Everyone has an idea about how a doctor is supposed to be. The stereotypical doctor's persona is always together and capable. It's scary for the public to think that the people taking care of them might not always have their own lives together, but that's the reality. We are real people. We are flawed and fallible. Some days we are glad just to be showered.
Now that I'm in my 40s, I can't be bothered with trying to fit into these stereotypes. When some folks hit midlife, they start driving sports cars or begin new careers. I, however, started discovering my own voice, and, instead of trying to be someone else's version of a doctor, I started being me. It has been scary to put myself out there, but the reality is I don't have to be perfect or feel OK all the time to do this job. Making myself vulnerable and talking about the less-than-perfect parts of my life is difficult because we all feel the pressure to pretend everything's OK. But nobody's infallible, and it's normal, even for doctors, not to feel OK sometimes. Feeling scared or sad or saying “I don't know” is natural.
Through my willingness to be open about everything from my depression to dating woes, I have inadvertently become an advocate. I didn't set out to be a voice for anyone or anything. Writing is how I process. I wrote for myself from a place of authenticity, not to market myself or draw people in. Ironically, people were drawn in.
What I've learned is that imperfection is far more endearing than perfection. I'm not polished or perfect, but I'm real. People can see right through pretense, and you lose their trust when they notice you're not authentic. Authenticity is compelling. The more imperfect I show myself to be, the more I connect with people. The more I exposed my flaws, the more people supported me. (For a look at someone else striving to be authentic, look at the Instagram feed of Celeste Barber: http://bit.ly/2ztSvsm.)
As I discover my own voice fearlessly (or stupidly) through this column and social media, I've been finding my way and making mistakes in a public way. My forthrightness is accessible to all on Twitter. Everything I say about my struggles with depression, gender stereotypes, motherhood, work, and dating can be widely shared. Through social media, my truths can resonate with people in all corners of the globe. Honesty becomes advocacy because my story connects with a large number of people.
Storytelling is a powerful tool for advocacy. Stories paint vivid and memorable pictures that evidence cannot. There has been such a push for evidence-based medicine that we shy away from the n=1 vignettes. “Evidence, not anecdotes” is too often the attitude, but stories make evidence meaningful by touching on emotions and visceral responses. Mental health, for example, is still taboo although one in five U.S. adults deals with mental health issues. (The National Alliance on Mental Illness; http://bit.ly/2hhVb7P.) When people are brave enough to talk about struggling with depression the way others tell stories about struggling with chronic medical conditions, it puts a sympathetic, relatable face on these illnesses.
Stories shape our culture and norm. We have to write a new narrative about mental health realness without secrets or shame. A good story told by the right person will change perception and fight stigma. Storytelling goes hand in hand with advocacy because we help others find their voice.
Physicians are telling their stories now more than ever on social media. When a doctor illustrates her view of medicine or frustration with the system by honestly telling her or her patient's story, that narrative can spur change. Storytelling vividly depicts our struggles and our side of health care to patients, administrators, and policymakers. The emotions that physicians evoke with stories allow us to influence people's decisions and attitudes about health care. Putting into print the stories that unsettle us can bring events out of the medical center and into the public eye. This is armchair advocacy, and it works.
Since I started writing, I've been called a wellness and physician mental health advocate. People have responded to my columns with letters, requests for podcast interviews, and even an invitation to give a Grand Rounds talk. Many people told me that reading about how antidepressants changed my life gave them that little extra nudge they needed to pursue treatment. I have had women tell me that my articles about being a woman in medicine were empowering because they let them know that some of the treatment they get is not because of their actions but their gender. It touches my heart to have people say I'm inspiring simply because I tell my stories. It is a privilege to use my stories to help others in the same way that others' stories have helped me.
This whole notion of wellness that I often write about is really just balance, and because I'm so passionate about it, storytelling and writing are now a huge part of that balance. If you are entertained or inspired by things I write, if anything I say encourages you, I'm glad. Telling my story is helping me as much as anyone. None of us is a picture-perfect TV doc. We're all figuring it out as we go, and I thank you for letting me be real. I encourage you to discover the joys of telling stories about your own growth and dare to make a difference by putting your voice out there too. With our stories, we can help ourselves, support each other, and change the world.
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