Dear anonymous vet

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Somewhere in an old diary of mine, wedged in between ‘phone blood results for Spotty Jones’ and ‘book ute for a service’ on my to-do-list these words are scribbled:

“If not this, then what the fuck?!?!?!?!”

I suspect this pretty much sums up what you feel? Like you, and like so many countless other vets, and plumbers, and doctors, teachers, poets, office workers, dive instructors, travellers… (you get the picture), I’ve stared down the long dark barrel of that question for a substantial amount of time. And it’s not an easy one. 

I’m always so jealous of people who have a singular passion in life. Imagine being one of those vets who just fucking love treating animals so much that no matter the hour of the day and how many days they’ve been working in a row they still get excited about that weird and challenging case! Those vets do exist, but take comfort in knowing that they are the exception to the rule – there are way more of us who’d see that case on the wrong day and feel ‘please not now – I just want to go home!!!’

You ask for resources to help you discover what you want: the number one resource you need is time. It’s impossible to think clearly, to dig deep onto your own psyche and explore other pathways when you are working 40 + hours in clinical practice and doing after hours on top of that. Your mind is too worn out and crowded with practical problems to be able to think creatively about possible solutions for your situation. You need to make some time to read, try out new hobbies and revisit old passions, exercise, join a club, travel, develop some new skills and get some sleep. Don’t worry too much initially about following a defined path – just kick some rocks and follow your nose. If you are going to find a new career path it’ll most likely be born from a new person you meet or a passion that you discover. And even if it fails to produce ‘the answer’ – at the very least you will find things that will increase you’re general well-being and build resilience so you can cope better with the down sides of life. 

Speak to your boss about cutting back your hours. Even if it is just one extra day off per week for  a few months or a year to start. Take a pay cut and adjust your expenses so you can make ends meet. Money is only money, and you have the rest of your life to get back into the rat race. Or if you really need the money then cut back your vet work and get another job elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be your dream job – work at the checkout at the nursery, flip burgers at maccas – just prove to yourself that you can do something else. 

Or if you can afford it consider taking a ‘mini-retirement’. If it’s as hard to find vets for rural practice as it sounds then the odds are that your employer will be open to discuss a 3 or 6 months unpaid break. And if not then you can always find another job at the end of your break. You can say many bad things about being a vet, but the ability to be flexible and move between jobs with relative ease  is a giant bonus. Go travel, go work in a turtle sanctuary in Indonesia or rescue bears in India. Or avoid animals – volunteer in an orphanage or become a surf instructor. But don’t do this just to run away from your problems – keep your goal of growth and self-discovery front of mind, otherwise you might come back even more dissatisfied, with the added curse of seriously itchy feet.

As for me : I never found ‘the one thing’. Time away from clinical work showed me that that was my solution: just more time away from clinical work! Turns out that I do actually like being a vet – just not ALL THE FRIGGIN TIME! My solution is less clinical work and more time to pursue other passions. None of those passions have generated any income or turned into a new career, but what they give in terms of well-being is priceless. We’ve adjusted our long term financial goals to remove the pressure of having to earn X amount of dollars, and I’ve found ways to increase the money I get per hour of vet work that I do. Perhaps one day one of my interests will turn into something bigger – just look at that vet who was involved in the cave rescue in Thailand! But for now I focus on the things about vet work that I like, minimise the things I don’t like, or find ways of learning to love, or at least tolerate, the things I don’t like. 

Which brings me to the philosophical part of my reply: keep in mind that life is inevitably linked to suffering. Problems are an inescapable part of life. You’ll move from one situation that you don’t like to something that looks much more appealing only to find a new set of problems waiting for you. My seven year old has problems. Richard Branson has problems. They’re just different problems. The desire for constant improvement is nothing abnormal and nothing to be ashamed of – it’s universal to our species, and why we have progressed so very far: we’re never quite satisfied with the status quo. The key is to try and identify which problems you’d be ok to work on solving, or even find some joy in solving. If you love everything else about your life but just hate on call then perhaps you simply need to find a way to do less on call, or find ways to cope with doing on-call? 

Just don’t ask me how to cope with on call! I did on call for over ten years and it nearly made me leave the industry. The only reason I put up with it for so long was that it was the norm for most of us back then, and misery loves company! That, and I watched my Dad uncomplainingly do on-call as a doctor for his entire life, so I figured if he could do it so could I. (I once asked him how he coped, and he said that there just wasn’t another option – he wanted to be a doctor and doctors did on call, and that questioning your career choice because you didn’t like some aspect of it just wasn’t a thing back then. We’ve come a long way, no?)

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