Questions (for you)

Always on?

Is professional detachment achievable in the creative industries? Bear with me while I explain my predicament and how once wanting to be a vet has given this predicament context…

Let me take you back to where it all began (to quote David Bowie for a moment). Up until age 14 or so, I wanted to be a vet. I devoured animal publications, books, magazines, professional journals, TV shows – you name it, I consumed it all in my desire to get a start on the career of choice at that time.

I even arranged work experience at local veterinary practices. At age 14 (and, when I wrote about the experience for various high-street magazines, I fudged around the issue of my age to increase my chances of being published. Successfully too, I might add. Perhaps the thrill of publication was truly the beginning of the end for my veterinary dream). But, at the time, this is what I wanted to do.

Then plans changed, as they do. Helped along by some cheques for the freelance work. But that’s not the point of this post. The genus of this post comes from the first day of my first practice, in the last appointment.

An older man walks into the consulting room, with his old Labrador. The man has tears in his eyes, and it’s obvious what’s about to happen.

His faithful companion is about to be put to sleep.

The dog who has been with him for years has reached the end of its life. And you could tell it was ready. The way it shuffled into the consulting room. The way it hung its head. This much loved dog was tired; it was time.

I stood in the corner of the consulting room, saying nothing.

The gentleman could barely speak, such was his emotion. He trembled as he passed the lead to the vet, his hands shaking.

I stood, saying nothing, quietly watching.

The vet asked if the gentleman wished to stay for the final moments.

He shook his head. He couldn’t bear it. He ran out of the consulting room with his head down, choking back the tears that threatened to finish off the last part of the bravery he’d exhibited up to that point. He couldn’t even give the dog a last stroke to say goodbye.

I stood, saying nothing.

We led the dog through into the back room.

I steeled myself. This is part of the job. I must be brave.

We lifted the old dog onto the table and I gently put one arm around its neck, held up one foreleg and raised the vein – just as I knew how to do from reading all of the veterinary textbooks I’d devoured up to that point.

The problem was, the vet was right-handed. To put the needle in from that angle would be difficult. In his words:

“I’m all cack-handed.”

I released the grip and started to move around the table.

The dog was frightened. It could smell the fear of all of the other animals that had passed through the space. It trembled as I kept my hand on its back.

I consciously created space between emotion and what was happening. The dog didn’t need any trepidation or emotion that I might have.

It started to struggle and slipped off the table, dragging me with it.

I apologised to the vet and stroked the dog’s head to try and calm it. The vet said not to worry. I didn’t, it was one of those things. Unfortunate, yes, but one of those things.

Back on the table, it lay down. It knew what was coming.

I held it close and steady. The vet inserted the needle and the job was done.

A few minutes later, when we had confirmed that life had left the old creature, we put its body into the freezer, closed up for the night and went home. And the next day, came into work and started it all over again.

The point of this story is that I felt complete professional detachment. Although we had always had dogs throughout my life, we’d only had one put to sleep – and, at that point, I was six. I remember crying and running to my room, unable to watch – but equally unable really to comprehend what was happening.

Having the Labrador brought into the practice was part of the job. Witnessing the gentleman’s anguish, his heart-rending shoulder shaking, was part of the job.

It needed to be done. It was right that it was done.

And I was detached from it. I was able to compartmentalise what was happening, as part of the job. I engaged with the experience, but it was part of the job and I had a role to play in that. I was Professional. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, because I did. But it was part of the job and my emotion had nothing to do with it.

Yes, I’ve thought about it since. Yes, telling this story has – I’m not ashamed to admit – brought more than a tear to my eye. Older, and having had two family dogs put to sleep, the experience has a different resonance.

But I bet that if, even now, I was in the same situation, I would have the same professional detachment.

These things need to be done. And, in the case of that much loved Labrador, the faithful companion which represented such a part of that older man’s life, his experience and unique story; it was right that it was done. And the fall from the table was an accident, nothing more, nothing less.

Yet, now working in the creative industry, I don’t get that same detachment. My brain is always on – in the words of a colleague, my brain’s “like a virus” that goes from one concept to another, building, mutating, creating constantly.

The projects I work on – whether they are ones I have initiated or ones I’ve been passed to process and get ‘out there’ – are deeply affecting. I can’t detach from them. My always-on brain keeps things on the back burner and wakes me up in the morning with a new angle, concept or strategy.

And I wonder if I’m alone in this. Whether I’m the only person who finds that total detachment from creative projects and possibilities hard to achieve.

Or whether it’s a curse of the creative industry, that our projects are like our Labradors, except they never truly die…


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