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The Power of Peer Support: A PHS Client Tells Her Story

By Darleen*

“My name is Darleen. I’m an internist and I have no idea why I am here. I’m doing just fine and I have nothing to report to the group.”

That is how I signed in at my first Physician Health Services (PHS) group meeting. Seven years and hundreds of meetings later, I know exactly why I was there and that I was anything but fine. On that Wednesday night, I walked into a room full of doctors sitting around a table, quietly welcoming me as a new member.

I was convinced, or so I thought with a dose of arrogance and conviction, that my being there was a big mistake. Don’t people know who I am? I’m a doctor! I do not need anyone’s help. I give help. Little did I know, the only thing I did have was a total and profound lack of insight into my situation.

So, I told my story and gave all the reasons why I did not belong there. I rounded up all the usual suspects (i.e., my boss, other doctors, nurses, administrators, HR, patients) and fired away at them as best I could. While I was pointing my finger at them I did not see the other three fingers on my hand pointing right back at me.

A few meetings later, I found myself all alone on the battlefield without anybody left to fire at but myself. At that moment I knew it was all me, my problem and the solution all wrapped up in one. That was the moment I fell apart and began to heal while the group stood by to catch me and give me support. I was on my way.

Later on, I was on standby, waiting to catch and offer support to other fallen heroes. That’s what we do here. We are all in it together — the only thing we have in common is the language we speak, and I do not mean English. That is our own doctors’ language understood by us doctors only. That is the healing power of the group. That is our secret weapon.

Problems at work and the personal difficulties that brought us to the group are as diverse and colorful as we are. We are all smart, educated, hardworking, and dedicated people who want to make something of our lives so we can make a difference in others’ lives.

We listen carefully, gather information, analyze it in our well-known problem-solving manner; we give support, we offer suggestions, we even offer resolution. We do not accuse, we do not judge, we do not patronize, minimize, or ignore the problem. We support and give back our tough love; the newcomer feels and understands that love.

The strength of the group becomes apparent when we are able to redirect the focus of the problem from others to ourselves. We learn from each other how to recognize and accept our part in the problem.

The group lets the new doctor point fingers at others at the initial meetings, but then he or she slowly becomes aware of the other three fingers pointing back at him or her. We let the person stand there for a while and we know how extremely painful that moment is. We feel the anger and anguish simmering inside; we have all been there. We are waiting for that transformation, for that insight to come, for that magical moment when we realize that we are the problem and the solution — nothing more, nothing less.

My name is Darleen, and I just want to say how glad I am to have been here for the past seven years and how much happier I am — what a better person and a doctor I have become.

* The real name of the author has been withheld at her request.

This article first appeared in the February 2013 edition of the Massachusetts Medical Society publication, Vital Signs.

Physician Health Services, Inc., is a non-profit corporation founded by the Massachusetts Medical Society. PHS  provides confidential consultation and support to physicians, residents, and medical students facing concerns related to alcoholism, substance abuse, behavioral or mental health issues, or physical illness. PHS also provides a safe environment where physicians can talk to other physicians about the stress and demands of modern medical practices. For more information, visit the PHS website or call PHS at (781) 434-7404.

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