Caroline West-Meads: ‘Was I wrong to leave my nursing career?’

Ask Caroline

Q. I had to give up my job as a nurse after contracting Covid at the beginning of the pandemic. I had been working in operating theatres and had already arranged to reduce my hours (I’ll be 60 in October and had used a small inheritance from my late parents to pay off my debts). But when I returned to work I was told I would be working 12-hour shifts in the intensive therapy unit (ITU). I have a heart condition and had been advised by my doctor not to work more than part-time. However, after a short time off sick, I was put back on these very long shifts. I couldn’t cope with it physically and mentally, so I handed in my notice. My boss waived the three-month notice period, and I left work straight away. I did feel guilty knowing that my colleagues have had to work extremely hard over the past year, but having only managed four hours in ITU in full PPE I realised I just couldn’t do it. I was also sent to work in the area of ITU where my daughter had been admitted a few years earlier after she had fractured her skull and nearly died. My problem is that I had one colleague and very close friend who has since cut off all contact with me. I didn’t get the chance to speak to her before I left so couldn’t explain my reasons for going. If we hadn’t had a pandemic I would still be working. Should I try to contact my friend and explain all this to her?

A. You say you feel guilty about giving up your job during the pandemic while former colleagues remain under such pressure, but I doubt that there is a single reader who would blame you – I certainly hope not. Nursing, as well as being a noble career, is tough even in ‘normal’ times – and you have already given many years of service. The fact is you are now not well enough to do the job. Your own doctor advised you not to work too many hours, and your boss was clearly worried enough about you to waive your notice period. Plus, it was affecting your mental health (you could be suffering some level of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of seeing your daughter so ill). So tell yourself that you were right to retire. And, yes, do write to your friend. Keep it short and simple – say that you have been wanting to get in touch, that you miss her and wish you could still be working by her side but that you have a heart condition and your doctor advised you to stop. I hope she will understand. The difficulty will be if she doesn’t. Losing a close friend can sometimes feel as bad as breaking up with a partner. If she doesn’t get in touch, be aware that it will almost certainly be because of some issues in her own life. It is not your fault. You may have to accept that she won’t see you, which will be painful but will get easier in time. Forgive yourself, and surround yourself with other friends and family who are more sympathetic.

‘We haven’t had sex for 30 years’

Q. I am a 70-year-old woman, my husband is a couple of years older, and we have been married for 52 years. Sadly we have a nonexistent sex life as my husband has erectile dysfunction. It has not been easy to live with this. When we first married our relationship (and sex life) was wonderful, but for the past 30 or so years it has been totally sexless. My husband has been extremely reluctant to talk to doctors about the problem. I know you would probably advise sex therapy or counselling, but he has told me that he would never even consider it, so it has become a subject not to be approached. How do I go on suppressing my feelings?

A. This is so sad for you because you must feel very rejected – as well as missing the intimacy that is part of sex in good relationships. You have put up with this situation for so long. But you shouldn’t have to keep suppressing your feelings – in fact, doing so often leads to depression. You need to set a ‘soft ultimatum’. Not as dramatic as saying, ‘If you don’t come to counselling, I’m leaving you’; it should be more, ‘I love you, but I feel unhappy and unfulfilled in our marriage and I want things to be better. So I am going to counselling to decide what to do. I want you to come with me, and if you don’t it will show me that you don’t feel fully invested in this marriage.’ It can take courage to do this because counselling precipitates change, which is always scary. So go to Relate (relate.org.uk), first on your own to help you find the strength to ask more from life and your husband.