Lots of people tell me I’m brave to have made the decision to leave medicine. I suppose that’s true, but the assumption people seem to make is that I’m fearless – that I’m just the kind of person who finds it easy to jump off the proverbial cliff.
Well, the reality is quite different. I like that quote one often hears about bravery being the ability to overcome fear, rather than the absence of it – I had to psych myself up for years before I felt ready to make the switch, and that’s OK. It’s important to feel ready for a transition as major as quitting medicine.
And one of the things that really helped me in that ‘psyching up’ process was music. I listened to the same songs over and over again. I would change the lyrics in my head to better suit my situation, plus my earphones in and go for long, long walks, contemplating why these songs resonated so much.
So I want to share with you some of the songs that I listened to the most at the time I left, and still listen to now. Check out the whole playlist if you’d like!
The ones that captured how medicine made me feel…
These songs I listened to on repeat when I was a doctor. I still listen to them now sometimes, just to remind myself how it was for me back then:
1. This Is What It Feels Like, Armin van Buuren
I love the broken chord riff in this song – it always put in my mind the image of those ballerinas you get in music boxes, going round and round on the spot. She reaches out gracefully for another world, compelled to keep spinning, but never truly move.
And the lyrics: ‘I don’t ever know how I survive… I don’t even know if I’m alive’. It was so reflective of my experience of being a doctor – I was just functioning, driving on through unhappiness and exhaustion that were so great that I wasn’t even sure how I kept going.
One of my favourite pastimes, as I mentioned, is ‘warping’ song lyrics – taking a song that I like and rewriting new lyrics in my head to better fit my situation. I did that with this song. Orrico sings about the sense of being stuck in a toxic romantic relationship that takes more than it gives, knowing that she should move on, but feeling unable to because she feels she would miss the person she’s with.
Many of the doctors who reach out to me for coaching also experience this sense of ‘stuckness’; they know deep down that they’re not happy, and that they are unfulfilled, but they just can’t seem to move forward. And missing medicine is often a part of that.
“I can’t take it,
What am I waiting for?
My heart’s still breaking,
I miss you even more.
And I can’t fake it
The way I could before.
I hate you,
But I love you,
I can’t stop thinking of you.
I’m stuck on you.”
Scrubs fans out there will recognise this as the show’s theme tune. I always had Scrubs on in the background during my fourth year med school exam revision, so this song brings back a lot of memories!
I guess I like it because it highlights something that I don’t think doctors get told often enough: you’re not superhuman. If you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the huge demands put on your shoulders, it’s not because you’re weak or lacking in resilience – it’s because you’re a human being, and the system is asking too much of you.
4. Gotta Go My Own Way, High School Musical 2
OK, I realise this is a bit weird. High School Musical? Really, Anjalee? How old are you?
Seriously though, I actually love this song. It so beautifully describes my sadness around leaving medicine, whilst also empowering me to ‘do what’s best for me’.
5. Queen of Mean, Descendants 3
This isn’t a song that Iistened to at the time I left, but it’s one I discovered recently and listened to on repeat. I kept trying to figure out why this relatively unknown little Disney song resonated so strongly with me, and it came to me the other day: I see myself in this song is because this was the person I feared becoming.
I felt myself losing my empathy, my compassion. The caring nature that pulled me towards medicine was being destroyed by the medical system, and I didn’t like the person I was becoming.
The irony is that now, there are some people who would call me ‘the leader of the dark and the bad’ (I get accused of many things as the founder of Disillusioned Medic!) But I would say that I dodged this fate, because my empathy has grown, my compassion has deepened, and my soul remains intact. There’s an angel on my shoulder where the devil used to be.
The ones that captured how sad leaving medicine made me feel…
1. Out from Under, Britney Spears
Although there was a sense of euphoria when I first left, there was also a deep sense grief. There was also a huge anxiety over what I would do next. I think I’ve talked about the fact that I sat on the sofa for the first month, crying every day, feeling lost and like the rug had been pulled ‘out from under’ my feet.
“Try to put it in the past,
Hold on to myself and don’t look back.”
2. Audition, Emma Stone (La La Land)
I love La La Land – it’s genuinely one of my favourite films. And this song is special because when I left medicine, so many people thought I was completely nuts. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, and I feel like all my life, people have rolled their eyes at my romantic notions. So the story about Mia’s crazy alcoholic aunt did me good.
“Smiling through it,
She said she would do it again.”
This one is from Glee. God, Disney, High School Musical, Glee… I am beginning to see a rather concerning pattern here!! I didn’t watch much of Glee, but discovered this song by chance, and it resonated because I felt so much shame around leaving medicine. Worried I had let everyone down, and feeling hugely guilty about leaving an already understaffed profession, my life just seemed a mess. I’d tried so hard with medicine, and got so far – would I ever be happy anywhere else? How many career changes would it take to find that something else? Was I just a non-committal flake who would never get it right?
“What can you do when your good isn’t good enough
And all that you touch tumbles down?
My best intentions keep making a mess of things,
Just want to fix it somehow.”
The sadness and regret I felt over leaving medicine doesn’t bother me at all anymore, but for several years, it would flare up when life became hard – when work was frustrating, when finances were tough, or when other people were particularly scathing about my life choices. I listened to this song when I wanted to particularly reflect on a reality of career change: that our dreams are wonderful, but the pursuit of them can be as messy and exhausting as it is exciting. Sometimes we can’t explain why we are putting ourselves through all this trial and tribulation. And sometimes all we have to sustain us is our blind faith.
“Sometimes I believe at times when I should know.”
5. Move on Up, Curtis Mayfield
Aside from this being on the soundtrack to one of my favourite films, Bend it like Beckham – which is the closest I think a film has ever got to the story of my life – it’s a fun tune with surprisingly earnest lyrics. I’ve written before about how difficult it was to tell my parents (and others in my circle) about my decision to leave medicine, and this song helped.
“Hush now child,
Don’t you cry,
Your folks might understand you
By and by.”
The ones that captured how amazing leaving medicine made me feel!
As I’ve mentioned, leaving was a weird contradictory mix of deep grief and pain, and incredible joy and excitement. These songs were the ones that I listened to when I felt the latter!
1. Since U Been Gone, Kelly Clarkson
I don’t think I need to explain this one!
“Since you’ve been gone, I can breathe for the first time!
I’m so moving on, yeah, yeah!”
I like this cheerful little tune because it’s really empowering to say, while it seemed to the outer world that my career was taking a downward turn, I felt I was actually going up. I wanted more from life, so I was taking the step that I needed to – getting out on my own, free, doing my own thing, and not turning back.
“I’m ready to be in control,
And the ground isn’t good enough for me.”
I’ve talked before about how being a doctor drained me of my emotional energy. I lost my empathy, and became someone I didn’t really recognise or even like anymore. That’s why I love the chorus of this song: “no more poison killing my emotion”.
In the bridge, she sings: “And when the music fades away, I know I’ll be OK.” This resonated because the novelty of leaving medicine did eventually wear off, and the next phase of career transition was really tough for me – but I was OK.
4. High Hopes, Panic at the Disco
This is actually a song I’ve started listening to recently. It’s just a hugely positive song about beating the odds, that also reminds me of how much my mindset has changed. I went from a scarcity mentality – full of anxiety and fear over my next move – to a growth mentality. And yes, sometimes I am too idealistic, too naïve and too romantic in my notions, but my common sense and rationality usually keeps that in check (or if not, my best friend does!), and I damn sure would rather be that way than the way I was before.
The ones I listen to when people talk shit about me now
Earlier I alluded to the fact that being the Disillusioned Medic comes with its disadvantages. Almost by accident, I find myself in the position of being an authority on the subject of leaving medicine, and as such, I have earned myself a reputation. I have been called the ‘selfish’, ‘pathetic’, ‘notorious’, ‘mad ex-doctor’ who ‘persuades other doctors to quit medicine’ – amongst other things!
Once, it would have killed me to have people saying such things about me. But now, I find it doesn’t really bother me at all. I attribute that mostly to a huge amount of personal growth…but also partly to the existence of a killer Fuck You section of my playlist:
1. I Did Something Bad, Taylor Swift
I am a massive Swifty. She often captures my feelings in music and lyrics, and this particular song speaks to me because there were so many people who told me, in a variety of ways, that I was doing ‘something bad’. And yet, for all the heartache and pain, there was so much about my resignation that felt so good.
It also speaks to something I’ve noticed over my years of coaching – a deep and disturbing realisation that becomes more stark to me with every client I see – that many doctors are extremely vulnerable to narcissistic abuse, often due to a history of childhood abuse and trauma that they often are not even aware of. You add that to an NHS system where toxic and narcissistic behaviours are often tolerated, and it’s a recipe for a mental health catastrophe.
2. Stone Cold Sober, Paloma Faith
Over time, I got used to people thinking I was crazy and grew to embrace it. I realised that the people who truly cared about me would accept my decision, whereas those who didn’t would never even try to understand. And to be frank, I didn’t care whether they understood or not, because I now lived in such a different world from them, and was learning to think in such a different way. I was miles away and I didn’t need them to catch up.
There’s also a funny bit where she sings ‘I don’t need no medicine’ – always makes me laugh!
“I’m in a whole other dimension,
Dancing doubles on the floor.”
3. King of Anything, Sara Bareilles
When I left medicine, there were some people in my life who had some pretty big opinions. And they seemed to think that they not only had the right to spout their opinions and unsolicited advice at me, but also to expect that I would take their advice on board. The concept of ‘respecting your elders’ came up a lot – I sometimes feel that, especially in Asian cultures, the concept of ‘respect’ is confused with other concepts like submission, subservience and self-sacrifice.
At the time, I often felt obliged to listen while they jabbered on at me, and it often got me down. The bridge of this song really gets me:
“All my life I’ve tried
To make everybody happy
While I just hurt and hide.”
Well, not anymore. I’m the reigning monarch of my own life now and I like my crown.
For various reasons, I grew up believing on a subconscious level that having confidence and being proud of my achievements were bad things. Confidence in my mind was arrogance, and I couldn’t see the difference between being appropriately proud and disagreeably proud, à la Mr Darcy.
It meant that I was really good at seeing all my faults, failures and flaws, and really good at identifying areas for improvement, but really bad at balancing that out with adequate self-recognition. I think there was a gendered aspect to it as well, as bigging myself up seemed extremely unladylike.
So when I first heard this song, and the question the chorus asks, it really got me thinking. Confidence is a good thing, a powerful thing. And if I wanted to succeed, it was about time I started seeing myself more realistically – as a capable person who was really good at particular things. I needed to start trusting my abilities, without constantly worrying I’d get big-headed. What’s wrong with being confident? Absolutely nothing.
The ones that capture how I felt as I built my new career
1. I’m Not Missing You, Stacie Orrico
This song is kind of sad because Orrico is essentially giving up on ever finding love, but it still resonated with me because my career journey had bumps in the road. There were jobs I didn’t love, bosses and clients who weren’t very nice, and days I just felt tired, stressed and purposeless. None of those things were great, but even the worst of them didn’t make me feel anywhere near as bad as medicine did. So even when my new career was getting me down, I could honestly look back at medicine and say I wasn’t missing it.
A classic anthem of empowerment!
Now that you’re outta my life, I’m so much better.
You thought that I’d be weak without ya, but I’m stronger.
You thought that I’d be broke without ya, but I’m richer.
You thought that I’d be sad without ya, I love harder.
You thought I wouldn’t grow without ya, now I’m wiser!
You thought that I’d be helpless without ya, but I’m smarter.
You thought that I’d be stressed without ya, but I’m chillin’.
You thought I wouldn’t sell without ya, sold nine million.’
Ok, so I haven’t quite sold nine million yet… But all the rest is true! Except that, in my case, I would replace ‘You’ with ‘I’. I was the one who had those doubts and fears. I thought I would die without medicine – but I’m living.
3. I Forgot that You Existed, Taylor Swift
‘Getting over’ medicine didn’t happen overnight. Even though I knew I’d made the right decision, I ruminated over my decision to leave, either agonising over the things I missed and regretted, or resenting the bad experiences. I was also still a doctor at heart – my medic tendencies still hugely influenced my character and my behaviour.
But it’s been several years now since I practiced clinically, and I’m so completely removed from it that sometimes I actually forget what it was like to work for the NHS. It sounds crazy, but sometimes hearing about the experiences of my mentees, and even witnessing the way that they think, surprises me. It brings dusty memories hurtling to the fore, and reminds me starkly of just how different I am now. Medicine used to play such a gigantic role in my life – and now, it isn’t love, it isn’t hate; it’s just indifference.
And my god, that’s a satisfying realisation.
Hang on Little Tomato, Pink Martini
I’ve Got a Dream, from Tangled