Doctors aren’t immune to attraction towards extramarital affairs, especially with the most attractive mistress: medicine.
Mistress in disguise
Insight rejects foolishness
Joy summons the true self
Society is fraught with infidelity. According to the American Association on Marriage and Family Therapy, national surveys indicate that 15% of married women and 25% of married men have extramarital affairs.1 We are aware of the acute and chronic harmful effects that these nefarious behaviors can have on the family unit. They include lack of confidence and low self-esteem, depressionand anxiety.2,3 Oftentimes, affairs are a response to an individual’s attempt to fill the void in their relationship – to find something they feel is missing. They’re eating a mixture full of tempting nutrients that provide the false promise of dopamine rush. This promise soon fades, leaving the soul dry again and looking for her next lover.
We as doctors are not immune to this allure toward extramarital affairs. I can attest to this as someone who has been involved with a mistress throughout my career. They entice you with long leadership titles in your signature line when sending emails. Whisper in your ear that moving up the social/professional ladder is the true meaning of success. She recognizes your moxie and smothers you with relentless opportunities. She disguises as an angel in a white coat, but her appearance is deceptive. Its name is medicine.
Don’t slow down
Throughout my life, my family, friends, and colleagues have asked the same question over and over again: “Frank, do you ever slow down?” I usually smile in response to their inquiry and find out how I can justify my pervasive rant. In the past, I was in denial. Until recently, I didn’t have the courage to say, “I don’t know what it means to slow down.” Unfortunately, this denial would haunt me like a ravenous lion throughout my residency and in my first few years as a psychiatrist.
There is truth in the term that hindsight is 20/20. Years of therapy can help enhance insight and bring unconscious behaviors and beliefs into our conscious awareness. I realized that my rant was rooted in a basic belief that my identity is based on success in the forms of awards and titles. Resting on laurels was not an option for me. I began to engage in more exploration about myself. Of course, like any good psychiatrist, I had to think about how my childhood shaped these core beliefs.
Reflections on childhood and early career
I grew up in a single parent home where my mother, a now retired public school teacher in Chicago, was bent on keeping my mind occupied. The importance of education instilled in me from an early age. My mother’s goal was to ensure that I had a variety of educational experiences that would prepare me for my future. This exposure extended to fine art. She developed an affinity and passion for music and dance at a young age. I grew up playing many instruments and enjoyed learning different forms of dance – tap, ballet and jazz. I enjoyed the exposure, but it came at a cost. I was always on the move with no time to rest or rest. There was no such thing as a Saturday in our house. Monday through Friday consisted of school, music and dance lessons, and on Saturday and Sunday I practiced my instruments from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. I adapted to this routine, but in retrospect, I see that it set me on a path that would lead to Burnt.
My journey in high school and college was challenging but not insurmountable. All this changed in medical school. I received the final blessing – a full scholarship – but was eventually rescinded due to my academic struggles. I was diagnosed with depression, and for the first time in my life I had to sit with a range of emotions, in an unfamiliar and very uncomfortable area. I could not run and hide behind the curtain of busyness that once protected me from the negative experiences of my childhood.
However, I persevered and graduated from medical school after 7 hard years, with the help of my faith, family, psychiatrist, academic advisors and mentors. Upon entering the residence, I was on a mission to prove that I belonged to a herd of white coats. At that time, my lady appeared for the first time, but I refused to acknowledge her presence. This lack of insight will have repercussions.
The stay was an enjoyable and transformative experience for me. I became involved in patient care – and in teaching medical students, organized medicine, scientific activism, multiple committees, and leadership roles. And I joined a local running group, too. Paid vacations were used primarily for attending conferences and for medical mission trips. vacations? Unheard of, for me. This cycle continued through my first few years as a presenter and eventually extended into my personal life.
I consider being a husband and a father the most important blessing and achievement in life. However, I wasn’t fully present in these roles because I was too focused on a mistress. My identity was about being a successful doctor. Most days, I was grumpy, and sometimes, I cried in the bathroom before going to work. The bond between me and my daughter was fragile, and at times, my wife and I were like two ships sailing in the wind that could capsize at any moment. I didn’t like the person I became. I was a stranger in my body that needed repentance and renewal.
The moment of divine enlightenment came upon me when I was forty. The transformation happened with the help of prayer, family support, and numerous sessions with my therapist. I became more aware of and aligned with my true identity. My faith in God has always guided me through the joys and storms of my life. I had to remind myself that my identity lay within it. I realized that being a doctor is just part of the puzzle of who I am. I am a father, husband, son, friend, visionary, creator, and poet.
It’s refreshing to rediscover who he really is in a world that offers the beguiling fruits of success. In October 2021, I defended myself and moved to a new clinical environment and exited leadership role. My soul has been at peace since the transition period. I am more present than ever in the lives of my wife and daughter. I’ve had more time to focus on the parts of the wellness puzzle that I neglected, like writing poetry. Embrace the power of saying “no” and setting healthy boundaries. I have nothing to prove.
The journey of self-discovery requires a growth mindset and a willingness to acknowledge that we are constantly evolving. I hope we all come across our mistresses in life who cling to our unhealed wounds. Love affairs will continue and invade different areas of our lives, until we finally face vulnerability in the mirror and accept it.
He handed you.
Dr. Clark He is an external psychiatrist at Prisma Health-Upstate and a clinical associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Greenville. He served on the American Psychiatric Association’s task force to address structural racism across psychiatry, and currently serves as editor of the Diversity and Inclusion Division and member of the advisory board for Psychiatric Times™.
1. Infidelity. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Updated July 2016. Accessed August 12, 2022. https://www.aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Infidelity.aspx
2. Casting MT, Ismail A, Jafar WMW, Yusop YM. Infidelity in marital relations. Psychology Res Int J. 2019; 4 (2): 000200,000.
3. Shrout MR, Weigel DJ. Dealing with infidelity: The role of moderation in self-esteem. individual personality difference. 2020; 154: 109631.