In Part 1 I gave a bit of my history. I was in too deep, and I couldn’t breathe. I hit rock bottom. In Part 2, I share my founder’s story, one of physician burnout recovery. I hope that this may be inspiring to some who are struggling.
In the US alone, physicians have shockingly high rates of burnout, depression, anxiety disorders, and addiction. And that was before COVID. We are a high-risk group for suicide. We are between 5 and 7 times more likely to complete suicide than the general public. We are great at hiding our feelings – in fact, it’s part of our training.
From dissecting dead humans at med school to exposure to the worst tragedies of humanity — children with terminal cancer, violent trauma, invisible illnesses, suicide, and lots more death — we quickly learn to compartmentalize our emotions. This is necessary to some degree, for maintaining clinical objectivity.
Sometimes I feel we doctors are so defended that, as in my own case, I did not want to or even could not see how much mental trouble I was in.
However, for me, the skill of emotional suppression/avoidance/compartmentalization became my go-to for everything difficult in life. I ended up using it to ignore my own self-care, and avoid dealing with my own early life traumas, my marital problems, my difficult boss, and all the emotion that my patients — each with their stories and traumas — unloaded on me.
I was not going to get help, or even discuss getting help, or even think about getting help until it was too late.
Physicians are under increasing pressure and scrutiny. Systems are all are looking to shift risk and blame, increase revenue, reduce costs, cut corners. Doctors are held to higher standards than other professions (and rightly so), so the pressure to perform is greater for us.
On top of that, physicians are often perfectionists with high personal standards. I am one (it’s more manageable, but I still have those tendencies if I’m not careful). The imperfections of medicine, the way patients didn’t follow the textbooks, and the way systems seemed designed to achieve the opposite of health, all ground me down.
And that was on me: if I had been able to let go of this obsession with achievement and perfection then I might have stressed out less.
After all, of the things we worry about, some 97% either don’t happen, or we handle them better than we expected.
I was in denial but also fear: for my licence to practice my vocation; for my job that fed and housed my family; for my marriage; but also for the opportunities, privileges, and acceptance that medicine gave me. In many US states like in the UK and Europe, medical regulators and employers require a level of disclosure of physician mental health problems. There was no way I was going to have that on my permanent record.
Fear of being unmasked and seen as vulnerable kept me in the dark for far too long. My situation could have been prevented if I had sought help earlier. If I had realized I was not alone. If I had spoken to a fellow physician who understood my pain and would not judge me because they had been there too.
If I had found a safe and anonymous space to speak and be heard, maybe things would have turned out differently.
I was blessed to be able to access both meds and therapy. There was no option from my suicidal rock bottom. Facing the loss of everyone and everything I held dear — including my very successful career — was horrendous.
But there was no way I would go to an “Anonymous” group. I was, after all, an *M*D*. I couldn’t possibly walk into a room of down-and-out addicts.
Until my therapist pointed out some bare facts:
1) I was, in fact, a down-and-out addict.
2) My therapist could see me for 50 minutes a week. The remaining 167 hours they could not practically be there for me. So they recommended that I get into a 12-step program and learn from my peers — and when strong enough, help others.
Discovering that I was not alone — when I joined my 12-step recovery program — was like the lights going on in a dark room, only to find other people were there all along, also searching alone in the blackness.
In this room of light, I found a safe space to talk, connect, share my highs and lows, and listen to others at different stages of their journeys.
Essential for me was hearing the “Experience, Strength, and Hope” of people who were just like me but maybe 2-3 years ago. They were at rock bottom, but they found their way upwards, worked the steps which led to a much-improved self-understanding and self-care, and were now joyful and free.
Today, I am the happiest and healthiest I’ve been in years.
I was safe among friends who understood intimately what I was going through. I learned from their experience, strength, and hope. I learned a new way of living.
That is why we started Physicians Anonymous – to help physician burnout recovery and prevention.
A completely anonymous service for physicians by physicians, offering a safe space for peer support and coaching. It is not a mental health or behavioral health service, nor is it therapy or psychiatry. It’s fellow doctors from around the world who have “been there done that” and want to help others.
We hope that in providing this service, physicians will find a safe space to talk, connect, share, and know that they are not alone.
We hope that it will reduce stress, provide support, enable new insights and coping mechanisms, and improve the health of physicians all over the world. Caring, sharing, listening, empathy and humor will be the mode of action and a tool for physician burnout recovery.
And in so doing, patient care will actually improve because very simply, healthy doctors give better care.
To find out more about our private and confidential Forums or Groups, just click or explore the site.