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Dishing Out Those Inner Demons: Finding Strength in the Medical Student Community

Sometimes, I wonder why I am here. Walking this path of medicine, to be specific. It always fascinated me what drove people in life. For some, the joy of spinning creative fabrics of fictional words satisfied; for some, raising and guiding children through the thorns of life serves as the pinnacle of existence; for others, the simple necessities of life and health are solely sufficient. For medical students, I feel like this can be a lot more complicated.

Sometimes, I think it is all madness, and I wonder why I have such tunnel vision towards the idealized vision of the life of a physician. Like many other medical students, I have sacrificed my supposed “golden years” crammed in libraries and caffeine-addled study spaces, competing against myself and my peers to achieve academic excellence. Not surprisingly, much like my peers, I am often chronically overworked and sleep-deprived. The burdens medical students impose on their own health with stress, insomnia, and unhealthy competition (whether self-imposed or peer-induced) seem ironically destructive in order to properly advise our future patients how to maintain a bubble of health.

Not that medical school has been a terrible experience so far. Oh, far from that. For once, I have felt like I fit in a social crowd of like-minded individuals. Perhaps it is our mutual appreciation of nerdy jokes and puns, or even the shared, stubborn persistence to achieve a common goal. In the classroom, I am filled with sheer joy in nerdy-spazzing-out moments when I learn to bridge science and medicine as presented in clinical cases.The same is true when I’m able to grasp medically relevant concepts. It can be challenging at times, inundated with overwhelming amounts of information, but nothing beats that momentous ah-ha! In the anatomy laboratory, I am always humbled by the rich learning experiences that are made available to me through the sacrifices of my cadaver.

And in between, I am always extremely grateful for the outstanding professors who eagerly devote their time to develop the next generation of competent and compassionate physicians. These are the times that I have no regrets about the sacrifices I have made, the doubts like fluttering plumes of overreaction and possible moments of delusion. They are the moments where there is such clarity in the purpose of my life.

But I think it is safe to say that medical school has not been a stroll in the park. It has been worth all of the investments — every single penny — but it has not been easy.

Personally, I could have pursued a different career. Having the luxury of being a girl in a somewhat conservative family, I have never once felt pressured to pursue a path in medicine. I could have gone to graduate school for a PhD. If I really wanted, I could have pursued something in the arts — stop motion animation was the perfect shadow of another life, I always joked with my siblings — but at the end of the day (and especially on those unproductive, stressful nights), I would have still applied to medical school again and again.

And from these somewhat vague ruminations, I wanted to share a more morbid topic that may have crossed all our minds at one point in these intense times. Being in medical school, I am sure my fellow classmates are not strangers to the colors of feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. In such stressful and sometimes alienating conditions, it is completely understandable (and perhaps even human) to feel alone and lost, like abandoned islands floating in an ocean of social apathy.

But, I feel that, in reality, loneliness is something that we ironically all share. So let me be the first to be completely honest. I hope that this may serve as an impetus to simply reach out across that barrier to someone that may be a lot more fragile than you think. You may be surprised by the commonality of those private moments of self-doubt and identity crises. You may even share them with the person who sits next to you in class or that anatomy partner that you dissect with. And perhaps, we can reach out over these fragile barriers and forge stronger connections among these islands during these hard times.

Since around late middle school, I have been struggling with depression. At first, I didn’t even understand it; I thought it was something everyone experienced in life. Over time, I gained better understanding that these were abnormal emotional reactions to life. Unfortunately, I delayed seeking help for it despite some darker behaviorisms during my angsty adolescent years, as well as the sufferance of grades during my undergraduate career. I kept persuading myself that this was the norm and that someone as fortunate as I had absolutely no right to feel this way. That this was a product of my own laziness and personal weakness — nothing more.

With the stresses of starting medical school alone on the opposite end of the coast from my family as well as the recent struggles in my family, it was really this time that I finally realized I couldn’t do this by myself. I couldn’t pretend those lost hours being incapacitated by some inexpressible force of emptiness could be made up with more productive work and will power, like that of steel. Trying to balance a plateful of academic responsibilities, distracting extracurricular activities, as well as the socially anxious stresses of being a somewhat likable person — well, it’s hard. At times, it renders me so psychologically and physically spent that the simple act of getting out of bed can feel like such a monumental task.

But to my fellow classmates who feel overwhelmed and alone in a crowd of people, please know that these terribly powerful forces are not an experience singular to you. I still don’t know what exactly gets me out of bed every morning (though, less mornings for these last couple of months), but I think it is that nihilistic optimism that somehow, the future might get better. I think it has to do with that little piece of tangible reality of getting closer to my lifelong dreams and that this was not an impossible goal, though it often seems so.

But despite all this, I am so fortunate to be surrounded by such amazing and supportive people. Not only have I had the fortune of meeting motivating and inspiring mentors, but I also have had the honor to be surrounded by an extremely supportive class. I’ve had the luck of making extremely understanding and patient friends who have stood by my side regardless of the vicissitudes of my mental wellbeing. They have been there to keep me laughing when the depression is kept at bay, and have stood there to patiently assure and reassure me that I am an essential piece in this fabric of life in my darker moments. They are always there to cheer me on and remind me that there is light at the end of the tunnel, despite when my demons say otherwise.

And so, with all these wonderful and supportive resources to help me up whenever I stumble and fall, I am taking each day at a time, remembering to appreciate and find meaning in the little things in life. It’s not easy to be chronically sick, suffering or depressed — I know from personal experience. But it is in that sense that I have found new strength and drive, reaching out to others’ brokenness: hoping, helping, and healing them to find that better place in their own lives.

Nita Chen, MD Nita Chen, MD (39 Posts)

Medical Student Editor and in-Training Staff Member Emeritus

University of Florida Fixel Movement and Neurorestoration Institute

Nita Chen is a current movement disorders fellow at University of Florida Movement and Neurorestoration program. She is Class of 2017 medical student at Albany Medical College. To become cultural, she spent her early educational years in Taiwan and thoroughly enjoyed wonderful Taiwanese food and milk tea, thus ruining her appetite for the rest of her life in the United States. Aside from her neuroscience and cognitive science majors during her undergraduate career, she holed herself up in her room writing silly fictional stories, doodling, and playing the piano. Or she could be found spazzing out like a gigantic science nerd in various laboratories. Now she just holes up in her room to study most of the time.