People always tell me that I was brave to apply to medical school in my 30s. But for me, the bravest thing was to leave the doctor after 10 years.
I always wanted to study medicine, but thinking I wasn’t smart enough, I left school at 15 and didn’t return to education until I was 30. Despite discovering the self-belief I lacked as a teenager, it was still difficult. Personal commitments meant long commutes and money was always tight. The ultimate goal pushed us all, however, to fantasize about what kind of medics we want to be. We didn’t dream of prizes or being named rare diseases; each of us dreamed of being a doctor who made a difference. The doctor who fixed everything.
You spend five years in medical school learning how to fix things, but after graduation, when you’re spat out in a hospital room, you soon discover that there are a lot of things in life that you can’t fix. This is a hard lesson. Especially in conditions of insufficient funding and lack of personnel; if everyone in the NHS only did the job they were supposed to do, the whole system would collapse within 24 hours.
But that wasn’t the kind of workload I was struggling with. I could handle the long hours and lack of resources because everyone had to do it. What seemed really impossible to me was the emotional burden. As a doctor, you know you’re about to witness something unpleasant. You know you’re going to hear people deliver devastating news. You will watch people die and you will see the most horrible suffering. Being present at these vulnerable moments in a stranger’s life is a privilege, but it also becomes a burden when, like me, you can’t let go of those moments. You never know how you will react to something until it is in front of you. I believed I was strong enough to handle it. I thought life experience would help me. I was wrong. I collected these anxious moments and carried them inside me until I became mentally and physically ill myself. Until their weight began to break me.
Ironically, medicine is not a place to break down, and I knew I needed to find a coping mechanism very quickly, so I started writing. Writing allowed me to escape, to open the door to another world, but it also helped to smooth out my thoughts. During my lunch break (if there was one), I sat in the hospital parking lot and blanked out my head on the page. I wrote a story that I didn’t think anyone would read (I thought my mom might read it), but this story happened Problems with goats and sheep, and it would be a Sunday Times bestseller. But with such unexpected success, I had to make a decision. Was I a doctor or a writer?
Whenever I tell people that I no longer practice medicine, there is always silence. Silent trial. Because medicine is not just a job, it is vocation. Vocation, however, is a dangerous word because we use it to justify poor working conditions and lack of quality of life, and everyone in the caring profession is expected to endure what no one else will just because they have some divine calling. After the silence, people usually join hands, smile and say “good for you”. And it really was, mentally and physically.
By the time my car park book was sold to HarperCollins, the pressures of work and the emotional stress caused by the medication had made me so unwell that my GP sent me for a referral for urgent cancer treatment. Fortunately, I did not have cancer. I had burnout (a dangerous term because it implies something clear and obvious, but often goes unnoticed even by the person who is burning out). Writing, something I had started as a form of therapy, now gave me an exit card, a chance for self-preservation, and I took it. It was a decision I made lightly. I worked hard to get to this point, but I knew that if I didn’t put myself first, I would eventually disappear.
I still work in the wards, but as a volunteer. Because I don’t miss reading EKGs and filling prescriptions, I miss my patients. It was only about patients. I’ve been called a lot since I quit medicine. Snowflake. Weak. I was told I had no backbone. All of these may be true, but there are times when you need to focus on yourself. When you’ve come this far down the road, it’s unwise to turn around. Dangerous, almost. But I don’t regret my decision for a second, because turning back and walking away is often the safest course.