The nurse gasped.
Some patients craned their necks, to better see the action.
I regretted my choice of vocabulary.
“That is completely inappropriate language!” The nurse tried to claw back some authority, with the haughty tone of a primary school teacher chastising a six-year-old.
She glanced around the room, conscious of the eyes on us both and subtly assessing the growing interest in our altercation.
“This is not the right place to have this conversation,” she whispered.
She wanted to whisk me into a side room. To silence me. To pretend to the other patients that conflict and disappointment and frustration never happen in her unit.
My look was soft, but my body unflinching, and she knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
She turned on her heels and shuffled agitatedly towards the nurse’s station. As her hand rested on the desk, her shoulders relaxed – as if she’d reached an island of safety where I could no longer touch her.
When you bite the hand that feeds you
My mum – in full knowledge of the petty frustrations I face each week at the hospital – has urged me to never challenge the doctors or nurses.
“If you have an issue with anything, go through the official channels. Always keep the caregivers on your side,” she’s counselled me.
That sounds like sage advice.
But what if the official channels are as clunky as the unoiled cogs in an antique clock?
What if the caregivers’ protocol only serves mainstream patients?
What if I don’t fit into that cohort, and therefore I feel underserved?
Being an outlier within a traditional system
For the past few months I’ve bashed my nonconformist head against many hard and fast NHS walls.
The system doesn’t hear me, of course – above the din of the creaky, autocratic cogs that spin furiously each day.
For a start, the kitchens won’t feed me.
They once served me a single unadorned baked potato for dinner. No sides, no dressings. Just a lonely lump of starch in an eco-unfriendly polystyrene bowl.
Each Tuesday, as the food trolley rattles its way around the unit delivering wraps and sandwiches to the other patients, I’m lucky to receive a banana.
On occasion, I insist that even vegans deserve to be fed. The kitchen boy smiles with faux sympathy. Nothing changes.
Aside from my problematic diet, there are various reasons why the nurses think I’m a strange fruit.
Last week’s argument erupted because it was stifling in the blood unit, so I opened a window. Without asking permission.
As I leaned my flushed face outside to suck in the cool polluted air from the hospital car park, a busybody sister stormed up. She told me I was “endangering the health of all the poorly patients” – and we spiralled at lightning speed from an ostensibly low-key dispute to me swearing at her.
That night I tossed and turned, entangled in a livid swirl of thoughts and feelings. I was confused because I knew the nurses would love me, if only I fitted more snugly into their framework.
Everything starts in the classroom
The next morning, in an expression of emotional contagion, my youngest son chose to go to school dressed as a punk rocker. He asked us to paint his fingernails and pull his hair into a Mohican. He looked striking – his crown a skyscraper of brown locks and hair wax, his nails a defiant flash of blue-black.
If any teacher tried to reprimand him – to put him in his place – he planned to belt out the line from the Greatest Showman title track: “I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies / This is me.”
His heightened surge of self-confidence was a joy to behold.
But just moments before leaving the house he burst into a flood of tears and insisted we take it all off.
I think he was battling between his desire to be authentic and his fear of not fitting in.
He plodded inconsolably to school through a pool of fallen tears, flattened down hair wax and furiously chipped off nail varnish.
How softness can save the world
Whether it’s school or healthcare, rigid masculine systems blow. It’s too difficult for any round patient to fit into the NHS’ square holes. It’s too difficult for children to freely express difference.
We could aspire to national systems that are malleable on demand – that stretch and splay to allow whatever shape of person comes into their folds; and then mould themselves around that individual, making them feel warm and welcome and heard.