Success, timing and the 'SAS-by-Choice' privilege
10 February, 2021
Self-discovery: cliché or prerequisite?
‘Self-discovery’ is not a phrase one sees bandied about in academic circles. Nor is it one that I can say I especially like: it seems indulgent, adolescent even. And yet, when I come to write a piece on my career, and the pathway that has been right for me, it is the phrase which comes to mind.
Perhaps if we can side-step the offence of a word-pairing more associated with marijuana or backpacking, a simple truth can be exposed. It is simply this: being fulfilled is not ultimately about the pay-slip or the CV. It is about having a strong sense of who we are and what we enjoy doing.
Medical school and beyond
The need to know who we are and what we enjoy seems obvious when I write it, but I cannot say I fully understood this principle when I applied to medical school. Back then, along with a genuine sense of altruism and a love of science and study, I did not appreciate how much the urge to feel successful, appear knowledgeable, and earn a decent income drove that decision.
The choice for a career in psychiatry was not driven by the same urges. It was driven by a deepening understanding of vulnerability and a wish to be along-side people in that position.
A few years down the line I pressed the pause button on my career. After a year of attempting to balance motherhood, my rotation, impending exams and pregnancy, I embarked on the ‘two children’ phase of my life. My beautiful new baby made a career all for himself at that time- an almost full-time position of crying and catching tonsillitis every six weeks. My toddler expressed his dissatisfaction at the noise levels by swiping him whenever the opportunity arose. Returning to work after a year of this would have been madness, and my decision was confirmed by the continuation of the screaming until well into the second year of my younger sons’ little life.
Life in the middle lane
Not going back to work at that time felt a little like jumping off a cliff: none of my contemporaries had done anything as mad as leave their career. In fact, a fellow graduate at party remarked in a sarcastic tone, “Oh well, it’s not as if you’ve trained six years or anything.”
For a long time, I felt rather weak that I had not managed to keep all the plates spinning. Nowadays I look back and recall that well before I imagined wearing a doctor’s badge I wanted to be a mother. I greatly admire those who combine the two, but it didn’t work for me at that time. I have since come to believe that timing is everything.
The decision I took was not one of weakness, it was a recognition that deep down what I actually wanted then was to be at home with my small children. Repressing that caused me stress. Acknowledging it was an act of self-discovery.
I went to another party, years later, as a mother of three, in a room full of successful women (navigating the ‘no career’ scenario for those years was a significant learning curve when it came to maintaining good self-esteem). There I met a lady who said to me, “When I was your age, the brave thing to do was to leave your children in childcare and have a career. Your generation is different. For you, the brave thing is to stay at home.” It was a powerful moment that I will never forget.
Our value, as we know, is not in external forms of success. Success is the natural by-product of learning to be authentic to ourselves. For some years of my life that took on a different form. School runs, catering for fussy eaters, running groups for mothers, composing and delivering a lay course for women with depression, play dates, and voluntary work at my children’s primary school to name just a few. One of my stand-out moments, however, was the first time I left the house with all three children. We all had clothes on and we all made it back in one piece, and I felt as jubilant as the day I graduated, right up until I noticed the second-hand gum in my five-year-olds’ mouth.
Right place, right time
Fast-forward another few years and I am a newly single parent re-embarking on my career. This period was another ‘jumping off a cliff’ experience. A wise CAMHS consultant suggested that a SAS position would be worth considering, and this rang true. Through a succession of events which I still consider to be remarkable, I found myself several months later happily installed in the perfect job.
I am a ‘SAS by choice’ doctor. I have considered the other options, but right now, they don’t seem a good fit. I love seeing patients. I love my team. I work hours that fit with my family life.
I am not stagnant. I take pride in my work. I have enjoyed a wide range of ‘off-clinic’ experiences. I delivered a course of CBT supervised by our team psychologists. I co-led a bipolar psycho-education course. I regularly teach patients about psychosis at our Recovery College. I have co-authored papers, supervised students and initiated a patient’s art group.
Outside of work, and outside of lockdown, I get to pick my sons up from school a couple of times a week. I am learning to meditate. I sketch, travel, and recently I wrote a children’s book due for publishing later this year. To me, those other things bring a roundedness which I believe helps me to do my job well. The flexibility of the SAS role allows space for that.
I believe that my years of being a ‘housewife’ made me a humbler and more compassionate doctor. If I am honest though, I rarely think of myself as ‘Dr Hanna’. ‘Doctor’ is simply another one of the roles, just like mother, traveller, writer.
Getting my SAS role was about being at the right place at the right time, and so is maintaining it. It is a position I am grateful to be in.