I was recently asked by a reader how I had recovered.
As I started writing my response, I suddenly appreciated that I had got better. It may seem odd that this would not be obvious as I have been ‘better’ for a long time. Complete recovery though and feeling stronger as a result of what happened has taken well over 12 months, and for many I am aware it takes much longer.
My breakdown was complete. I was bed-bound for days. After yet another night of not sleeping and struggling at work and home, I finally saw my GP.
I would like to share the 9 things that helped me. The order reflects the stages I went through.
This was key. I was exhausted emotionally and physically. My body had been so wired for so long, fuelled by unhealthy coping mechanisms and lack of sleep. This was detox from everything. My bed felt safe.
2 Reaching out.
To those close to me at first. Their understanding, acceptance, lack of judgment and love was critical at a time when I felt none of these things for myself.
Then to wider family, friends and my community. Friends and colleagues shared their stories and resources, normalising my experience. Sadly, this is something that has happened to more people than I had ever appreciated.
Like for so many of us when we are stressed or not feeling emotionally well, we narrow down and focus just on the things that we have to do. Exercise for me suffered. And for me, it has always helped me maintain balance.
I started walking with friends. I took up yoga and started running again. Getting outside and moving was key. It calmed my mind even just for small moments.
4 Getting professional help
This was something that I always thought that “other people” did. My patients had breakdowns that I helped them through, but this was not something that I felt that I needed or that would help me. After all, I knew what therapy was about.
It was my GP who motivated me to seek help. And in the end, what did I have to lose?
I started CBT. We explored how my thinking, feelings and behaviour impacted on myself and others. I started to see that I could take control.
Data from the Practitioner Health Programme in London shows that once doctors “take of their white coat”, and let go, we make very good patients and do really well.
5 Unpicking and understanding
I needed to understand. How had I got here? (More on this in another blog.) How could I prevent anything like this happening to my kids?
Once my mood lifted, I started to read again. I read endlessly: on-line, books, articles, anything. Social media (new to me) and podcasts (particularly the “Doctor Paradox” by the inspiring Dr Paddy Barrett).
I entered a dynamic phase, one filled with ideas and plans. I felt liberated from the shackles of medicine, and filled with hope and optimism.
6 Meditation, mindfulness and yoga.
Learning to breathe again. Learning to calm my mind and to create space. To be present, rather than worrying about what had happened, and what was going to happen. Becoming aware of when this happens and learning to tune into the body.
Inspired by the connectivity idea of Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg, I sought to follow things that interested me. I consumed information at conferences, through reading, watching video and TED talks, listening to podcasts, and through social media.
#My 3 words for 2016: Hope. Connection. Compassion.
I continue to follow what interests me, by re-defining what success means to me – and my family.
8 Taking a leap.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway” is the title of a book by Susan Jeffers. It was recommended at the 2016 ‘Diversify’ conference by Dr Giles P Croft. His talk resonated greatly with me. (More on this in a future blog). I felt inspired to just give things a go, to take a risk and embrace uncertainty. This somehow felt far less scary than managing the uncertainty of general practice.
So I took my leap and launched this site. I applied for a role with PHE to be a champion for physical activity, something I have always been passionate about. And I now also work as a clinical lead for the new GP health service.
There is an emerging evidence base that learning and trying new things are activities that improve our resilience and well-being. And they certainly helped rebuild my crushed self-esteem.
9 Maintaining balance
I am still learning to fly. I wobble often. I have crashed twice. Back to my duvet, but not for nearly as long. I have mechanisms in place. And I am slowly learning to surf the waves.
More on maintaining balance and exploring the factors that make doctors particularly vulnerable to mental ill-health in future blogs.