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.
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?
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”