You find me on a late summer evening, slumped at my dining table, in sock feet and an old race shirt and ancient leggings. My hair has long since given up on its plait. I have no idea what timezone I’m in. The only decision I am competent to make tonight is what kind of food I would like the delivery people to fetch me. I’ve either just flown halfway round the world, or else I spent my weekend going from dayshift to nightshift and back again by Tuesday morning.
Internet, let me let you into one of my dirtier secrets:
I really like working nights.
This is born out of my romantic notions about them, notions of which three years of, you know, doing it, have entirely failed to disabuse me.
Look, I know it’s a bit weird. If you say it out loud to people, they tilt their heads and say, “but nights are awful”, like I’m trying to be a brave little soldier, which couldn’t be less true, or like I’m a bit mad, which… well, I also have romantic notions about marathons, New York, the nature of democracy, empty cathedrals, London, and the NHS, so you go on and decide for yourself how mad I am.
Oh, they have their unpleasant bits. This past weekend there was a night when I went from actually sitting still for a bit to running up five flights of stairs and I promptly lost both my lunch and my dignity down the sluice. I have on one occasion been so tired that my four o’clock in the morning brain forgot how to use a tampon. And the sheer dragging-myself-through-treacle effort of transitioning back from nights to days, which really is awful.
But that would be like saying that New York is awful because of the jet lag on the way back, or that because of David Cameron we should all give up on the nature of democracy and move to North Korea.
In one of the last episodes of The West Wing, on a night that has lasted whole lifetimes and has seen friends and co-workers through unimaginable highs and unthinkable lows, when newly President-elect Santos makes his victory speech, he says this: “You know, if you haven’t left this room in a while, the sun is coming up!” And everyone applauds. And that’s how I feel when I see a nightshift sunrise; every time. At the end of a night when a great deal of work has been accomplished, for better or for worse, and I’ve spent it wide awake and being allowed to do my acute medic thing for twelve hours and wandering the dark corridors of a world that is very peculiarly mine, I think of that, and I think too of the dawn prayer: “we thank you for bringing us out of the shadow of night into the light of morning.”
Early on Monday morning, I crossed the ambulance bay in the crisp early light of half past six in September in Scotland. I was as content in that sunrise, heading back to AMU for my microwaved porridge, as I was huddled over a mug of coffee the morning I watched the sun come up over the Serengeti.
This was originally going to be a nightshift survival guide for junior doctors, but it got away from me a bit in the writing of it. At some point perhaps I’ll do that properly, and, look, yes, I’m very lucky, it’s not heroic to like working nights if you can sleep anywhere and at any time and have a stomach that can mostly tolerate whatever and whenever you feed it. But the most important piece of advice I can give is to stop listening too much to people who tell you that they’re something to be endured and start trying to enjoy them a bit.