, but help me celebrate since I’ll be spending the whole weekend revising. Donate time/things/currency to Yorkshire Cancer Research , Doncaster Cancer Detection Trust and/or another cause that’s close to your heart! Feeling blessed and lucky to have such great friends and family.

As for Birthday plans after my exam on Monday: Heading straight to laser quest, drinks, movies & some good ol’ pho in Sheffield. It’s going to be a birthday week.

2015: thanks for giving me what I needed and teaching me what I didn’t understand. You were challenging & profound.

I don’t want to waste any more of my time. That’s all: A look back upon my 2015

 

Time: Before I’m Gone

Time.

Time fascinates me no end. I’ve read a lot of theories about time.

Can you remember when the 6 week summer holidays used to feel so long and hazy and hot? And now, before you know it, it’s already summer when it was only just Christmas. And you’re left thinking? Whoa, time!?

I just read a book called Time Warped by Claudia Hammond, which talks at length about how we perceive time. One of her arguments is that as we get older, we have fewer meaningful experiences. We fall into a routine of sorts and life becomes less memorable, which makes our perception of time feel like it’s speeding up as we age. It’s kind of a sad idea. But it does put things into perspective. We should be doing more things that are memorable! YOLO.

Another theory, by Paul Janet, is that we perceive time as relative to the ‘absolute’ time that we can compare it to. For example, when you’re born a day will feel MEGA long because it is literally ALL of your life. By the time your 50, a year will be 1 50th of your life. So that could explain why summer holidays felt longer than they do now, and waiting around fro christmas felt like a small lifetime. Because in time-terms – it was.

I’m not too sure on the latter explanation, as last summer when I was trying to learn the ropes of clinical radiation oncology and juggle the worst headache – the weeks felt long. Oh so very long. Now I know what I’m doing more, this summer has flown by. The years do feel shorter though and so I believe that time is a combination of both of those theories.

Money and time are both saved and spent. The more money that’s in the market, the less it becomes worth. Similarly, when you become aware of your time – and if you think it’s running out – or becoming shorter – the more worth it seems the accumulate. However, money can be circulated, you can get it back by many means, but time is fully-spent. Once time is gone, you can never get it back.

Death is always a surprise. No one expects it. We are never ready. It is never the right time. By the time it comes, you won’t have done all the things you wanted and should have done.

Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating time. I’ve been run over, fallen from buildings, been in a fire, and more. When I fell sick – I genuinely thought my time was coming to an end. I have days and weeks where I believe I’m going to live many years into old, old age. And then I have some days where I feel so poorly, and have the weirdest shit happen to me that I wonder if I’ll be here next year.

And then I have days – like yesterday – where you get a text in the middle of the train station and it literally takes away your breath and makes you forget how to breath.  I didn’t know what to do with myself. It makes you realize we care too much about things that don’t matter much. I’ve preached this before and often. Because when I’m in my everyday cycle – where I feel ok. The weight of mortality – that painful reminder – isn’t as ever present compared to when I’m in great pain.

Now I’m suddenly feeling this sense of urgency, again. For everything. Especially to spend more time with my mom & my nan & my bro, and my friends, and the world; to try and see them sooner rather than later.  And to correct all the wrong doings I’ve done (just stupid teenager-y stuff) It’s a lesson I keep on trying not to forget (and sometimes I do, and that’s bad).

All this has made me think, it’s not so much that we have so little time; it’s that we have so little awareness of time itself.

So I’m preparing to leave things in a way that if anything does happen to me – sooner rather than later, I have left my mark – I’ve left a trail – of something. I’m going to write blog-posts – letters – cards – emails. Sporadically. Thanking, forgiving, offering, planning, helping, laughing, grieving, making up for lost time and maybe even cheating time in the process.

As my nan says, “It all feels the same,”. Let’s not get caught up in meaninglessness. And let’s enjoy every second we get – together.

To the importance of time & what gives it weight.

Much Love, SMIZZ

Constantly Lucky: 26 years

It’s my birthday in about 48 hours. I used to hate getting older because, well, I always thought i’d have my life way more ‘together’ by now. Like, I thought that maybe I would have met someone special. Maybe I’d have what my mom calls a “proper job” (by that, she means oppressed, clock your card-in, have to leave the house to do it, ect – the working class way). Maybe i’d have a proper house, I don’t think i’d ever buy (still don’t) but renting – like realll nice. But life interrupts, and actually those thoughts were never my real desires anyway. They were implanted into my head by what is deemed as acceptable by a capitalist society.

But now I just feel constantly lucky. Lucky that I’m making it to 27 & my multiple of jobs means that I’m always working and meeting with inspirational people. I kind of hate the wrinkles near my eyes (crows feet?) but now I sort of love them. They’re a welcomed reminder than i’m alive, I am living, and living with fun – with a smile & laughter.

I know that age is arbitrary. I’ve read that your 30s are when things start to work. Your 20s are supposed to be outgrowing our 21st century prolonged puberty.  But it’s all relative, really. Hitting those ‘milestones’ are all just part something. Part luck, part shit bad-luck, part working hard, part partying hard, part kindness, part optimism, part time.

When I fell sick, I quickly realized that I had quite a lot of my priorities mixed up. My artist-ego was getting inflated, and you know, i was starting to get recognised across continents, getting a few good-profile residencies, getting paid to do what I do. I spent months and months away from home, never calling, never seeing my home-friends or family. I wasn’t mean, or nasty, or unkind – but I wasn’t very thoughtful of others. I distinctively remember my 20 year old self not understanding why a depressed friend couldn’t join us because she felt tired. Now I understand why others can not understand fatigue in me. If you’ve never experienced chronic fatigue & pain, you won’t really “get-it”, unless you’re truly empathetic/compassionate. Which I certainly wasn’t 5 years ago. That’s not really how I wanted to live my life, being self-obsessed, that wasn’t the person I wanted to be.

Then when I fell sick, in the beginning it was nothing. Then time went on & it got worse. And worse. Until it made me feel helpless. I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t believe it.

Life’s big decisions which were mine to make felt no more. My whole-life was tipped upside down. I was no-longer the worker-beaver I was- the persona I had so publicly built for myself crumbled – also publicly.  Still The Smizz of All Trades, just slow, really slow. No reply from emails for days… weeks. I just wanted to sleep. I had pain so deep. Nightsweats that made me feel like I had wet the bed, blood from anywhere. Everything we take for granted everyday, like holding a conversation, running up the stairs, having a shower took insane effort. I’ve lost days, weeks, even months of my life.

Despite my neglect of my friends & family whilst I  pursued my need for art-fame, when I fell ill – they caught me mid-fall & are still here, holding me up. Roadtrips where I was throwing up, or too weak to do anything – they stayed with me. Money I needed to cover my USA medical bills – they banded together and paid it for me. Christmas dinners, Thanksgivings – they do it because they know it makes me really happy.  Great drawing opportunities. Friends across the world donated time, money, connections, rides. Strangers sent mail. On the days I feel insanely shit, they mail and post super nice things on Facebook and Twitter. They keep me going. We always make a laugh about it. I owe them so much.

One thing I think about and often talk about when with friends is life and death. When I first got told that it looked like I had a lymphoid malignancy – all I did on my indenial roadtrip across the USA was research the odds, every McDonalds, Motel, Starbucks free-wifi connection – I’d update my status about some amazing thing we were doing & bookmark a page of research on lymphomas. That research and statistics still sits with me. I think about it with my patients. I feel a heavy weight that’s unexplainable in my chest when someone is dealt a devastating hand of event(s), when I’m writing my assignments, when I read peoples blogs. I don’t think about them every day anymore, which makes me feel like maybe time is a healer after-all.

Whilst feeling not the best, this year- my 26th year – I got to spend the year learning new things, all about the human-body, I see life on the edges every day. I got to meet many inspirational people, I got to do a few weeks in NYC, reconnecting with old friends, and returning to work at Doc/Fest. I saw my mom get married,  saw the sun set above the clouds and the clearest night sky in the world. I visited Denmark for the first time, and spent time working on some really cool projects with really cool people. Now I’m planning a trip to Thailand, Japan and Bali (Not all together).

Through these experiences, I realized how debilitating it all can be, and how rarely we take the time to understand pain in others. That was my main motivation to going to study Radiotherapy & Oncology. But this lesson is still being learnt. The experience is humbling and, more than anything, made me much more aware of – and empathetic to – the hurt that we ignore.

This, in particular, is my motivation going into my 27th year. My resolution is to take more time recognizing the pain in others and offering solace whenever possible. I aim to keep the dialogue open with all of you, whether online or in-person.

I am not sure about all that will come next.  I’m hoping my 27th year will be one of closure from this illness. But what I do know is that I’ve stopped wasting time (most of the time). I can’t help but feel the weight of its value each day. That awareness itself feels like a gift. I vowed that if I ever got through this that I would eat better, play harder, work smarter and love more. Never again would the significance of a moment pass me by.

It’s all just bumps along the road. Make sure you’re living life the way that is important to you. Don’t wait to be asked for help; you’re already being beckoned.

On the 9th, my actual birthday, I will be taking a flight to Lisbon, Portugal. I’ll watch the sunset, and toast to time & feeling really alive. Constantly lucky, y’all.