‘I take a deep breath and tell the doctor my mood hasn’t been good for some time’
Does time simply speed up when we reach middle-age? Is it all downhill from here?
Philip Lynch: ‘All of a sudden I have to slow down and tuck in behind a tractor ... mindfulness I remind myself.’ Photograph: iStock
Here in rural Tasmania this morning, I have this tiny waiting room all to myself with just today’s tabloid to flick through to kill the time. When a smiling Dr S emerges, I set aside the newspaper with its grim stories and tales of everyday sporting endeavours.
Like my good self, Dr S is carrying a few extra kilograms but he looks confident and measured; and unlike me, he is well-groomed with his well-ironed shirt and pressed trousers, as if he is a man comfortable in his chosen profession, as if he may be able to help.
We walk along the hallway and the floorboards of this ancient medical centre creak under our footsteps. In Dr S’s room my medical record is already open on his computer screen. I’m relieved he doesn’t say anything about my cholesterol levels, which if my memory is right were borderline last time I came here. I know my life-long sweet tooth habit will surely be my undoing one day, but please God not just yet. Instead Dr S tells me, without any hint of admonishment, that it’s almost seven years since my last bowel cancer screen. Jeez, seven years, where did that go? Does time simply speed up when we reach middle-age? Is it all downhill from here?
And now, Dr S is handing over the test kit, complete with his pre-signed pathology request form. The less glamorous nitty-gritty part of the test is up to me. At least, if nothing else, I can regard it as some kind of organic process. I don’t mind. I’m happy to see to it. According to the Cancer Council, bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in Australia. And, presumably it’s a similar statistic in other countries. My brother-in-law in Melbourne succumbed to this illness a few years back. It was a harrowing way to die, even if he calmly faced his fate with remarkable unflinching courage. I often wonder if our physical wellbeing is something of a lottery, a game of chance. We do what we can but there are no guarantees any of us will get through life unscathed. Few of us know what may be lurking around the corner.
I sit back, take a deep breath and decide to cut to the chase, to fess up. I tell him my mood hasn’t been good for a fair while. I tell him I’m easily irritated, sometimes even flattened by minor everyday setbacks and I’m prone to ruminating about all sorts of things. I’m not sure what I should do, I tell him; seeking, I suppose, some guidance. These downers seem to come and go, I tell him. Perhaps I should consider some kind of career change. Maybe more than 30 years of working in mental health is taking its toll.
Dr S says he cannot offer me any career advice but he thinks some mindfulness techniques may be a good start. Some excellent apps are also available, he tells me. He says that for example, when I’m driving, which I do a lot of for my work, I should take note of the number plates of other cars, and that I should try and memorise them. That way, I can focus on something tangible, rather than abstract information, which is more likely to be beyond my control. Do you think I should stop reading the newspapers and watching the news cycle? I ask. I mean with so much devoted to Donald Trump and all that, it’s often too much. Well, it’s probably not that helpful watching too much of the news, he says. You have to remember, it’s chiefly the bad stuff that hogs the headlines.
We agree I will start exercising, beginning with daily walks. Just walking for the sake of walking. Brisk walking will release endorphins, he tells me. The research is showing that walking can significantly boost one’s mental health and it’s also good for our cardiovascular system. Aerobic activity is the key. He is not telling me anything I don’t know but I nod politely and listen all the same. And I silently resolve to lay off my laptop and do more physical activity. With our daylight hours increasing I really have no excuse. We book in another appointment in a couple of weeks to check on my progress. Then we shake hands and I’m heading back along the creaking corridor to reception to settle my account.
As I’m driving home, I decide I’ll give the next news bulletin a wide berth and I switch over to a FM classical station. The legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan’s Cornbread is playing. Released in 1965, the track runs for nine incredible minutes. Every note is sublime. It’s an astonishing lush, joyous and uplifting record. I first heard it by chance while driving home late one night, years ago, after a much-anticipated date ended badly. I bought the record on the strength of that track and it remains one of my all-time favourite jazz records. I like to listen to it, loud, when I occasionally have the house to myself on Saturday mornings.
But, all of a sudden, I have to slow down and tuck in behind a tractor towing a trailer load of newly-minted apple boxes. Mindfulness, I remind myself, as I slow to almost a crawl, but the trailer’s number plate is caked in mud and it’s mostly illegible, and almost as if to ward me off, flecks of mud are flying from the rear tyres, so I have to keep my distance. I find myself chuckling, for the first time in ages. The road is windy with bad bends so I have no option but to accept this slow speed. No doubt it will turn off at some stage, probably at Duggan’s apple orchard.
As I’m ambling along slowly, l realise to my surprise that I’m feeling a little better, as if some of the fog in my head is beginning to disperse. In time, I guess I’ll know for sure. Time will tell. And now the tractor is turning off at Duggan’s and I press gently on the accelerator. I’m on my way now. The road up ahead is clear, at least as far as I can see.