Question: I am a senior healthcare worker. I have been qualified in my discipline for more than 25 years, and my career has progressed well. My husband is a well-paid professional in a stable job, and we have one daughter, who is attending college.
I have always enjoyed my job and believe that I am good at it. I found the pandemic very hard to deal with – I avoided going on to the wards as much as possible, drawing ire from my colleagues. I did eventually contract the virus outside of work from a family member. I was completely asymptomatic and so far have suffered no long-term consequences. I now find it difficult having to go to work, and keep worrying that I am not sanitising my hands or wearing enough PPE to protect myself.
Several years ago I had a complex life-threatening illness that has long since been in remission, but I never want to experience anything like that again. I have applied for and been successful in gaining a junior non-clinical position within my own career structure – it is completely administrative, and I will no longer have any patient contact and my exposure to contagious diseases will be greatly reduced.
My husband is angry with me about this as he believes that I have not thought this through properly, and that the decision is impulsive and reactive. He thinks that whilst we won't suffer from the loss of earnings now, it will impact on my pension later. I am very disappointed that he does not support me, and I really do not know what to do.
Answer: You have a number of issues that need addressing: trauma as a result of your life-threatening illness; some obsessive-compulsive thoughts based on fear of contamination; and some relationship issues to sort out with your husband.
It is very understandable that everything in you reacts to the possibility of another life-threatening event, and in some ways this past event is very current and present in your life and decision-making now.
You must be very self-compassionate in understanding how easily you have found yourself in this situation
I wonder if you’d consider seeing a trauma counsellor to help you to unpack this time in your life so that you get some freedom and choice in your decision-making going forward. The same counsellor could help you with the intrusive thoughts you are experiencing around contamination. Your experience of getting Covid and not having any great trouble with it has done nothing to diminish your fear so it is likely that the thoughts are crippling for you and they need addressing.
For some people anxiety has increased during the pandemic to such an extent that people who have had no trauma or history of panic are now suffering acutely, so you must be very self-compassionate in understanding how easily you have found yourself in this situation. Making life-changing decisions right now might not be right for you – you are caught in a web of fear, and your ability for rational decision-making is compromised.
Would you consider taking time off work (career break) so that you can get the right professional help and then come to making life choices when you are in a calmer, wiser place? There is a lot of knowledge and experience available in dealing with obsessive thoughts, and the chances are that a good outcome will be available for you if you engage with supports.
When we are full of fear our impulse is for immediate safety, and it seems that your action in taking the administration-only position is part of that reaction. Your husband is urging you to reconsider, and perhaps some of this is based on the pension impact, but he may also be worried for your mental health and this deserves discussion.
A crisis in a relationship can be a great time for growth and development and, while it is not easy, it can be approached as an opportunity
In the scenario where you take some kind of career break, you would take some pressure off the relationship issues and allow for some time to discover what exactly you are dealing with. Perhaps your partner feels that he has not been included in this big decision, and his frustration is seeping out and you perceive this as lack of support.
It is possible to see how both of you can take opposing views on this, and how that might drive a wedge in your relationship. Create a time (a walk or a coffee) and ask each other how you each feel (really feel) about everything without needing to come to any conclusion. Then inquire what you, as a couple, can do to support each person at this time, and figure out what is needed before you rush to answers.
The needs are likely to include therapy for you, perhaps including your partner at some stage; and also growing an authentic connection for your partner to check his emotions with so that he has some reflection before you are at the receiving end of his reactions. A crisis in a relationship can be a great time for growth and development and, while it is not easy, it can be approached as an opportunity if we have the wherewithal to take it.
This is a time in your life when past events have resurfaced, your thoughts are causing suffering, and your relationship needs some attention – take it slow and with the right support you will find that you have the ability to address each issue with confidence.