Life is a Journey not a Destination…

Upon pausing for a moment and looking back at what inspired me into entering into my profession I realise it was a journey which started long before I was even conscious of it. It was a journey which, over many years and after experiences of volunteering in different countries got me asking questions about life. Starting at the age of 19, I was given the opportunity to volunteer with the charity named “Youths for Palermo” which changed my life.

For one month each summer, for seven consecutive years, together with the Missionaries of Charity (sisters of Mother Teresa), we set up a summer school for around 150 street children, living in the deprived inner city area of La Kalsa, Palermo. I thought I was going to give something, and felt all proud about it, but it was the beginning of what has now formed my future.

Whilst trying to build a trusting relationship with these children, we listened to how much abuse they had gone through and my young brain started asking questions. There I met an inspirational clinical psychologist volunteering with the Sisters who put all my questioning and thought into perspective.

He introduced me to the concepts of focusing on positive rewards only and not attending to the negative behaviour these children displayed. These concepts, though alien and confusing to me at the time, worked like a charm to help modify the behaviour of these children who had very little role modelling from their parents.

The Sisters never really said much verbally but said volumes through their actions.  One year, one of them introduced me to the words “you did it for me”. It took me more than four years to conceptualise the meaning of this somewhat enigmatic phrase, but these words now form the basis of my everyday actions.  Whether I manage to do so every day is another story, but it is there lingering in the background, constantly

In the meantime I also started my series of journeys to India. I landed in Bombay airport at the age of 21 years; it was the day I opened my eyes to life. On reflection those 5 visits to India, specifically to Calcutta, changed the trajectory of my life in a way which cannot be explained rationally. There I witnessed almost everything one can experience in life from a mother giving birth to a child in the street, to a man actually committing suicide by jumping in front of the moving underground train. All this in the presence of millions of people: walking, selling their wares, eating, praying, washing themselves, seeing to their personal needs, set in a background of intoxicating soot that chokes and stains this polluted city.

As a third year medical student I volunteered in a place called ‘Kalighat’, also known as the ‘House For The Destitute And Dying’.  But its name is a far cry from what the name given to this place is and also to the chaos on the streets outside. Stepping off the overpopulated road into this place, one is struck by a sudden transformation of inner peace. In Mother Teresa’s words: She said: “Why do people come to India and many visit ‘the house of the dying’?  Because many of them are completely lost.  Travel is one way of showing their hunger. They are really hungry for God”.

And really I think only Mother Teresa can explain this place best, she said: “Nobody in the home for the dying Kalighat has died depressed, in despair, unwanted, unfed or unloved. That is why I think this is the treasure house of Calcutta. Every morning I would turn up looking and feeling proud as I walked from bed to bed handing out medicines, doing what I believed was best: ‘saving peoples’ lives’. Yet these people seemed a lot happier when I sat beside them, gave them attention, learnt their name and listened to them. I kept thinking ‘why are people hungry to be listened to and less interested in these life-saving medicines I am happily giving out?’

In 2003 I graduated as a doctor, and once again I walked head held high following the troop of professionals during the ward round. Over time I realised something: a number of people were being admitted to hospital said to be suffering from for example: chest pain, questionable heart problems, when in fact ‘all’ tests were resulting ‘normal’.  I remember one man in particular who was getting admitted every month for chest pain, but was so fit he would walk up the 4 flights of stairs to book his own angiogram, which resulted as ‘normal’ every visit.

But was everything ‘normal’ in these persons lives? I started to realise that there were enough doctors picking up and treating physical health but not enough treating mental health. I also learnt that good mental health is as important as good physical health. The pieces of the puzzle all started to come together and I applied for a job in psychiatry.

This journey led me to Newcastle, UK, where in 2008 I started my specialisation in Child and Adolescence psychiatry. Here I witnessed another Calcutta; ‘hard to reach’ young people with multiple complex mental health disorders. Together with others I set up a service for these young people whose life is chaotic in so many ways that they are not registered  with any family doctor or refuse to have contact with any mental health service for any reason.

Mother Teresa’s words would re-appear like a recurring dream:  “the greatest poverty in the world is not the want of food but the want of love… a person who is shut out, who feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person who has been thrown out of society – that spiritual poverty is much harder to overcome.”   I got to learn that people with mental health suffer a lot in today’s society- they are almost seen as on a lesser human level to the everyday person – others even question their humanity…

To be honest this has not been a completely altruistic journey because as it is correctly said in St Francis of Assisi’s prayer “it is in giving that we receive”. So you may ask what keeps me going?  What is the main motivating factor behind all this? The answer takes me back to those words mentioned earlier on:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Mt 25,31-46

One final reflection is that this journey holds nothing hard to replicate, it stems from the simple belief that “everyone has something good, some hide it, others neglect it, but it is there”.

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