A few days ago, I received a phone call from a colleague. A pensive call, fraught with hesitation.
On the other end of the line, a dear colleague calling with what could have been a simple invitation.
“Sorry, this is last minute. But, we are hosting a poker tournament on Saturday. We wanted you to come, yet we hesitated to invite you because there will be a lot of gambling and drinking. We do love you, so we wanted you to come”.
Living openly in the world with a history of depression and alcohol abuse is complicated.
I have learned through 6 years of recovery, and 2 years of living openly in the medical community that I am treated differently than other people. In the beginning, I struggled to view this as a gift.
Let me further explain.
In four years of my current job, I have taken one full day off for being “sick”. During that time, I felt a huge cloud over me. A guilt, a pressure, an unrelenting aura of speculation. The permission to be physically sick at all, in the world of medicine, is a whole different blog for a different day. Yet, when I was physically ill from a seasonal iteration of gastroenteritis, my past haunted and beaconed for a deeper and more profound explanation. A gastroenteritis absence demanded a public comment. No, I am not depressed. No, I am not drinking.
I wear an invisible leash constraining any ability to have an “off day”. If I’m tired, stressed, overwhelmed by the mundane, monotonous and everyday occurrences of work and life (and life with two young children) there appears a societal asterisk next to these events. People ask me “How are you doing?” with a different tone, and subversive sub context. Almost bleeding out the tip of the tongue connotations “I wonder if he is going to kill himself” today.
People invite me to dinner parties and social gatherings differently. Reluctantly. As if the mere presence of alcohol will force me to toss tables and spiral into a moment of stealing liquor from an open bar.
If I come into work 20 minutes later than my routine schedule, people rush into my office insistent on a sit down “check in” requiring an over explanation and emotional intrusion into the morning tasks. “No, seriously. How are you doing?”
The truth. My kid hysterically melted down getting in the car. It is a typical Wednesday morning.
If I need to take off early, or arrive late for a doctor’s appointment, scheduled meeting or “out of the routine” event, I feel the need to meticulously explain the necessity and my whereabouts at all times. Feeling like the absence of such iron clad, social documentation will open the void to unearth unspoken and lingering questions, “I wonder if he is drinking?”. Ironically, even when the absence is merely to drive across downtown to undertake mandatory drug screening for my professional recovery program.
I am an emotional human being. It is who I am to my core. It allows me to be proficient in the work I do with patients and families. I have normal human reactions and emotions to these events, and yes, it is difficult work. Yet, I have the same human reactions we all do during a busy day/week at work. I get stressed. I get overwhelmed. I get tired and defeated at times. The difference is that the once invisible dotted line is easier to connect. I made that easier for people. Stress is bad. Overwhelmed is a red flag and tired is a warning sign. Adam has a history of depression and alcohol abuse. Routinely, I have colleagues call me during these times and say “Let me buy you a cup of coffee and let’s talk”. In the beginning, I naively and defensively assumed that I had to use these moments to convince other people that I am okay. That, once again, my own ability to have emotional reactions were constantly being questioned and needed further explanation. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me”.
Here is the gift. Over the last few years, I have witnessed this process as the beginning of a cultural revolution in the medical community I work in. People actually care. Colleagues actually care deeply about me and about each other. The intentions are pure. The execution may be flawed and the delivery awkward at times, but behind that is a genuine care for my wellbeing. And how incredible is that? I can come to work in an environment where I am fully supported, loved and routinely checked in on by dozens (if not hundreds) of colleagues.
Living openly has gifted this connection. Living openly has given social permission to be invited into spaces where the sub context becomes open dialogue. Colleagues hesitate about social functions out of naivety perhaps, but with a genuine interest in my wellbeing. Work friends come into my office when I arrive at work off-schedule because they genuinely care about my morning, even if there is a deeper hidden concern. It shouldn’t matter why they are sincerely, authentically asking “How are you doing?”. The mere fact that the question is being asked in a different way is the entire point. And not just in a different way, but also waiting for different, deeper response.
The beginning of a cultural revolution in the way we heal each other, the way we embrace wellbeing starts with this. A simple question. “How are you doing?”. By genuinely meaning it, creating a space that will allow for an honest response and then patiently, compassionately waiting for the answer.
Please worry about me. It is okay. Thank you for caring enough to ask.