I was going through drawers, finishing unpacking as best I could, when I stumbled upon one of those moments that feels like a puzzle piece sliding into place. I recently divorced, moved across the country, took a leave of absence from work, and changed my job. It’s been tumultuous, but grounding. I’m back in my home state, near good friends and family, and in therapy. I’m sleeping 8 hours a day consistently and exercising. I’ve also changed my diet. I’m trying so very hard to do all the healing things.
But back to the drawers. I found my old badge set in my underwear drawer, of all places. Tucked into the back was a polaroid picture of my ex-wife and me. I had a stark realization. I carried her with me all the time. My staff knew her and our vacation plans. My patients knew her and our struggles to find her a professor position worthy of her skills. People asked about her at meetings. I had tens of pictures of us on a string of lights in my office, something to make me happy when I worked late hours.
But how much of this did she ever get to see or feel? What did I bring home at the end of my long, stressful primary care days? Fatigue. Difficulty focusing. Trouble falling asleep. Occasional venting about the workload or the system. Occasional patient stories. I was too tired to help more, even when I wanted to. I was so tired and apathetic that I didn’t even recognize ways I could help. I realize now that when I was buried deep in my work, I couldn’t clearly see the “me” that she was getting.
And now, after a 3 month leave of absence, I’ve slept. I changed my job. I have less stress. I have shorter days. And while there was more to our divorce than this, I cannot help but feel disappointed and frustrated with myself. I’m sad about how I should have done this years ago, not just for my own sanity, but also for her sake, for our relationship. The lucidity that has come brings with it an objective review of myself, and it’s not pretty.
So this is my warning to you all: Don’t be me.
I won’t call what I have regret, because there’s more to our story and this alone doesn’t paint the whole picture. But what I have now is clarity, relief, free time, and most importantly, my life, energy, and personality back. Fortunately or unfortunately, I also have a tangible picture of who I was.
I say this with love for my physician community, the career and people I’m so proud to be associated with and have worked so hard for. Heed my warning: Don’t be me. Don’t lose yourself. Don’t lose your family. Don’t lose your soul. Don’t be a martyr. Make the changes you need. Take the sabbatical. Go part-time. Take more time off. Get 8 hours of sleep. Prioritize paying off your loans until you can be debt-free.
Don’t let your life, your health, or your energy slip through your hands. Life is so very short. We only get one. Everything we love is so temporary. Don’t sacrifice your personhood for a job. Make sure you are bringing home the self you want to be, the self you want your family to experience. Make sure you’re living the life you enjoy or at least that you’re working towards fulfillment with an intentional, organized plan. Don’t put happiness off until retirement, because the future is never guaranteed. Life is so short and temporary.
For those of us who end up experiencing major life changes – divorce, death, disability, retirement, etc. – I hope you can also find your groundedness. Re-engage and re-learn your own soul. Fall back in love with who you are as a person, not just as a career machine, but as a relational human being. I hope you find a way to bring your best self to the forefront again, bring home your most loving, healed self. Because they deserve it. Because you deserve it. Don’t squander your life as a shell of yourself.
I’ll leave you with a thought exercise. I love to write, so I journaled this out, but do what comes naturally to you. Talk it out with a best friend or therapist, or your partner/spouse. Write it down. Talk it into a voice memo and listen to it again. Set aside 20 minutes and feel this to your core.
The exercise: You have just found out that you have 6 months to live. You’ll be exactly as you are now until the moment you die. There’s no negotiating, no treatment options, no doctor’s visits. Your time is coming to an end. What do you do? How do you spend your time? Who is around you? Who fills your life? What do you have left to accomplish? What messages do you have left to deliver? Who needs more of your time and effort that you’ve been putting off because you’ll do it later? What do you want your life to look like? Who do you want to be?
Now, I realize that essentially no one will say they’d keep working. Go past this. Dig through your relationships, your life goals, your soul longings. And then go do it. Tell your people. Spend the time. Plan the vacations. Start painting/writing/golfing/running again. Hire the cleaner. See your friends. Bond with your family. Do it while you can. Prioritize what comes forward in this exercise. Make the necessary changes. Start now. Let this be your sign.
May your lives become filled. May your hearts soften. May your relationships deepen. Don’t let a job keep you from your life, friends, family, or yourself. Life is so very short. Don’t waste it.
M. Michelle McClelland is a family medicine physician.