August 27th 2017
This will be my last entry on this blog – for a while, at least, anyway. I guess I’ve said everything I needed to say. I am heart glad and grateful that there is such thing as blogging in this world, because this outlet was a veritable lifeline during what was a very dark time, and your loyal readership and kind words have helped me so much.
I had a lovely conversation this week with Dr Sally Graddon, as ex-doc like me, who found her own happiness as a life coach, and as we spoke, it was funny, poignant and rather moving to find that the our emotional experiences of leaving medicine were practically identical. We talked and laughed about the guilt, the uncertainty, the pain, the loss of identity, the shift in universe and the bitter regret, before both agreeing that it was totally worth it and that we were far happier and more fulfilled now than we were before. Pain is an excellent teacher.
Life for me now is so different, but good different. It isn’t easy – in fact, it’s often frustratingly unpredictable, but mostly I find that exciting. It keeps me on my toes, and suits me far better than the ‘conveyor belt’ feeling I talked about before. They say you make your own luck, and I think to a certain extent that is true. I have been continuously astounded by the opportunities that apparently keep landing in my lap, or the incredible experiences I seem to just fall into, but they happen, I guess, because I put myself in a position that allows them to happen, and don’t shy away from them when they come along. I’m still working things out, but I’ve given up putting a time limit on that – I don’t need to make an overnight success of myself. I don’t need to prove anything. I don’t need to justify my choices to the world and, more particularly, to myself. I can just be proud of being me – even if that ‘me’ is sometimes irrationally romantic!
I used to have lots of regrets about medicine, but I don’t anymore. I have had the extraordinary privilege of working in a profession that gives you a perspective on life and a sets of skills that most people never have access to. There was the good – the strength of the human spirit; the camaraderie of this tribe of beings that share your odd little world; the gentle and unobtrusive wisdom of the older generation; the miraculous victories over the seemingly impossible, like getting a young lad with schizophrenia to finally see that his mum was trying to do what was best for him, rather than trying to kill him.
There was the bad – the long, slow exhaustion; the coldness where there should have been kindness; the unbearable, fatal cruelty of child abuse, violence, and an uncaring system; of dying mothers and brains riddled by dementia; of yellowing alcoholics despairing of the lives they lost; of good people in the worst situations.
I got to spend time with people from walks of life that someone of my background would never normally have done. I don’t know many people in my conservative, middle-class circle who can say they’ve had a heart-to-heart with a man whose face seemed to be almost crumbling due to his heavy meth consumption. I don’t know anyone else who’s been given origami flowers made out of NHS kitchen roll by a middle-eastern refugee, after sitting with him post night shift to listen to the horrors he had witnessed. And without medicine, I’d never have had a very, very long laugh with a heroin addict, whom I simply could not cannulate in the antecubital fossa because he’d injected so many times that his veins were shot, and who subsequently went on to show me, the doctor, where the best spots on his femorals were!
And I have to say, there’s pretty much nothing that grosses me out anymore. When you’ve had to scrape stinking pus off an STI-riddled foreskin, you end up with a pretty strong stomach.
I won’t say that it changed me entirely for the good, because that wouldn’t be true. There were negative effects on my character as well – for example, medicine makes you good in a crisis (a few nights in A&E will teach you that), but it often left me nerve-wrackingly anxious in general life. It taught me to grow up extremely fast, but it also made me bitter and cynical in many ways, and I started not to like the person I was becoming. It added colours to my box of metaphorical paints, but left me without the energy or the inspiration to use them, so life became rather grey and faded. It brought out the selfless in me, but also the self-neglect.
To paraphrase that song from ‘Wicked’, I couldn’t say if I’ve been changed for the better, but I do know that I’ve been changed for good.
I feel so honoured to have been a doctor. Even the bad stuff was good in its way, and I think of our time together with pride, and with peace. Who knows if our paths will cross again, but even if they don’t, that part of my life will stay with me. It will remind me that there is still so much to learn, and that, while I think I know myself ever so well, there’s probably something waiting right round the corner that will shock me into realising I don’t know myself at all.
The slight irony is that, the thing I loved most about medicine was the interaction with patients, and that was the thing that was most difficult to find the time to do, given the vast pressures we were under. Now, having left medicine, but still having the title of ‘doctor’, I have the time and the ability to listen to sad things without becoming sad myself. People tell me stuff they wouldn’t tell other people. They trust me and ask my advice, but really I think it’s just being heard that does the most healing.
I accept now that it is possible for me to help other people without being a clinician. I think I was always meant to heal through words, rather than operations and prescriptions. My old med school professor was right – I didn’t really belong there.
Funny old thing, life, eh?