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Hard or Squishy: The Alfa Doc's Reflection on Burnout and Taking Time for Oneself

Is this a rock (hard) or is this charcoal/ burned wood (squishy)? Seems like a dumb mindless question to answer, right? Why would a doctor be asking this question? How I so wish some days for mindlessness. Caring for patients and always needing to have the answer or solution weighs so heavily some days that it is hard to breathe.

Am I a hypocrite?

I counsel patients all day about taking time for themselves, decreasing their stress, getting routine exercise, improving their sleep and connecting with loved ones. "Be selfish", "take time for yourself", "enjoy life, you only get one" are things I commonly say, but rarely if ever do. Instead, when asked, I say "I have 1000 things to do". I say this so much, my children will say it for me.. "I know, you have a thousand things".

Besides the occasional free day of not being called to the emergency room or a half day of quiet I really haven't had a day off since September when I opened my office full time and that was over 8 months ago. How does anyone work for 8 months straight and keep up the smile on their face?

Holidays, you must of had holidays off, right doctor?

Well, I had "holi-moments", but not "holi-days".

Sickness, illness and patient care doesn't wait. "But you went to Vegas in December, doesn't that count as time off?" It should have, but my trip was work related, an educational conference, where every minute I was thinking "how can this approach help my patient with the abdominal pain and migraines" or "wow, maybe this technique will help the kid with a concussion" or "I wish I was as smart as...speaker X" or "I'm so behind, why didn't I start this journey earlier?" and of course, "I have 1000 things to do".

Taking on the responsibility of my own practice seemed like a good idea, it seemed like a fun adventure, it seemed amazing, scary and courageous all rolled into one. What happens though when it becomes overwhelming and hard to breathe? What happens when doubt creeps in? What happens when you become paralyzed and the 1000 things never get done?

Well, you close your office, pack a lunch and drive till you find the sun. That is what I did with my husband two days ago. I was selfish, I told the universe I will not answer emails, texts or phone calls that day unless one of my children has a true emergency. I tuned out to everyone else and tuned into me. Where had the fun gone? Where was the joy? Where was the smile on my face? My husband said he doesn't see the sparkle in my eyes anymore. How come I can't be silly and have fun? Fun...what is that? I see everyone talking about COVID isolation and how they have enjoyed family time and reconnecting with their children or cultivating hobbies like painting and crafts. Some people complain of boredom and can't wait for life to get back to normal. Still I have 1000 things to do and none of them involve fun, crafting or even connection. It took an elephant sized pressure on my chest with difficulty breathing, fighting a flood of tears streaming from my face and potentially ruined relationships for me to realize that something had to change. I had to change.

I celebrated Mother's Day on Saturday May 9, 2020 this year as I am on call today, May 10th and may need to spend my day in the emergency room. I hope that today is a good day for all the other mothers out there as no one needs a tragedy on such an amazing day. A day to celebrate the mothers that have graced our lives in so many ways and have made so many sacrifices that one can never understand even if a mother, yourself. My Mother's Day was amazing. I again closed off from everyone except my family. We gardened, pulled weeds, raked the lawn, and then tackled a pile of rocks, burnt wood and metal that was left over from a prior pallet bonfire.

This pile was at the edge of our lawn and I started pulling the staples, nails and broken screws from the pile last year, but didn't even come close to finishing it. "Why do you care about this pile, just throw all of it in the trash", my kids said. I don't know why I care, but I think it has something to do with the details.

Life's details are complex, messy and sometimes hard to decipher.

What is a rock, what is a piece of charred wood and what is broken metal, are all hard questions to answer when the pile is all grey from mud and soot mixed together. But if you dig in the details you see the beauty of what lies underneath. These nails and broken screws held boxes and pallets together, someone's windows or refrigerator was shipped to their new home on these pallets. Dreams were made on these pallets and when that dream was fulfilled a group of students graduating high school made a bonfire to celebrate the new beginnings with these pallets. Now I am sifting through the mess of what was left over to find my own new beginnings. Today I don't want to solve problems or fix things, I want to sit with my kids in the sunshine and decide "is this a rock-hard" or "is this charcoal- squishy." There are no 1000 things here, there are only smiles and silly conversations. We speak of our "primitive digging tools", my problem solver son pulls out the magnets to pick up the metal, and we joke about using "non-primitive" digging tools, ie. a hand rake to stir the pile up. Is this hard? Is this squishy?

Simple questions, huge meanings. Life is hard, people are squishy. Don't get caught in the rut of 1000 things.


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