Sticky imprints on my heart

Such fleeting things, these post-it notes. But these small pieces of sticky paper hold an entirely different meaning for me. What do you think of when you see post-it notes? Well, I see them every day, and I think of my loved ones.

What do you think of when you see post-it notes? Hastily scribbled reminders, surely, to buy milk!!! and remember meeting at 2!! Scrunch, toss, and into the bin they go after serving their purpose. What else? Perhaps a list of facts to memorise in a student’s careful script, pressed between the pages of a textbook and easily forgotten after an exam. Such fleeting things, these post-it notes. But these small pieces of sticky paper hold an entirely different meaning for me. What do you think of when you see post-it notes? Well, I see them every day, and I think of my loved ones.

There are nine post-it notes on my shelf, each with a name and a little picture representing that person. There is my mum and dad, my sister and her family, my two boys and their wives, my grandchildren, and my three friends. I’ve got them all here with me. When I look across at my shelf or when I reach across for something, there they are. My posse, cheering me on in different ways. I hear my friends teasing me, telling me “Oh, Deborah, stop being silly!”, I hear my dad saying how proud he is of me, I hear my mum and her reminder of now don’t let anyone treat you rotten, Deborah, because you’re special you hear me? And there you have it, nine little post-it notes stuck to a shelf, faded post-it notes at that, because they’ve been up for two years now, leaving their sticky imprint all over my heart.

The post-it notes were from one of the regular “connection days” with my UCLH psychology team where we did an exercise that had us talking about the people that nourished us or gave us strength. The team was an amazing group of colleagues and friends that I had the privilege to work with and “connection days” were simply days where we all got together and designed a day of “connections”. It’s something I’ve always tried to encourage as a leader, building connections with your team, valuing them and doing everything you can to support them. And naturally, they’ll reciprocate and support you as a leader in turn. 

Teamwork was something I’m very familiar with in my line of work. There were lots to do during the day – clearing inboxes, meeting with clients and multidisciplinary teams, offering clinical supervision or coaching colleagues, reviewing papers for the journal which I’m the editor for, writing content for presentations or talks or a paper. Busy, busy. But undoubtedly, the best part of my job is getting to watch young people – sad and struggling young people –  flourish and grow under my care. I received a contact from LinkedIn the other day – a young man I had worked with eight years ago who had been very ill. He got in touch to let me know that he had achieved all the goals and dreams we had talked about back then, that he still thought of me because of how important I had been in his life. And everything else – travelling all over the world to give presentations, writing and publishing papers, being seen as somebody “important” – didn’t matter as much as knowing that I’ve connected and made a difference to one young person. 

Challenges do exist, however, in working with children and adolescents with chronic illness and their families. On one side, there were the work life stresses; on the other side, there was my family with their unfaltering love and support, keeping me balanced. And I’ve always managed to maintain a positive mindset, with mindfulness and gratitude practice in my arsenal, topped with a good dose of resilience. In the aftermath of failure, I’d say “Well, time to be successful at the next thing I try!” with spirit. When the grants or positions I applied for didn’t work out, I’d remember what my mum always used to say, that “what’s for you, won’t go by you” and let it reassure me that the universe has something else waiting for me. In short, enduring hardships? To borrow from a colloquial term, been there, done that.  

But then, the pandemic hit.

As the whole world went into lockdown, so many things were shut down or put on hold or cancelled. Needless to say, that included conferences as well, and one such conference was held by the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine. The virus didn’t care that it was my conference as president of the society, didn’t care that this position meant so much more to me as the first non-American and the first psychologist to be elected. It was cancelled, just like that, a whole year’s worth of preparation and effort down the drain. Words could never express the disappointment that I felt. 

But I forged on, and made myself busy organising virtual appointments and meetings with patients. We had to stay connected with our patients. I think it was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life – being on Zoom all day, every day, managing other people’s sadness all while mine crept insidiously inside, feeding on my loneliness and isolation until it made its presence known one day, loudly. It was six months into the lockdown the day I broke down, just sitting and crying because it was all just too much. I missed being with my family, I missed being with people. That was probably an all-time low of my life, the closest I’ve come to not wanting to get up and keep working, not knowing whether I could go on. 

I had to go on, of course. So many people were relying on me to stay positive and keep everything together. I was achieving nothing being like this, I realised as I sat and talked with my husband, who’s been really wonderful and supportive throughout all of this. So then how to make the sadness go away? What worked for me was taking a good look at my life, a good look at all that I had – a lovely house, a beautiful garden, no financial worries, and reflecting on how lucky I already am compared to so many others. With that, the sadness quietly showed itself out, making way for gratitude. 

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