Five Minute Sanctuaries

In my day job, I meet all kinds of patients. People with lives in between the medicines they use, with smiles and tears, triumphs and fears.

On this typical day, someone wants to speak to the pharmacist. Inside the consultation room, I sit down with the lady in question and let her talk. When I had handed out her prescription a few moments earlier, she could have been anyone.

Now I look at her as she speaks, with dark eyes, wide and watery, and a reddish tinge to her skin. Her hands shake as she places one on the table, a silver bracelet dangling from her slim wrist.

“I’ve got anxiety. I’ve just been to A&E because I had a breakdown.”

There are a thousand and one other things that need my attention outside this little room, but right now, I put them at the bottom of the list.

“I’ve got two little kids. I do talking therapy, and I’m getting couples therapy with my husband. But I don’t want to destroy my life just because I can’t get it together.”

From instinct, I know I won’t be able to physically help her. But I let her speak, watching as her eyes become more tearful, her mouth pulling into a nervous smile as she stutters to get her words out. My thoughts run through possible options that could help her, but she’s already exhausted them.

So, I let her take up my time. And this small space — these few minutes where she has my attention — becomes a sort of shelter for her. It seems like she needs it.

I won’t lie, I want to cry with her. I want her to know that she isn’t alone, that there are many people like her and that she isn’t the only one going through this awful problem. In the end, I give her what advice I can and add, “Sorry I couldn’t be much help, but if you ever need to talk to someone, we’re right here.”

Rewind a month back. It’s a quiet morning and my mind is caught between wakefulness and sleep. I hand out a prescription of antibiotics — nothing unusual, take one tablet four times a day, on an empty stomach — and the patient wishes to speak to me. Before she even says anything else, I catch the look in her eye, the twitch in the corner of her lips.

We sit in private.

“I don’t agree with the doctor’s diagnosis, could you take a look for me?”

She tells me how she refuses to take these antibiotics. How she really doesn’t like taking tablets. How she’s suffered with back pain for a long time, but restricts the number of strong painkillers she takes.

This was a woman who I could tell was in control of her life. But this strong woman, with clear, dark skin and hair tied up in a bun, held a tissue to her eyes, constantly wiping away tears. Tears that she wished weren’t there — in front of me, a stranger — but definitely trickled from her eyes.

Her mother had died from complications which she pinned down to inappropriate medication use. I understand her perception now, but it’s more than that. It’s not about taking medication. It’s that she felt no one was truly listening to her. So I let her talk.

Let’s go back another few weeks.

Same pharmacy, and I honestly can’t remember the details of that afternoon. You know when all the days just blur into one? An older gentleman pops in to speak to me.

We sit down in the consultation room and he takes his hat off, wiping his brow. His face is pink from the raging heat wave outside.

“My partner’s not been feeling well recently.”

This was definitely beyond my scope (can you see a pattern here?) He tells me how he thinks his partner’s depression is back. She’s lying at home, as she has done for days, and doesn’t want to leave. The curtains are closed. She’s not speaking to anyone.

“She hasn’t been like this for years.” As he fiddles with his hat, he doesn’t cry, but the worry painted on his face couldn’t have been plainer.

Honestly, I don’t have a clue what to say. But from whatever small piece of advice I could give, he nods at the words. Smiling. Shoulders relaxing.

“Right, that’s what I thought. Just wanted to get a second opinion.”

Have I done something right? I think as he stands up and goes to shake my hand. He looks genuinely happy, like a weight has been lifted off of his own shoulders. Now, filled with confidence, he could face the problems of the ones he loved and cared for.

Let me be a little selfish, and bring it back to myself.

Personally, I always need to talk through my problems in order to figure them out. Other people may not have that same process, but I when I have an issue, I’ve always found talking through it — and no, not always to myself — to be a good way of keeping myself sane. Even if the other person doesn’t offer any true solutions, the actual act of speaking often alleviates my worries.

Then, there came a time in my life where I found myself not having this. Or, at least, I told myself I didn’t have this. I felt like I didn’t have people that I could vent to, and that made me become closed off.

This disappointment fed into a mindset of mine that, taken to the extreme, is not healthy at all. I began to think that the safest way to (emotionally) survive life was to look out for — number one — yourself. You had to be selfish to be happy. I spiralled into a phase that left me empty inside, yet heavy at the same time. And a lot of the time, I felt extremely alone.

Loneliness. It’s not about not having weekend plans. It’s this… gnawing sensation. A kind of heavy hollowness. It’s knowing that you have a hundred and one things in your mind, and not a single person to unravel your thoughts with. That weight, this burden, bears down on you. It comes and goes, shrinking and swelling, a balloon filled with rocks.

Life is cyclical. This intense loneliness arrived first when I was in sixth form, but disappeared once I started university. Then I found myself here again, on the other side of graduating, with that familiar gnawing, heavy emptiness bearing down on me. Sometimes I think it’s because I’ve kept my distance — friendly yet far — just to keep myself safe. This is emotional isolation — and it can hurt your heart.

As always, social media doesn’t help either. We all know this, but we still swipe through countless stories and feeds of the highlights of other people’s days. It feeds that bleak void, ironically, making it heavier.

I often thought that this was a signal for me to become closer to God. Maybe He’s put this loneliness inside me to let me know, He’s there.

Or maybe, this needs a rethink.

A shift in perspective.

Whether or not you believe in God, one thing is for sure. We live on a planet saturated with people. It makes sense that we forge and create meaningful connections with each other.

“Death had struck down those he loved most, yet he had been surrounded with affection and kindness; impressed upon his heart was an intense awareness both of human fragility and of the only thing that makes this fragility bearable, human affection.” —On the Prophet (peace be upon him), Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eaton

In the past few years, I’ve told myself that looking out for ‘me, myself, and I’ is the safest way to endure life, but that’s not how to survive in this world. Not if you want your soul to be wholesome.

Loneliness is an uncomfortable part of life. Even though I’m used to being on my own — doing my own thing without relying on someone else — it’s not always meant to be that way. You’re not meant to shoulder your worldly burdens like this, and research actually shows how chronic loneliness can harm your health.

An individual can only take so much.

It’s okay to find yourself crying on someone else’s shoulders. It’s perfectly acceptable not to be strong. And it’s completely normal to find someone else unloading on you. Let them. Give them a safe space — even a sanctuary of five minutes — to talk and talk and talk until all they find themselves talking about are silly things.

Our fragility feeds into the resilience we develop. Though we might want others to see us as ‘strong’, we are all fragile. Others are better at holding up their guard, but at the kernel of every soul is something beautifully delicate. Something that needs to be cultivated with love, in all its vast shades of meaning.

A kind word can go a very, very long way. You’ll never know it, the beautiful ripple your words and small actions can lend to someone’s spirit. And you’ll probably never see it either, but the effects can last a lifetime.

I have no idea if my chat with the lady who felt anxious helped her at all. Or if the other lady had taken those antibiotics as prescribed. Or if the gentleman’s partner got the help she needed. At the very least, I hope they were strengthened for the next twenty-four hours that they needed to face.