On this day last year, I was sitting at a computer at work doing an admin session. Except I wasn’t. I couldn’t do it. The work was looking at me and I just looked at it back. I couldn’t keep pushing through life at the pace I was. Colleagues and friends at work could see something was wrong that afternoon.
I wrote a post on a GP Facebook group asking what they would think if a colleague needed some time off work due to feeling depressed and burnt out. The responses were so incredibly reassuring (many had been there before)…and told me about the GP Health service set up for exactly this reason. I felt like I was teetering on the verge of completely closing down on the world; I just couldn’t do this anymore. I felt like they gave me permission to ask for help.
Within an hour or two, it started to happen. And I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t ‘get a grip’ and pull myself together anymore. But I couldn’t let everyone down. ‘I’ll push on. I will.’
But then, at the end of the day, one of the GP Partners looked at me and knew. I said I’d be ok to carry on and be there the next day. No I wasn’t; I was going to be off work. She took the decision out of my hands. Such a relief. But I still felt guilty.
I trundled home and went to bed. And pretty much stayed there for 2 weeks on and off. Exhaustion of body and mind. Shut down. Letting everybody else do all the stuff I normally did; childcare, chores etc. The normal me would have felt it hard to let others do all that; I always feel like I should be doing it. But I had got past caring by this point.
Although I had basically just shut down, after a couple of days, my mind started to buzz. I felt like I needed to process my thoughts. Without thinking, I did something I had never done before; I started to write. On my little laptop. I just poured it out. It felt useful and therapeutic. And so the first blog The Other Side‘ appeared, completely unintentionally.
It struck a chord with the first few people I shared it with. So it got shared more widely. It’s now been read over 42,000 times.
And so the writing continued; my own therapy, but realising that others were appreciating me putting it out there. Talking about a taboo subject; mental health. Talking about an even more taboo subject; mental health in doctors. Other people in the same position found it helpful as did their relatives and friends.
The first 2 months off work, I can barely recall – it really was simply a time of rest and healing. And I did beat myself up about being pathetic and having no reason to have got in that state. Other people had more stressful lives – what was my problem?! After 5 months, I was ready to return to work.
Me being me, I became enthusiastic about what I could give to others through the blog. So I kept writing, still for me, but also because there was more I wanted to write about, messages I wanted to get out there, and because I almost felt I had a duty to continue what had become a sort of service to others. Through social media, it became wider too – general bits and bobs of life things – usually stuff to do with making life easier!
I took it a step further and created the online support groups for doctors to be able to provide mutual support; these are very active and members are pleased to have a ‘safe space’ to discuss their difficulties and experiences. There’s also now the ‘Glos. Medics Meet’ group that meets once a month in Gloucester for doctors to meet together for mutual support, in whatever way is needed.
Those that have followed the blog, know that I have had a couple of blips with it that has resulted in me backing off from it to a degree. I started to worry anyway about the impact it might have on my practice. On my social media account, I also made a significant error (data breach on an image) which I was absolutely mortified about.
My ‘story’ therefore has been relatively invisible in the last few months. Once I returned to work, everything just went back to ‘normal’ to a degree. Unfortunately, that happened in more ways than one; there were times when I felt myself slipping back to how last September was. Events like the data breach incident I completely catastrophised about; it was a terrible mistake but my emotional reaction was ridiculously out of proportion.
However, things have taken an unexpected turn in the last few months. I thought I knew what had caused my decline into burnout and depression. I thought it was mostly down to the long hours and emotional intensity of the job. Combined with 2 very young and demanding children at home. Then a bit of being generally a bit fed up of life; no time or energy ever left for me and bits and bobs that were hard to live with.
Our practice moved into a new building in April. I have my own room which makes a huge difference to how I feel at work; I annoy myself slightly about this, but I am someone who is highly affected by my surroundings. Being able to make a space mine and organise it in a way that optimises my working preferences has made a huge difference. I have blog that I have never published which I titled ‘Too Much Empathy?’ I had spent many months believing that my main issue was ‘taking on’ too much of the emotions of the work. I found this a highly traumatic concept as that empathy makes me the doctor that I am and this is the aspect of me that patients appreciate – I thought I had to change this to make the job sustainable long-term and therefore betray what makes me me. I tried to work on this to a level, but I haven’t really managed to change it. However, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I have also found myself starting to actually enjoy my job again.
The children are easier to manage than they were a year ago – in some ways. They were 3 and 1 then. A wilful toddler only recently potty-trained and a baby who has been challenging in every way from the day he was born and needed virtually constant attention and supervision. The combination of the two being more than the sum of the parts; protecting the younger one from the older one etc. Now, my 4 year old has started school. He’s still wilful to say the least! But being that bit older has plenty of advantages. My ‘baby’ is now 2.5 years old and needs less continuous input so that makes things easier – he can now play outside on the climbing frame without me ready to catch him every second he’s on it. He’s now a match for his brother physically in terms of size and strength so they need less intervention when they’re clambering on each other etc!
A couple of months ago something happened which changed everything forever – and opened my eyes to the main source of my ‘depression.’ I cannot elaborate on this more than that on here as it is inappropriate. But it revealed how much was wrong in my marriage. The ‘retrospectoscope’ appeared and I realised that my unhappiness was not mostly the job or the relentless demands of caring for young children as I had thought. It was my home life and my relationship; I knew I was busy at home and carrying a heavy load. But it ran much deeper than that.
The outcome of this, in very simple terms, is that it became clear that my marriage was not sustainable; there was too much that couldn’t be fixed and continuing was not in the best interests of my boys – or myself. I was not happy. Home was not a happy place. This was not good for them or me. I’ve had the most horrendous last few months yet still managed to function normally throughout – at work and with the children and everything else that needs doing. And I’ve been able to do so without much difficulty. My inner strength has returned with a vengeance. Recognising the source of the issue and knowing what needed to happen has felt empowering and liberating. Tough times but a decision that showed a path to a brighter future – and knowing this has carried me through.
I am speaking in the past tense now because today is the day everything changed in the most obvious way. Having made the decision for certain a couple of weeks ago that we need to separate, my husband left the family home last night. It sounds so simple yet all the events in the background have been highly complex and traumatic!
Such massively confused and mixed emotions. Guilt that this has happened. Grief for my failed marriage. Sadness for my boys and their now ‘broken’ home. Yet also relief, hope and optimism. Here I am exactly 1 year later with things probably tougher than ever. But I’m OK. I’m not depressed anymore. I’m a bit stressed and still pretty exhausted but that’s to be expected! I’m crying again tonight but in a completely different way to a year ago. Then it was silent tears from the depths of exhaustion. Tonight, I’m sobbing due to all the recent tension and emotions that I’ve been holding in check for the last couple of months. And now I can release it.
Such irony that the change that starts a fresh new chapter of my life is today; exactly 1 year on.