Photo of Dr FIona Williams for article by Dr Fiona Williams on "Physician Heal Thyself"

Physician Heal Thyself: What Medical Training and the Body have taught me about Truth

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While it would be nice to pretend otherwise, I did not embark on a career in medicine for altruistic reasons, to earn a good wage or even to gain social respect. Initially, there was a stubborn reluctance to follow in my parent’s medical footsteps. I saw up close, as a child, how the Medical system subsumed their every waking moment, wreaking insidious havoc upon their lives and bodies, binding them to false beliefs and ideals about what it is to ‘be’ a Doctor. None of it translated into a feeling of joy, love, harmony or even health in our home. No healing talk was ever truly walked in our house.

And yet with my child’s eyes I could clearly see that most of humanity was very sick and needed medical help – if only to allow function in this world.

No, my choice to study medicine and then Radiology, was ultimately one made in the pursuit of Truth. Initially an outward seeking of truth in knowledge (encouraged by my academic parents), then of truth in humanity (the roller-coaster of emotional connection to my patients) and finally, an inward seeking of Truth in myself and the communications of my own body.

The learning curve was pretty steep and the 20+ years of medical training grindingly militaristic for the most part. Even with ‘time-out’ breaks working in pharmaceutical research, my searchings left me exhausted and cynical, feeling like yet another burnt-out, ‘morally injured’ doctor.

Yet at each juncture or rung of the ladder I climbed to reach the metaphorical ‘top’ , there was a level of awareness being offered to me – about my body. Specifically, what it could allow and what it couldn’t.  

And it was that growing awareness of my body and its absolute honesty that proved my saving grace – leading me lovingly and with language of its own, to a place of actual Truth I had not yet considered or experienced.

So how did this play out?

Like most NHS junior doctors I was offered the usual ‘chocolate box’ of false ideals about being a Doctor. This included the personal ‘sacrifice’ that should be made for one’s patients (career), the striving for a ‘good or better’ outcome in every situation (whether the patient truly wanted it or not) and the concept of ‘duty’ that included the barest minimum of care for one’s own wellbeing. Yet I gobbled these ideals up, having already been ‘groomed’ by medical school where learning to ignore basic bodily instincts like going to the loo or taking adequate breaks from study was normal.

As I embodied these ideals, within a few short years post-graduation, my actual physical body protested. Violently. Working night shifts for 10 days in a row, repressing distress over difficult patient deaths or bullying from seniors, then launching straight into specialist exams – simply did not agree with it. Bouts of flu culminating in severe adult chicken-pox then resulted in severe pneumonia and a subsequent diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis – with me to this day as a salient reminder. I had caught the virus during my work on the elderly care wards where the level of abuse and neglect of both staff and patients seemed extreme in comparison to my own.

My hospital colleagues did not offer substantial support. Instead I was offered the ideals of ‘resilience training’ and ‘positive thinking’, laced with ‘healthy’ comparison and the expectation that I owed it to the system and myself (not my body) to do ‘better’ and just carry on. Bitterness, deep isolation and inner defeat soon set in, spilling into my private life where even worse relationship and food choices became inevitable. I became resolutely ‘nice’, deferential and apologetic in order to function with the pain. Soon I would end up just like my medical parents and all the quietly desperate hospital consultants (with wan smiling faces) whom I had vowed not to emulate.

What did this expose?

On a very deep, energetic level, I could now feel how modern Health Care operated, fundamentally separated from the human bodies it claimed to treat (much less care for) and the bodies (staff) that were expected to give that treatment, usually at their own expense. An empty partnership of ideals, out-dated traditions, knowledge and bureaucracy, lovelessly applied to doctors and patients alike and crushing all. The people who worked in Medicine were, in essence, lovely, but the system itself was not.

This did not represent good medicine or even come close to touching universal Truth.

The awareness of it all hit me like a truck but I did not leave. Instead I shifted sideways into Radiology – from my perspective a more truth-filled study of the ‘unseen’ energies and their effects and interaction with the human body. It felt more solid and dependable on a physical level. More separate from the hustle and bustle of ward life and clinics and, I secretly hoped, less abusive. After all – the physics of X-rays, CT and MRI never lied  – the body would always give the diagnosis in the beautiful imaging, even when the physicians and patients were inclined to lie or believe otherwise. And of course, there was the superiority bonus of always being right when the ‘Doughnut of Truth’ (the CT scanner) revealed the answer to a diagnostic mystery.

Despite my good intentions and ill-conceived wishes, the system’s entrenched abuse continued unabated, as did my ongoing abuse of myself. I had failed to truly heed my body’s messages after over 10 years of  shift work; don’t mix exhaustion with exams or parties, take in nourishing food, do your work gently, exercise, make sleep-time sacred. Breast Radiology allowed me the noble ‘feel good’ factor of  manageable patient interactions, but the intense emotional moments with anxious women facing unpleasant procedures and prognoses increasingly took its emotional  toll. As did the endless backstabbing and internal politics that is itself a cancer of the medical system. Many of the Breast Unit doctors I worked with (I worked in 6 separate units) had had breast cancer or brushes with other cancers themselves and at some level I was starting to join the dots … I remember covering a Breast Radiology Clinic alone for my then consultant, so she could have her own breast tumour irradiated – the irony was not lost on me.

Why did I not leave?

I still wanted to know Truth. And yet I was not fully listening to the truth of what was in front of and within me – the wisdom of my own body. It held an inner knowing of what I needed to thrive, not just survive. By this time I had had 2 miscarriages, 1 termination of pregnancy, 2 small children and a failing marriage added to the toxic mix. My first child’s birth had involved a series of medical mishaps culminating in traumatic forceps delivery, 6 unit of blood loss, 5 hours of emergency surgery and a 1 week stay in ITU. It was a brush with death, and it woke me up. Fast. As soon as the (physical) wounds had healed I insisted we all move out of London, away from our CV-boosting jobs, into the Welsh countryside so I could finish Radiology training part-time within the sanctuary of nature.

The universe obliged, we moved and I set to recuperating, pondering and above all – sleeping. The search for truth was gaining momentum.

However, during this change of pace, dim memories of my natural childish body confidence began to resurface. Walking on my days off resurfaced feelings of unhindered bodily joy and expression that came with the obedience of following the body’s impulse in each moment. As a child I had been physically robust and took my body’s ease and lack of illness for granted – nothing short of a miracle given my upbringing in Pakistan’s mission hospitals. This was confirmed during a chance conversation with an old friend (nurse) from our days in the Lahore hospital compound. She told me: ‘Even at 5, you were happily directing the local children and patients in group games despite them being over 3 times your age, as if you were the  hospital manager!’ I had felt ‘at home’ in Pakistan and longed to feel my innate joy and confidence again.

The simplicity began to dawn on me:

There was no true love in or for my adult body, so there was no true love in my work or life.

No amount of idealising, band-aiding, talking or justifying would change that. I could not pour from an empty vessel. I had to return to the beginning.

What did this mean?

  • It meant turning my microscope of awareness inward after 3 decades of outward focus.
  • It meant humbly caring for my whole-bodied self (not my personality or mental demands), in a way that honoured my body’s wise and subtle communications first. Always.
  • It meant freeing myself of my sole reliance on assumed and ‘evidence-based’ medical knowledge and becoming a student of myself again – of my innermost feelings and impulses.
  • It meant becoming absolutely honest about how I had been living when all the accidents, illnesses and misfortunes had beset me.

Most importantly, it meant taking responsibility for the self-abusive choices I had made and re-aligning to the still small voice within – my Soul’s call. And, it would mean deliberately bursting the bubble of security, comfort and protection I had created to cope with life as Doctor, Mother and Wife.

I was following what the ancients would have called ‘the path of labours’ or the awareness that each moment in life is a blessing offering more insight into what is innately known, but cannot presently be seen or felt.

What did this look like?

The first step was to remove all the ‘crutches’ that helped me look functional but essentially gagged my body’s communications. Why else did it have to speak so loudly?

Alcohol went first. I drank to fit in to the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture I knew so well and to take the edge off the daily tensions, despite the disturbed sleep and sense of self-disconnection alcohol brought. Of course, I had been taught to drink in moderation, so the effect of the poisoning was less obvious and no charges of hypocrisy could be made.

After I let it go, my natural sleep rhythms returned and I started to feel what was truly going on for me anxiety-wise, in the evenings and at social functions.

Then came the ‘normalised’ stimulants (tea, coffee, chocolate and emotional dramas). These were more difficult addictions to let go of. My experience was that the NHS pretty much ran on caffeine, sugar and high-drama. The wards were chock-full of it (excuse the pun), particularly at stress-full times like Christmas. Gossip and politicking kept all the wheels well-oiled and everyone distracted from the drudgery. How could I cope without them?

Back to the body. I really began to hone in on how it reacted to each of my ‘crutch’ items.  The gluten loaded pastries and pasta, the endless sugary snacks dressed up in healthy medical-sounding language, the smooth comforts of dairy and cheese, irresistible when I needed to reward myself during a difficult day. How did my entire body feel about it? Dulled, bloated, exhausted. Addicted and silenced.

As I gently weaned myself off these comforts, a sense of vitality and yes, Truth returned to my body. A solid confidence and inner certainty were returning. And, to my great relief, the reflex apologies, self-doubt and begrudging ‘niceness’ faded. Evening baths, early nights, gentle exercise and breathing my own breath became welcome replacements.

The simplicity surprised me.

What also surprised me was the huge resistance around me to such changes; ‘don’t be so hard on yourself’, ‘everything in moderation’ and ‘why so boring?’ echoed constantly in my ears at home and at work. Tensions with family, husband and colleagues exposed the comfort they felt with my contracted, compliant way of being. Invitations ceased and easy alliances fell away. Why was such a basic reflection of self-care so distressing for them?

My marriage ended acrimoniously, relationship dynamics shifted massively and my comfort seeking journey was over. Despite the external judgements, it felt anything but tragic. The awareness my rediscovered way of life offered me had matched what I had held in my 5 year old body.

So what was the Truth for me?

The delicate language of my body held the key. Striving to ‘heal’ others was no longer where it was at. The long-lost adage Physician heal thyself’ was now a tangible truth in my body. I realised that same body had carried around my head, full of beliefs and ideals, which I and my expensive medical education considered so very valuable. And yet no amount of medical expertise, intellectual or spiritual-based searching had returned me to the state of wholeness and inner settlement I had taken for granted, age 5. Steps were being retraced to a Truth about healing that had always been hidden in plain sight.

Medicine is about the body. Healing starts with choosing to feel the whole body in full and honour its subtle and immediate communication. Without the silencing effect of addictive foods, emotions or mental beliefs and impositions.

I have no doubt that when illness and disease reach catastrophic levels, Medicine will very reluctantly discover this simple fact again, just as I and others have done. When it does, the game will change and true healing will be within our reach as a species. Our medical schools will focus on the communication of their own bodies first, before dissecting and analysing those of others, in order to learn what is true from their innermost. The evidence of their own bodies will be the guiding light and the vessels of healing will be empty of self-love no more.

And so, you may wonder, did I leave in the end?

No. I am now a committed student of my body first and in that choice, I have found a truer, multidimensional way to be within the world and within Medicine, without being attached to it. It is not always outwardly comfortable but it produces an inner settlement I would never trade. So, if that choice risks not comfortably fitting in, being sidelined or even changing career, then so be it – Truth must come first in both Life and Medicine. For Life is  Medicine.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Delightful reading, amazing story, magnificent turnaround and super inspiring, – for everybody, not only doctors! Thank you.

  2. What a wonderful resurrection experience Fiona that contains the blueprint for all of us. Our bodies are truly our own lighthouses.
    Thank you so much for sharing with such honesty and commitment.

  3. Dear Fiona, Thank you for sharing your extraordinary re-commencement journey with life and purpose this time around. What a light-house you are for so many and a true treasure for those young folk entering the medical profession with perhaps stars in their eyes but without 20/20 vision of the connection of Truth of Love in medicine.

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