A Clinical Lesson – Part II

One year of my nursing journey has somehow already passed, and unsurprisingly, the last three weeks have been the most significant thus far. My first clinical placement experience was an important milestone – I needed to test my strengths and weaknesses and bring all of the knowledge taken in throughout the year into the real world. Just how real is where the experience became a critical one.

There were many moments over the three weeks that will remain in my mind as I reflect on my interactions, but three moments in particular had what I feel will be a lasting impact. As in all accounts of a medical and personal nature, no real names are used in these stories that follow.

PART II

The second week of placement had a new challenge – feeding residents with varying levels of care requirements. This offered many insights, one of which was a gentle reminder to not take the simple things in life for granted.

There were three residents that I had to assist with their meals and each one presented a very different set of challenges. The first, a gentleman who had speech issues and also struggled to lift a spoon to his mouth, took me a couple of feeds to learn his quirks. One thing I kept reminding myself of was that this was a person deserving of the exact same treatment that any of us would expect – just because he had issues feeding himself did not render him useless or not worthy of my time or respect.

He was hard to read – at times, he would reply to my questions of what he wanted to eat next with a nod or a little smile, at other times he would just stare off into the distance. I didn’t just want to assume that he would eat whatever I put to his mouth. He really seemed to enjoy his beans and carrots, but his breakfast, not so much. Breakfast never really looked that appealing, so I could understand his lack of excitement for it. He would raise his empty fingers to his mouth, as if he thought he was feeding himself, so sometimes, I’d let him pick up his food with his fingers and eat that way. Sometimes though, I’d just raise the fork to his mouth and he would eat without hesitation.

After a few feeds, I was feeling more comfortable with him. So I was shocked when one of the carers (a loose term to use for this particular person) decided to walk up and take the spoon from me and force it to his mouth. “You have to feed him! You have to tell him what he wants. He doesn’t know”. I was so taken aback at their utter lack of care for this man that I didn’t know what to say. It seemed that my way of feeding was working just fine, but this was clearly a very bad habit of this carer. I did notice this person also doing some other things that did not please me, and I know they are under time pressure to get tasks done, but when you lose sight of the fact that each person under your care deserves respect and dignity, it’s time you find another job. Sadly, I did see and hear of other events that trouble me in relation to a lack of care from some staff – one morning while walking past a resident’s room, I saw a carer eating the resident’s toast. When they noticed that I had seen this, they offered an excuse: “she wasn’t going to eat it anyway”. I didn’t think it was my place as a student to say anything, so I just gave a disapproving look and kept walking.

The next resident I was assigned to feed was a dementia sufferer, and this presented much different challenges. She was so sweet, yet so frail. She would regularly fall asleep at the table, either before or during the meal. I’d ask which food she wanted and she would reply that she didn’t know. Everything appeared to be so tiring for her, even just trying to answer a question. Within the space of a few seconds, she would say she didn’t like chicken, but then proceed to eat it the very next time I asked. The only constant for her was ice cream – there was never any confusion about whether she liked ice cream! She would gaze at me with her troubled eyes and sometimes attempt a smile, but at other times, I could sense she was so confused about everything that was happening, and it was quite confronting to see.

Dementia is a cruel way to spend your final years – just imagine not knowing if you like a particular food or not, or what it is you’re actually sitting at the table for. It was heartbreaking. We all did our best to make her smile and took our time with her. She even said to me one day, “Hello RMIT”. She could see the logo on my uniform and obviously thought it was my name, and I just smiled and said hello back to her. I understand that she doesn’t know that she’s forgotten some of the basics, but it was still hard to accept that this is the way some people live out their lives. Seeing her sing along at the various events the facility put on made me smile, she was good with the lyrics to plenty of the classics, but it was the simple task of eating that seemed to provide her the most troubling test.

To finish this thought on a positive note (it wasn’t all doom and gloom after all), it just needs to be said: do not, I repeat, do not underestimate how seriously residents take their bingo! I learned very quickly as I was calling out the numbers one day just how serious it is (to the point where one resident was cheating, and one of the other residents discovered this and made quite the scene about it!). One of them even “shooshed” me a couple of times as I was trying to have some fun with it. And if you don’t shuffle the numbers properly after every game, you’ll definitely hear about it too! Also make sure you know what to say with each number, such as “legs eleven” or “two little ducks” for 22 (followed by a “quack quack!”) – thanks to Google for helping out with that part. The daily activity time really was wonderful to see and the staff involved should be congratulated for their efforts to put smiles on the residents’ faces each and every day.

Part III to follow.

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A Clinical Lesson – Part I

One year of my nursing journey has somehow already passed, and unsurprisingly, the last three weeks have been the most significant thus far. My first clinical placement experience was an important milestone – I needed to test my strengths and weaknesses and bring all of the knowledge taken in throughout the year into the real world. Just how real it was is where the experience became a critical one.

There were many moments over the three weeks that will remain in my mind as I reflect on my interactions, but three moments in particular had what I feel will be a lasting impact. As in all accounts of a medical and personal nature, no real names are used in these stories that follow.

PART I

In the days leading up to the start of my clinical placement, I was thinking about the challenges that lay ahead. One challenge that I knew I would be tested on was my ability to separate the emotional attachment from the task of caring for a person in need. Little did I know that this test would present itself in the very first week.

We were each assigned one resident to assist, and it would be a “simple” resident for now – one that did not require a high level of care with their daily activities (or ADLs, Activities of Daily Living, as we like to call it). I was assigned a friendly but reserved gentleman, who just one month on from his 94th birthday, had found himself admitted into residential care due to a complication with his eye sight after suffering a three-month pneumonia battle. He was otherwise mobile and independent, even though he used a walking aide. I only needed to assist with the trickier parts of a shower, and keeping an eye on a sore he had on one of his toes. Otherwise, I found my main assistance to him was just being there for a chat and we had a rapport right from the start. He was still processing the fact that he was now a resident in a care facility, something that was both unexpected and a little uncomfortable for him. It was the little things that were making a big difference to his transition, such as the lack of honey that was available at breakfast time for his toast (and of course, I set about trying to stash some honey away for him once I learned this).

After the second day, he said we made a good team, and that gave me a sense of satisfaction I’ve rarely felt in any work I’ve ever done. I was genuinely enjoying our chats – learning about his history as a merchant shipper, and the many fascinating places he had sailed to. I learned about his wife, who had passed two years earlier, and of the way he would spend his time down at the local stores with his neighbours. He told me of his three daughters and how proud he was of them. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them and I could see why he was a proud father.

Then, on the Friday, I knocked on his door as I always did and entered his room. I saw him sitting on his bed, quietly staring out the window, with all of his belongings packed beside him. This startled me, and it was almost like he read my reaction, as he started to tell me what was happening before I even had a chance to ask. He was being transferred to another facility, as this was only supposed to be for respite care. He wasn’t sure when he was leaving, but I said I would be there to say a proper goodbye. I thanked him for the opportunity to assist him and I told him how much I enjoyed our very brief time together learning about his story. I had some other tasks to attend to and then went back to his room about an hour later.

Clinical 1

The room was empty. My heart sank. My throat felt heavy. He was gone and I wasn’t there like I said I would be. I instantly felt like I had let him down and I was so disappointed in myself.

I went back to our meeting room that we used to debrief and told my educator and fellow placement buddies what had just happened. My educator had a look on her face, almost like she knew this was coming. I had mentioned to her at the start of placement that I thought I might struggle with the emotional side of things and here we were – on day five, already facing this test. But they rallied around me (something that I hope will continue to happen throughout my nursing journey) and reminded me of the reality of the situation – yes, I said I would be there to say goodbye, but this isn’t always possible. I was there when he needed me throughout the week, and then he needed to move to his next phase. I suggested that I would go visit him in his new facility, to say a proper goodbye, but my educator stepped up again: “Are you doing this for him, or are you doing this for you?” It was a powerful question, one that instantly highlighted to me that I had become too emotionally attached to the first resident I interacted with and proved this would be a real challenge for me to work on. People in need will come and go and I won’t always be there to say goodbye – things will rarely be that perfect or organised. There is a fine line between being the empathetic, caring nurse and the nurse that doesn’t protect themselves emotionally. I was already too close to this line and I had to back away.

Parts II and III to follow.

An unequal, still

Those that know me well, know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I find it difficult to hide my emotions, whether it is a good feeling or otherwise. This can be both a blessing and a curse.

Sleep is evading me tonight. My mind is far too active, even though my eyes are feeling as heavy as my heart. I can rarely pinpoint the cause of this, and trying to resolve that query only serves to extend the sleeplessness. Thoughts of the previous day are at the forefront, but so too are those moments from other days where unresolved matters play out in many different scenarios. It seems wearing your heart on your sleeve also means an over-active mind at the most unpredictable of times.

But, one event from yesterday is clearly troubling me. Yet another opportunity presented itself for Australia to join the many other developed nations of the world in treating a minority with respect and dignity. Once again, a fearful and ignorant few stood in the way of any progress.

Fairness, equality and compassion stand at the very centre of my being, and the continued toxic nature of the marriage equality debacle is taking a toll. I have previously written of the shockingly disproportionate mental health statistics of the LGBTIQ community, yet is it at all surprising when we continue to be told that we are not equal? Why is our love subject to an often hateful discourse, when heterosexual couples can merely go about their daily lives unquestioned, both in marriage and divorce? What impact does our love even have on anyone else’s? The world hasn’t imploded in any of the countries that have moved to protect the rights of all of its citizens, as opposed to just those that meet a religious criteria.

Some of these aforementioned statistics bear repeating:

  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers
  • Up to 50% of trans people have actually attempted suicide at least once in their lives
  • LGBTIQ people have the highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia – 20% of trans Australians and 15.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation (thoughts)
  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems
  • The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’

Source: Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney, p 5.

Are we so short-sighted now that we can’t see the impact that this toxic discourse is having on the LGBTIQ community? Particularly those that are younger and still trying to figure out how to make their way through an already difficult time. The last thing any of us need is yet more ill-informed people preaching on a topic they know nothing about. How powerful a statement would it be to those who are currently unequal in the eyes of the government, to finally be treated as equal?

Humans are social creatures. Most of us crave love – some of us spend an awful lot of time thinking about love, both in its positive and not-so-positive forms. Marriage is one way that we express our love for another, and when a segment of the population continually get excluded from this, for no good reason other than tradition or religion, it really is no surprise that mental health issues swing wildly towards the LGBTIQ community. I am sick of having to justify my right to equality and I am sick of having to listen to hate and ignorance as an excuse for it. How dare some people think they have a right to vote on who I can choose to spend the rest of my life with! Did I get a vote on their choice?! The world needs so much more love, and yet, too many people are focussed on anything but love.

As tends to happen with these kind of things, important facts are ignored when they don’t suit the argument. When the Marriage Act was changed in 2004 by the then Prime Minister (to the current day definition of marriage being between a man and a woman only), it was simply done by an act of parliament – no plebiscite, no vicious hate campaigns, no fuss. It just happened. Apparently the same course of action to change it back simply cannot be done the same way, for the opponents are crying foul play, and that only a public vote should decide this – not an act of parliament. Trying to have it both ways without reference to facts that are inconvenient to their flaky argument.

In the meantime, I’ll just prepare myself for another round of bemusing (and probably hateful) commentary around why I’m not worthy of equality. I started wearing the “Live Proud” rainbow band on my wrist many years ago as a reminder to myself that I am equal, and I promised myself that I would wear it every day until I am an equal under the law. It appears we still have a very long way to go…

Live Proud band pic

 

In the Wrong Place

As I grow older, one thing is becoming more clear – I need to travel. The benefits of travel are too numerous to mention, but the happiness I feel while abroad is unmatched in my current home life. That might sound really obvious – something that isn’t routine is more enjoyable than something that is. But there’s more to it than that.

Travel has allowed me to grow as a person. I’ve had to fend for myself in unfamiliar situations, sometimes in foreign languages. I’ve met wonderful people by chance and had very memorable experiences listening to their stories. There’s been the odd scare or two as well, but that is part of the journey and it’s also something that my own city provides every now and then too.

There is one thing that my recent travel has shown me though – that I am in the wrong place. There has been an uneasy feeling over me for some years and my time in Canada has highlighted this further. I don’t feel I belong in Melbourne anymore, and if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve probably been feeling this for at least the last six years. Not previously having the courage to act on it meant that I festered away and went through the motions. Something inside me is not allowing this to happen anymore, and so I went exploring.

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Toronto Pride, June 2017

Canada has always been a country of interest for me. I was offered an exchange when I was 20 to do one semester of university at McGill in Montréal. I didn’t take it, as I didn’t want to leave my Mum here on her own (she was going through some rough times, and my brother was also away travelling). Oh how I would do things differently now! Maybe it’s missed moments like these that fuel my desires to explore and not think of the reasons why I can’t do something. It’s more about why would I not do it?

So it comes as no surprise to me that my last two trips to Canada (luckily for me, these two trips have been in the last eight months) have had a profound effect. My time there has been overwhelmingly positive – stunning landscapes and cities, genuinely friendly people, a relaxed but proud attitude, a strong belief in diversity and acceptance – these are among the reasons that I feel I am in the wrong place.

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Credit: Zack Singer. Stunning sunset at Wreck Beach, Vancouver, BC, Canada. July 2017

It’s also why it was so difficult to leave Canada on both of these occasions. As my first time in Canada was ending, I cried uncontrollably as I approached the airport. I tried to wipe away my tears before they were visible, but the sadness washing over me could not be contained. I was genuinely upset that I had to leave and make the long trek back “home”. I did not know when I would be able to return, and the prospect of returning to my lonely existence back in Melbourne was something I was not ready for. There were other issues at play at this time, only serving to compound my sadness about having to leave. These inevitably made the transition back to routine a very difficult one – in fact, the few months after returning to Melbourne have been the most challenging of my life thus far. I was lost and feeling hopeless about all of the major aspects of my life, so it should not come as a surprise that I found myself at the dreaded door of depression and anxiety. I would not wish these few months of my life on anyone – there are few feelings worse than feeling like there is no hope. Every day. Every night. It all becomes too hard and it is so much better to hide away, rather than risk someone you know or love seeing you like this. Then the worst part happens – all this alone time compounds all of the negativity. The voices in your head take over every moment, always reminding you of the failures and never letting up. Sleep becomes more difficult each night – the mind does not rest, forcing the body into this same restlessness. A tired mind only conjures further negative thought, adding more turbulence to an already bumpy ride. All of this makes it even more difficult to see a way out. To ask for help, or to feel comfortable enough to open up to someone seems far too risky. What will they think? Will they laugh at me and tell me to suck it up? Will they not even care? Will they use this information to their advantage somehow? All irrational thoughts find their way to become rational when your mind is so clouded by overwhelming hopelessness.

I got lucky. A few friends noticed my changed demeanour and offered their support. I cannot underestimate the importance of being present for someone suffering through their own mental demons. For me, being able to talk about it without fear of ridicule made an enormous difference. I also sought professional help – something not everyone is either able to do, or feel comfortable to do. But I knew I needed help to get through this. It had become too big for me to handle on my own. Each time I would start to rise back up, the slightest setback would send me straight back to bed. There were days when I just could not face the prospect of getting up. I knew I was bad company, so what was the point in going outside and participating in the world around me? Spontaneous bursts of tears further added to the risk of going outside – what if I just started bawling at the supermarket checkout? I could not risk it, so I stayed indoors most days.

Then, I got lucky again. The opportunity to study in a field that I’ve long admired presented itself and after speaking with some friends, I took this opportunity. I had something to be hopeful for, something to show me that I had a purpose. All did not feel lost now. It may have been a distraction to everything else, but it felt like things were changing. I wasn’t feeling sad all the time anymore. There were still ups and downs, but the ups seemed to be outweighing the downs now. Having a sense of purpose again was a fundamental shift in attitude and it was helping me recover.

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Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) – 375 years old this year. Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 2017

 

The opportunity to travel back to Canada appeared and I seized it. It would be my reward of sorts for making it through my first challenging semester of nursing. And what a reward it was – my second visit to this beautiful country could not have been a more positive experience. Each city I visited had compelling reasons for me to stay, helped by the fact that I now have friends in these cities. But this has also led to the inevitable fall that I am currently feeling. I have been back “home” for three days and I am feeling more alone than ever. I was again very sad to leave Canada (no uncontrollable tears this time, but I got close while sitting at the airport) – partly because I am unsure when I will be able to go back for another visit, but more so, because I feel like I need to be there. I felt so happy, comfortable and so welcome in Canada, and I do not feel that here in Melbourne. It’s hard to explain the exact reasons, but it feels like I’m in the wrong place. And that is a strange feeling, especially when the prospect of being able to leave is years away. I am too old to move on a working holiday visa, and studying abroad is too cost-prohibitive, so my only option appears to be completing my studies in Melbourne and relocating with my new qualification. That is a three-year prospect. I don’t want to wish time away, but three years seems a long time to live somewhere when you don’t feel you belong. I know I need to find a way to make this work, but those voices of hopelessness are starting to nudge their way back in.

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The Inukshak at another golden sunset, Vancouver, July 2017

I write this both as a coping mechanism and as a call out – life is feeling complicated and challenging again and I need to find a way to rise above it. For three years. If any of this is resonating with you, I hope these words can give you the strength to speak up, but more importantly, know that you are not alone. You might feel alone, like I do at times, but there are many others fighting these same battles. Some have been fighting them for a very long time, others are relatively new to the fight, but the more we talk about these issues, the more we can support each other through them. We are social beings and we are so much stronger when we are together. We are also better when we know we are valued, when we are seen, when we are heard. When we are relevant. When we are loved.

Change The Date

Ignorance in the name of national pride is still ignorance. And it’s ugly. Much in the same way that discrimination in the name of a religion makes no sense, using national pride as an excuse for celebrating Australia Day on January 26 makes no sense. A look into some history (of which every Australian should be aware, but it’s just not spoken of enough) of this issue should show you why:

Interestingly (and something I only recently learned), “the First Fleet, the group of ships which left England to create a penal colony abroad, actually arrived in Botany Bay somewhere between the 18th and 20th of January 1788. However, settlers decided to relocate on the 25th of January in the hopes of finding a more suitable area to construct their colony. They travelled to Sydney Cove and the next morning, on the 26th, Sir Arthur Phillip and a small entourage of marines and officers claimed the land in the name of King George III” (Pearson, L. and Verass, S., 10 Things You Should Know About January 26).

In case you’re thinking this is just another new outrage that the trendy leftists are onto, there have been Indigenous protests of Australia Day dating back to 1938, the 150th anniversary of the British invasion. “We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community”. According to the National Museum of Australia, we even forced some Indigenous men to reenact events of the First Fleet landing at the 150th anniversary in 1938. Yes, at that time, and up until 1967 when a referendum was held to ensure that the First Australians were counted equally as citizens under section 127 of the Constitution, Indigenous communities were not regarded as citizens of the land they had lived on for more than 40,000 years. Incidentally, that referendum was a rare success, with more than 90 per cent of Australians voting ‘yes’ to delete two racially discriminatory references in the Constitution. Further work remains to recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution, with discussions ongoing for the last 20 years.

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Aboriginal protests on Sydney Harbour on Australia Day celebrations, 1988 (courtesy: 10 Things You Should Know About Australia Day)

Even if you’re looking for the tradition argument of celebrating Australia Day on January 26, it has only been consistently celebrated as a national holiday (in all states and territories) since 1994. Yes, only 23 years ago. It would hardly be an issue to find another date for a celebration that’s only been known in its current form for 23 years, especially for celebration of an event that dates much earlier than this.

Allow me to point out some further realities – for those that think the Indigenous community gets everything their way and has an advantage over us non-Indigenous – the Indigenous community, while only being about 3 per cent of overall population, make up 27 per cent of the national prison population. There is around a 10-year difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (do I need to point out whose favour this is in?). The non-Indigenous community has a 12 per cent higher cancer survival rate. Indigenous children aged 0-4 years have a 1.9 times higher mortality rate than non-Indigenous.

In 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed non-Indigenous adults were more likely to have attained at least Year 10 or basic vocational qualifications (92 per cent) than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults (71 per cent), and were over four times as likely to have attained a Bachelor degree or higher (24 per cent compared with 5 per cent). What can education lead to? While it’s no guarantee of a self-sufficient life, it’s certainly a promising start. In fact, this ABS data shows that “while nationally, Indigenous adults are around half as likely to be in full-time employment as non-Indigenous adults, as educational attainment increases, the difference between the employment outcomes reduces”. Education levels also appear to impact the level of drinking habits with lower rates of acute risky/high risk alcohol consumption (binge drinking) being associated with higher rates of educational attainment (interestingly, the opposite is true for non-Indigenous people). And, education levels are also crucial in relation to housing status – nationally, Indigenous adults were over five times as likely to be living in an over-crowded dwelling as non-Indigenous adults, and less than half as likely to be living in an owned home (with or without a mortgage). At higher levels of educational attainment, these differences reduced. For example, Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults with a Bachelor degree were nearly equally as likely to be living in an owned home.

For those that think the Indigenous people needed our intervention, they seemed to exist successfully for 40,000 years before the British arrived (one of the world’s longest surviving cultures, if not the longest). It was only with our arrival (and the subsequent taking of their land and way of life) did they start to face the undeniable social issues they now face.

So, what are the alternative dates we should use? There’s plenty to choose from and the debate should now focus on these (Sivasubramanian, S., Eight Alternative Days to Celebrate Australia Day That Are Not January 26):

  • January 1: in 1901, the day six British self-governing colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. In my opinion, not ideal as a new date.
  • February 13: in 2008, then-current Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd formally apologised to the Indigenous people who were forcibly removed as children from their homes and parents’ care and placed in Church missions or adoptive white family.
  • April 11: the day in 1973 that the “White Australia” immigration policy was abolished by the Gough Whitlam government.
  • May 27: the day in 1967 when the referendum asking whether Aboriginal people should be given the right to make laws and be accounted for under the Constitution occurred. The country voted with a resounding 90.77 per cent in favour of the changes. Until then, Aboriginal people were denied several rights, including the right to vote or to be counted within the human census. They were accounted for within the animal population until then.
  • June 3: Mabo Day. This perhaps has the strongest appeal as the alternative date. On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Eddie Mabo’s case which overturned the legal stance of “terra nullius” (a Latin term meaning “nobody’s land”) and acknowledged native Indigenous land rights. Though the day is already marked as a national holiday, it may fit better as a public holiday.

While the majority will still be celebrating Australia Day on January 26, I hope that we can at least advance the understanding of this issue without ignorance. I was recently told that we’re being over-sensitive about this and that it’s just another thing we all get too easily offended by. Of course, this is easy for us non-Indigenous people to say – we would hardly know or understand what the Indigenous community feels on this day – I’m not even going to suggest that I have the slightest understanding of what they go through when they see a nation celebrate on this day, but I’m prepared to educate myself on why they feel this way and then decide accordingly to join them in the call for change. Not as an offended citizen, but as one who seeks true unity and peace. That’s what this is about – bringing us all together in an all-too-divided world with educated and empathetic minds. I might be asking for too much, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never be answered.

Note: I have intentionally attempted to not use the term “Indigenous Australians” as I am aware that some of the Indigenous community do not use “Australia” to identify with, given that this is the name given to the land that they already lived on.

Selfless – A Story of Giving

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My Nonno Michele, or “Mick” as his Australian friends called him. Yes, that’s me on the right looking pretty excited to get into that cake (clearly the sugar obsession started at a young age), and yes, my Mum loved indoor plants and making big cakes.

Today would have been my Nonno’s 90th birthday. He wasn’t a perfect man – none of us are. He was a selfless man and he’s the reason I’m here today. He’s also the reason many Italian migrants to northern suburbs Melbourne found their way in their distant new home.

Post-World War II Italy was not a prosperous place. Particularly in southern Italy, opportunity did not appear to be on the horizon. In much the same manner that I imagine current day asylum seekers make the impossibly tough decision to leave the relative surety of their homeland, my Nonno Michele Pizzichetta made that impossibly tough decision to get on a boat headed for a little-known country on the opposite side of the world. He left a small town, San Severo, in the Puglia region, for a 2-month boat trip. He did this on his own, leaving behind his wife and two very young children (my Mother being one of them). He arrived in Melbourne, Australia on 26 November 1952. Imagine that for a moment – a 25-year-old man, leaving behind his young family, to see if a better life existed in a mystery land so far away it took nearly two months to get there. It’s so difficult to comprehend as it’s so far away from the world in which I find myself in – a world that was made possible by his selfless move in 1952.

In his own words (intentionally left in his broken English), from an interview with the City of Whittlesea in 2001:

“I was in the army and I was look for the go out of Italy because in Italy not many jobs and I want to make some future to my family. Matter of fact I did my ideas come to, I did I come to Australia I like, I been a like it first since I come here. Another thing too I remember very well when I buy this block of land in Thomastown in the Poplar Street, corner Poplar Street and Boronia Street when I buy that I was a feel to be really own something in Australia in Thomastown and then I bring my wife and the children and look forward to build the house, I did build the house through the Building Society and I been paying the bank 1971. I work very hard because I used to work Saturday and Sunday one hour every change they do work and I saved a bit of money to pay the house off. When I pay the house off I went and see my Mother that’s after 18 years I been in Australia I went and seen my Mother because my Father died two years after I been in Australia, the first time I come. After I went seen my Mother I left money for the house I leave my wife money for food and children and went and seen my Mother. I take the time off from the job a bit of a holiday and went and seen my Mother. I stay in Italy the first time nine weeks it is a part of my holiday I been keeping that holiday for a few years they grow. Then when I come back I see everything the right way. I was worried my Mother not was well because was very old. Three years after my Mother died and I was happy I been to see. I been carry on some things you know I come back to Australia and work again and that’s my life I keep a go like that”.

It would be two long years before my Nonna, Mother and Uncle could make the journey to Melbourne to join him. He spent those two years doing whatever work he could to get by, while also buying a block of land with a bungalow in the developing northern suburbs of Melbourne and eventually building a house on it for the family to live in. They arrived on 11 November 1954. He learned enough English to get by from attending night school and from his various jobs – making materials for suits, and utilising the skills he learned in the Italian Army to work in maintenance and the metal trades.

In 1956, he began what would become a lifetime of community action. I am emotional to learn that he even helped raise funds for the construction of the hospital I was born in: “I been really myself live in my own country I was like you know I cared somebody else, some Italian anybody because in my own country I used to do the same you know, help the people how much I cared and that’s what I did here when I be in Australia. In fact, 1956 I was living in Thomastown I been collected some money to build the Preston Hospital, no can do because not enough money, that’s what you call Community Hospital. I been for years you know collecting big money from the trains, Thomastown and also raffle tickets through the Preston Council and sell that ticket in Cup Day and the profit it went to the hospital. I collect a bit of money door to door around Thomastown that time it used to be two shillings”. Sadly, that hospital is no longer there – it’s been turned into apartments. Another hospital was built further north which would become my birthplace’s replacement. My Nonno also played a role in the new Northern Hospital development and was on the Steering Committee that got it built. On this he said: “I be very happy I did that because I feel I believe that’s why you can help people. I been helping people for the pension for anything they come and ask for me. I used to do this sort of thing in my own country and I now a do here. All my difficulty to me the language that why I be doing a lot more than I doing I still feel happy I did and people all around this area respect me and they do the right thing. I never stop, I still do help them when I can”.

For these numerous selfless acts, my Nonno Michele was awarded the Citizen of the Year. But in his typical benevolent way, he said “I not ask, they give it to me. Yes, I did a lot of things. Many time I try to push the Council at Whittlesea to get road built. Because the children used to go on the school in the winter you have no roads to the children not to the school to go along water and mud. I was feeling very sorry for the children, and I did push the Council that time. I not afraid to knock on the door and ask for the benefit to the people, benefit to the area, benefit I see to this area, no discrimination. I like to see that why because this very good area, you see the people come from different countries I seen never been discrimination for long time. I like to see that way because that’s what should be in every area, every place in Australia”. Wise words from a man lacking a formal education but absolutely not lacking compassion. Although these words were spoken in 2001, they could not be more relevant to the society we find ourselves in now, 16 years later.

He was also actively involved in social groups and events. A member of one of the very few Italian/Australian clubs at the time (meeting in Lygon Street, Carlton, which is still the main Italian area of Melbourne). “I was the Treasurer. You see, around this area, I build two pensioner clubs, the Bocci (an Italian lawn bowls game) club. 22 years ago, City of Whittlesea give a piece of land to make the Bocci club they give all the land and the fence around it – it still there. Us build the row for playing Bocci and it built 22 years ago and now I look after the welfare, Italian welfare in Whittlesea, I look after, I am the President. Before that I build Eastern Thomastown Bocci. Before this, I build the others and the Councillors helped me a lot for build all these citizen clubs in Thomastown. They said 12 years ago start Italian Women Groups. Why I started that Women Groups because I see the woman by themselves. They have nowhere to go, nobody to talk to and my idea, I got the Pensioner Club, I got the Bocci Club, now I gonna start something for the woman, that’s what I did. When I started there were five to six women now there be 200-300, maybe more. They have good fun, they play together, the Bingo, have a talk, have a dance. Many times I go there myself and you have a good time, food together, very good. I like it because I see I do something good for them and now there are too many people there and the place where they are not big enough – I tell them I gonna ask Council to build a bigger place for you”.

My Nonno Michele was the one other migrants to the area would go see when they needed help. He was referred to as the “Welfare Italian” and he said “the Council give me one place where I can meet the people with the problem every Friday from 10 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon. And they are very good and happy for that and the fact that people come there for ask for help, they come to pass the time too, play cards, or have lunch together, or some bit of music and play Bingo like that for the Italians. No obligation – the only fee for one year $3 for membership and that’s very good because I want to keep as low as possible, because all that come there are pensioners and the ladies and not rich people, that’s a working class people. Sorry I say that, because in this area they are all a working class, because I remember the rich people never come to this area because the rich people go to Toorak or South Yarra, but here all the friends all working, all get on well together”.

His community action also extended to political activism – he was a member of FILEF, or the Federazione Italiana Lavoratori Emigrati e Famiglie (Italian Federation of Migrant Workers and Their Families), a group that existed from the 1970s in Melbourne. It is said that “not only has FILEF been the launching pad for the professional careers of some of its members, but at a smaller scale it forged the political consciousness of rank-and-file activists and ordinary members who through their activism or presence in FILEF were able to retain, express and foster their political culture, whether communist, Labor or broadly left-wing” (pg xiii, http://www.academia.edu/11331631/Immigrants_turned_Activists_Italians_in_1970s_Melbourne). He is pictured below at some of their meetings (pictures courtesy of the article linked above).

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Even my Nonna (Pina Pizzichetta, 2nd from the left below) got involved in the political action, pictured here at a PCI meeting, which was the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party), later renamed the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) in 1991 and Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left) in 1998.

nonna1

When asked what Italian people hope for, he replied “Italian people not only here but everywhere, they are very good for the family. They look after family and in fact the ladies, the Italian ladies, the grandmother, always look after the grandchildren, they do everything for them, cooking, buy them some suit, shoes or some socks, they grow the grandchildren more than they grow their own children”.

It’s really no wonder that I continue to develop a strong desire to be socially minded and to be actively involved with social programs that assist those less fortunate than myself. I have it in my blood, and I owe it to both of my grandparents who fought for equality and access to basic rights for all, regardless of position or background. They did this with very little wealth of their own, but did it anyway. I’m so incredibly sad that I did not know this story when my grandparents were still here, but maybe I was too young to understand it anyway. So many things I need to say thanks for, but I know that the best way I can say thanks is to continue their legacy. Happy 90th birthday Nonno, I miss you so much (and you too Nonna). I hope I can make you proud one day as I try to contribute to the world around me, much in the way you did.

The Pursuit of Happiness Isn’t For Sale

“Love people and use things. Cos the opposite never works” – Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalists

 

I’ve been searching for a fulfilling career path from my first day working as an accountant. I knew through University that this wasn’t going to be for me, but for some reason, I persisted with it. I also gave it a good 12 years professionally in five different organisations, but each time, the initial challenge of learning new processes and meeting new people would fade after six months and the mundane routine would set in.

I decided to pursue a career change – one that many advised me against. The health and fitness industry seemed a perfect fit and I was passionately immersed in it for 18 months. Until the lack of financial stability finally took its toll. So I went back to a career that I knew I had no passion for, yet, felt the need to return to so I could get some financial freedom back.

Money is an interesting concept – I can say with total confidence that it simply does not make you happy, but not having enough to sustain a life you want is a recipe for unhappiness too. So, where’s the line between living for a bank balance and living for a passion?

This question has been in my head for years and I’m not sure I have the answer yet. Through these 12 years working in accounting and finance-related jobs, I pretty much hated them all, but persisted with them for various reasons – lack of acceptable or viable options, money (or so I thought), lifestyle (or so I thought), it came easy to me and people told me I was good at it. I worked with people that enjoyed what they did, and good on them. I worked with people that admitted they just did it for the money, or for their family, or for the mortgage. I worked with people that hated what they did, but didn’t see a way out, so they just kept grinding away. I saw myself slipping into that latter group and it was a scary prospect. There’s few feelings that I’ve encountered in my time that scare me more than the feeling of being trapped.

My first career change almost came about by accident, but it taught me many lessons. I discovered that I had other talents and that I did have the confidence to get in front of large groups and lead others. It also started to highlight to me the true value of stuff. I’m using this non-descript word purposely – “stuff”. The more I earned in accounting jobs, it seemed the more I spent. And I can’t say I have much to show for that spending either. I just accumulated stuff, and got into substantial debt at the same time. Maybe I was constantly buying things to make me feel better about being in a profession I had no connection with, or maybe I just liked having things.

When the income was substantially reduced with my move to health and fitness work, my lifestyle had to adjust. I simply couldn’t afford the same luxuries and certainly didn’t have the means to pay the credit card debt either. But this wasn’t just a job – this was a privilege where I got to help people improve their fitness and their life, while having some fun at the same time. I can’t adequately describe the feeling of having someone approach you and tell you that you made a positive difference to their day, to their outlook on life. Sadly, as a society, we don’t reward these types of jobs with appropriate pay, and after 18 months in this uplifting world of group fitness, I had to make the brutal decision to go back to accounting. I just couldn’t pay my bills and I was too embarrassed to ask another person for some money. Surprisingly, it was really tough to get back into accounting after a break – apparently it’s frowned upon to step away from your career to see what else is out there. Your commitment to the cause is questioned and you need someone to give you a chance. What a load of bullshit! Someone did eventually give me that chance, but it’s ridiculous that it is this way.

I knew I wouldn’t last in accounting when I went back. Particularly my last role, which I won’t name here, where I was absolutely overpaid and underworked, was a time where things got really bleak. But I can see now that it was a blessing. It was what I needed to know again – that money truly is not the catalyst for happiness, and that this industry simply wasn’t for me. Most people I spoke to said to stick it out, take the cash and start studying in your spare time, then quit. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t continue taking that salary that I didn’t deserve, all while working in a job that I truly hated. So, I quit and took the chance of going back to study while working part-time at a gym again to help ends meet. I started a Writing and Publishing Masters and was absolutely loving it, before another job opportunity presented itself. This time, it wasn’t accounting, but my knowledge from those roles would come in handy. The part-time work was becoming a factor too, as my hours were inconsistent and budgeting for things was proving difficult. There were also other factors to taking this new opportunity, so I jumped in with both feet.

another-door

When I’m absolutely honest with myself, I know that I will need to leave this role too. Simply, I’m most content when I am giving back, when I am contributing to society in a positive and meaningful way. I know this now, but putting it into action is proving to be the hurdle. When I was helping others improve their fitness and outlook on life, I was truly happy and satisfied with work. When I write, I am happy, as expressing myself in this form is a release. It doesn’t always carry the same notion of giving back, but it does allow me the opportunity to communicate thoughts such as these, which may give at least one other person the confidence to interrupt their status quo and seek what truly makes them shine. I’m probably a socialist and I am completely comfortable with that. I see no issue with wanting everyone to have equality in all forms and with helping those that haven’t had the same opportunities to succeed that I have. So it follows that I don’t believe in capitalism, and most things that it stands for. The pursuit of money does not bring the best out of people and it certainly doesn’t allocate it fairly.

This finally brings me to an inspiring documentary movie I recently watched on Netflix, Minimalism – “a documentary about the important things”. It speaks of everything I have discussed here, as well as detailing a movement of de-cluttering your life of worthless possessions and simply taking what you need. They explain that although we have more things at our disposal now than we could possibly have imagined (or ever needed), we are also suffering more unhappiness and depression. We think that adding more material possessions will make us happy – that latest phone, or the newest trend in fashion. Even that bigger house that we can’t afford, or don’t actually need. Yet, it traps people into a routine of Monday to Friday melancholy and programs them into thinking they’ll be OK once (or if) that pay rise comes in.

I know that some of you reading this are probably thinking I’m overstating the impact of putting up with a meaningless career, but if you’re truly happy with your career, or the job you just happen to be in right now, then this isn’t aimed at you. This is for people that used to think like I did while wasting away in a career path that I had no passion for. Don’t think that you have no choice, or that you’re trapped. You may need to alter a few things about your lifestyle, but if it means you can be passionate about something again, then it’s surely worth it. I’m still searching for that elusive career path that will make me happy with myself again – it’ll look something like a social or community-based organisation, a not-for-profit or even a health-oriented role. I’m lucky – I know I have options, and although most future paths for me will inevitably mean returning to study, I just know I have to do it. And by getting rid of all the unnecessary stuff around me, I’ll be freer to continue exploring my options, and the world around me.

Let’s Talk About Death

Let's talk about death blog pic

You’ve probably heard the saying: there’s two things in life you can’t avoid — death and taxes. For two things that can’t be avoided, we don’t seem to like talking about them. While it’s understandable that not too many people enjoy talking about taxes, I have been wondering why there’s a reluctance to talk about death. And it was in an unexpected arena recently where I was challenged to question my own reluctance to talk about death, but to also question my previous handling of it in a personal sense.

One of my teachers at university has a wonderful habit of starting each editing class with a general knowledge session (as editors, we need to have sound general knowledge so we are able to pick up on anomalies in manuscripts and check for factual inconsistencies). A few weeks ago, she asked that we research some terms that she had written on the whiteboard. There was a general theme in the terms — that of death and dying, mostly with a World War I/II reference. This laid the foundation for the extended discussion on death and dying that she so bravely approached in our most recent class.

Both of her parents succumbed to cancer in the last ten years. Some say time heals all wounds, but I question the validity of this when a close family member, or friend, or even family pet passes on. It might get easier to deal with over time, but the pain of losing someone close never goes away. Each time you’re reminded of this person (or pet), you might find a tear forming in your eye, or a choking feeling developing in your throat. My teacher did exactly this as she began to talk of the final weeks of her father’s life. Recounting how she and her sister sat by his side, trying to feed him when he didn’t want to eat (or couldn’t), when he didn’t want to drink, when he waited for the palliative care nurse to show up before he would relieve himself so that he didn’t have to make his daughters clean up after him. She choked back tears as she spoke of these things — obviously time has not healed the wounds of having to witness her father slowly waste away, but this did not stop her standing up in front of 20 or so postgrad students and expose the raw truth of what it is to embrace a situation that is clearly not in your control. I was so amazed at her strength — she has previously mentioned to me that she is an introvert and even with ten years’ worth of teaching experience, the fear of standing up in front of a class and teaching has not subsided; yet, here she was, opening up her rawest emotions in front of us, presumably to show us why death is to be embraced, rather than avoided.

It struck me instantly of how differently I handled my grandfather’s passing some years ago. While the circumstances were somewhat different to my teacher’s experience — my grandfather was a shell of himself after suffering through dementia, diabetes which affected his sight and a stroke which affected his independence — it still made me question my handling of the situation and why I acted in this way. As you watch someone close to you slowly fade away, you want nothing more than for them to jump out of bed and resume their previous activities. You know it’s not going to happen and that is part of the sadness. I visited my grandfather in the nursing home — where he was restrained to his bed to protect both himself and the nursing home staff. The dementia and stroke had made him violent; he was lashing out at the confusing place he had found himself in. He couldn’t remember me anymore and he would cry every now and again. I couldn’t see this — my once-strong, independent grandfather, who got on a boat from Italy all those years ago, by himself, to start a new life here in Melbourne and here he now was, breathing but not living. So, I stopped going to visit. I couldn’t handle this experience any longer. I regret that now.

As my teacher spoke of the beauty that she saw in caring for her father as he went through his final days, I thought about the way I shied away from it. I obviously wasn’t ready to deal with such a situation but I now wonder if my grandfather noticed that I (and maybe some others) stopped going to visit and whether he knew why, even though it was likely he wouldn’t remember any of that. I’m not even sure that the next time I’m faced with this situation that I’ll act any differently. I hope I will, but it’s one of those times in life that there’s surely no script for. How can you possibly prepare yourself for watching a loved one die? One thing is for sure though — we can’t be scared to talk about it and we can’t keep hoping that it won’t happen to us. The sad reality is that it will. I’m not suggesting it need be a daily topic of conversation, but it needs to be discussed at some point. Maybe talking about death before you’re faced with it makes you more ready to deal with it? I don’t know, but the awkwardness of not talking about it won’t make you ready to deal with it either.

This extends to helping friends deal with loss too. I’ve had a few friends recently experience the loss of a loved one and I’m always unsure what I should say or what I should do. Again, I don’t think there’s a script for this, but ignoring the situation doesn’t help anyone. While I’m conscious of not sounding generic when sending messages of hope or support, I need to remind myself that this situation isn’t about me, and that any act of compassion or support is probably greatly appreciated. My teacher spoke of taking food to the person looking after their loved one in their final days — even pet food if they have pets. They still need to eat and probably aren’t thinking of their next trip to the supermarket. Any little act of kindness surely goes a long way to that person who is obviously so preoccupied with the care of their loved one.

Feel free to continue to avoid talking about taxes, but let’s talk about death. Let’s try to help each other deal with an unavoidable grief and sense of helplessness, while hopefully reassuring the person who is passing that their final days will be as fulfilling as their strong days. Try to cherish each day that they are still here, don’t shy away from it. You won’t get a second go at it.