Some time in 1996
I am 10, maybe 11.
The phone rings one evening. It’s my flute teacher- she never rings our house. I make polite and slightly nervous conversation and she quickly asks to speak to my mum.
“OK yes, I see, yes, she will be very upset but yes I will let her know.” That is pretty much how the conversation goes. Minutes after that my mum tells me I have failed my grade 5 flute exam. I cry uncontrollably. Ashamed and disappointed with myself; I have let people down.
I don’t fail things. But here I am. A failure…
I am sitting in my therapist’s office. It hasn’t been long since my diagnosis of type 2 bipolar. I am still trying to come to terms with what it all means. Grade 5 flute exam all over again but on a monumental scale. Failure. I have let so many people down. I have failed to overcome traumas, failed to be normal, failed to be perfect. Instead here I am, sobbing, in therapy, on medication, off work…
The medic in me sees my illness for what it is, recognises the abnormal thought processes and feels compassion. The medic knows I am and never have been a failure. The medic knows empathy and understanding, kindness and care.
But the real me, the me that sits in that chair every week… she hasn’t known how to look after herself, how to accept mistakes or how to love herself. She has been living a life of two extremes.
She still has a lot to learn…
But it has to be perfect…
In medicine there is definitely a culture of aiming high, seeking more, pushing yourself, achieving. Constantly achieving. As a trainee there are assessments, appraisals, exams. There is always a need to do more; audits, quality improvement projects, research, publications, teaching, presentations… not to mention being a good clinical doctor. Somehow bumbling along isn’t really an option. As such, I took the first part of my training very seriously. I threw everything I had at paediatrics, I strived for perfection with each individual patient, each teaching session, each conference presentation. I needed to know I had done my very best. Everything in my life was as ‘perfect’ as I could make it.
Only now, I realise it wasn’t really about perfection. It was about control, about knowing that I had tried my very hardest, I had done everything within my means to get the best result possible. And when the result wasn’t perfect, it simply meant I should have tried harder. But I couldn’t have tried harder. And when I did, I broke.
Maybe it’s OK to slow down
My recent time out of training has really given me some perspective. I have had space to understand what is important to me, time to realise that perfection doesn’t exist.
I see junior doctor training very much like a fish finger conveyor belt. The perfect fish fingers make it to the end but the others, well they get dropped off the belt at various stages- be it they can’t pass their exams, they haven’t performed well enough etc.
But suddenly I realise that I have a choice. What if I don’t want to be a perfect fish finger any more? Maybe it’s OK to step off the conveyor belt for a bit. Maybe it’s OK to be different.
There is a whole world to discover, a world that sits in between the two extremes of perfection and failure.
A world where it is OK to just be me.