The words love and medicine are rarely used in the same sentence. Not many people say they love taking their medicine. Not many doctors say they love practising medicine. Yet love is at the heart of everything we do. More than anything, we all want to be loved and to be able to love freely and fully in return. Given that, as doctors, we spend more hours practising medicine than we do anything else (including sleeping for many of us!) and that our profession is more a calling than a job, why would we not want to bring love back into medicine?
Where did our love for medicine go?
Most of us loved something that drew us to medicine in the first place. We loved people. And we loved helping them. Or we loved the human body and found it fascinating. Or we loved the challenges of learning complex skills, of making diagnoses, of treating illness and disease. Or we loved the joys and intricacies of surgery. Or we loved the idea of making money, or being successful, or pleasing our families, or having a career that made us an attractive option as a partner (who had no idea what they were in for!).
Whatever our particular interest in studying medicine, somewhere along the way most of us became a bit tired and jaded and started to lose the feeling of love. If you do anything often enough, and long and hard enough, it can start to become routine, then boring or tedious, perhaps downright irksome. Even having sex, which we call making love, even if there is no love in it. So having to study ridiculous hours trying to digest and regurgitate overwhelming amounts of information, and work extreme hours, going without adequate food, water and rest breaks, and being confronted with the pain and misery of human suffering and people behaving badly under stress, over and over again, can start to take its toll. And all that we are compelled to do in medicine takes us away from the people and things we do love – our family, friends … and life.
Coating our love with layers
Our love is still there, deep down underneath, but it starts to be coated with layers of jaded cynicism, battle-weary black humour, anxiety, depression, burnout and even suicidal thoughts. We may start to care less and less, until we couldn’t care less, and just go through the motions of doing what we have to do. We may become so tired that we are literally care-less, and make mistakes, which coat our deeply buried love with further layers of shame, blame and self-loathing. We may try to work less, and take more time away from medicine, but taking time off does not make us care more, it just makes us want more time away …
So how do we start to strip the layers back?
Let’s say we have come to the understanding that we are struggling, and that our love is coated so thick with layers of not-love that we can barely feel it, let alone ourselves … how do we start to strip the layers back, to open ourselves back up to the love we are and feel?
I love medicine and I love working in medicine now, but it has not always been this way. For me opening back up to love first started with honesty; being honest about where I was really at and how I was truly feeling. Being exhausted, overweight, burnt out, living on coffee and sugar during the day just to keep going and hanging out for alcohol at night to take the edge off it all is not normal. Feeling trapped, powerless, resentful and blaming others is NOT normal. Thinking you would rather be dead than having to get up and live another day like this IS NOT NORMAL ….
These are understandable, but unhealthy reactions to the often unhealthy workplaces and situations we find ourselves in. We cannot always change our workplaces overnight, although that is something we should be working towards together, but we can change ourselves. Perhaps not overnight, but little by little, day by day, we can start to make changes that are more loving and caring for ourselves.
These changes are simple, although not always easy. When faced with any situation, there is a healthy response to it, or an unhealthy reaction. For example, if we are feeling tired, we can stimulate our bodies with caffeine or sugar to keep going regardless of how we feel, or we can have a rest. On a practical level, it is not always possible to rest in that moment, but there are moments when we can rest and we choose stimulation instead. Going home and eating and drinking excessively and checking out on Netflix for hours is not rest, it is more stimulation. Staying up late and doing this instead of going to bed early when you can is even more stimulation. Running around on days off going shopping, seeing movies, exercising hard, partying hard, is more stimulation. All this stimulation activates our already overloaded nervous system, which needs rest and downtime to recover from the constant stimulation it is bombarded with at work.
The art of repose, or allowing ourselves to rest when we can, is one of the most deeply loving and caring things we can do. For me, going to bed early has been absolutely life-changing. But this was not an instant change, and in fact is still an ongoing challenge for me. I still tend to stay up later than my body tells me is time to go to bed, especially if I think that the day has not been enough for me, or I have not been enough in the day. Allowing myself to feel at ease with myself, no matter how my day has been, and allowing the day to be complete, just as it is, knowing there is always more that can be done, allows me to go to bed in a way that lets me rest deeply and wake feeling refreshed. But I cannot do this if I have been constantly stimulating myself with food, drink, TV, self-bashing thoughts etc., all day and evening.
We have to start somewhere
We have to start somewhere. The willingness to be more loving and caring with ourselves is everything. Then we can make some changes to the way we are living, and see how they feel. They will either be confirming of the love and care we feel, or not. If the changes make us feel more lovely, then great, and we keep living more like that. And if not, we can choose to let them go and try something else instead.
There is no perfection living in a human body, but we can live a great life if we are willing to be loving and caring with ourselves, no matter what we do or don’t do. As we develop this love and care in our bodies, we become less and less willing to give ourselves a hard time, and more and more willing to be kind, generous, loving and caring with ourselves and with all others too. Our hearts open up again, and embrace our family, friends, patients, colleagues and workmates, equally so. Work becomes something we do, not just because we have to, but because we love to. We love people, so why would we not want to help and serve them?
Medicine without love is mere function, patching people up and sending them back out there to live in the love-less ways that led to them being ill in the first place, and doing it in a way that is loveless for ourselves too … Medicine with love offers true healing, and the inspiration of us living in a way that is loving and caring, a way that can prevent much illness and disease from happening, and turn around the trajectory of the lives we have been living … Life, including medicine, takes on a different look and feel, when seen through the eyes and felt with the heart, of LOVE.
This post was first published on 14 February 2020 on To Medicine with Love