3,500 miles, 14 states, 2 provinces, lessons learnt: We are not built to do big things alone, we are built to do them together

Today’s been my last full day in NYC, and in America. And I’m a bit sad about it.

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This nearly month trip has been a blast and an inspiration. It’s been a frank reminder that our time is too valuable to let a moment go to waste. We need steal as much life as we can out of each day. And I certainly feel like we have done this every single day for 28 days.

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This is mainly due to my ride-or-die-hommie – Colleen – the driver, who drove over 3,5000 miles around north America (Thanks so much Colleen!). Think driving miss daisy meets velema and louise. we visited 14 USA states and 2 provinces in Canada! I visited 6 whole new places/cities – making my knowledge of certain states that I had already ticked off before – even better! With Pittsburg being one of my favourite new cities to have visited. Must be that steel connection. I love understated, post industrial, arty cities *cough*-sheffield-*cough*

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We drove through the most glorious sunsets, that hung around for an hour in all their pinky, orange and purple gloriness. In the end it was like we were actually chasing the sunsets. The more south and west we went, the longer they hung around, felt like you could touch them and looked like paintings in photos.

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We hardly arrived anywhere on time between each destination, (thanks google maps when we were planning for the lies!) but it just goes to show that it’s the journey that matters, and it was never about the destination anyways (especially given that our destination would be back where we had started). In the wrong turns and google suggested adventures, we discovered uncharted areas, and ghost towns of rich-pasts, farm lands, mountains, kangaroo, gems, moon-views, world wonders, the brightest stars and the clearest skies! endless waffle houses and many a gas-station toilet.

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We saw dinosaurs, ate at 120 year old functioning ice-cream parlours, farms of various sizes including the massive production of milk for the North of the USA. We chased waterfalls, and slept in places that felt like we could be in a horror movie — or places that only a protagonist would be staying in to run away from something in their past. (this was emily’s house BTW – deep in a rainforest in Georgia — she said we wouldn’t find it – and boy-was she right!)

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We got some incredible emily warning ceramics, and colleen booked an AirBnB that looked like it was decorated in 1920’s (& i swear down it could have been haunted, i had to sleep with the light on- C still thinks i’m being dramatic about it- but those who saw my insta-story will know the truth).

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I learnt that Colleen sleep walks and talks (don’t worry, she mostly did this in motels/hotels). We nearly picked up a hitchhiker (he invited himself along and we had to politely decline saying the car was too full of pottery for him to have a seat & we were heading to dinasour world next) He quickly disappeared once he thought that *we* were the weirdos. And I also learnt that Colleen is very opinionated about things including road-side eateries. I want her to start a podcast or youtube channel where people just give her a subject and she’ll rift about how scandal-less or waste of time/money it is, or how amazing it is.

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I learn about a dude called Mr Rodgers and how to be kind to ourselves and others through his teachings (& colleen’s pure love for him). and all things from Pittsburgh.

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My french is still LA-TERRIBLE, c’est very bad. (the only time i sound proper yorkshire is when i speak another language). I was constipated for 3/4 of the whole time here (HA). And i ripped my stitches out of my mouth by accident eating SI Broccli! HA!

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Time Zones confused us often. Did you know Tennessee & Kentucky & Chicago is central zone but parts of Indiana and Ohio is not?! very confusing. Tax across the USA is wild. Chicago was the most expensive. We’ve tried lots of foods, from 10am ice-cream in Columbus, Ohio, to mexican breakfasts in Chicago, to Wah Wah gas station food, the biggest slices of pizza in philly (& the worst greek salad haha), to sweet potato pancakes in the south, chicken & waffles, pirogies of all types, hot dogs, my fav tacos and “water and leaf” soups, oatmeal shakes, piles and piles of freshly prepared dumplings, my fav Chinese- PHU-GEES in NH and beyond. I keep ordering far too much food and don’t learn.

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My Sandy Island adventures got me chasing sunrises, i drank too much and kept Lea up chatting absolute bollocks. It made me fully miss sandy summers. I got to see my crew from over the years including Dave B, and Kate, and Julia. Vanda and I reminisced about our Sydney adventures. and Dani and the crew and I went Northern Lights hunting! It feels so weird and good to have a base there. A place that feels like a home. Like a good Smizz Horcrux. I feel like bits of my soul is in NYC and sandy Island. Who knew New Hampshire would ever be a smizz place?

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I’ve spent a good month being glad for life, surrounded by people who I love, doing what I love, & meeting more new super awesome people. I’ve been shown many true and generous acts of kindness this year – here in the USA and back at home. And I’m completely humbled and for ever grateful for these. Thanks just doesn’t seem to come even close to how i want to say Thank you! to EVERYONE!

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one morning this summer before my trip here – with my mouth in stitches, and appointment sheets for the next abdominal surgery, I burst into tears over breakfast, convinced that this illness had drained me of my creative & living/Smizz abilities. Even in that dark moment, though, I knew that my co-workers & friends wouldn’t let me fail. And it isn’t just picking up the baton when I drop it; they’ve (you’ve) motivated and encouraged me through periods of lucidity to art/live the best I could. I’m so damn lucky.

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I feel that I have a little more understanding of what it means to fall over and feel that you have to get up, no matter what you have to leave behind in the process. This is an easy realization to come to because I’m pretty lucky that I have you -all- the amazing people in my life, who have supported me & helped me to live. Whatever i’ve lost, you make it feel like i’m nearly whole. All I have is that you should appreciate what you’ve got.

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I tend to do these trips when I’m sort of running away from what’s been happening to me. It hurts. But I’ve thought long & hard about what I want out of life. And i want to be here for at least another 5 years.

Today I got to see Alex 1 last time, and the way he talks about leadership & connecting always inspires me and i feel it in the pitt of my stomach. (i can’t wait for his future book). As he says, doctors check for pulses but he checks his people. And that’s what i love about him, and something i’m trying to aim for too. My USA trips are always inspiring me to be better, to commit to my work, to give back to my community. I have some time, and if I use it well. It will be more than enough.

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through all this stuff, I feel like I’ve grown up a second time. I’m broken; But I am alive. I’m coming home to  fix some more gnarly health stuff, but i’m re-charged to finish my PHD, start my new work contracts using arts based research methods in public health and doing research into social detriments and getting rid of these health inequalities as much as we can through ensuring access is made for the people who need these services. and restructing injustice things within policy and beyond. I’m looking forward to really starting to lay the bones down for “REAL “- a business adventure with Helen doing social-justice through creative practice. and lots of stuff in between.

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i’m constantly looking forward to sunsets and bike rides and tacos and getting dirt on my boots and feeling grass between my toes and feeling the calm breeze sweep my face as i drive with the windows down. these are the small, forgettable pieces of life that i think contain all the magic, all the billion little tiny disco ball reflections and retractions of the love and light in this world.

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This life is teaching me that there are golden moments, and the darkness cannot touch them. I’m learning the art of discovering those moments, the ones hiding in hard moments and challenging days. but man.. is it worth it.

Wish me luck! and see y’all later!

Shame, Gratitude, (health) Care & Resilience: Working in Art & in Research

Shame. It’s a shameful thing.  To feel ashamed. It makes you feels weak. It feels like you’re kind of worthless. The other day, my GP shamed me. He told me that I just “need to suck it up & live with it”. (it being bad-ass headaches/migraines/face/shoulder pain) I’m not sure he meant to, but he did. I wasn’t even there for that. He tried to quickly move on – but it hung in the air & it is now burnt into my mind ever since. I keep replaying the moment inside my head of all the things I *wished* I had said in response to him. To call him out. But I stumbled over my words and I itched my head as I usually do when I feel socially inept and at a loss of words as all of the emotion came over me at once.

This moment, which I had gone for antibiotics for a chest infection (which i got!),  all came down to him reading some clinic notes that the physio had written. She had said that I take (over the counter) codeine about twice a month  for a 5-year chronic headache & INTENSE neck/face pain, but only when its pain scale 8+ & it’s grinding me down. And it’s true.   The neurologist prescribed me stuff for it 3 years ago – but the GP refused to keep on prescribing it. we tailored the drugs off – and now I just live in pain. I get it. I understand why he doesn’t want me on these drugs. It’s chronic pain, it’s probs a bit psychosomatic – but i do have shit wrong with me that would actually give me chronic headaches like hypercalcemia that gets so high sometimes I have to be hospitalized.  And also like, migraines are a real thing! But he doesn’t see that. And again, I do  it get the “no drugs thing”. That’s why I have adapted my own coping systems. I know stress makes it worse, Physio helps my neck & shoulder & gives me really good relief for a decent amount of time, and I know I need to sleep-in at weekends to give my body *Something* to building itself back up. I know the GP won’t give me shit for it – so I take the odd over the counter pain relief? So what!?  If he wants control over the stuff I am taking – then he should offer the support. But he doesn’t – so, I guess that’s structural iatrogenesis for you.

I have to take the pain relief when the pain grinds me down so much that I feel COMPLETELY worthless – like the pain makes all my left side of face feel numb and sometimes I can’t actually get language out. It’s embarrassing. My job is about communication – and sometimes i just can’t communicate properly with people cuz the headache/face numbness is so bad i loose my ability to grasp the correct word – or know how to spell it? It’s a weird sensation. It’s like having the worlds slowest seizure. But it goes on FOR DAYS. WEEKS. Even months if it’s SUPER bad like it was back in the radiotherapy training days.  It literally makes me feel like I want to kill myself – because anything is better than not feeling like you’re alive. I joke about this with friends at work. They laugh but pull me up on it. “You’re not serious though, are you?” they say. I just laugh and & say “i don’t know” because honestly on those days, i just – don’t know.  We get back to typing on our laptops and pretend we’ve not really exchanged this odd truth because it doesn’t sit well with who i am.  When the pain is manageable – i’m like the chillest, generally happiest person you’ve met that day.

The GP – a dude who I really respect & admire – made me feel like *proper* shit by shaming me like that (again esp when I didn’t bring it up!). I carry the shame around with me all the time. It weighs me down, and the dirty secret of mine.  I don’t need to hear to suck it up from someone who is supposed to at least be pretending to help.  So I was like, what’s even the point, right?  And It’s not the 1st time he’s shamed me. I can’t blame him directly tho. Healthcare is historically built upon shaming women (Especially) .

I’ve been making my medical shames into comics (this 1 isn’t finished yet). Maybe one day, i’ll give them to my GP.

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So what’s this shame gotta do with everything else? Well, this is the thing. I know that shame is the opposite of art.

When you live inside of your shame, everything you see is inadequate and embarrassing. The pain you can’t seem to get rid of.  A lifetime of traveling and having adventures and not being tethered to long-term commitments looks empty and pathetic and foolish, through the lens of shame. You haven’t found a partner. Your face is aging. Your body will only grow weaker. Your mind is less elastic. Your time is running out. Shame turns every emotion into the manifestation of some personality flaw, every casual choice into a giant mistake, every small blunder into a moral failure. Shame means that you’re damned and you’ve accomplished nothing and it’s all downhill from here.

Working in art and academia/research kind of makes it super easy to fall into shame. The way these worlds work – defaultly – can make you feel pretty inadequate at times. I mean, anyone who has received the raft of reviewer #2 will know what I mean.

Shame creates these imaginary worlds inside our heads. This haunted house that I have created is forged from my shame. No one else can see it, I keep trying to describe it to them. I find ways to say, “You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, stupid/boring, and poor. Do yourself a favour and leave me behind.” Sometimes I think it’s because I want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what I’ve become.

I’ve gotten super lucky recently though when it has come to work, somehow. I’ve been blessed with an incredible opportunity to do a commission for Yorkshire Visual Arts Network (YVAN) – on creating a work based on snapshots of working in Yorkshire and Humberside as an artist.   And I decided I’d look at this iffy word Resilience.  It absolutely does my head-in, does that word.  It’s a new buzzword. And it gets banged around in scenarios where people are in really stressful situations: an overstretched NHS, an underfunded school, understaffed university, a over-stretched and increasing demand public sector. The reasons why people are stressed & burnt out & things are taking longer *isn’t* the underfunding – no – people just need to be *more* resilent. Here this is the placing the structural injustices onto individuals – and it turn it shames them too.

The North, traditionally and currently, gets less funding than the south. But – it’s cool because WE ARE RESILIENT.

Over the past few weeks I have been digging down deep across various areas: Sheffield, Doncaster – soon Hull and Withernsea. A bit of Huddersfield. I’ve been taking documentation, talking to people. About labour, about art, about making, about worth/value/time.

But I am left more inspired than I first thought I would be.  Every single conversation has ended up about being and providing some sort of care. I am refreshed. This wasn’t what I was expecting to find. I had chosen these specific people because I knew they were doing something special, and was responding to these structures that build shame around us all. They are responding with a resilence built around care.

Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. But I’m finding people who are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability. These  people are leading us into a new culture. Culture change happens when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us should copy them.

I am excited to share this new body of work (still in the process of being made) with you – but the website will be shared with y’all soon.

All of this has made me see that we all need to discard some of this shame that we’re carrying around all the time. But even if we can’t cast off all our shame that quickly, through the lens of art, shame can become valuable.

When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it, you can see the true texture of the day and the richness of the moment, with all of its flaws. You can run your hands along your own self-defeating edges until you get a splinter, and you can pull the splinter out and stare at it and consider it. When you face your shame with an open heart, you’re on a path to art, on a path to finding joy and misery and fear and hope in the folds of your day.

Instead of thinking what needs fixing? we need to be here instead. We can build a new kind of existence, one that feels small and flawed and honest, but each day we can accumulate a kind of treasure that doesn’t disappear.  A reminder that you are alive. And you’re worthy and valued and seen. Chronic pain, citations, published journal articles, bad reviews and all.

Where wonder reigns and hope exists

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Where wonder reigns and hope exists…

Every day I woke up on the train with a desire to feel the Sun. Instead, the day offered gray sky with hints of a snowstorm. The peaks of mountains were hidden, the distance made blurry by snow blowing hard outside but I felt irresistibly drawn to its other glories: the purity of the wind, the promise of imminent thunder, the morning whisper of birds. Fields of Canadian Goose. I never knew why the Canadian goose was a thing, now I know that there’s 1000s out there. Flying together in frigid weather.

As we made our way through the long curvy rail-roads of the North of Ontario into the Prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the scenery reminded me of Alaska as seen on movies like Into The Wild (spoiler, Alaska is one of the 7 states that I’m missing off my 50 visited states list). Eminent mountains, frozen lakes, endless fields and many sightings of wild animals. Out here, I didn’t take many photos. I was content to simply be in the presence of this majestic landscape, treating those moments with the weightiness and value they deserve.

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In every sight, wonder. In every step, curiosity. In every feeling, awe.

Imagine a scene — you’re standing next to thousands of migrating birds in a snowstorm with endless fields as a backdrop. Swans flutter in the distance like rising snowflakes. You feel part of something big, something that you’ve seen only in National Geographic.

What would you do if you find yourself in a moment like that? It takes time to sink in. We need to listen to what these moments are telling us. Standing in the snowstorm, I experienced nature’s intense power, while at the same time, I am reminded of its sublime beauty.

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It made me think about hope, about what hope is and what it is not.

Over the past few years, chronic illness/pain has grinded  me down just enough to feel on the true brink of hopelessness, a good few times. I never really understood hopelessness, until I was there. Where you’d take being dead for being alive, at any moment, because being alive like that doesn’t even feel like being alive. It’s worse than being alive because you’re suffering.  suffering in ways that are difficult to articulate.  It’s like being stuck in between being alive and dead.  A place of purgatory. But the thing about purgatory is that whilst you feel an emptiness. You don’t realize what a dark place you’re in until you get out and you can see again. Change happens. But it can happen literally overnight. Like it did for me. Even though we’re taught change usually comes over time.

Today the train ran 5.5 hours late. I’m not sure how, but I think it’s something to do with freight trains. This meant that we had a knock on effect on how little time we had in other stops. We had a quick stop with surprise wifi in Edmonton. It was just enough time and wifi to quickly post photos i had accumulated on instagram, and a brief update for Facebook and Twitter so my mom knew I was still alive.

As I write on Facebook, a FB memory appears that stops me in my tracks. It really brings it all back. A few years ago today, I was leaving JFK airport after a YOLO road trip. It was the end of summer after gaining a life-changing diagnosis, which i had spent mostly running away from. I still remember this moment with crystal clear precision, what I was wearing, the smells, the reactions. I can play back most of that summer memories like as if on tape. I left the USA thinking I might not ever make it back. I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t believe it was true.

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But friends banded together across Sandy Island, then the country… and then across the globe! sometimes I was throwing up too much or too weak to talk. But we kept going. Friends donated time, money, connections. Strangers sent mail, hundreds of photos. All in the hope to save my life or at least make me more comfortable and show support.

I told myself that if I ever get through this, that stuff would be different. There was still so much I still needed to see, so much time wasted, so much to do such as i wanna see my friends kids grow-up, and other friends grow in their confidence and careers and homes. I created a bucket list to help.

I wish I could tell you that the 5 years since have been easier. They haven’t. Even just under 3 weeks ago I was in the Emergency Room with suspected clots. Needles, needles, needles, so many needles, fevers, infections, a never-ending-headache, severe mucositis, so-much-pain, anti-nausea drugs that results in weeks of lost memories, teeth issues, corneal damage, a slate of other issues a little too graphic to write about, crazy painful out-of-nowhere leg cramps…

…all bumps along the road. But these past 5+ years have been really good to me (outside of the health stuff).

I do feel more and more slowly ‘normal’ with every year that passes, despite wanting it to come quicker, and gaining newer or older issues along the way, some weeks are really truly crippling bad – but the good out-weights the bad ones now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back to my old self. But maybe that’s just as well?

Because here’s the thing,  as Mark Brown said in his lecture on hope: hope cannot be transferred like a credit card balance. The hope that we feel for someone cannot substitute for the despair and grief and anger and sadness that they feel for themselves. (I learnt this the hard way. ) So, to make hope happen we must first understand what it is and secondly understand why it might be absent. To understand its absence we must understand what depletes it, what stunts it, what pours salt upon its roots and what blights it when and if it ever flowers.”

I never would have ever believed that people would have come together for me in the way that they did in my times of need.

I realise that sometimes we need these long quiet intervals when we can drift ourselves away a little bit from the current. To gain some perspective. To see how far we’ve come, because sometimes when you’re in the dark, it’s hard to see how strong the current has been. Plus it’s always the best feeling in the world is coming back.

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This morning as I sat looking up at the sky in the glass carriage, I saw uncountable stars. The wind in the valley murmurs at the approach of the sun and I find myself fixed on the single small spark of Venus as the stars silently surrender to the light. The first light of day finds my eye and we are connected.

Today, standing here with the mountains, the first light suddenly feels like the. first. light. and I breathe it in with both soul and senses. Here we can remake the world by understanding the world in all its messy, horrific, amazing glory.

A couple of years ago I was on a plane from NYC to the UK because I was dying.

Today I’m on day 3 of 4, on a train crossing the Canadian wilderness, a lil bit worse for wear (i need a shower pretty bad and i’m still harbouring all of my health issues) but I feel more alive than I have in a very long time.

( I Wrote this 3 days ago,I’m now in Seattle, WA – USA!)

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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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Small changes

Time slows when the lights are fluorescent and the days are punctuated by the rounds of the medical staff.

My head of studies for my PhD is a woman who is internationally known for her creative-design- person-centred approaches to dementia care. She’s an Occupational Therapist, with a background in art psychotherapy, and a PhD in using Art & Design methods in enhancing care in care-homes.

So I was super stoked when she asked me to be part of 1 of her many projects (some paid work on top of PhD). She invited me to be part of a project where we will design a Dementia friendly eye clinic. In real life.

Yesterday we had a meeting with some service users (I hate this term); a carer and his wife who has dementia. We spoke about all of their experiences of the eye clinic, from everything from leaving home and parking all the way through to leaving at the end.

There were many flaws in their care, some avoidable, some just a mistake, some just part of the design flaw within the pathway.

What I discovered when we looked back at our notes was that the things we could make better for people with dementia – would actually make these things better for EVERYONE who uses the service. How crazy is that?

I remember a few years ago, I had some crazy neurological stuff going on and it really effected my eye sight – I’d get like flashes of white light in my vision and I lost some of my peripheral vision. I had to see the eye doctor a bunch of times.

It was crazy just how unusual and difficult it was to go through that pathway. Eye drops that sort of itched, and we’d all sit staring at a wall, packed in like a crowded bus down a dim dirty coloured cream corridor. You couldn’t see anything clearly, but there was loads of small text leaflets teasing you to try and read them on the walls.  Your eyes hurt from the light. When it was time for anyone to call you, you’d get up and not be able to see who and where they were calling you from. Then the actual examination of the eye is uncomfortable – you have to lean onto some medical equipment – and being small, my feet didn’t touch the floor, there’s no arms on the chair & you’r completely unsteady – and my neck hurt from stretching it out across a small table to sit my chin in the face of the eye doctor.

It felt undignified, and intimate and vulnerable and stupid all at the same time.

Once they made me sign to consent to something I couldn’t even read because of the eye drops.

And then when it’s all over, you leave – by feeling the walls around you – and trying to remember which way was out. When you finally make it back outside – the light is bright. But in an unfamiliar way – and navigating the world through blurred vision enhances a crazy headache of sorts.

That was my experience as a young-un. Someone who has pretty decent eye sight (or did).

Now imagine that experience for someone who struggles to convey pain, or issues. Who is confused? Who has learning difficulties, short-term memory loss. Who can’t read?! 

I can’t imagine how disorientating and how scary and uneasy it must be.

I’ve been missing my clinical aspect of being a radiotherapist recently.

I think it’s the team work and the patients I miss the most. So I’m really looking forward to being part of a team, working with patients and their families, in a clinical setting again – but this time my main aim will be to come up with & test & prototype cool, person-centered creative & critical solutions — whilst at the same time learning some cool new researcher skills. Mostly how to get something you make, and apply it and embed it into the system. This is a skill I am really missing.

From just 1 meeting, I’ve already paralleled some similarities  of things that could change within radiotherapy and the dementia care pathway — there’s just such a long way to go. But, I’m excited!

We already have 4 areas of focus, and ideas to prototype. It’s too early to share or know if they’re any good or useful. But I can’t wait to share with you guys our future work on this!

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Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, & this in turn, changes us: 3.5 weeks of lessons in PhD-kingdom

It’s only been basically 3.5 weeks of being an enrolled PhD student. And what is it teaching me?

Well, I’m being schooled,  once again.

I keep being met with questions of what I’ve done – and I try to justify my lack of products with: “I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks?”… but people want something more concrete, I guess.

At first people  told me I should be reading, and reading lots! Getting together my bibliography. That’s what I should be doing for the first weeks they said. So my first week, I diligently sat in the library and looked up interesting books and downloaded paper after paper from the library gateway on creative methodologies and healthcarec(& spent a hefty time on twitter). Then the second week rolled around,  really quickly I might just add, & other people started saying that I really should focus on the making art bit because, you know, it is a practice led PhD after all and I don’t want to get to christmas and have nothing to show for it. Too right. So I started making some really terrible pieces of parts of work/thinking process (you know, it always starts off that way, so not too worried at this stage). Then week 3 was met with that I *really* should be focusing pretty much on the REF1. which has to be submitted in literally 6 weeks now. Scary AF.

So I’ve sat and stared at my REF1 form on word for about a week now, feeling the pure weight of re-framing, of patching up the holes of my research proposal, maybe even changing it slightly, of finding out an extensive and integral and good literature list.  Of finding artists to reference and draw from, of figuring out where I sit – art? design? healthcare? sociology? anthropology? (it’s obviously all of those things, but hot damn) —  trying to get my head around my potential methodologies and the pitfalls that they entail, and figuring out how long everything *should* take me to create a plan of sorts, and lets not even talk about my issues of ethics – and my potential plans in place whilst I endure a long ethics procedure — all of this needs to fit into 1000 words. No joke. And I have insane imposter syndrome that it’s not even funny.

My head of studies told me I needed to take a few weeks to just play, to knock down these boundaries I’ve learnt/built up during the past few years. To reflect upon all of the things I’ve experienced, and frame them. To see the tensions that lie within the frameworks of healthcare methodologies and artistic/creative methodologies – how these paradigms work. How they oppress and close discussion or the opposite or even offer more opportunity.  I wrote quite a few reflections, maybe I’ll share some on here in due time.

I applied with a proposal for my first symposium talk in London(combining art and healthcare together – more info soon) and got it, showed folks how to use drawing as a research and reflective tool at the IPE conference at SHU, and I’ve got the radiotherapy annual conference in Jan to present my other design research from earlier this year. All of which I’ve started to pull together over the past 3 weeks too.

I’ve drank a lot of tea, I’ve sat and stared at the walls in my studio. I’ve moved into my city center apartment/flat.

But mostly what all of this has taught me is that when the ground shifts, the next chapter begins. Here’s what I’ve been thinking and learning and trying to tell people when they’re super confused about why I’m using artistic practice-led work to create healthcare change.

Making things can expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human. Finding the vehicles for exploring the edges of your experiences can be really, really scary but it’s a great way of transforming thinking into practice. Change is inevitable, adaptation is optional.

Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, and in turn, changes us.

‘Making’ is a process. In comes from ‘doing’. Doing something. ‘Making’ can bring you face to face with your own agency. ‘Making’ has some of the qualities of an echo. It can travel in space and time and come back to you in the form of a feedback loop.   It helps to make something that you don’t necessarily understand. And even if you think you understand what you are making, the act of making it will change your understanding of it and you will feel yourself get bigger.

I have been exploring my own tracings, teachings, drawings, wanderings and wonderings, feelings, thinkings, questionings and assumptions ever since to better see what can happen when something opens and something else falls… out. And like all ‘critical making,’ it attempts to create a context to make tangible some of the possibilities that can drive passion and engage spirit by striving to go beyond the things we know and towards our own reckoning.

‘Critical making’ can remind us that even when we act alone—as an artist, as a designer, as a healthcare professional, or as a hermit—in isolation, we are part of a larger community.

Seeing is a reflexive process, and like an echo it can find its way back to you. Of course, it all depends upon listening. Everything depends on listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing can tell you which way to go. Listening can tell you who you are.

I’m having to re-learn to be diligent, and teaching myself to be better with my time, and my work. I’m practicing at staying awake and  trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

I said that i was going to take every single opportunity I get as a PhD student. And I’ve attended nearly 75% of everything open to me, talk wise within my free time.

I plan on paying attention to everything. And remembering what Linda Sikora said when I feel crazily over-whelmed with all of the above.

She says that, “It’s more important to keep paying attention and to follow your attention wherever it goes, than it is to think about meaning and content, because meaning and content come from paying attention to the world.”

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learning to lean in

Words are  often a poor substitute for imagery.

One of my Doctors: “So Sarah, why do you want to work in healthcare – even though you’re an artist?”

I spoke about my own experiences & the opportunity artistic practice can offer to enhance care and services – the ability to use a different perspective to make a difference.

He turned to me expressed his heartfelt regrets and said: “Art gives you, like flying, something that other people don’t have.”

It was as if he was saying, what you lack in a functional immune system, you make up for in other unique ways.

And with this, a few days ago I found out that I passed my radiotherapy & oncology BSc Hons degree with a 92.6% First-class degree!!!

I have a fully-funded PhD scholarship offer bringing together 2 of my passions together (art & healthcare) that starts in October, and I leave for the U.S.A in 5 days times for a good couple of months. I genuinely can-not-believe it!!

Not too shabby for the working class kid with no science background or previous healthcare working experience.

I am humbled, and most of all feeling extremely privileged to have shared this crazy journey with you all. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to this day, in all kinds of ways, and for this reason this achievement feels incredibly important and special.

For a long time, I had made who I was by being a work-horse. I could totally juggle 8 things at once. I could totally stay up til 3am in the morning working on hopeful-kick-ass projects/ideas/gigs – and then get up at like 9/10am the next day — no questions about it.  My mind constantly buzzed with all the cool things we could do. I’d sleep with a notebook and jot down cool ideas in the middle of the night. If you needed something doing – I was the person! But Nothing prepares you for the day when you can’t do what you do any more.

I didn’t feel like myself. I felt broken. I loathed who I had become.

There I was, hopeless – barely there. Not feeling alive.

I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t believe it was happening to me.

I’ve spent the last couple of years searching for the Old (younger) Smizz. I’ve looked for her all over  —But there’s no going back to my old life.

I am broken. There’s no protocols or discharge instructions to guide people back to their lives.

But I am alive.

I do think about that a lot.

 

This degree course allowed me to gain some control, it gave me some much needed (if not too much) structure and helped me to try & hopefully make a difference. After all, what is the point of saving a life if the life isn’t a meaningful one?

And the friends I’ve met whilst doing it – all with their own personal stories – have helped to inspire, and alongside all my other friends, they’ve helped me to carve this new path for myself.

It highlights the fact that I’ve never actually accomplished a single meaningful thing by myself, and this is included.

The past few years has taught me that reading the fine print of your mortality is a great sifter of rubbish.

In the chase for the extraordinary we can sometimes forget to embrace the ordinary moments. It’s about embracing our vulnerabilities and learning to ask for help. We also need to invest in others without expecting returns – because that’s real love.

And it’s about realizing that your time is valuable — what you do with it, how you spend it and with whom.

 

It’s picking yourself up when life knocks you down and finding beauty in your bruises. But this might take years and years to do, it’s not an overnight fix. We are all damaged & broken & traumatized & mistake making in some way or another. But it doesn’t define who we are. So don’t be so hard on yourself. And Don’t be so hard on others.

3 years ago, I literally couldn’t get out of bed. Today marks a HUGE milestone for me. I got out of bed each placement morning (1000’s of hours of free labour) (i wasn’t happy about it lol), I ground myself down, I gritted my teeth and pushed through most of the fatigue & pain, and some how completed 3 years clinical education. Super early mornings, physical lifting, lots of moving, emotional distress, stress, deadline after deadline, many naps where ever I could find them, doritos and a 2 year long headache. And somehow I got here.

Whilst I still live in deep pain, and still haven’t learnt my fatigue limits, and I’ve lost feeling all on my left side, and a headache that often leaves me crippled to the floor. I’m proud of how far I’ve come. Recovery is hard. I don’t think we give enough people credit for that part.

I Never, genuinely – hand on heart –  would have believed any of this would have been possible.

So thank you to YOU ALL.  My mom, my bro, my nan, my amazing friends – old & new, stafff, lecturers, my twitter fam, my internet friends. Anyone and everyone.
Without your advise, support, jokes, cleaning, food, tears, stories, knowledge and just being there and accepting I take 7-10 business days to return a text/email – I’m not so sure this would be the blog update it is today.

I plan on using all of my time allocated.

And I can’t believe I’m here.

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

 

Post Traumatic Growth – Trying to Make Sense of Things

One thing that my friends know about me, is that I constantly think about our existence.

As a kid, during computer club after-school – after printing out a million pictures of Lil’ Bow Wow to add to my collage shrine to the pint-sized rapper – I then pretended to be a 16/17 year old on a Philosophy Forum (I was about 13/14). I didn’t grow up with books, no one in my family is interested in the human condition – in fact I grew up with the plight of survival – the art of just getting by. On whatever that was. Ketchup sandwiches for lunch because that’s all we had in the house, and the rent was due – and in massive arreas. But I constantly thought that there must be more. I would devoure and try to understand these philosophical ideas on time, and fate, and existence. Ultimately – being.

By the time I got to university, by myself, by my own hardwork – and my own investment and time – with some guidance from a few teachers that believed in me at school – I started to think that the shit that I had endured years of my life – was part of a destined path. An experience I had to learn from. It taught me about social justice, the differences between in having very, very little and having a decent amount, it made me know that society is unfairly distributed – the marxist in me. I thought that it was practice – to give me a sense of what it’s like – and that I had got to where I was (uni) so I had some tools, a way to help make a difference, using this experience in hand. I had – and still continue to do so – imposter syndrome though. I thought I’d drop out, that I wouldn’t be smart enough, ect, ect. But the complete opposite happened and I always quote my best friends at uni as the reason why I fell head over heels in love with art, with learning, with working even harder than I ever had before on this passion of mine.

I’d think of all the factors that lead me to meeting them, and decided it was fate. That I had acted in a specific way, met all these people- specifically for a reason. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have had a specific experience, they wouldn’t have helped me, ect. That it was kind of written in the stars.

Now, maybe it is – probably it isn’t. The logical person in me says – no way. It’s just coincidence and it would be the same outcomes irrespectively because I’m a pretty decent judge of character.  The person – which is by far a bigger part of me – knows that psychological this is some sort of coping mechanism. And that actually, every person brings something different to any and every situtation. And I know a kid from my background has actually jumped a bunch of odds, and so I believe it’s some sort of fate thing. But i know I haven’t got here alone.

When I fell sick. I couldn’t get out of bed. I think back to when I was around 24 – and I actually can’t remember that year very well at all because I spent so little of it conscious. I couldn’t reply to emails – I’d go to sleep at 6-7pm, and not get up until 1-2PM and I’d force myself to get up – I’d attempt some drawing commission work for 3 hours or so. Waiting for 5-6pm to come back around as a decent time to get showered and go back to bed and replay this whole cycle. Over and over. Every minute awake felt like I was being crushed, I’d have day-chills, nose-bleeds, nightsweats, and the worst pain.

I felt like I was going to die. I was angry, upset, in pain, why me? I had lost who I had spent so many years building. Smizz the kid who’d reply an email in an instant, who could juggle a bazillion things at once, who kept down and writing and who couldn’t understand why others couldn’t be as committed to making the change. I lost that. I had lost my identity. But it didn’t matter anyways – because was it even important? Crisis, or what.

But through my health experience, I naturally did what I had done throughout my life. There was some sort of reason why this had happened to me, surely. Just another lesson. I still feel shit, and I have a bunch of stuff that constantly keeps happening to me.  I knew this awful experience – throughout the healthcare system – meant that I could change it – even if it was just being there to listen to patients. My shitty health changed me.

Occasionally I feel stronger than I did before,  more spontaneous and open to new experiences and even quicker to laugh. I might still sweat the unimportant stuff – like ePortfolio, an exam, but I know deep down it’s kind of meaningless in the greater scheme of things.  Not that I haven’t struggled. I still have to deal with disorienting symptoms daily, and there are still days when I’m stopped in my tracks by grief. I still mourne the loss of the old Smizz. I constantly see my GP – like every few months, a plead with him that there’s got to be a way to stop feeling this fatigue, to stop feeling the pain.  Even so, I try and use all these experiences as a springboard.

I made the RADCARE radiotherapy Patient information app – which won an award. I won the Health & Wellbeing Student Award for Leadership, I’m quite proud that my patients seem to give really nice feedback about me to my mentors on clinical placement, I’ve drawn loads of stuff to help change patient experience, patient involvement, to engage people across the spectrum – from enhancing Prostate cancer care, to Dying Matters and the End Of Life Care Pathway, and now I’m going to Toronto – and Harvard over the next 2 months to learn more and bring back these experiences to see if I can begin to invigorate the pathways for better supportive care.

People always think jumping from art to healthcare is a jump. And perhaps it is. But I don’t really see it as that. In my many hours spent trawling through the internet looking for explanations, looking for things that can help with my pain/fatigue. I found that there’s a name for how I’ve built myself.  post-traumatic growth (PTG), a term coined by Richard Tedeschi, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Dozens of studies have shown that trauma survivors can change in profound ways. And it goes well beyond resilience, or bouncing back from adversity. “With post-traumatic growth, a person who has faced difficult challenges doesn’t just return to baseline, which is what happens with resilience,” explains Tedeschi. “They change in fundamental, sometimes dramatic, ways.”

Whilst I still mourn my old life, how I could stay up later and was pain free -and ultimately more care-free. I’m not super sure I would change it on reflection. I feel wiser, I feel more emphatic, I know what’s important – my family & friends, I’m less of dick now, I feel even more motivated to get out there to help others, I’ve built the most unlikely friendships – even with my doctors – and working in healthcare has opened up way more opportunities for my artistic practice than I ever hoped to believe. I never knew that actually now is the time to be a healthcare worker artist!

now I’m not saying every bad thing has to have a happy ending, acceptance nor do you have to oozze rainbows and sickening positivity – sometimes I think that can be counterproductive too. I think it’s finding meaning on your own terms to give you some ownership to the shitty things that happen that are ultimately usually out of our control.

When I won the award for my app – I felt a huge massive amount of pride. Something I’ve not felt in a really long time. And I think it’s because I designed it – with my experience in hand – with my patients stories in the other – with my passion for making things and wanting to help people. I wouldn’t be here right now if I never fell sick and my life changed in a way I didn’t want it to. I can still barely see where I am going, I’m still amazed I’m still on my course, that I’m still alive. I think I felt the pride because i realized that to get here I’ve had to trust myself, to learn from my bodies failure. To know that I have the bestest friends and family behind me 100% of the way in whatever I do. Because, like I said, without them anyways – i wouldn’t be here now – regardless.

What being an artist, trying to learn how to code & feeling like I’m dying has taught me.

It’s kind of exciting not really fitting into pigeon holes. They say I’m a Smizz of all trades, master of none. I’m currently designing and coding an app in my (limited) spare time, which I hope will help to aid patients in having a better patient-centered-care experience. The app hopes to include all the information for their treatment, and later on become interactive- enabling the patient to get the support they really need (financial, emotional, physical, ect) by using a series of questions over a period of time, and documenting how they’re coping/feeling/side-effects, ect. It’s exciting stuff. But learning coding for this is a steep learning curve.

As an intermediate dabbler in website designing and coding, and now embarking on objective-C and swift codes I am no stranger to being able to take a problem and see the inevitable solutions, but also I’m pretty skilled now in being able to hypotheize the potential for disaster – what problems could I run into using a certain code with another, or ethically, or in language, ect. We use this kind of thinking in Healthcare too. It’s figuring out what our best practice is by eliminating all the problems for optimal experience and outcomes. In art, we use these problems too, to breakdown into manageable truths. As a Marxist, I’ve naturally developed a somewhat cynical ability to breakdown systems really easily into oppressive segregations & loopholes  & weaknesses.

But thinking like this naturally, or often, comes with its consequences. Your every day problems become disastrous in your mind. I catch myself getting caught up in this mind-set – Unanswered phone calls become bad-news,  someone being late becomes a car accident, late arrivals due to delayed trains and buses become missed opportunities. Being poorly and not doing as much as I used to became career stagnation.  The omnipresent of ‘but-what-ifs’ continue to grow.

However, now I try and use this unconscious worst-case-scenario as a way to panic myself into action. Rewards come from risk, and a life without risk is a life that’s probably pretty boring.

When I arrived in the land of the ill – i wasn’t sure i was going to survive. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. I made a list of all the things I’d do if I ever recovered. If I got a second chance. I mean, yeah, i had led a pretty interesting life up to that moment, but I had made sacrifices in the present for a future which I had no idea I’d ever get, as we all do. As a patient, I often felt misunderstood. I was demeaned within the healthcare system 1 or 2 times. I felt ashamed for being poorly. (As well as being shown amazing compassion).  I could see levels of the system that I knew I could instantly change if I was in the system (such as just simplying listening to the patient, making them feel heard). I also ferociously  read everything i could on cancer, & healthcare and compassion. The experience made me want to be the change I so desperately wanted to see as a Patient. I thought, mane, this system needs some more creative/different thinkers! I have this habit of trying to game systems. So when I started to get back onto my feet a little bit, or learning to live with what was happening, I began to realize some of those things on my list. After talking to a lot of people, I realized the potential possibilities so I applied & started my healthcare adventure.

Being told that it looks like you have a malignancy forces you to realize that life can end literally any time. And this quickly changes what you deem worthy of your attention. I was furious at myself for not being as present with friends and family as I should have been. All the nights-out I missed at university, all the times I wasn’t empathetic to my housemate for his anxiety with post-graduation life. I was absolutely Furious! These were things I hadn’t even calculated in my head until I got ill.

The junction between mortality and mundanity is an exquisite source of perspective.  I often sit on the bus, watch a sunset and I think about how these boundaries between are treacherous and illusory.  It’s hard to gain this kind of perspective, and it’s equally hard not to lose it, not to start slipping back into old habits. Partially for that reason, I enrolled onto my radiation oncology course. I love art, and it makes me happy and fulfils my soul.  But I do miss the way people think in art, and the discussions and dialogues when I’m working in healthcare. I miss the playfulness of the every day I had when I was a fulltime artist – but I believe there’s somewhere in between for both areas.

Art makes me the person who doesn’t trust everything I am taught in the healthcare system. Art is the reason why I can understand and empathize with a persons story, with the person and not just the disease that we’re treating. Healthcare makes me appreciate the edges of life, the possibilities, the beauty & tragedy in it. Designing something brings these 2 worlds together for me.

But coding has taught me about action. This is extremely important right now. We are standing in the middle of time, where great injustices go untouched. Architects of the financial melt down continue to swoon with the governments. & yet our laws and governments continue to value capitalism over humanity. Under-funding the NHS, profiting from education, trying to put laws into place to criminalize our movements when we try and mobilise against things that are wrong, cutting funding for those who are in great need of it, where we give up our freedoms, and allow ourselves to be spied on by the NSA, ect all under the guise of protection.

Change doesn’t roll in on inevitability, it comes with continuous struggle.

So, just as I promised my bleeding, puking, bruised former-self, I plan on raging against the bullshit, and make things that can help others, and keep the door open with kindess & listen. I will wander for a while: call this just 1 of many future sabbaticals.  Life isn’t linear. Neither is coding, making, changing.  In the end, I think my job over-all isn’t healthcare student, nor artist – but to remind myself every day that my time is limited. And so is yours.

As Aaron Swarts used to say, “What is the most important thing you could be working on right now? And if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?”

 

Here’s somethings I’ve been working on:

http://livemappingsmizz.tumblr.com/

http://f-o-r-c-e.org.uk/

http://gravity21.org/