Like many of you have, or will, experienced over the coming weeks and months, I have just returned to action following a 14-day period of enforced absence after my oldest child came down with what was quite possibly a simple, non-COVID-19, viral upper respiratory tract infection. This, by the way, was a different time, back when kids went to school and we could still make the argument that a quick trip to the pub after work came under the heading ‘essential travel’. Naively, I was shocked to be told that my plans for the next two weeks needed to change quite spectacularly; from life saving frontline ‘NHS Hero’ to unwilling headmaster of the newly-established ‘Lipton’s home-school academy for incurably delinquent boys’.
The first few days of self-isolation were really quite conflicting for me. On the one hand, I felt lucky to be gifted the chance to spend two full weeks at home with my wife and kids. On the other, I was distracted and anxious, feeling a mixture of guilt for not being able to pull my weight at work and, on some level, envious that I wasn’t playing a more important part in the massive effort to plan and mobilise our response to the outbreak. I would not have listed ‘superhero complex’ as one of my various neuroses before this, yet I couldn’t help feeling a bit fraudulent when seeing the outpouring of support for NHS staff on TV, while I added ‘sleeping in until 10:00’ and ‘Disney film studies’ to the home-school curriculum.
It was apparent that all wasn’t well with me. I was snappy with the kids, distracted, sullen and not too pleasant to be around. What’s more I felt compelled to stay connected to the goings-on at work, and was checking my phone too much, swept along on the never-ending tide of WhatsApp messages, changing rotas and action cards. Any sense that this would be a lovely couple of weeks with Daddy were probably beginning to dwindle.
Something needed to change, and a few good talks with my wife helped me realise that in my well-intentioned efforts to meet my professional obligations, I was failing to look after myself or my family. I decided, first, to make rules that ensured I took a break from my phone and emails. I would check in once around lunchtime, and again early evening, and made a date with myself to look through all the updated guidelines online a couple of days before my return-to-work date. Importantly, I let go of the idea that I should be using my ‘spare time’ to further my projects or catch up on piles of admin.
The idea of letting go was also helpful for how I related to the children. I stopped mentally castigating myself for not creating a fantastically stimulating and varied home-school environment, and started to enjoy spending time with them. I cleared weeds out of the pots in my garden, and planted seeds to grow vegetables and herbs. I meditated most days and took a bit of exercise. I did a drawing that wasn’t a pornographic sketch in a friend’s birthday card.
I haven’t cracked well-being, and I’m sure I’ll revisit difficult emotions during this outbreak, particularly as case numbers increase, work becomes fraught and lives are lost. There are enough perfectly legitimate reasons to feel sad, stressed and anxious. What I won’t be doing any longer is punishing myself by feeling guilty for using my time away from work to prioritise my own wellbeing and that of my family.
ST7 in Anaesthesia
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London