When I was a medical student, I remember one ward round when we were gathered around the bed of a patient who was breathless and coughing up blood. She admitted to being a heavy smoker. The surgeon gave her his usual stern ticking off about the dangers of cigarettes, and then we all trooped back to the doctor’s office where he took the patient’s chest x-ray out of the envelope and pushed it up onto the light-box on the wall.
“Look at the mass there he said,” pointing to dense shadow in the left lung, “almost certainly a carcinoma.”
And then he calmly took a packet of Senior Service cigarettes out of the pocket of his white coat and lit one up, puffing away as we discussed the prognosis. You have to understand this was the Stone Age. People did still smoke in hospitals, even doctors. But some things haven’t changed. I think many doctors still have a peculiar belief in their own immortality. That knowing all about disease not only gives you power over it but makes you immune to it. It begins at medical school. Many medical students aren’t even registered with a GP where they go to university. They alternate between being sure they have every disease they learn about and denial of their own susceptibility. And it carries on. Doctors generally don’t smoke now, but we still abuse ourselves in other ways, notably with alcohol. We are tough and macho, don’t admit to weakness, and rarely follow the advice we give our patients, yet expect them to wholeheartedly agree with us.
Last year I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to be immortal after all. I don’t mean that in the sense of transcendence of my soul. I’ll keep out of that argument for the moment. Rather I am not going to live forever, and life might get quite a bit harder for me physically in the future than it is now. To add to the anxiety, depression and hypothyroidism, I was diagnosed with progressive kidney disease.
Okay, so I know I will not live forever. Of course I won’t. Indeed would I really want to? There have been times when I’ve been so depressed that I’ve wanted to end my life somewhat sooner. The thing about depression for me, unlike physical illness, is that it feels like if I were to die from it, it would be because I wanted to. I have control. Even though I know rationally, as a psychiatrist, that what I perceived I wanted would be strongly influenced by my mental state at the time. But there is, I think, a part of all of us that secretly hopes we can cheat fate and carry on forever (only while enjoying of course the perfect health of youth). When I was a young child, the idea of dying seemed so impossibly far away as to be almost irrelevant to being alive. Then my grandfather died followed by my father, both at ages not so different from where I am now. When people close to you die, death became a real possibility for you too.
People who have chronic illness are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and the more chronic illnesses you have the greater your risk. In the last research project I worked on in Manchester, we attempted to offer psychological therapy to people with diabetes and/or heart disease who were also depressed. What was striking was how few of these people were actively receiving help despite the fact that all them had been screened for depression on an annual basis as part of the payment incentive system for GPs in the UK. Some of them had never discussed their mood or suicidal ideas with their doctor. They didn’t want to, they were embarrassed or they didn’t see the point, so they suffered in silence. It can feel stigmatizing having chronic illness, and having a mental health problem as well just doubles the stigma.
So it turns out I have a genetic disorder of the kidneys that I’ve had for many years, but didn’t know about before, and which is going to get worse as I get older, at a rate as yet undetermined. There is a good chance I will eventually need to have dialysis. Despite feeling fitter than I have for years, it is as though my body has let me down. Something is happening inside me over which I have no right of determination. Like many people with chronic illness I feel my useful life has now become shorter, so I’m beginning to speed up my rate of travel, picking up again those things I started to do many years ago but dropped because of my career, and aiming to achieve a few of them while I’m still quite healthy. Not quite a bucket list but something similar. It has increased my level of anxiety but I don’t feel depressed about it yet because I’m still in control, trying to keep myself fitter than I have since – well ever.
Or maybe it’s because I’m just being tough…. and I still believe I can win.