The Gift

The greatest gifts are probably those that you feel a bit guilty or even fearful of wanting, that you really need but aren’t expecting. It might sound crazy to say that I’m starting to see this lockdown as a gift, but in a world where so many things are beyond our control, we can still control our reactions. We can choose meanings to assign to this unique experience. Assigning purpose to this time is key for successfully navigating it, to see what it taught you rather than just what it cost.

A few years ago I was in such a dark space that I dreaded going to work, I woke in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, anticipating the day ahead. I found it increasingly difficult to get myself out of bed and start the chain of events that got me showing up for another day’s work.  I was burnt out, I had been burnt out for months. I didn’t know that at the time, just that I felt broken. I struggled to cope with all the things that hadn’t previously involved effort to cope with, things I had just taken in my stride, just day to day life.  From under my covers each morning, willing myself into the shower, starting the treadmill that got me out of the door into work, I would hope and will my phone to ring with a reason, any reason not to go in: a power cut, a flood, no water, snow, a natural disaster, I’d even visualise rounding that last corner to find the place had burnt to the ground.  No, I wasn’t in a healthy place and took time off in the end.  A global pandemic hadn’t made my list of hopeful events but only because it hadn’t occurred to me.

Taking a break from dentistry, leaving well paid work for months, to heal from a non physical injury was hard.  The procrastination, the guilt about not working, the stigma of needing a break, feeling defeat that I couldn’t fix myself whilst working and the uncertainty around ever returning atall.  It was really difficult, a complete contrast to breaking my hand last year and being signed off work for 7 weeks.  For a physical injury as black and white as a broken bone I perceived no judgement, aside from feeling a bit silly for falling over in the first place. I had access to income protection and the reassurance that I’d managed months off work without pay already, returning to work with little complication.

COVID-19 has been different, for me it lies somewhere between these two past experiences.  It has been traumatic, the choice wasn’t mine, for a while there it wasn’t black and white. I resisted accepting  my unfolding reality, I felt wronged, I felt hurt, undervalued and somewhat cast aside.  Financially, there’s a small wage subsidy but unlike my two previous periods of absence, returning to work isn’t just going to be walking back into full books and dentistry as normal.  We’re walking into the unknown clinically and financially for probably a good 12 mths at least.

How could any of this be seen as a gift?  There are so many things that say otherwise but I challenge you to find meaning in even the darkest, most costly elements of this tragedy.

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Viktor E. Frankl

Well, on reflection, this is what I wished for all those years ago, what in some small way, lots of us wished for.  To have that decision and procrastination taken from us, to be told in no uncertain terms that you have to take a long break.  That you have to slow down, that after years of listing family and health above work in your values when asked, you now get to live it.  You get to flip your work life balance on it’s head.  Yes, it came with small print, it came at a cost and it might not be how we saw it all playing out in our heads. In the words of my children’s preschool teachers:

‘You get what you get and you don’t get upset!’

My amendment would be to say that it’s ok to get upset and I have been, but you can’t stay there, it won’t help in the long run. For me this time has been a massive lesson in gratitude, the importance of connection and community. I have watched my children learn how to better entertain themselves and cope with boredom, to take themselves outside to play and make their own fun. I have enjoyed exercising as a family, from a run around the block, to kicking a ball around the back yard and teaching them how to safely cycle local roads.  As a family, we’re pretty resilient when it comes down to it, that small acts of kindness and compassion go a long way. That we all need our own space but that it’s possible to get with as little as a set of headphones or a coffee and a rain jacket.

I’ve dusted off my bike and been cycling most days, it’s heartening to see so many families safely out and about. Parents walking with their teenagers, young families cycling like ducks in a row crossing the road; older couples walking hand in hand; people of all shapes, sizes and experiences out running, walking or cycling. It has been a privilege to witness, to have slowed down enough to observe and experience all these things.

Whilst the cost of this gift has been high, how has it been a gift for you?

“Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”

Viktor E. Frankl