I am sitting in hot springs deep in the dark and crisp air woods – naked. It has been a day of lectures and workshops at a retreat with my fellow physicians. We are all naked in the effervescent, warm bubbles of the springs. In the dark, I can recognize who people are by the fluorescent necklace each wears. You know, the kind that you crunch and shake to activate that the kids get at a party. The kind you give the kids to be safe when trick or treating in the neighborhood. In many ways, these were our safety lights, worn around the neck to give a glow – but not too much light that would allow us to realize our nakedness. Funny how doctors are about nakedness. If you think about it, we deal with naked or partially naked bodies all the time, day in and day out. We take it for granted that our patients are willing to disrobe and be examined. As an OB/GYN, I saw at least twenty naked women a day. They did have a drape for their comfort, but I certainly gave it no thought. I tend to think of fellow physicians as floating heads full of information that we exchange – certainly not as embodied butt – naked humans. This is so weird. Naked with my fellow physicians that I barely know? What? What am I doing here? The thought fades for a few moments with the fading tension in my body as the warmth of the water envelopes me.
Clothes are optional in the hot spring tubs. Just one of us has on a bathing suit. I think we all wanted to be brave on this new adventure of getting to know our fellow retreat participants as whole human beings. All of us came as physicians to heal in the waters. We are doctors trying to escape the “big box” of corporate medicine. We each had stories of trauma, moral injury, abuse, burnout, depression, and even suicide attempts. Our jobs had been toxic. Our bodies and psyches had been abused in the demands of our careers. For me, the warmth of the water seemed to be melting those memories away. I just felt, well, human.
The talking in the hot springs is low and hushed with occasional bursts of laughter, but mostly the conversations were a drone in the background as I was floating on the surface. It reminded me of hushed voices in the hospital corridor. I can hear the occasional silence with the lapping and bubbling of the water and sense a darkness. You can almost feel the shift in the air as the humans in this hot spring downshift, start to relax, and we begin to share our stories. As I look up to the stars and sense the large old and wise pine trees, my world expands. My heart softens. I can smell this fresh cool and crisp air mingled with the sulfuric steam of the healing waters. As I revel in the peace, I hear one of my cohorts giggle and laugh out loud. I notice my breasts floating in the buoyant mineral waters, and I hear a female colleague chuckling as we both seem a bit surprised by the floating parts. She has on her swimming suit but then giggles and makes the bold move to remove her suit. This seems like a very human and intimate moment to me. I knew she was one of us that initially felt very uncomfortable in the group. The masks of our projected and protective external selves were beginning to soak off, just a bit. As we both laid back to float up to the surface, breasts and all, with a group of naked doctors around us, I finally feel as if I am home and belong to our chosen profession. Funny that our humanity is so covered in our professional roles. This experience is like truly looking at each other as human beings for the first time. Our adventure brings us closer, and we laugh and sing and say, “Hey, I know you.” I know you without the white coat, without your stethoscope. I know you without makeup or your perfect hair. I know you without the mask. I know you. I am you.
Robyn Alley-Hay is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and life coach. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Dr. Robyn Alley-Hay.
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