The tight-rope act

I have a confession to make – I’m a workaholic.

I’m someone who instinctively swings to extremes, and spent a colossal portion of my life being tossed, rather unpleasantly, between zero and one. I’ve come to recognise this problem, realise that the highs give me altitude sickness, and the lows take too much out of me. Combined with the fact that I take my work really seriously, it dawned upon me that I have the worst possible set of mental tools in order to regulate my work, and my life.

In this realisation, I decided that I really have to do something about it. I’ve burnt out once, and I keep coming awfully close to doing it again.

When it comes to my job, since I’m so new to it all, I have serious FOMO (this I realised as I wrote this sentence). I don’t want to miss out on anything. I don’t want to be left behind. I want to know everything.

I realise how insecure this makes me sound. The honest answer is that I am this insecure, maybe even more.

At this point in time, I don’t have a lot going for me academically. My postgraduate program is going at an unbelievably slow pace. Without my work, I’d have all this free time that would (possibly, maybe not) drive me insane. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself as I dive into the sixth case of the day, driving the 5 km between place E to place F, having already clocked in 30 – 40 km of travel that day. My back is hurting, my patience is waning, I’m not at my best, and I’m probably going to miss something important as I move into my internal tank of mental reserve fuel.

The first time I went to a psychotherapist was to deal with the fact that I was burnt out, that I was doing absolutely nothing apart from working like a donkey. I hope I’ve learnt from that experience, because I hate repeating the same mistakes twice. So, I’ve learnt to recognise those telltale signs.

Not wanting to go for that case, even though I have to.

Walking into a case assuming I know what is going on.

Feeling my grip on my patience loosen, and finding it harder to hold back on my irritation.

Missing important details that I wouldn’t have missed otherwise.

And, the worst of all?

Not caring.

Not caring that any of the above is happening. Caring lesser and lesser about the small mistakes. Not caring about my personal safety as I drive through one of the worst traffic situations in my country. Not caring about anything apart from sleep, and being unable to do anything that requires more energy than sleep does.

The week before last had been very hectic. The situation was such that I had to visit one patient twice a day, but somehow still had four other cases to visit per day. I didn’t have time for anything else, and if I wanted to do something, like exercise or write, I didn’t have the mind space or energy. I was constantly tired, constantly sleepy, and just wanted the day to end so that my aching back could hit the bed.

It wasn’t good for me. It wasn’t good for my health. Something had to give. And it wasn’t going to be my mental health.

Sundays are usually the busiest days of the week for vets – somehow, everyone’s dog or cat is found sick on Sundays. But, to be honest, every day is a busy day for vets. And I found myself realising that I couldn’t wait for a holiday to fall into my lap – I had to take one, every week, and if it was going to be Sunday, then so be it.

Was I going to miss out on work? Yes.

Was it going to be on the busiest day of the week? Maybe.

Was it more important than my mental and physical health? Absolutely not.

The last week, I decided to take it slower. Take it simpler. And then one day, I just… Couldn’t. I was snapping at my family. I realised the mistakes I made while assessing my cases, which, thankfully, I had the opportunity to correct. I couldn’t open my eyes in the morning without dreading the rest of the day. I needed a break.

So that’s what I did. I put my phone on airplane mode, went to the quietest part of the house, and slept.

And let me tell you, that sleep do be hitting different.

So, why am I writing this? As veterinarians, every case that we come across is important – it may not be critical, or an emergency, but, no matter what, it will always be important for the animal and their owner. Having respect for that, for the job means showing up to work at 110% capacity, and being mentally and physically present for both the animal and their owner. Anything less than 100% capacity can lead to mistakes, and mistakes can lead to suffering, sometimes death.

There’s no way to give 110%, even 80% of oneself daily without taking the time to replenish that which has been given away – mental, emotional and physical energy. To go out there, at full capacity, also means that, from time to time, one needs to come back in, and recharge.

It might sound strange, but I take solace in the fact that I’m not the only vet in town, and that people here are spoilt for choices. So, if I reject a case, it’s going to take some more effort for an owner to take their pet to a hospital, as opposed to having the vet come to their house and see their pet. That’s alright. If it really is the emergency that they tell me it is over the phone, the effort won’t feel like effort.

Saying no to someone who needs my help has always been a disability for me, to the point where it has hurt me dearly, many times personally, and a few times professionally. But stretching myself thin isn’t something I intend to keep doing, and setting myself on fire to keep someone else warm isn’t a good, let alone sustainable, idea.

Is it hard, though? Yes, it is.

Saying no to someone asking me for help has always been hard. It’s even harder for me, knowing that I can do something to help, or to alleviate pain and suffering for someone else. And hardest of all is listening to people tell me how critical their pet is and how they desperately need my help, or telling me that their sick pet needs my attention right now.

Listening to people ask me to reconsider my day off for the sake of their pet… I used to consider it. I’m not going to lie. But I decided I wouldn’t anymore, and today, I stood by my decision.

1. Is it an emergency? Then please take your pet to the nearest veterinary hospital.

2. Can it wait until tomorrow? Then it’s not an emergency, and I can visit you tomorrow.

3. No, it cannot wait? I’m really sorry, sir/maam. I can’t help you out today.

4. Why can’t I help you out? You see, it’s my day off.

5. Can I reconsider? I apologise, but I can’t.

And repeat questions 1, 2 & 3, as many times as possible, until the message is clearly received.

Where’s my humanity? You may ask. Where’s my sense of responsibility? My love for animals? My duty to my profession?

Let me assure you, it’s all in here, all in the right place. But all those things, along with patience and energy, are exhaustible resources, and can be chipped away, engulfed even, due to Increased demand. Given time, however, they can renew, sometimes to levels greater than before.

So as I write this on my day off, I renew my energy, my love, my passion, my patience, and my sense of duty towards my profession. As I write this, I remind myself that as someone tending to others’ health, I need to ensure that I remain healthy in order to do my job. I remind myself that an exhausted veterinarian is worse than no veterinarian, because a lack of empathy in this field has repercussions that are far greater than what one could imagine.

And finally, I write this to remind myself that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is way smarter than calling myself a workaholic and subjecting myself to mental and physical exhaustion.

Here’s to all my fellow people who jumped deep into their work, and haven’t looked up in a while. Work must be really riveting, eh? But let’s take a break together.

Take my hand – it’s a beautiful night. Let’s go and look at the stars for a while, and bask in the glow of the moon. Let us think about the world that exists beyond us, in spite of us, independent of us and our lives. The sky has both lengths of darkness and the brilliant radiance of the shining stars, and it is the quietness of the dark sky that enhances the fiery glow of the stars.

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