Theodore Dalrymple

Second opinion | 20 November 2004

Compared with the doctors in a hospital like mine, Sisyphus had it easy

Many of my non-medical friends complain of the pointlessness of their jobs. What they do has no meaning, they say, no intrinsic worth, apart from paying the bills. My friends feel like caged mice which run incessantly inside wheels: an expense of spirit in a waste of effort.

‘At least,’ they say, ‘your job is worthwhile.’

‘In what sense?’ I ask.

‘You help people.’

If only they knew. Compared with the doctors in a hospital like mine, Sisyphus had it easy. Light recreation such as his would come as a relief to us.

There is, for example, a lady well-known to our hospital who attends every two weeks or so with an overdose. If she does not attend for a week or two further, we begin to wonder what is wrong with her: misjudged the dose, perhaps? She was here again last week. Actually, I rather like her; she has a sense of the absurd, which is a saving grace for all but the most determined villain.

I asked her whether it was her boyfriend again — the one she can’t stand, but whom she allows into her house because he’d break in anyway if she didn’t — who had driven her to the pills.

‘You’ve got it in one,’ she said.

She might have learnt nothing by her overdoses, but I had learnt something.

‘What’s he been up to this time?’

‘He opened up the cuts on his arm again, didn’t he?’


‘He sat there and pulled the stitches out.’

‘In front of you?’

‘He wouldn’t do it otherwise.’

Of course, the original cuts were self-inflicted. I suppose this is what counts round here as a declaration of undying love: greater love hath no man than this, that he pulls out his stitches and opens up his cuts for his girl.

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