Reflections on Wellness

Photo by Jason Hack

Photo by Jason Hack

“You should own that,” says a colleague, and I agree.  We just attended a conference on physician wellness, my area of academic and personal interest, and we are feeling inspired.  And yet how do you own wellness? The paradox about wellness is that it’s about owning your own vulnerability, that which makes you humble and sometimes ashamed.  And how many humble ashamed people do you see racing to the top giving advice to others?

Who am I to advise others when I still have so much to learn? Does it help to make my inner struggles and experiences public? It’s like trying to understand whether a research study is generalizable.  In statistical terms, I am speaking from my own “n of 1.” And yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that my questioning, curiosity and vulnerability is something we all possess and need.

I appreciate when others share their own unanswered questions.  There is some trust in that sharing, that willingness to be together in the unknown that makes us all  feel whole.  It is not one person taking and another giving. It is not about grandstanding or public confessions and false empathy. The manner in which they found clarity in difficult experiences has brought me solace, and serves as a type of anticipatory barometer. They might not have a definite prescription for my woes, but they remind me that I am not alone in my pursuit of understanding them.

I want to pay that forward, but I have so many excuses that hold me back.  What do I know?  Who am I to say?  Could my wish undermine people’s ability to help themselves?  What keeps me from believing I have something to offer?  Even these questions are an answer, a form of protection, a porthole of investigation.  The willingness to go there is itself the answer.  Imbedded in that willingness is a belief that somewhere in that dark recess is a treasure.

Part of my holding back comes from being so careful to recognize difference, to live and let live, to withhold judgement. I don’t want to offend or  assert my beliefs over others. Yet, am I holding back out of wisdom and consideration, or is it driven by fear and insecurity?  As a teacher of medicine, I struggle with this.  When do I let my learners grow and develop, knowing that they will learn their own lessons?  Are there times when I have withheld feedback, knowing I can recognize their misstep because it is mine too? My inclination is to take care of everyone, but this tendency provides false security. I can care, but that doesn’t often give people the relief they seek.  So commonly my job in the ER is to reassure patients that I didn’t find any dangerous reason for their suffering today. If I think, and let my patients believe, that my job is always to find what is causing their pain and take it away for good, we are both in for a big disappointment.

I am not a savior.  I’m in the water with everyone else, trying to swim and stay afloat. But I do know something of the fear of drowning and how that fear only serves to make us flail, and only when we stop flailing can we  learn to swim.  Seen from this perspective, how is my being a doctor any different than my being a wife, a friend, a daughter, a mother or a colleague?  If I keep showing up to the hospital, I can show up in these other realms too.

By writing today, I’m taking baby steps. Mine is not a tale of success; it is a tale of struggle.  And maybe all wellness tales are.  Through the many gifts and emanations from those around me, I gain the strength to share my hope.

By Laura McPeake

Laura McPeake is Assistant Professor (Clinical) of Emergency Medicine at The Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Her areas of academic focus include physician wellness, palliative care, international medicine, acupuncture and holistic medicine.

Jason Hack (photographer) is Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at The Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Director of the Division of Emergency Medicine Toxicology.

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