Theatrics can be Therapeutic

Some patients are hard to train. As are certain colleagues. Either (or both) can make our already difficult jobs all the more stressful.

The well-adjusted, Zen-like doctors will let such annoyances wash over them like a limpid mountain stream and switch them off like a tap the moment they walk out the door.

The less compartmentalised of us need other strategies to avoid finding ourselves tossing and turning in bed, fantasising about a career change.

The traditional GP stress-buster is, of course, red wine, but fewer of us imbibe regularly these days (or at least admit to it) and we instead espouse remedies such as being yelled at by sadistic personal trainers at 5am daily.

Not being a saint, drinker nor masochist, I have been known to try writing my way to a peaceful night’s sleep. Most of my frustration-driven rants are not fit for human consumption, but occasionally I’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone by using my debriefing material in a column, story or theatre piece.

This is how ‘Mrs Ryan’ ended up on stage. The character was based on one of my seemingly untrainable, frequent attendees whose ‘poor me’ attitude and long, long list of problems each consultation had driven me to the pen. ‘Mrs Ryan’ subsequently became a major character in a day-in-the-life-of-a-GP play called Walk a Mile in my Shoes that I was lucky enough to have performed in 2011.

It was most therapeutic for me to see a comically exaggerated and fictionalised version of my patient on stage, her essence perfectly captured by a talented actor.

Each time I watched her strut her stuff in rehearsal, the antipathy I felt towards my patient ebbed further and further away.

But then, on opening night, the real ‘Mrs Ryan’ unexpectedly turned up in the audience.

I panicked. For the two-hour duration of the show I waited in trepidation, inwardly cringing each time the audience laughed at the unreasonable behaviour of the play’s most irritating character.

Post-performance, my ‘Mrs Ryan’ made a beeline for me and gushed, with a completely straight face: “That was wonderful. I loved it! That Mrs Ryan character was a piece of work, though. How do you doctors ever put up with such people?”

Despite failing to recognise herself, ‘Mrs Ryan’ changed her approach to consultations. Her lists now rarely exceed three items and she’s mindful of time constraints.

When I positively reinforced her behaviour change, she replied: “Your play helped me see how stressful your job is. I’d never thought of doctors as people with their own problems before.”

She went on: “I’d love you to put me into a story or play one day. I have enough problems to fill up a whole book!”

It turns out the theatrics were as therapeutic for her as they were for me.

“Mrs Ryan” and I have since had a good laugh over the incident and she gave permission (and her blessing) for me to write this column.

The good news is that you don’t need to be a writer to effect behavioural change in those patients and colleagues who make your life hell. Sending them to the theatre could be enough. Walk a Mile in my Shoes has hung up its boots for the moment, but there are plenty of colourful characters in GP the Musical, which may well do the trick.

Coming along yourself may prove therapeutic too – giving you an opportunity to laugh off your workday stresses, with or without the assistance of red wine.

Since this column was first published, GP the Musical has enjoyed a sell-out season at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April 2013 and performed at the GP13 conference in Darwin for GP13.  It features an all-GP cast.

First published in Australian Doctor on 15th March, 2013: On theatrical stress-busting

http://www.australiandoctor.com.au/opinions/the-last-word/the-last-word-on-theatrical-stress-busting

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