Expect expertise, except accept the rest...
I haven’t posted anything on this blog for over a year now. Returning readers might recall I said this would be a blog that would share my story of depression with openness and raw honesty. I was going to chronicle my struggles, my journey towards recovery, my insights from living with mental illness. And then? Poof! I just stopped. No posts. No content. Nothing.
I was momentarily getting busy with trying to be a speaker about mental illness and writing a book about my journey, but I was not getting busy enough to explain the complete absence of blog content. Eventually, the speaking gigs stopped coming. I haven’t done a talk in months, and have almost nothing on the upcoming schedule.
And writing that book? I swear I’ve been staring at the same page on my computer for at least a year. While that’s an exaggeration, it’s not that far from the truth. I’ve really made very little progress in months.
Worse yet, I have become completely incurious, completely unmotivated to continue my transition from surgeon to mental health advocate. I started out intending to become a “name” in mental health, particularly in the world of Medicine. Mental illness in physicians, including burnout, depression, and suicide are plaguing the industry at alarming rates; I thought I’d be on the forefront of the effort to tackle the problem.
Well what have I done to make that a reality? Nothing. No new talks, no papers. I even stopped reading the MANY articles written on the subject. Essentially, now, my only qualification for being a mental illness expert is the fact that I’m a card carrying member. But even that is not enough to keep me productive. I have a wealth of experience as a physician with severe mental illness, so just sharing my story would add value to the world. So why did I stop?
Why the inactivity? That’s an easy one: Depression, right? You’ve heard the drill: hard to get out of bed, challenge just to get dressed in the morning, sit and stare at the walls for hours, etc. But that wasn’t it. My brand of depression doesn’t work like that.
My depression is not so much a lack of energy or hope anymore, but rather a much more malignant manifestation: self-hatred. Despite years now of therapy I still contend with my inner voice, my inner critic, the dark soul who fills my head with spite and self-shaming.
I’ve written about this voice, this inner demon many times before. It has driven me to despair, caused myself and so many around me unspeakable pain, and now has sapped the drive from anything I try to do. This last one is why I’ve had a complete cessation in anything resembling work.
How exactly? My depression pulls this great trick where anything I do must be at minimum professional grade. Anything less is, frankly, shit. Want to be a speaker? I better be THE expert and get invited on Oprah or else what’s the point? Want to be a writer? Why haven’t I hit the NY Times Bestseller list yet? Why bother writing then? Want to be a blogger? Well have you gone viral yet? Might as well quit.
My brain insists everything I do must rise to the level of expert or professional. On good days it stops me by saying “Why bother if you can’t make it your ‘thing’?” On bad days it is a source of loathing and scorn for even trying. Imagine having to define yourself as an expert in something before your brain gives its blessing to try it. Imagine only defining yourself in terms of expert or not: author or not; speaker or not; blogger or not. And if the answer is “Not” then just trying it brings shame and loathing.
Now imagine having one thing where you actually are an expert, where you actually are a professional. Imagine quitting that one thing. Because that’s what I did, right? I was a doctor. I was a Vascular Surgeon. I was an expert in the field.
And I quit it all. So you can imagine how my brain processed that move, how it regarded someone who threw away his only expertise to become… a nothing, a nobody. (Nevermind that this very same brain’s self-hatred drove me to quit in the first place). And without anything to call myself besides “A Nobody” the self-hate in my brain only multiplied, feeding the hatred for anything I tried without being, you know, an expert.
I have had enough therapy now to write a textbook. I have discussed for hours on end the reality of my talents and pursuits. I have worked to try not to require that I be the expert or the professional in everything I do. I’m learning to not define an activity (or my worth) in those terms. It’s a long process apparently, and my therapist presumably has job security while I’m around.
I am learning to accept myself, my actions, and my decisions. I am learning to accept who and what I am. I am a father. I am a stay-at-home Dad – not a very good one, but I still am one – and it’s a worthwhile pursuit regardless of my status or ability. I am actually a writer despite not having a book to my name. I am a blogger, despite the fact that the number of people who’ll read this post will number in the dozens at best.
Most of all, I am a survivor. I choose to live rather than giving into my darkest thoughts in those darkest times. And while I am certainly no EXPERT at life, I still live to this day, and I’ve learned to accept that. I may not like myself all of the time, I may not live life to its fullest, but I continue to try, continue to live. Is that a sign that I’m making progress? I dunno...go ask an expert.