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  • Writer's pictureA D Ackerman

Down the Rabbit Hole

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

Photo credit: ID 113393565 © Coramueller |

Moving from a life of 10- to 18-hour workdays to a life after retirement is not as easy as it seems. When your days are not your own, and you don't have time to think about your life, or reflect on aspects of work, life, goals, or accomplishments, your life can seem to move really fast or really S….L….O….W. Now that I have time to think, time to reflect, time to plan, and time to take care of myself life seems different, somehow.

When I was working full-time, I convinced myself that I was taking time to care for myself in between sick patients, administrative tasks, travel, household chores, husband, children, grandchildren, and hobbies, but guess what? It turned out I was never REALLY PRESENT in any of the things I did. I was going through the motions, but my mind was always preoccupied with upcoming deadlines, unfinished projects, and pending conversations. My mind would whirr during every waking moment, and sometimes into the hours when I should have been sleeping. Did I do the right thing for that patient? Did I handle that difficult conversation with one of my direct reports as well as I could have? Did I botch the conversation with my boss, or my once-in-a-lifetime chance to get the Board to support my project? Did I remember to send that important email? Did I actually complete the online transaction to reserve our summer vacation house?

Wow! No wonder I was overwhelmed. How in the world had I allowed myself to live like that? Was I REALLY living? I certainly did a great job of fooling myself, and most of my friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances as well.

After I retired, I realized I didn't actually know HOW to be present. I couldn't quiet my mind. I didn't have major deadlines or pressing problems but still my thoughts wouldn't stop. I realized I was a slave to my thoughts—I was not in control of them at all.

What a frightening thought! If I’m not in control of them, who is? I felt a bit like the other Alice—who followed a rabbit down a hole and was destined to never be the same. Yes, I followed my thoughts, and found that they had convinced me of some very perturbing things. They convinced me that I was not capable, that I was old, that I was unworthy. That I was not myself. My thoughts convinced me that I didn’t deserve to be loved, respected, or cared for. My thoughts convinced me that because I was no longer providing patient care, and that I was no longer in a formal leadership position, that I didn’t count any more. BOY WERE MY THOUGHTS WRONG!

Can thoughts be wrong? Of course they can. Thoughts are not truths. They are just—well—thoughts. In my visit to Wonderland, I met many others, just like me. Wandering and wondering. Feeling unworthy. Beating themselves up for what their thoughts were telling them. Feeling unfulfilled by their jobs, their lives, their situations. They were trying to be better and do better but didn’t know how. They were suffering burnout from working too many hours at their jobs, with little appreciation, less control, and ever-increasing demands on their time. Then it hit me—I realized what was missing in my life and maybe in theirs: a sense of purpose.

As a pediatrician, a pediatric intensivist, a leader in academic medicine, I had always had a purpose. It was clear but it wasn’t simple. My purpose was to improve healthcare for children, to provide compassionate care for the children and families who needed it, and to mentor others to reach their goals in life and career. Slowly I came to realize that the last part was the part that had really kept me going all those years, the part that prevented ME from developing the burnout that is so common in medicine these days. Slowly I realized that I could still have that purpose, whether within the field of medicine or in everyday life. I discovered the route OUT of Wonderland, away from the rabbit hole. I discovered the world of coaching.

Through coaching I have found my new purpose. I have found my second calling. I have found a reason to get to work every morning. I have found it intriguing, educational, fulfilling. I have found that through conversation with my clients I am present for both them and myself. I have found wonder when, through questions borne out of true curiosity on my part, my clients see something in themselves or their situation they never previously saw. This wonder becomes awe when I watch them start to transform themselves into who and what they want to be. I see their courage and creativity come through as they start to design the life that they truly wish to have.

This blog will be focused on some of the “aha” moments of my coaching life. I will intersperse those lessons with ones I learned through leadership of teams, organizations and departments, and/or my practice of pediatric intensive care.

I welcome your comments, as I hope to develop here a community of like-minded individuals looking to climb out of the rabbit hole or planning to never fall into it. You honor me with your presence, your attention, and your interest. Thank you.

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