#359 Sharp scratch – an untold story


5 October 2021

As part of Mental Health Month, Dr Kieran Allen, AMA Victoria member, has agreed to share his personal story to help reduce the stigma of mental illness in the medical profession. His blog was published on Friday 1 October 2021. Sunday 10 October 2021 is World Mental Day. The overall objective of World Mental Health Day is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health.

Our Untold Stories: Trumpeted narratives celebrate those who maintain recovery whilst those who relapse are cast aside. Mine is one such story…

Today kicks off Mental Health Month – a month sure to be filled with many stories. Many that inspire, many that are poignant. Tales of heroic overwork, burnout and, ultimately, recovery. And, too often, tales that are sanitised. These stories allow us to feel good, to hope, to celebrate how far we’ve come. Undoubtedly, these are important to hear to inspire those seeking relief from their despair. Yet, they hide the very raw truth that those with a relapsing and remitting mental illness are too often overlooked through the lens of wellbeing. 

Seldom does our culture of wellbeing collectively explore the pain and grief known to those of us who, behind our fragile masks, know that a relapse may be just around the corner. The relapsers – the recurrently unwell. Trumpeted narratives celebrate those who maintain recovery whilst those who relapse are cast aside.

Mine is one such story…

I was struck by how unnatural the whole situation was. The professional and personal isolation of hospitalisation for a depressive episode is profound. It is alienating. Rather than cared for, I instead felt objectified, surrounded by strangers, each tasked with a role to fix me. No longer was I the capable professional, caring for others, but rather a damaged machine hooked up for service. My sense of self felt lost to the point that who I was when I was well had become little more than a distant memory.

“Sharp scratch.”

The anaesthetist’s familiar refrain echoed in the small room. I knew what was shortly to come. The unnatural cold sensation would inch its way up my arm before I’d be consumed by darkness – enraptured by a pleasant nothingness where depression, pain, failure and loneliness could not touch me. Those few minutes were the only temporary reprieve from the constant barrage that had become my reality.

I had been ill so very many times before that trying to count seemed pointless. This was just another in a long line of episodes characterised by a crash through to the depths of depression, followed by a slow, seemingly pointless struggle to drag myself back to health.  Once again, I felt tired. I felt done. I could not fight anymore. I just wanted to give it all up.

As the psychiatrist readied the machine to my side, affixing monitoring cables over me, I reflected on the bizarre nature of the situation. How many times have I, as a psychiatrist-in-training, been in their position, readying a patient for their own potentially life saving treatment? How many times have I spoken to a family about the critical nature of the intervention? Now, here I am, undergoing my very own treatment. The irony was unpalatable.

Lying there, dishevelled and unkempt, I reflected on the irony of my own experience as an advocate for doctors’ wellbeing. I am regularly invited to speak at wellbeing events. Indeed, just the night before, I’d been invited to join yet another wellbeing panel. I felt like a fraud. What authority did I have to comment on wellbeing when I had soon become so unwell myself? Indeed, perhaps more painfully, what right did I have when my illness had become unwantedly and painfully recurrent, interfering with my life so severely?

A sense of clarity penetrated my exhaustion. I chuckled to myself – a dark-humoured laugh – thinking how the stories I tell often omit the details I think are too dark, too humiliating or too shameful to share. Or, perhaps, I am misguidedly protecting others from what I think they’d be too uncomfortable to hear. One’s thoughts lying in wait in the ECT room might well be one such place, I mused. Whilst the persistent campaigning of many successful organisations may now allow most to understand the nature of depression, unless you’ve been in there, almost no one knows what happens during one of its most effective treatments. Most don’t want to know. Most would prefer not to hear of ECG dots and EEG monitoring – of seizures and electrical currents. Perhaps, most of us simply cannot bear to face the reality that any of us can become so unwell. Or perhaps, we all still buy into that ever pervasive stigma.

“You’ll be asleep in a few moments,” I heard as the familiar sense of cold consumed me, guiding me to the depths of now well-known darkness.

Dr Allen’s blog can be found here: kieranallenblog.wordpress.com/2021/10/01/sharp-scratch-an-untold-story/.

If you wish to discuss your mental health as a doctor or medical student, useful resources include:

AMA Victoria Preferred Suppliers