You know you have a problem when you can’t fall asleep at night.
That’s where I was nearing at the end of anatomy in my first year of medical school. I couldn’t sleep because I was terrified of what the next day held. My sympathetic nervous system was on full alert, ready to handle the next day. The only thing between the next day and me was a night of sleep that seemed harder and harder to get to.
In the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, C.S. Lewis remarks that sleep is something that becomes more difficult the harder you try to accomplish it. This was the curse of my predicament. I was exhausted and in dire need of rest at the end of each day, but held captive by what “could” happen the next day.
In a follow-up visit with my pediatrician over winter break, I had some testing done that revealed some unanticipated results. Though I had been diagnosed with ADHD in grade school, my pattern of inattention and easy distractibility was more consistent with an anxiety disorder than ADHD. With further questioning and history taking, it became obvious that I was a classic case of generalized anxiety disorder.
It wasn’t something that was created from the rigors of medical school; it was something revealed for what it was by the rigors of medical school. I had been able to get by to this point on sheer intelligence and good test taking skills, but now I was at the point of not being able to function.
I started some medication, but I fumbled my way through the end of the year. Things didn’t get much better. It wasn’t until the second year of medical school that I realized that my health had to come first in life.
Immunity and Infection is the second hardest class I’ve ever taken in my life. I’ve never worked so hard at anything, let alone work that hard just to fail repeatedly. I didn’t feel as utterly incompetent as Physical Chemistry made me feel, but I felt just as helpless. Fifteen hours of class and active-brain-based studying a day and I couldn’t get closer to passing than half a point.
Eleven weeks into a 13 week course and I couldn’t get over that hump. I did all the hard work, ignored my mental health and sucked it up and that got me to within half a point of passing week after week. I finally quit. Those last two weeks of class I essentially quit studying. I slept until I woke up in the morning. I spent an average of two hours reading my bible and praying. I casually flipped through notes during the day but compared to my previous efforts, I might as well have not been studying.
What happened might have been Divine intervention, a stroke of luck or simply a consequence of taking care of my own head. I saw my grade jump 15 percentage points in those last two weeks.
After that brutal gauntlet and quitting before I reached the finish line, the most important thing I learned during that class wasn’t which antibiotic to use, but rather that I had to take care of myself before studying. That meant good sleep hygiene, eating healthy, regular exercise, spiritual health and some medications.
After making some adjustments I saw major improvements in my quality of life, which was important because some unexpected life events that were out of my control were just around the bend leading up to Step 1. Without those changes and the help of my friend and administrators, I wouldn’t have finished the year.
Some medical students keep studying as their number one priority in life, but for me it was a matter of passing and failing. I had to take care of my mental health first.