April is always a time of heightened emotion for me, and as time progresses, it is also increasingly a time for reflection.
April was the month where the life I had planned for myself vanished over a period of 48 hours and when I lost one of the only constants I’d ever had, my sister, as well as my unborn niece. I’ve written about what happened before, and this post isn’t really about that. This post is about what came after and how I have come in recent years to appreciate the person that those experiences made me.
I’m not saying I’m not sometimes sad for the person I may have been if those 48 hours hadn’t happened, I’m saying that I am grateful for where this alternative path has led me. The result is miles away from anything I could have pictured, but I have still found myself in a place of joy and love. So this post is to acknowledge that sometimes we have to accept the paths that made us.
As a result of this thinking I thought I would share some of the places my path has led that I didn’t expect, and share some of the lessons I’ve learnt that I am grateful for, in case it helps you also see things through a slightly different lens.
Be scared, but do it anyway
I often talk about how blessed I am. The truth is that I am always a little scared. There’s a part of my brain that always fears when the good happens, what the cost will be. I do have a blessed life, but I have also experienced some pretty significant trauma. I am very aware at all points in my life how quickly everything could just go away.
I am also still painfully aware of the memory of how that made me feel. At first, this made me scared of the good things because I just then waited for the bad to follow. I still have spirals when this is the case, but for the most part, it means I try to value every single moment. Every compliment, every moment of joy, every step on the path. It also means that I know I have survived. I have survived days that I thought would be unsurvivable, so on my worst days I still know I will survive what’s to come.
This learning to live with fear has had some other benefits. It’s so easy to let fear limit us in other aspects of our life, fear of failure, fear of humiliation, and fear of being seen. All of these things can stop us from grabbing opportunities when they come our way. The thing is, my biggest fear is that linked to my own mortality and those of the people I love, and I am still forced to face that every day.
It makes the other fears I hold feel a little smaller. They have a little less control. They have a little less impact. I say yes to things I wouldn’t have dreamed of if I had been on a different path, and saying yes has opened doors I could not have imagined existed. So bring on the fear, I’ve walked through it and survived, and so will you.
A child free life still has value and meaning
I’ve posted before and included a plea before about the fact that childless individuals still have lives with meaning, and asking that we are not the people who are always defaulted to working late or moving our leave, as we still have commitments to family and people that love us.
In recent years (and I still stand by the original plea) I have come to appreciate the flexibility that my child free status has given me and how that has enabled me to seize opportunities I would not have been able to otherwise. I don’t know if I had children that I would have been able to gain my PhD in the way I did, as it involved a fair few nights when I worked to midnight.
I don’t know that I would have been able to balance achieving FRCPath if I had children, as I was studying at 5am before work and again when I got home. I’ve been able to build a research career because I can travel overseas to conferences and at weekends, and I am regularly the person who leaves work at 7pm. All of these things would have been harder, if not impossible, if I needed to be home for pick up or take my child to football on the weekend.
I don’t know that my eyes would have been so firmly fixed on the horizon and thinking what’s next if I was focused on raising another human being (and if I didn’t have a husband with the patience of a saint).
All of these freedoms have led to me being able to attain things I’d never dreamed of - I became a Consultant, a Professor, I got a New Year’s Honour and an invite to the Coronation. I don’t for one minute think I would have felt that I’d missed out on anything by having children, as I really don’t think I would have realised many of these things are possible. I do, however, feel truly blessed by the wealth of the life that I live and the time I get to spend with my wonderful husband partaking in some once in a lifetime events. My life is rich. Perhaps rich is a different way to the way I’d planned, but rich nonetheless.
Sometimes you need to hear no enough to realise that yes, you can
For a chunk of my life I was told certain things might not happen for me. I’ve talked about how, when I was unwell in my teens, I was told university might not be for me. As a trainee I was often told that it would be unlikely that someone like me would achieve FRCPath working in a paediatric setting and I would therefore not make consultant, and I was told for years that someone like me wouldn’t make professor.
The thing is, from my position now, I am grateful for every single one of those nos. Those nos made me really focus on what was important to me and brought clarity to my thinking. Those nos taught me more about the barriers and attitudes that weren’t openly discussed and the occasional prejudice than hearing a yes ever could. Those nos made me smarter by teaching me how to work around barriers and to be a more strategic thinker, which has benefits elsewhere. Those nos were sometimes what I needed to light a fire under me and make me decide to prove others wrong in order to really achieve change, not just for myself but for those following me.
The other thing that those nos taught me is to differentiate when a no is really a ‘not yet’. This has been a crucial life skill for me - sometimes my enthusiasm drives me forward at pace, and there are some times in life when actually slowing down means that you will get more benefit from the process/experience. Sometimes, a ‘not yet’ means that you will be better able to do the task when you reach your destination. Being able to know when no means no is sometimes the most useful skill in any interaction.
Instability can sometimes help you thrive
I was at GOSH for over 13 years before my temporary contract became a permanent job, and even then it only occurred because of a HR error when I transitioned from my PhD contract back onto a GOSH one. That instability caused me huge levels of stress, the uncertainty of whether I would have a job from one year to the next, or where I would end up if something I loved so much just disappeared.
It meant that I seized every opportunity that came to me, as I didn’t know which networks would be important for my future or if I would ever have an opportunity presented to me again. I took exams early or in a very planned way in order to ensure that future pathways and options were not closed off to me, as I could never know when I might need them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all of this meant that I overcommitted and worked waaaaay harder than I might otherwise have. It meant that, at one point, I didn’t have a weekend off for three years.
It has also meant that I have the career that I have now. Sitting on my laurels and becoming comfortable was never an option. Saying no to others was never really an option, as you never knew if you would need their support in the future. This has meant that the breadth of experiences I’ve been able to access has been wonderful. It also means that I know find myself as a Consultant, having maintained an interest in research and in education, both of which mean so much to me. I have gone above and beyond to ensure I could maintain all three.
I sometimes think that if I had had a permanent band 7 or even band 6 post, then that is where I might have stayed, instead I have a job that challenges me every day to be better and I continue to have access to a diverse portfolio of things that inspire me and bring me joy. And finally, a job that is permanent and in a field that I love. So that instability may have been worth it and the driver I needed to get to my dream job.
Some days the only way is through
I’m writing this whilst feeling pretty dire - I’m still post COVID and struggling with the day-to-day. I am however still working and still functioning. I have posted before about some of the health challenges I live with on a day-to-day basis - none of them are massively severe but they do impact how easy I sometimes find life.
It’s sometimes easy, when it takes me this long to recover from something, to feel down about it. Instead I’d like to say that there is an upside. I spend a lot of time focussing on the end goal and pushing through when I feel tired or unwell - it’s a regular life event for me.
This means that I have developed the skill of being able to become incredibly focused in order to get something done. If I say I will deliver, I will deliver, come hell or high water - short of incapacitation I will deliver on my word. Without it, I wouldn’t have managed to sit my GCSEs, I wouldn’t have been able to manage at university, and I certainly wouldn’t have completed my Clinical Scientist training.
Now, sometimes I admit that I take this too far, and sometimes it means that I don’t take the rest I need or tap out when I should. It does mean, however, that if push comes to shove, I am able to just push through and make things happen. This is something that has been invaluable in delivering in a world where I have a tendency to over-commit, and it’s led to me being able to deliver on things like this blog, which means so much to me. So, although it may not always be the healthiest trait, it is a trait that I see the value in and am grateful to have developed.
There are so many times in life when all we can see is the gloom and the dark clouds on the horizon. It is often difficult to find the distance emotionally or the time to really put some of our challenges into context and to see all that they bring to us as individuals, the good and the bad. We may sometimes be broken, but that does not make us less beautiful. In fact, sometimes, the fires that forge us enable us to emerge as truer versions of ourselves than we may otherwise have been.
So if you are still surrounded by the flames hang in there, there will be a time when you too can look at your past and see it as the source of your strength rather than the thing that was trying to break your spirit.
This article is reprinted from the GirlyMicro blog, with kind permission of the author.
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