The value of listening

Spring 2001

I lay on the small bed, staring at the ceiling. He wasn’t usually this late.

I had been an inpatient for 2 months by now and knew the drill. He came in the evening, wearing his suit, straight from his practice in town I assumed.  Generally he would knock, then push the door open and perch on a chair squeezed in between the small table and my wicker bed. I would talk. He would act interested. Then he would leave. He rarely, if ever, said anything.

Once in a while I would go to his office. He’d peer over his imposing wooden desk, fountain pen poised over crisp white paper, waiting for me to utter something worthy of scrawling on his pad. On my way back to the ward I would push my way through the overcrowded smoking room, acrid smoke stinging my eyes. At the top of the stairs I’d shuffle past the nurses’ station and slip into my room unnoticed.

I lay waiting but the consultant didn’t come that night. Instead his registrar appeared as I was getting into bed.  Embarrassed, as I was wearing particularly hideous yellow pyjamas, I pulled my duvet up to my chin and shuffled down the mattress. He sat down and started talking to me. I can’t even remember what we talked about but I remember him.  I remember him because for the first time, someone had seen beyond my label, beyond my diagnosis. He saw me.

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Earlier that Spring, the anorexia had reached a point where I couldn’t carry on. My weight was at a critical point. My periods had long stopped. I had been started on antidepressants with little effect. My poor mother didn’t know what to do. I agreed to be admitted but there were no local eating disorders units for me to go to. The postcode lottery meant that this hospital, over an hour from home, was the only place I could get a bed. Somehow it seemed better than nothing.

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Nearly 20 years have passed since I lay on that bed in the psychiatric hospital. A vulnerable teenager locked behind huge iron gates; not allowed to leave.

I can still see people’s faces: the middle aged lady who sat beside me describing her suicide attempt, the bearded man who sat on my bed and cried.

I remember.

I remember the face of the young woman I befriended who then tragically took her life. I remember it all. That was my normal.

And as I replay these images like an old movie in my mind, I see the registrar. The only doctor during those three months who saw me, who listened and who reached out to a young lonely teenager.

 

Be that doctor. Listen to your patients. See beyond their label. See them for who they really are.

“We all need somebody to lean on”

In the run up to returning to work I tormented myself for days about how I was going to explain my absence to my colleagues. What words could I use to justify being off sick for a year? Should I make up some excuse, pretend I had had another child? Perhaps if I was suitably vague people would get the hint and not ask. A friend jokingly suggested I should explain I’d had really infectious and deadly disease and then cough all over them!

Facing my colleagues was the real hurdle of returning to work. The medicine per se felt like the bit I could do. The rest…. I was returning to a culture that didn’t get me. I was a broken doctor, a doctor who couldn’t cope. A failure.

This is genuinely what I believed.

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Whilst I had been off work things had got pretty bad. Large crowds, busy places and travelling on my own had all become fraught with panic and overwhelming upset. I had isolated myself in order to avoid triggers. I had a few ‘safe’ friends, but gatherings with more than three people…. arghhhhhh. I can still feel it now: tightness in my chest, an irrational fear mixed with dread and panic. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t exactly relishing the idea of returning to work and having to face a room full of people I didn’t really know.

The first few times I uttered it I remember my voice sounding wobbly: “I have been unwell and had some time off sick.” It sounded so wrong, so foreign. Admitting vulnerability is not something that we do as medics. You could see in people’s response that it isn’t something we are used to hearing  either. A sort of embarrassed “Awww” followed by silence. Why do we find it so hard?

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After a few weeks of being back I started to talk a bit more. I found myself using the phrase “Mental health problems” and surprisingly, nothing bad happened. I began to realise that the worst mental health stigma was in fact what I was inflicting on myself. As I looked around, I saw other doctors struggling, trainees talking about the pressures, the rota gaps, the constant unrelenting demands on them. And then I found Twitter, which has given me access to people, ideas, discussions, support that I cannot begin to describe. My twitter world has made me realise I am not alone. I am not broken. I am human.

With that in mind, I decided that I would speak out. Silence had got me nowhere. Now it was time to share my story. As I described my experience, I hoped that someone somewhere might take solace from knowing they weren’t alone.

And so I talked. I talked to colleagues over coffee, I listened to them share their struggles. I talked at departmental and regional teaching sessions. Because mental illness can happen to anyone and no one should feel ashamed of it. And as I talked, I felt empowered.

Disclosure isn’t for everyone and potential consequences need to be considered carefully. I certainly haven’t shared all the details of my history and what I speak about varies depending on the situation.

But the shame has gone. I feel like I now have permission to be me.

De-stigmatising mental illness in doctors is clearly not going to happen overnight but we can all make a start. Dare to share how you feel. Talk to your colleagues about what you do to relax or wind down after a busy day. Discuss mental health. Prioritise well-being. Let’s face it, if we don’t, no one will.

And in the words of Bill Withers:

“Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me!
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on”

 

I am a doctor and I have mental health problems

Yesterday, I sat with my Granny in her residential home watching the Victoria Derbyshire show. She held my hand as I cried. Finally a topic so close to my heart was being given air time. Everything I feel and have felt for years was being said.

The report told the story of two doctors who took their own lives in the last year. That could have been me. It highlighted the amazing work of the Practionner Health Programme (PHP), set up for doctors with mental health difficulties and addiction. The team are incredibly experienced in dealing with barriers to seeking help and the challenges faced of being both a doctor and a patient. At the moment, only funding those in London can access the service. Dr Clare Gerada, the clinical director, and her team continue to fight to extend their provision to the rest of the UK. I am fairly certain that if I had had access to this earlier in my training I would not have got to the dark and distressing place I was last year.

A few weeks ago I was approached by a journalist via my twitter account @doc_bipolar about featuring in his film for the Victoria Derbyshire program. I thought long and hard about it. I spoke to Lucy, the CEO at the PHP, who was very helpful and supportive. She empowered me to do what was right for ME something I have never been great at. So with that in mind, I explained to the journalist that I felt unable to feature in the film at the moment. Instead I decided to write an anonymous letter to illustrate my points. I didn’t ever think it would be used.

So here is my story.

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“I am a paediatric doctor. I work in the North of England and have done since I graduated from medical school ten years ago. I have battled with mental health problems on and off throughout my training. Things got pretty bad and I was signed off sick for almost a year. Only very recently have I felt empowered and able to reach out and talk about my difficulties.

So why didn’t I ask for help sooner?

There is still a huge amount of stigma around mental illness in doctors. It has always felt as though I am expected deal with everything and anything that is thrown at me in the same way that those around me do. Head down and crack on. Patients come first. Never in my training did anyone teach me to look after myself. People didn’t really share their struggles. We learnt how to take blood, insert catheters, break bad news etc but the self care skills, the skills that I now realise are essential to the sustainability and the well being of our doctors, these were never spoken of.

I was always terrified (and to some extent still am) of what would happen if someone found out I had mental health problems. Fear of what it would do to my reputation. Would I be chucked out of medical school? What if my colleagues no longer trusted me? Maybe I would be reported to the GMC?  Worse still, what if a patient found out and then I was struck off?

As it happened, things got a lot worse. It was initially quite difficult to access support at work and my attempts were met by resistance. I was referred to a psychiatrist by my GP and not long after was signed off work. Last Christmas I was diagnosed with type 2 bipolar disorder. I considered leaving medicine altogether, I couldn’t see how I could still be a doctor with this label. But somehow, with support and care, medication and therapy I found a way back. I am now well and back working in paediatrics.

I am not yet functioning at the level that I used to but I am getting there. I am regaining my confidence and reminding myself that I can do it. And this time it feels different because I have learnt to prioritise my own wellbeing. I work less hours, I leave on time, I refuse to work 13 hours without a break.

So now, by starting a conversation and sharing my story (generally anonymously on twitter or on my blog) I find that others are opening up about their difficulties. I am not alone after all. If only I had known this back then…

Culture change will take time. There are improvements but we are not there yet. Until that time, I don’t feel able to go completely public with this and I worry about how one negative or ill informed comment or reaction would impact on my own emotional wellbeing.”

And so as bits of my letter were read out on BBC 2 yesterday morning, I sobbed.

Maybe I can do this after all. It turns out I am not alone and maybe, just maybe I can inspire others to keep going when there seems to be no hope.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45356349