Whilst my breakdown wasn’t much fun and I really don’t want anyone to go through the same thing, part of what helps me keep moving forward is concentrating on the positives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still struggling, I still feel damaged and I have days which leave me angry and frustrated but despite all of that, here are ten things that I am convinced would not have happened if I hadn’t broken and for which I am grateful.
1) Part Time Working
Before the breakdown I knew I had to reduce my hours however it just wasn’t happening. The pressure of work, the lack of consultants and the increased work it would create for others made the option of a planned drop in hours ‘impossible’. Oddly, once the breakdown happened there was no option for me or my employer and the impossible became necessary…strange how that happens! The process was dreadful but the outcome was a definite positive.
2) Personal Development
I was trapped in a circle of survival, just fighting to keep the department afloat. Personal development had been relegated not just to the backseat, it had slipped away in to the boot of the car underneath the spare tire and been forgotten. Suddenly I had a chance to reflect upon my career and consider how I had developed, or not, over the previous 12 years. Again, not a model process but the outcome includes a PGDip in Sports & Exercise Medicine, a regular podcast library, RCEM examiner status and starting a PGCert in Medical Education. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, even a slightly mangy one!
3) My Blog
Perhaps not a positive for everyone who comes across it but I’ve been lucky to get some very kind feedback from people who feel it has been helpful to them. It has given me a way to reach out to other colleagues in trouble, to express some of my thoughts and concerns about wellness and medical education and a chance to explore my creative writing skills. It was my breakdown that gave me something to write about and a reason to do so.
Since the breakdown I’ve made a conscious effort to read more. Part of this is about personal development but it is also a recognition that I needed to slow down… reading takes time! Part of that reading was ‘for fun’ (I recommend any of Conn Iggulden’s series) but I also began reading books related to work about design, art appreciation, errors, learning and cognition. Rediscovering this simple pleasure has been a real positive for me bringing me both joy, mental stimulation and a wider view of my work and life.
I loved to teach before the breakdown, I just never felt I had the time. The last few years have given me the chance, and the time, to teach again, to think about different ways of teaching and to develop my own style. Spending time with young, enthusiastic medical students has been brilliant, helping me fall in love with medicine again and opening up opportunities to become more involved at the local medical school. Not only that I somehow managed to find myself being asked to teach at a national medical education conference and in the New Year an international medical conference! There is no way that was in my future 3 years ago.
I ran a little before the breakdown but with the extra time on my hands when I was off sick, I found a local group, started running more and began to appreciate the positive impact physical activity has on our mental health. Since then I have gone on to become a qualified run leader and low key coach. I now run off road, exploring and enjoying the Peak District in a way I hadn’t done in the previous twenty years.
I very quickly lost my feeling of superiority and judgment of others ‘failing to cope’ as my own frailty was laid bare to me. Alongside this, as my own self-centred survival mode was switched off, I began see my colleagues struggles again rather than being blinded by my own. I now have awareness, opportunity and motive to help others and make a special effort to be someone people might turn to if they needed help. I have been fortunate to be approached by colleagues needing support and it is a privilege the old me would never have been granted and probably would not have appreciated.
8) Slowing Down
Whether it was the Resus Room in the ED, the washing up at home or my activities as a youth worker, my life was lived at full speed…all the time. Whilst I might still be tempted to try it, and occasionally still be frustrated that I can’t, the changes in my brain mean I have to be slower. Why is this a positive? Well, whilst I certainly do less now, I can enjoy it more, taking time to appreciate what I am doing rather than thinking about the next job , I can work alongside people more easily and I have a greater sense of accomplishment when I do finish. I suppose the mindfulness people would say I’m spending more time in the present moment rather than living in the near future. Me, I just say I’m slower.
9) Accepting Help
Like many doctors of my era I was hardened in the fire of long hours and little supervision. We were raised to cope at all costs… I did the helping, I wasn’t the one who needed help… that was weakness. Discovering (and then understanding) that I couldn’t always do it alone means that I’ve had to learn not only to ask for help but also to accept help when it is offered. Being prepared to let someone help you, even if you don’t need it, is something I never really did before… I was missing out! Mutual dependance may be a bit riskier than self reliance but it is a hell of a lot more rewarding.
I like smiling. I like laughing. I like being silly. When people met my wife they would always say ‘How do you cope?’ but it was with a smile. As time went on they stopped asking it but I bet they were thinking it… for a very different reason. I had become stressed, angry and joyless… I wasn’t much fun to be around. Would that have changed if I hadn’t broken? I doubt it. Honestly, I dread to think where I would be if I hadn’t broken, what my wife and children would still be dealing with now. If there is one positive above all others to come out of all of this it is that I’ve found my sense of fun again, I’ve found the old me. It’s good to be back!!!