About five years ago, I did the first public reading of my non-academic writing. I was a 40-something-year-old physician, and I was terrified.
It was at a narrative medicine event, and I’d been selected to read one of my personal essays. A few days earlier, an experienced performer had given me some pointers. Identified which word in each sentence should be emphasized. Where I should add dramatic pauses, I now had so many underlines and symbols on my printed essay clutched in my hand I wasn’t sure I’d be able to read it.
When my turn came, I went to the front, clutched the microphone for dear life, and read. I don’t remember much about how it went. Even while I was reading, a part of my brain couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could get off the stage and shrink back into my seat. This experience was definitely not in my comfort zone.
Afterward, the woman beside me graciously said something nice about my reading, and we made small talk. In the course of a few minutes, we found out we had much in common, including both having lived in Alaska.
As it tends to come up in conversations between strangers, we asked about each other’s work. She hesitated a fraction of a second. “I’m a life coach.”
From my puzzled but polite expression, she must have been able to tell I’d never heard of “life coaching” before. But she smiled and gave me her card.
When I got home, I studied it more closely. According to the card, she coached “highly sensitive people.” I was immediately intrigued. But since the brutal years of my medical training, being highly sensitive wasn’t something I exactly advertised.
I went to her website and learned that HSP (highly sensitive people) comprise about 20% of humanity. I was astounded. I never knew there were so many others like me.
Then I put her card in my desk drawer, returned to work on Monday morning, and didn’t think about it again.
Until the following year, when I found myself in a position I never thought I’d be, taking a pause on my medical career. Burned out. I remembered her card and went back to her website. I filled out the contact form.
At our first meeting, she explained how she used classic myth and story structure in her coaching. I was again intrigued. As a relatively new writer then, I’d been immersing myself in studying story structure.
She asked me where in the “hero’s journey” I thought I was in my life. Where did my burnout fit in?
I immediately knew the answer. I was at the end. The burnout was the climax of my career, and (in story terms) had thus ended in a tragedy.
“Hmm,” was all she said.
She asked me the same question a few months later.
I was excited to show her my progress. “I’m not at the end. I’m in the dark night of the soul.”
She again gave me her inscrutable “Hmm.”
A few months later, she didn’t have to ask. I’d had an epiphany.
“I’m not in the dark night of the soul!” I told her. “I know where I am. I’m at the midpoint.”
This time, she gave me a wise nod.
Because the midpoint is where everything changes. Where the main character figures out what’s really going on and takes agency. It’s where the story shifts. Up until the midpoint, the protagonist is floundering. Resisting the call to action. Afraid to listen to the messages and information telling them their true purpose. And sometimes making incredibly terrible decisions to avoid facing what they must.
Reframing my burnout as my midpoint and not my ending was life-changing. For the first time, I embraced my sensitivity as a strength and not a weakness. I faced some hard truths about harmful patterns I’d allowed myself to fall into over the years of denying and hiding my sensitivity. I embraced the writer’s side of myself even when she was very different from my doctor’s side. Because she’d done something truly terrifying. She’d allowed something intolerable in medical culture. Vulnerability.
And eventually, I returned to practicing medicine—as my whole, sensitive, authentic self.
Jennifer Lycette is a novelist, award-winning essayist, rural hematology-oncology physician, wife, and mom (to three humans and two of the canine persuasion). She can be reached on Twitter @JL_Lycette, Mastodon @[email protected], and LinkedIn. Her first novel, The Algorithm Will See You Now (Black Rose Writing Press), a near-future medical thriller, is out in paperback and ebook. Her second novel (title and cover reveal coming soon!) will be out in November 2023.