So… what do you do?

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December is the prime time for this question, or versions thereof. With everyone getting together for Christmas and New Year, I knew I would be catching up with friends and relatives and meeting new people, so small talk would be abundant for a good two or three weeks. I have to admit, I was dreading it. I was afraid of their judgement and remarks. I suppose I was also afraid of how I would react to their reactions. I could hardly justify my situation to myself, so how could I justify it to others?

I have always taken it for granted that I could give people a satisfactory progress report. “I’m in year 13” turned into “I’m in year X at medical school,” which turned into “I’m working at such-and-such hospital.” The only variation to contend with was the inevitable follow up question: “Have you chosen your speciality yet?”

Traditionally, the responses I have given to these queries have depended largely on how I feel about the person asking them. With kindred spirits – the people I feel will really listen and might understand my point of view – I am honest, but mostly I’ve just been busy hiding my true feelings about it all these years, even from the people closest to me.

As Christmas loomed, everything seemed so complicated. What was I supposed to say when people asked me what I was doing now?

“I had a quarter-life crisis and quit my job with no plan B, so I’m now officially unemployed and relying on my savings and my fiancé to get by. I have no current certainty or prospects, and not much of an idea about what to do, except a vague plan to write a novel that I’m unjustifiably optimistic about.”

It sounded terrible. I almost wanted to avoid the festive parties altogether to save myself from this humiliating admission. I also felt bad for my parents – when people asked them how I was getting on, they would be having exactly the same problem.

Then, two things happened to me.

The first was deciding to locum after my little visit to the job centre. That gave me something solidly medical to say, and was a relief. “I’m locuming at the moment” is a brilliant answer for those you don’t really want to talk to, and who are just asking you for the sake of saying something. It’s satisfying for both parties and the perfect precursor for a swift exit line.

The other was this: at the start of December, in between dancing for joy and plunging into the depths of despair, I started job hunting on the Guardian website. I found an ad I was interested in for a managerial role in a charity, but being inexperienced with this sort of thing, I was doubtful. I worried that I didn’t meet the criteria in many of the job specifications, because a lot of them stated the necessity for formal qualifications or specific experience. But, as my fiancé told me, job specs are not hard and fast rules. They represent the ‘ideal’, and most companies would rather hire the closest match than wait for the perfect candidate. My career coach has also been helping me to realise the value of the skills and experiences I already have.

So I shot off my CV, not really believing anything would come of it. Then two weeks later, I got a call. The charity had said my application was certainly unusual, but they had loved it. They offered me a telephone interview, and after that, they offered me a formal interview. I’m going in for it next week. Whether or not I get the job in the end, it’s been such a boost for me just getting to interview.

It’s also nice to sing my own praises. It’s not something I got to do much in medicine – it was more about people assessing me. ARCPs are tick-boxing exercises and applying for clinical jobs requires more form-filling and exam-taking than knowledge of your true strengths, skills and weaknesses. It’s just the nature of the medical profession that everybody is presumed to have all the necessary skills for their level. As a result, the thought of doing a non-medical interview is scary. No longer can I rest on my laurels; I actually have to prove myself. It’s made me sit down and think about what I’m really good at, what suits me and what I really want – perhaps for the first time in my entire life.

As the Yuletide approached, I started to see my situation is a different light. Yes, there are things in my current situation that I don’t like, but there is also plenty of potential. This is a really exciting time for me, and I really need to give myself a break. It sounds cliché to ‘have faith in yourself’ and to ‘stay positive’ but these little things can be incredibly difficult to do. I still struggle sometimes, but I’m working my way towards another cliché where I see my glass as half full.

So now, when people ask ‘what are you doing now?’ I have an answer I’m proud of:

“Well, I’m planning to locum while transitioning into a new career. I’ve got an interview with a charity soon for a management role. In the meantime, I’m volunteering for Medic Footprints to help other doctors in their careers – a role that I got because the directors were impressed by an article about their conference on my personal blog. I’m also researching the British colonization of Asia to give historical accuracy to the novel I am currently writing.”

There. Sounds much better doesn’t it? And the best things are: it’s all true, and I can say it to everyone.

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Image from Malla.

Malla is a small business coach and expert at answering this question!

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Officially Unemployed

When I talked to my dad about my resignation, it was difficult to bear the disappointment in his voice when he said:

“So, what, you’re officially unemployed now are you?”

I hit all kinds of low when I took myself along to the Job Centre before Christmas to register as unemployed. It was my fiancé’s idea – he did it when he graduated until he found his first job, and didn’t see any shame in it.

“You might as well try it,” he said, “You might not get the allowance anyway because you left voluntarily, but it will be a new experience for you.”

So I went along with some reluctance. It was so strange. As I went through the doors, narrowly escaping a dubious-looking guy at the front door who was attempting to sign people up for something, I felt an extreme sense of shame. It’s hard for me to write about it now, in fact. All my hard work and good grades had come to this.

I took a seat inside and waited to be called. They were running late by quite some time, so I had a good opportunity to look around at my fellow claimants. I live in a fairly run-down part of London, so I wasn’t surprised that many of them looked unkempt and down-trodden. We all kept our heads down and avoided eye-contact. This wasn’t a situation that encouraged chit-chat. A loud argument broke out between a claimant and an irate employee nearby. It seemed he hadn’t brought any paperwork at all with him and expected her to simply believe he was who he said he was.

My name was finally called. My assessor was a Muslim lady who did a double take when she looked at my application. She was (quite rightly) astounded that I was a qualified doctor. Why on earth was I here?

“What happened?” she cried.

I began to speak, and as I did, I think I was more honest than I have been with anyone for a long time. I told her how I simply couldn’t face going in anymore. I told her about my illness and how it knocked me. I told her about the anxiety I felt about working as a doctor. As I spoke, the reality of how little I valued myself began to sink in. I felt completely pathetic – a broken woman – crawling along, a shell of her former self. Without Medicine I felt totally worthless.

Her eyes softened as she listened to my story. She then talked me through my options, and told me about the process of claiming the benefit. She said we would need to meet at least once or twice a week, and that I would need to keep a log book, and how I would need to prove that I was trying to get work by signing on to a specific forum and spending 35 hours a week actively looking for work. It felt very demeaning and paternalistic, like I was a prisoner on parole.

At the end of our meeting, she noticed it was my birthday the next day, and asked me if I was doing anything nice. I told her I didn’t really feel like there was much to celebrate this year.

“Oh, don’t say that,” she said, kindly, “Sometimes when thing like this happen, it works out for the better in the end.”

She told me about how she had trained and worked as a dental hygienist many years ago, but something happened that made it impossible for her to practice.

“At the time I thought it was a disaster, but now I realise it worked out for the best. My nephew is quite seriously unwell and is often admitted to hospital, but my brother doesn’t have the time to look after him because he’s a GP. There’s no one else but me who can be there to pick him up from school when he’s ill, or sit with him for hours in A&E. Some of my family still say it would be better for me to go back to my old job, because it’s a better career, but sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture.”

She told me to go out with my friends for my birthday and have a good time. Despite my desperate state, she saw someone deserving of a celebration, and I will never forget that. The kindness of a stranger can be incredibly touching, and for a moment I had a weird feeling that I was meant to meet this good lady, that there was a reason it was she who saw me that day.

As I walked out of that building, once again dodging the guy with the clipboard, I knew I would not be coming back. I realised that behaving like the pathetic and helpless person I felt I was only propagated the idea, and I was better than this! In some bizarre way, I was living up to the new expectations that were placed upon me: weak, dependant and needy. Other people had given up on me, so now I had too.

I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore. From now on, I was going to define myself by what I knew to be true. Regardless of whether I would be approved for unemployment benefit or not, I resolved to withdraw my application, and not to take a penny. (Just as well, really, because I was not approved!)

When I got home, I sent off my paperwork to the locum agency. Previously I’d felt incredibly anxious and scared about walking into a hospital again, so I kept putting off applying for locum work. I guess I still feel a bit anxious, but I no longer feel crippled by it. My fiancé laughed when I told him about my change of heart.

“Haha! It’s because I’ve shown you the alternative!” he said, referring to the process of claiming benefits.

I stuck my tongue out at him, and denied it, but he was right. By making me do this, he has shown me a very alternative way of thinking. An alternative where, instead of thinking about what I can’t do, I think about what I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting Rock Bottom – apparently you bounce

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It’s been two weeks since I stopped working. Two weeks sober. What a fortnight I have had…

When I woke up the next day at 8am instead of 6am and had nowhere to be, it felt delicious. The hours of the day stretched out before me, with waves of potential, and to be honest, all I really wanted was to have a break for a bit. I knew I would need time to process leaving Medicine. I didn’t quite anticipate the size of the grief reaction that was about to hit me.

The following Friday, I took myself down to Russell Square where the Professional Support Unit is based. I called them before I left my last job on the advice of the Dean and I really can’t recommend them enough for any doctor in training (foundation or speciality) who is in trouble. They provide all sort of help, from confidential mental health support to career coaching. When I called I had a really interesting conversation with a lady who turned out to be herself a creative – she is a freelance screenwriter who also works on a freelance basis for the Professional Support Unit. They allocated her to be my mentor, I suppose because of our common interest in writing.

We sat down together in a little room with the sunlight streaming in, and we talked. She asked me about my strengths, my likes, my dislikes and my values. And do you know, I found it so hard to articulate those things. After all that communications training, and despite my own quadrilingual tongue, I could not think of a word to say for myself. I panicked internally; how the hell was I going to perform in future interviews if the answer to “what are your strengths?” was silence?

I can’t really say I’ve ever thought much about any of those things. My strength was always my ability to pass exams or ARCPs, my values were insignificant because I was already doing something of such great value, and as for my likes and dislikes, that conversation mainly revolved around the choice between doing medicine or surgery, or between being a hospital doctor or a GP.

My mentor (I will call her ‘Jane’ for the purposes of this) then tried a different tack. She asked me to describe different experiences in my life. She got me to talk about the time I did some voluntary work in West Nepal, and suddenly, talking became a whole lot easier. I could actually appreciate the fact that turning up in the middle of nowhere in an unknown country was pretty brave. I could see that, after being told I was going to be an English teacher but then when I got there, they needed me to be an Art teacher for deaf young people and Dance teacher for street kids, I needed a great deal of adaptability and quick thinking to provide that.

“You’re a storyteller,” Jane told me, “You find it easier to talk about yourself through the medium of stories.”

Deep down, I’ve always known this. I novelise everything because it makes it easier for me to understand and therefore easier to cope with the difficult things in life. I didn’t realise this was a good interview technique.

She gave me some homework to do and I left feeling pretty positive. I realised that now was the perfect time to get to know myself a little better – not with a view to becoming self-centred, but more with the aim to appreciate what’s there already and what isn’t, and to have confidence in my strengths while appreciating my weaknesses. I started to look at my CV, which is very medic-orientated, and tried to see how I could change it to make sense to non-clinical people.

Then the doubt set in.

One day last week, my dad called me up with the express desire to talk about my career. What am I doing now? I’m just lying around at home? Officially unemployed. After all that work, I’m unemployed. So how am I managing financially? Oh, I’m using my savings? Well that’s not very sensible, is it? Am I just going to be a housewife now? Am I going to rely on my fiancé for everything now?

It was so distressing that I couldn’t carry on with the conversation. The idea that no longer being a doctor meant I could only ever be a housewife was ringing in my ears, and I was crying. I tried to rally myself: ‘I will find a job. It might even be a well-paid one, who knows? I will earn my own money and be a useful member of society.’ But it was no use, because when you’re faced with people around you who are baffled by your choices:

“I just don’t understand why you didn’t finish F2! Even if you didn’t want to continue being a doctor in the future, why didn’t you finish F2? It’s bad not to complete things. When you start something, you should finish it. You only had 4 months to go! What are your reasons? What’s your plan?”

These are reasonable questions to ask, and I know the people ask them are just worried about me and wan the best for me, but I find it hard to reveal my real reasons because I fear they won’t be taken seriously. I left because my heart was telling me to, and my only definite plan at the moment is to finish my novel while somehow finding my way into the right career. Such delicate and vague ideas are too easily quashed before they blossom, so I protect them from the storm around me by keeping them to myself.

People tell me that I’m just too romantic. I’m just a dreamer. A friend of mine told me all the people she knew who had tried to do something different and had ended up crawling back to their original profession with tails between legs, but she also told me that even if I manage to get another job, it will never make up for the fact that I didn’t finish my F2, because this is the biggest mistake of my life and I will regret it.

It makes me feel panicky just recalling these conversations. I feel like a small child who had done something very bad and was now being scolded, but it was worse, because I didn’t have the protection of being a small child. I am an adult, supposed to be successful, supposed to be self-sufficient, but all I am is one great big failure.

There it was. That word. Failure.

It’s surprisingly easy to go from niggling doubts at the back of your mind to full-blown depression. It’s a well-trodden path for me, so I know the way down pretty well, and down I went. I felt completely and utterly worthless. The weight of my mistakes and my decisions weighed heavily upon me, and I just couldn’t see how I was of any use or benefit to anyone in this world. I was only a burden on my parents, on my fiancé and all my friends. I was so low and so anxious that I couldn’t even bear the thought of locuming! What was the point of continuing? What the hell was the point of me?

Thankfully, the way back up is also a well-trodden path for me, and what I have found is, when you feel that way, you internalise everything. Paradoxically, you do become self-centred, caught in a loop of negative feedback with you in the middle of it. You break that when you connect with other people, and specifically when you help other people.

On my birthday last Friday, I went to look after my friend, who recently was admitted to hospital, and was coming home to an empty house, as her husband was away in Sri Lanka. I made her lunch and did some jobs for her, and helping her made me feel like a good person again, and she helped me by listening to me and comforting me.

I had just come back from running some errands for her when I noticed some books on her bookshelf. They were her husband’s books about the history of Sri Lanka, written during the 1800s. I could hardly believe my luck! My novel is historically based on the British colonisation of Sri Lanka and here in front of me were books documenting that very period! I asked her if I could borrow them.

I am now sitting on my sofa at home, exactly where I was a week ago, when I was so paralysed by fear and doubt that I felt unequal to everything, but now I have a book in my hand. I’m reading two others at the same time. Researching this topic is exciting! It’s actually fascinating to get a glimpse of what happened and how people lived in those days. My hand alternates between pens and highlighters and I’m brainstorming about how to include all this history in my story. The time passes quickly and I am in my element.

Things aren’t completely OK yet, but this enthusiasm is infinitely better than the despair I felt last week. I still feel really concerned that people will think I’m just bumming around and sapping resources, but I’m beginning to see that worrying myself into a frenzy is just about the perfect way of becoming the very thing I’m afraid of. I am not a failure. As for being accused of being a ‘romantic’ – that’s absolutely correct. Count me with the dreamers, and watch me make a career out of it.