Nature heals. Or, maybe people do, so can music, writing, reading, spiritual guidance. Then you have smoking, alcohol, or pills in an unprescribed, dangerous way.
But nothing can truly heal, unless we have an opportunity to separate ourselves from whatever it is that causes us that ail, that mental exhaustion. What helps most of all is peace and pause, a chance to think and let the mind recoil.
From the above mentioned, I prescribe to nature. Nature heals for me; the sound of birds chirping in the morning makes me feel lucky to be alive; the sound of ocean waves clears my thoughts; a bike ride amongst trees with a good audio book makes me a better person.
Yet, what I am finding this week is none of that works if I can’t unplug or leave my stressors behind. Settled on a hilltop, with the most perfect view of the smokey mountains, huddled with my favorite people (husband and daughter) in a cabin with woodpeckers for an alarm clock, I am glued to my phone and email looking for ways to be involved in the day to day operations of my dental office. And as my husband is convincing me that the world won’t implode if I miss a text or email, I ignore his opinion.
Right as he is, right as he usually is (don’t let him know I said that), my attempt in this discourse is to find the fault in my own way of thinking. Maybe not fault as much as understanding.
So consider this article yet another measure for processing one of my unhidden shortcomings, the inability to stop working.
Because chances are that I am not the only one who fails to unwind and unplug no matter the miles of separation.
During my work weeks, I wake up early each day, at least an hour before my family, and am at work by 7 am. Often my day, my work day, doesn’t end until 7 pm. This includes patient care, continuing education, meetings with my team, coaches and consultants, business planning, and the like.
I spend only 24 contact hours with my patients each week but much more than that attending to all the rest which is necessary to run a profitable business. I work while I am driving (spent on the phone), I work if I am riding my bike (listening to CE), I work through every lunch and at least 2 hours before my first patient in the morning. I am unfamiliar with sitting idle.
The way I have grown up, an immigrant, and it being part of my core value, if you are not spending every minute of your day moving forward, or advancing life for yourself, your loved ones, or humanity in general, you’re wasting that moment. Everything I do is done with maximum allowable speed (allowable meaning, still has to be done with great care and quality) because of the never ending to-do list. I am a pro at multitasking.
Of course I realize that this habituation to stretching and maximizing the ROI for every minute, started in college. We have habituated ourselves as pre-dental students to participate in sports, extracurriculars, and volunteer opportunities, all the while keeping at least a 3.5 GPA. Since our mid to late teens, we have made every moment in our day count. Practice ownership is a very special kind of challenge in making those moments count.
It’s ‘next level,’ the highest of levels. We juggle countless balls in the air, while wearing and changing the multiple hats we wear. There are days that we feel we are doing the job of at least 3 people. So, is it any wonder that when presented with 16 hours of ‘no teeth’ in sight, we have habituated ourselves into reaching for that phone. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow” discusses a lifelong study of many professionals specifically focusing on surgeons, medical surgeons that is.
He claims that when surgeons don’t ‘cut’ for a period of time, they experience symptoms similar to withdrawal, including having their hands shake. Though my hands are not currently shaking, I wonder if I happen to be one of these unrecovered addicts.
I don’t know that I am here to offer a solution as much as an explanation. I work because it’s all I know, is it the same for you?
We are dentists, it’s who we are.
I remember speaking to many of my colleagues over the lockdown who struggled significantly with the shutdown. I am not discussing politics here. I am also not talking about the all encompassing stress loaded situation we were in. Not talking about about sourcing PPE and not talking about about applying for PPP.
I am talking about lacking, within our daily lives, that which we had used for years to define who we are at the core: dentists, healers, providers, practitioners or practice owners. Being connected to patients and ‘teeth’ is something we had found within our lives throughout much of our adult years. And in those years, whether we had chosen purposefully to do so or not, being a dentist had become a part of who we were; who we still are.
Being away from what it was that we knew made us uneasy, and lost, even if it was for just a short time. Is it possible that as we venture onto our long awaited vacations, our family trips, we somehow find ourselves disconnected from who it is we think we are? Are we lost?
And are we using the excuse to call our office as a sort of bridge to reconnect to all that we know, and the need to feel validated in our own existence?
And is it possible that the further we venture away from the office, the less purposeful we feel?
Once again, as guilty as the rest, I can’t offer much of a hack to circumvent these feelings other than to say that perhaps we should look into a purpose separate from that found in the office. Add that to your never ending to-do list: figure out who you are, outside of ‘teeth.’
Alone we stand, or do we?
Often as sole proprietors, or maybe those of us in small partnerships, the heavy lifting and leadership of moving a private practice towards growth starts and stops with us. I am not suggesting we don’t have help, and I am not suggesting that we are the most important part of that equation.
All I am saying that it gets lonely at the top. The burden of decision making, of straying from the red, of the practice liability and of our own liability as providers rests on our shoulders. Not many of our team members worry if the schedule falls apart, or how a clinical case will turn out; not many worry about how to make rent, or if there is enough money in the bank to pay for the business loan. Certainly none have the kind of debt we’ve carried from dental schools, nor have they had to personally sign against a lease or bank loan.
This idea of having had to depend on ourselves, enduring the sleepless nights at times, layers a certain kind of arrogance onto what we can and others cannot do.
This very same kind of arrogance is what keeps us checking email. We convinced ourselves that no other team member has really been in a position to carry that kind of load, and thus, no one can really be fully trusted to fill in. Even if we have systems to help run the practice while we are away, the fear still creeps in. That same fear that keeps us wondering whether we are one review away from our practice closing, one bad day away from having our entire team quit, and one slow day from eating thru our savings.
However irrational, it is the fear, resulting arrogance, and the life of depending upon ourselves as that sole(ish) proprietor that moves us in the direction of reaching for that phone.
I once again would like to give my husband credit into convincing me that one week away from the office, no matter how difficult, no matter how slow the production could be, will not force the practice that’s taken me 16+ years to build into retirement. So, perhaps it’s time to shut down the laptop and trust away. Trust the people who have known me for a decade and a half. Trust the people who have relentlessly taken care of my patients and myself.
Trust, because there will be no implosion.
Will I change?
As I come to finish my discourse into a rationalization of why I’ve taken calls from work, sent texts to my landlord, checked emails, and secretly looked at our weave schedule on the app all before dinnertime, I wonder, if it will be different tomorrow on my last day of vacation?
Having processed the understanding for my misleading need to be present while away, having understood the importance of how my past habituation is affecting me now, will I, upon waking tomorrow, lead my day differently? I shiver at the thought… but am willing and able to try. And if I don’t, what will be the repercussions?
What will be the cost?
Will my mind ever be able to recoil from the constant turbulence of making decisions?
Will I ever be able to allow others to make decisions that belong to them, in my absence or even in my presence?
The smallest of steps.
So, what happened on that last day, and on my return home? Well, a new lesson surfaced shortly after the plane landed, as I had lost my phone. With the phone insurance taking several days to replace what felt like a much needed appendage, the freedom I felt compared to no other.
Not having a phone almost made my hands shake, as per that addiction Csikszentmihalyi described. Felt like something was missing at all times. And yet as disassembled as I felt, I also felt like I could breathe. And that freedom is what seems to have been missing in the week of my vacation and the afternoon on my work days.
Though I am not suggesting you toss the phone, I am suggesting to create a phone free time or phone free zone. It’s the smallest of steps that I can think of to overcome the addiction of decision making. Press the button on your phone that says ‘Focus,’ ‘Sleep,’ or ‘Do not disturb.’
Nowadays, from 7 pm to 7 am each day, evenings and weekends, my phone is in sleep mode. I get no notifications from txts, emails, messenger or social media; not unless I lift open the screen that is. And this has made a difference. Not putting it on my nightstand, and instead plugging it across the room also reduces the possibility of me engaging with that phone prior to bedtime. I’m simply too lazy to walk across the room to get it, and check a random fact on google, or post an unnecessary photo on social.
Not to say that this process hasn’t been trying. But, I am choosing to make the effort, because of said freedom, of said healing. Maybe if I can’t go on a bike ride in the moment, or I can’t hear the birds that morning, but at least I can keep from a screen, and yes, that is just as healing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Augustyn earned her DDS degree from the University of Illinois Chicago. She has completed the course sequence in the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. Dr. Augustyn is a general dentist and writer in Elmhurst, Ill, and lives near Chicago with her husband and daughter.
She can be reached via email at email@example.com.