I’ll let you decide and by the end perhaps we’ll disagree? I’m not an alcoholic, maybe that’s the first sign I am. I’m not because I know full well the how and the why it happened and I know what to do to stop.
There are many vets who accept that complaints, legal accusations and professional questions are just part of the job. They accept it as part of the 9 to 5 and move on. I’m not one of them. I wish I was, but each questioning accusation or each occasional loss of a client I take personally. So much so I question every action I made in the lead up to that moment. An introspection, a self-examination, a dissection of my personality. It always results in the same conclusion, “I could have done better.” But you know what? It actually doesn’t end there. “I could have done better, I could have been more thorough, I could have been more professional, I could have been a better person.” It is this spiral, the snakes and ladders lifestyle of an equine vet that gives us a profession of ozone rich high and calamitous methane lows.
We are trained to review and evaluate, it is a clinical skill, but it often leaves us feeling that we don’t know enough, didn’t do enough, or now and most fundamentally, do not matter enough.
The spiral can continue, “is my professionalism sufficient, am I one of the misguided who should leave the profession to ultimately respect primum non noncore, is it right I leave my family in a potentially parlous situation based upon my wit or lack of, to survive in this velvet glove world of cloak and dagger?”
Booze usually starts as a quiet tipple. The end of the night wind down. But for me, when staring into the abyss that is my inner reflection, conscience and consideration of my soul and core, booze becomes a way of shutting out that clarion call of a brain screaming at you – “you’re not bloody good enough!”
I first recognised this at university. 4th year and exams at the end of every subject or every 4-6 weeks. Each and every one counted towards finals and the questions we sat in the exam were the very same we had been taught only the previous day. This may be the norm now but at the time we were the first year to try this, the guinea pigs and no one knew how it would go. At the end of the first term one friend was in hospital due to stress, another on anti-depressants. I and most other students hit the bars.
Second term was more of the same only this time the end of night collapse into bed and finding of anxious sleep was eased by Vodka. A bottle or two a week, a method of escape by any means. Luckily within a couple of months I realised the unhealthy spiral and made the active decision not to loose sleep over exams, not to base my health on success or failure. I decided that if I failed, I failed, so be it. Better that attitude than succumb to further booze or follow my colleague into hospital. Luckily, thankfully or perhaps deservedly I passed and my attitude continued to final year exams with the same results. In fact excelling and achieving University recognition.
Time passes and we each gain experience and responsibility. Sometimes both are thrust upon us without a desire to receive but it is part of “the job.” Booze hit me again 10 years later due to an RCVS investigation. Forgive me for not supplying details suffice to say I was not fraudulent, not lying, not unethical, merely naïve. It was ultimately thrown out but the process led to the soul searching each of us does in that situation.
I remember the letter and I physically shook for 5 days. Whilst the physical manifestation went, the emotional burden that availed me lasts to this day and during the 18 months it took to resolve I regularly found solace in the bottle. Whiskey this time. At it’s worst, half a bottle a night.
I wasn’t an alcoholic, I didn’t wait for opening time or dive into it the moment I went home but used it only to a mind that shouted even though my personality became mute.
I was lost in a morass of mental doubt at this point and couldn’t see the dangers. Out of hours were worst because of the quiet when all you have for company is your mind.
Ultimately and with a slow return to self I recognised the behaviour. Perhaps this is the moral or the kicker or where we’ll agree to disagree but I didn’t and still do not consider the behaviour wrong, I needed something to alleviate the mental pain and it did. This is not wrong but a normal human behaviour to seek respite from a stressor. Some may drink, some take drugs, some seek physical contact, some self flagellate through physical pain. All are simply human reactions.
What, of course, we should do is seek help in a non-damaging way. Through spouse or partner support, through counselling, through friends and professional aid. But at that point, when your brain is ablaze and your inner voice is in conflict, you don’t think straight, you don’t rationalise, you look for respite, I reached for the bottle.
Ultimately I sought counselling to allow me to understand and hence control my emotions and actions. Even when the case was dismissed I continued to question even more if I wanted to remain as a vet in a profession which would or could expose me to such torment apparently without empathy or personal consideration.
That is why I carry it today, waiting perhaps for the next circumstance or shift in luck for the pendulum and sword of Damocles to sway back again. I hope this time I’ll be better equipped to avoid the pitfalls. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. Sadly I know I won’t, it is partly my nature, but I will know it is damaging and the phase will be short.
There by the Grace of God go I and we should all be mindful of the situation of others, do out best to recognise, and do our best to empathise. Sympathy, understanding and support is all anyone would ask for and it is in the power of all of us to provide it.
If you have been affected by this story or want to talk confidentially about this or a similar subject then contact Vetlife here https://www.vetlife.org.uk/