Journaling was never my thing. I would buy a pretty journal with great intentions of writing in it regularly. I would write in it daily for a week or two, then forget for a few days, and then forget about it altogether. When I started writing to process some emotions about my mother and my relationship with her, my journal writing was meant to be a brief and cathartic exercise. Surprisingly, when I began writing, the words just flowed out of me. And suddenly, I was writing every day.
My mother died in 2018. We hadn’t spoken in years, and I learned about her death in a voicemail from a friend of hers whom I did not know. I felt so many emotions—sadness, anger, regret, relief, and guilt. I felt guilty for being relieved. I asked myself a lot of questions: How could I be relieved? She was my mother. Why wasn’t I more upset? Why had our estrangement developed? What should I have done differently? What now? Even though we had cut contact, I still felt sad and empty saying, “My mother is dead.”
Many memories surfaced as I was writing. There were plenty of excellent memories, but also an abundance of painful ones. The feelings I had long suppressed from some distressing childhood events (what would now be called ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’) also came to the surface, and the stories flowed effortlessly, albeit painfully, from my brain to the paper. Through my writing, I could reflect on my past from a new perspective, through the lens of a more mature, emotionally intelligent adult. What is the saying? “Retrospection is always 20-20.” But the more I delved into my past, the muddier it seemed to be.
I never considered myself a good writer. In fact, writing essays and papers in high school and college was arduous for me. I loved doing the research, but synthesizing the information and putting it down on paper was difficult, and I would procrastinate until the last minute. Because of my procrastination, I was always scrambling to finish on time, and I developed a strong aversion to writing. In those days, I had no computer, only a typewriter. I couldn’t go back and easily rewrite something. (I had to use those little “white-out” tapes, and they were really only good for typos.) When I got to medical school, I was thrilled that they gave very few writing assignments!
In my reflective writing about my mother, I recognized some character traits that I developed in my childhood—good and not-so-good. As an only child, I learned to enjoy being alone. I wasn’t comfortable in social gatherings. I was a typical introvert. My mother was demanding, and a perfectionist herself, so I learned early on that being perfect and getting good grades was how I could make her happy. Her high standards became my high standards. Looking back as my adult self, I could see how destructive that was. It was suddenly clear to me where I should have set boundaries and how having weak boundaries had eroded my sense of self-worth.
In evaluating what happened that led to the estrangement between my mother and me, I developed a new sense of compassion for what she must have been going through as a single mother. Her past was something she didn’t speak openly about, although she alluded to emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her brothers. I began to recognize that the way she reacted in certain situations was based on her own prior traumas. Ironically, she pursued a career in psychology and used her knowledge of psychology in her parenting. For better or worse, I was her psychology experiment.
I carried a lot of repressed anger at her for many years, which resurfaced explosively after she died. It took several years, and many months of daily writing, thinking, analyzing, and reflecting to get myself to a place of compassion and forgiveness. Along with my writing, I was voraciously reading and acquiring a better understanding of the effects of childhood trauma, the impact of a narcissistic mother, and how patterns of thinking and behavior can lead to habits and addictions. I don’t know that therapy alone would have helped me accomplish the same level of deep understanding. Yes, I was in therapy too.
The writing was cathartic, and it was also very liberating. I finally recognized and celebrated the successes in my life—not just my early accomplishments that were influenced by my mother, but those after cutting ties with her that were born of my own decisions. I saw how my burnout had developed, largely out of an inability to set appropriate boundaries and stay true to my values. I also recognized, retrospectively, how the anxiety I experienced at the height of my burnout was related to menopause.
After writing about large chunks of my life, it dawned on me that my story—from early childhood trauma, through midlife burnout in my medical career, and my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual recovery—might be good material for a book. I hoped that readers could relate to, and learn from, my experiences and then be inspired to take action in their own lives.
In medicine, we are ruled by science. Many physicians are skeptical of practices that are considered a little woo-woo. I was one of those skeptical doctors. But at the lowest point in my burnout trajectory, I figured I had nothing to lose, and I had a Tarot card reading. Pretty woo-woo. The cards told a story of me as an educator. At the time, I had no idea what that meant. But now I have brought it to fruition. I am sharing my story and giving back to my physician community by speaking, writing, and coaching, in the hopes that I can help my women physician colleagues recover from or prevent burnout and live a more balanced and joyful life.