These last few weeks have been tough. Returning to work after long term illness was never going to be easy. My anxiety, which had settled somewhat, has got worse again but I suppose that is to be expected.
I have found it really hard to find the words to describe by absence to colleagues or to justify my need for a phased return and supernumerary training. I don’t want everyone to know that I was in a horribly dark place, that I thought about ending it all, that suicide was the only way for it all to stop. I don’t want them to know that weekly therapy and mood stabilisers saved me. I now carry a label; a label that says Bipolar 2.
Somehow, I feel really uncomfortable when the words “I have been unwell” come out of my mouth. Self compassion is something I am learning. My brain still diverts automatically to the negative, self loathing chat which takes considerable effort to silence. On a couple of occasions I have muttered something about the current pressures of the NHS completely breaking me. People seem to understand and relate to that and it isn’t completely untrue.
This time last year I genuinely believed that I could no longer be a doctor. I couldn’t see how I could fit back into that environment; how I could continue giving so much of myself in the knowledge that it was compromising my own wellbeing. I felt so bitter about the system, bitter and even resentful towards the patients. This was so far removed from the old version of me; the passionate and dedicated paediatrician who thrived on patient contact and communication, the me who people turned to for advice, the me who I admired.
Pulling myself out of that dark place was, and still is challenging. Hours and hours of therapy, unlocking and reliving traumatic childhood events. Learning new, more adaptive coping and self-help strategies. Stopping, starting, switching medications to re-establish the neurotransmitter imbalance. Crying in cafes. Panicking in stations. Freaking out in a crowd…. I can now see it. I have come a long way. I couldn’t be a doctor then. But now… well , now I am ready to try again.
And so, armed with my newly learnt coping strategies, I turned up on my first day back. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a Welcome Back banner and party poppers, but I had hoped there might be someone vaguely expecting me, someone to welcome me or greet me, put me at ease knowing how worried I was. I had had several meetings in the run up to going back. I had planned, possibly over planned it. But I should have told my supervisor I needed him there on the morning of my return, that I didn’t want to walk into handover on my own with fifteen other doctors I didn’t know staring at me. Because the reality is, that although I have worked in this hospital before, everyone has moved on. I don’t really know the current juniors, there are familiar faces among some of the nurses and consultants but there is also a lot of change. And, well, I now realise I am not good with change!
I may not have quite got the pastoral support from work that I had hoped for on day one, but my friends and family totally made up for it. I got cards, a bunch of flowers and a miniature bottle of prosecco at the end of the day. But it wasn’t about the tangible gifts. It was about the love and understanding that came with them. I could not have got through those hospital doors two weeks ago without knowing those friends were there, in the background, believing in me when I couldn’t. Their love and support meant the world and gave me the courage to face my fears and go for it.
So, look out for each other, go for coffee, chat and think about the bigger picture. As you sit in handover, ask yourself what has happened to the person sitting next to you as they got up and came to work. Everyone has baggage, we just can’t see it.