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How mindfulness saved me from myself – By Optometrist Wendy Saw

Optometry, The Health Industry

“Let’s get dive straight into the heavy stuff. I was 21. Only one semester left of uni, and I was suddenly struck down with debilitating suicidal thoughts and depressive anxiety. I could not attend lectures or clinic any more for six months. I knew I needed help. As an optometry student, I could see that I had signs and symptoms that were completely out-of-character. I was caught crying after-hours in clinic one night, and I am forever grateful to the lecturer who encouraged me to “drop out of uni” for a little while to focus on my mental wellbeing. Accompanied by a member of staff, I was taken to see a GP and referred onto a Psychiatrist with a speciality in ACT Therapy, a form of mindfulness therapy.

With his help, I was able to make the difficult decision to return to university and ask my lecturers (with me all in tears, mind you) how to go about finishing off my degree. The University was very understanding of my situation. It’s a massive achievement for me to have survived my early 20s. Later, I graduated a few months after my peers.

One of the key mindfulness demonstrations the Shrink did that propelled me out of my quagmire was “driving”. He asked me to act out driving in the room. So, I did. I had both hands on a pretend wheel in mid-air and starting driving looking straight ahead. And out of the blue he starts yelling out “hey hey look here!” Or “what’s that on your nose!” Or “you got something on ur shirt!!” And so, & so other distracting comments.

When we finished that demonstration, he asked me “why didn’t you do as I told you?” And I simply said “because I was driving! I had to keep my eyes on the road!” He smiled and said “that’s a lot like life itself. When ur moving forward in life, it’s like driving. You can have all these negative thoughts, emotions & distractions, but you can still drive on ahead without it stopping you from what you are doing. You can carry the feelings of sadness etc and still move on, rather than have them overwhelm & stop you in your tracks.”

The First Year Out

By the time I graduated, I had learnt how to cope with my whirlwind emotions. I was ready to start working as a clinical optometrist and part-time researcher.

The clinical part was much harder for me than the research. In the mornings before work, I would be fretting about the management of potential cases ahead of even getting them. My mind worked in overdrive, trying to predict what could happen during the day, and tried to resolve an issue that hadn’t even occurred. I would continually revise my Uni notes, reading my neuro-ophthalmology book by Dr Pane every night before bed. I did this in my first year out.

I would still email my university lecturers about cases of optic disc anomalies I wasn’t sure about. The stress of mulling about these cases wore me down.

To be honest, the benefits of mindfulness as an optometrist goes hand-in-hand with the years of experience you will start to accumulate. The reports back from the ophthalmologist, greatly relieved my anxiety, as I learnt from reading those reports what was actually urgent. I think it’s normal to be somewhat anxious about concerning patient cases, and this is a positive thing. I used to be a really nervous person – like all the time.

Being told nerves is a sign that you actually have some level of care about a situation or person. It helped me to understand my nerves & thereby cope with them better.

Challenges In Achieving Mindfulness

Having been in the industry almost a decade now, I have noticed two common factors which can challenge achieving a mindful state at work:

1. Toxic people
2. Toxic environment

Toxic People

I have worked in over 30 different stores. Out of the many people I have worked with, I can only remember less than a handful of people who posed a challenge for me in achieving a mindful state at work.

Wherever you go, you will encounter at least one person who will criticize, demean or demoralize you. It might be a manager who won’t let you have a lunch break. A colleague who disagrees with your management. Co-workers who talk about you behind your back. Bosses who play the “comparison game”. I will tell you something I wish I had known earlier. With toxic people, it’s simple a case of “It’s not you, it’s me”. Usually these people seem to always have a problem with “someone”.

The way I deal with it is asking myself this question: “Were they helpful in helping me better care for the patient? Or were they helpful in exploiting me to achieve the bottom line?” … In my first few mindfulness sessions, I bombarded my psychiatrist with “But he said! She said etc etc and that made me feel really upset & cry!” … He helped me to put an objective spin on what people said to me & to simply always ask myself: “Is it helpful or not?”

As optometrist, we are in a unique position in society. We have the privilege of being in a position of trust to care for people’s eyes. And whether you want to believe it or not, we are also in a retail setting most of the time. As primary eye care practitioners, our focus should always be what’s in the best interest of the ocular health of all our patients. Anything that stands in between this, should at the very least be de-prioritised. Knowing and adhering firmly to this has helped me greatly with taking less notice of the “negative extras” that comes my way and focusing more on my patients.

Toxic Environment

Unfortunately, in life, you just can’t blame anyone for anything! I’m just joking by the way. Sometimes in life it’s simply not the people surrounding you who pose challenges to achieving mindfulness, but the situation or environment you find yourself in.

I found myself in a situation for a good few months where I had to take on the role of: Manager, Dispenser, Receptionist and Consulting Optometrist. Multi-tasking like this, was by far the most difficult work-related issue I have had to cope with. I was burnt out. Severely. And I was angry and moody all the time. Yes, I could have used mindfulness to make myself aware that “I wasn’t happy” and to just “carry” these feelings and to just get on with work. But I wasn’t moving on. I wasn’t moving forward towards my life values. I was stuck multitasking in a dead-end job. Multi-tasking isn’t efficient anyway, and I’m sure you can find many articles explaining this.

The thing about mindfulness is. Yes, you become aware of your feelings and look at it from a distance. You can see your feelings from an objective perspective, rather than subjective. That way feelings don’t have such a paralysing effect. The problem was, my work environment at the time wasn’t conducive to anything I valued in life. No amount of mindfulness could have fixed that situation or environment I found myself in.

So, I basically just quit.

And moved on.

And am so much happier being able to just focus on what I was trained to do. Seeing patients one after the other! Giving them my full attention! Knowing I’m giving the best service I can. And that’s mindfulness for me right there.”

Wendy Saw is now a travelling optometrist providing relief services to the outback. After spending half a decade providing optometric services all along the East Coast (from Cairns to Tassie) she’s currently set her sights on the West. Wendy graduated with First Class Honours and was member of the QUT College of Excellence, Student Observer to the OAA Qld & NT Board and Optometry Giving Sight Student Leader. She is currently completing her Postgraduate Certificate in Ocular Therapeutics through UNSW. She is also a proud member of the Young Optometrists Subcommittee and a very keen outdoorsy hiker!

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