Several times each month I receive an email or message via social media asking, “how can I do what you do?”. The messages are usually sent by a veterinarian or technician who admittedly is struggling to feel content in their current position and is looking for a way to shift out of their job into something new. Most of them have attended one of my sessions at a conference or workshop and, after hearing how I have transitioned into a position that has all allowed me to travel, speak, and write about veterinary wellbeing, feel inspired to do the same.
The thing is…while it might seem that this shift happened easily and acutely for me, it has been a long-evolving and difficult transition over many years. Which makes answering the question “how can I do what you do?” extraordinarily difficult.
You see, I grew up with veterinary medicine. Literally. My parents are both veterinarians who met and married in veterinary school and I worked in my mom’s general practice in my hometown from a very young age. It was during my childhood that I came to love and appreciate the ups and downs of veterinary practice. It was an easy decision for me to enter pre-veterinary medicine and apply to veterinary school after two years of university. But my training did not end after veterinary school. Upon graduation, I accepted a year-long rotating internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Washington State University and then followed that with a 3-year residency at North Carolina State University. After writing and passing my specialty certification exam in 2008, I accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care at the Ontario Veterinary College.
And it was when I entered the veterinary workforce full time that I started to experience many of the difficulties that so many others (who now contact me for wellbeing advice) have experienced. I battled burnout, compassion fatigue, and workaholism that was compounded by my lack of boundaries, self-awareness, and self-care. This led to me to leave my job as Assistant Professor after just 5 years. Despite mentoring 10 graduate students to their program completion and publishing dozens of papers in emergency and critical care, I felt that I was not cut out for the position and that I had to leave and pursue something else.
Looking back, I now realize that if I had the tools that I have now in terms of stress management, mindfulness, relaxation, healthy boundaries, and more, I could have stayed in that position for much longer.
Nevertheless, after leaving the Ontario Veterinary College and moving back to my home province, I embarked on a difficult and unpredictable career as an entrepreneur. I solicited my skills as a locum emergency and critical care specialist, consultant, research, and speaker. I picked up emergency shifts as needed to make ends meet. I spent hours upon hours listening to marketing podcasts and building my social media presence. And, not surprisingly, I plummeted into burnout once again, this time with severe depression.
It was then that I realized that I needed help. I accepted that shifting into a new job and relocating closer to home had not “fixed” my situation and that serious changes were needed to preserve my physical and mental health.
And that’s when I began my journey into wellbeing. I sought counseling that included two years of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy. I obtained my 200-hour yoga teacher certification. I attended an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. I traveled to the USA to go to the National Wellness Conference (a human conference on wellbeing) two years in a row. I began reading books upon books related to self-care, self-help, self-awareness, self-compassion, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness. I studied the published literature extensively to better understand the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians, students, and other healthcare professionals. I obtained my 200-hour meditation teacher certification, as well as Mental Health First Aid Training and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Anything that I could do to better my skills and knowledge in the field of wellbeing in relation to veterinary medicine I devoured hungrily.
And then, after 10 years of speaking on the veterinary emergency and critical care circuit, I started to offer to speak on topics pertinent to wellbeing in the veterinary profession. In 2016, I offered my first veterinary wellness workshop and retreat and since then I have spoken at > 10 conferences worldwide on veterinary wellbeing.
However, my path does not end there, and my work is not complete. I continue to attend human and veterinary conferences related to wellbeing. I read a new book on my path to self-discovery every few weeks. I subscribe to Psychology Today, Mindfulness, and various pertinent magazines so that I can keep up on current literature. And I blog every other week so that I can share these thoughts with others in the profession.
So, as you might appreciate, it is difficult for me to formulate a concise and helpful response when faced with the question “how can I do what you do?”. I think a better question to ask is “how can I get the help that I need?”. I believe that before leaving my job in 2013, I might have made a different decision had I asked that question to a mentor or friend. Perhaps they could have guided me to look deeper within. Perhaps I could have identified and managed the demons inside of me that prevented me from engaging in a healthy work-life balance and appreciating all that was good in my job.
I now recognize and accept that we cannot give away to others what we do not already have ourselves. Rather than thinking of offering tools or veterinary wellbeing when I left my full-time assistant professor position, I first embarked on a journey of intensive self-reflection and growth. I have seen numerous counselors, psychologists, life coaches, and business mentors over the last 5 years and encourage others to do the same. While I cannot say that I have mastered my health and wellbeing, I can now share and inspire others with my personal struggles and experiences so that they might be able to take actionable steps in their own life.
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. Starting in 2019, Marie will be offering personalized wellness sessions to those who work in the veterinary profession. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these sessions, please click here. More information about Marie and her other offerings can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.