I got offered more work today. The clinic’s manager called to see if I can take one more day a week to see patients. I said yes, begrudgingly. He was both baffled and amused: “I thought you’d be happier about this.” I hung up with a heavy heart, as a black cloud I’ve been fighting for months started shading me again.
I’m having a pre-midlife crisis. A 30’s crisis. This one is about my career, and it’s been on my mind for a year now. There were several stages to it: denial, hustle, apathy, and now it seems like I’m planning my escape, except my masterfully created web of obligations won’t let me go.
I’m an orthodontist. Most times I’m embarrassed to say this, which is ridiculous and in itself is an issue I should explore more. My mom used to be a dental assistant and pushed both me and my brother to study dentistry. It was pretty much the only thing I’ve known from childhood, but not necessarily the thing I wanted to become.
In fact, my passions had always been words, languages, and music. I was an essayist in high school, I won prizes and distinctions, and I would stay up at night to write.
There weren’t many viable options for me, at 18 years old, when I chose my career path. I live in a developing country, and back then, just like today, getting a college degree didn’t necessarily ensure you would make a good living. So I chose to listen to my head instead of my heart.
My plan was to be in a job where I would have no boss, make my own schedule, and earn a boatload of money. Back then, there weren’t any internet self-made millionaires. My interests would only land me a job as a teacher or as a translator, and I was done with living modestly. So I chose dentistry.
Passion was pushed out of the picture, and nearly two decades later, it came back to haunt me.
By the end of the residency, I was in such sorry state that I nearly gave up. I was bullied by a teacher there, which I never thought possible to happen to me as an adult, but that’s a story for another time.
I felt trapped and completely unmotivated. It took all the determination I was able to muster to make this career a successful reality.
My logical mind was taking the reins again and making all the decisions.
I set huge goals, studied voraciously, and built my confidence as I went from door to door looking for collaborations with dental offices. I had goals for the number of patients I was to begin treatment on or the level of income I was to make in any given semester or year.
I consumed countless self-improvement books and podcasts, I was obsessed with being productive and efficient, to the point that I would feel guilty enjoying leisure time.
At some point, it all went to hell. I was burnt out. My soul was screaming — no more.
I had put so much mental pressure on myself that it pervaded every aspect of my life: my body was tense at all times, which lead to muscular imbalances and chronic pain, I couldn’t sleep, I developed arrhythmia and IBS flare-ups, and as I’ve confessed here before, my mental health devolved into anxiety and full-blown panic attacks.
It was a tough wake up call. A clear sign that I needed to listen to my intuition, a faint voice inside my head that was neither practical, nor logical, but it felt true.
My defense mechanisms switched on and I looked around to see how I could work less and take care of myself. I reduced the number of offices I was working with, narrowed them down to three. I quit studying and working on patients’ files while at home. I became avoidant and apathetic, filled with dread.
My need to be healthy now overrides my ambition to be excellent. And this really pains me, because I hate being a less than stellar doctor. I hate it that I’m not as resilient as my other, more accomplished colleagues. I wish I could press on, like I did before, and have no dire consequences to threaten the quality of my life.
Web of Obligations
The way I see it, three major reasons are holding me back from quitting right now and pivoting my career path.
Firstly, my work is all about being committed to a patient for a long period of time. I need to stick around until the treatment is over and I’ve done a good job, it’s the ethical thing to do. I start treatments all the time and should I ever decide to quit, I have two good years ahead of me to finish all my cases. Which means I need to make peace with it, my job won’t be going away any time soon.
Secondly, there’s the financial aspect of it. We have a mortgage to pay and a house to renovate. Dave Ramsey, financial guru, would seriously frown if we went into debt again, so we are furiously saving money and listening to his mantra: work more and spend less. It’s the “working more” that’s killing me, unfortunately.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t know what else I’d be good at. I’m interested in many things but I can’t perform any of them at this level. I’d hate to be a beginner again, but I am willing to try. I dabbled in different possible side hustles like niche blogging on WordPress, learning to code in Python (my husband’s a programmer), but I quit these things pretty quickly. Medium is my only solace right now.
So here I am, with most of my targets met. I have the experience, recognition, a steady stream of new patients, and opportunities to work as hard as I want. Unfortunately, my long term goals don’t resonate with me anymore. They fizzled into thin air, they died with the old me.
I read somewhere that our personality changes every 7 years or so, and I see that to be true in my life. I don’t like or want the same things anymore.
I reject this success I’ve created in my life because of fear of exhaustion and pain, but also because I believe in my heart there’s something better out there. I just need to find out what that is.
I really hope that this will resonate on some level with some of you out there desperate for a change, whether it’s about a career, moving, divorce, whatever it may be. Uncertainty is such a burden, but unfortunately, there is no way of knowing what the best decision is.
For me, it took reaching success to realize that maybe, a long time ago, I made the wrong choice for myself.