I had a strange thought that both delighted and frightened me in my intern year: I was sitting in my parent’s living room, exhausted. I had been fortunate enough to complete residency near my parents and visited with them pretty regularly. I realized that being a doctor is like no other job because you eat, breath and sleep medicine, it becomes your life. You are a doctor when you are driving by a car accident on the way to work, and you remain a doctor at the grocery store with your kids when the middle-aged man in front of you in line develops chest pain or on your way to Hawaii when the elderly lady on the plane passes out.
There is great pride related to this knowledge because people who become doctors really want to be doctors. You have finally earned the knowledge to be helpful in the above scenarios! We work tirelessly, in some cases and even move to different countries to attain this goal. We sacrifice the majority of our 20s, for many of us put off having children, we lose touch with friends and family. In all the adrenaline required to get through medical school and residency, no one really talks about the self-consuming nature of medicine in a negative light. The goal is to be the best most capable doctor you can be. And to do this, you must eat, breathe and sleep medicine. I remember discussing this with my family to which they showed understanding, but ultimately my mother said: “You have to remember, it’s just a job.” It is, but it’s not, simply for the reasons stated above. You never stop being a physician; it is an ingrained part of your identity.
That lurking fear that settles in with the realization that this is now your identity is embarrassing, and you feel shame. Shouldn’t you want to be a doctor all the time? I have struggled with, and I have gone back and forth as probably many do, but I have realized that it is OK if the answer is no. It is OK to want to be wife, dad, sister or son and silence that doctor part of your identity. Having to function as two or more identities simultaneously is tiring, especially due to the many expectations tied to your doctor identity.
What depressed me as I had this epiphany sitting on my mother’s sofa was that I thought I couldn’t be anything else. How was there any time to allow for personal growth? Having my daughter after residency, moving to a new town, I had few friends and family around. Connecting with other female physicians on social media was the best thing I could have done. These women have helped me realize that being a physician doesn’t mean I have to only be a physician. I have been motivated to pursue other passions, to prioritize what is important to me. To pursue things that were important to me prior to becoming a physician, to adjust parts of my life in order to find a way to make time for me.
When such a large part of your identity is being a physician, it hardly seems possible for there to be room for anything else. Taking time away from this part of your identity is uncomfortable at first as you have worked so hard to attain this identity. For working parents, no matter what your job, intertwining the two worlds is difficult. For physicians, the job is actually also a large if not all-consuming part of your identity, and this complicates things further. There is an unnecessary pressure that I believe prevents people from “being” anything else. Fear of deviating too far from this identity possibly makes us feel like we may lose it.
Allowing yourself to “be” something else or generally enjoy something outside of medicine eases the pressure. You are always a physician, but you are allowing yourself to identify with other things. Finding hobbies and other creative outlets are crucial to prevent burnout, to have something to look forward to, unrelated to the stress associated with work. For many, the way the system is in its current state, there is no opportunity to discover passions and hobbies outside of medicine. Many of us are just trying to stay afloat. I urge you to find a way — make time — you will be a better physician for it.
Jazbeen Ahmad is an internal medicine physician.
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