This piece is part of in-Training Mental Health Week.
Have you ever spent a night curled up in a ball of blankets rocking yourself, tears streaming down your cheeks, just wishing you could go to sleep and wake up a couple of months later?
As a teenager, I had more of these nights than I did nights of restful sleep. There was no particular trigger. I had an idyllic childhood, growing up in a quiet suburb with a loving, supportive family. I had great friends. In fact, my high school best friend and her family treated me as one of their own, and I lovingly called them my mother and father. I wasn’t a perfect student, but I worked really hard and was involved in plenty of extracurriculars. By all of my own measures, I had no rational reason to be so profoundly upset. For years, my parents and my teachers had asked me to talk about my stress. Why was I so worried all the time? What kept me up at night, my cacophony of thoughts pounding against my skull?
“I’m fine,” I insisted, smile plastered on my face. I had grown to be an expert at feigning happiness and adjustment, or so I thought, until one day, the silent suppression of my fears and my distress caught up with me. It felt like my brain exploded. For years, the words I dreaded were ascribed to what I thought to be a normal part of my personality. “The level of worry you experience is not normal,” the doctors said, “and it seems you are depressed.” “No, I’m not depressed. I’m just taking organic chemistry. I’m just stressed. It’ll pass once I finish my pre-med coursework. I just know it. I’ve always been like this,” I insisted, grasping on to every excuse I knew.
But in my body and my soul, I was exhausted. I couldn’t recall the last time I felt true happiness. “Maybe the day I got into Hopkins?” I said, “but that quickly faded, within an hour or two, even though studying public health and French at Hopkins is my dream,” I said. I wasn’t ready to accept the changes I needed to make in my life, and for a year and a half, I stumbled between working hard in therapy and falling into sadness so deep I often feared I wouldn’t make it to the next day without being swallowed up in my grief.
With the unconditional support of my family and many of my childhood and college friends, I began to chip away at the way I saw myself. I started to consciously stop equating my self-worth with my GPA. I threw myself into the that things I remembered brought me joy: I reread Cyrano de Bergerac maybe 20 times, and was able to recite passages from Oscar et la Dame Rose on command. I reread some of my old AP Music Theory notes and tried to dissect popular music. I enrolled in a course entitled “Literature in History” because I hadn’t had a true English class since my senior year of high school, where I found my writing voice. I started new activities. I began (reluctantly) to cultivate a yoga practice, even though every muscle in my body screamed in downward facing dog. Slowly but surely, I fell in love with the French language all over again, I rediscovered my passion for public health, and I looked for ways to start writing again.
I graduated from college a semester early with honors and both of my majors, something I couldn’t have imagined doing when I was first diagnosed. I took the next year to work on a Masters in Public Mental Health and did research on early life stress and adolescent depression while working two different jobs. All the while, I found an amazing yoga studio in Baltimore and practiced in the studio or in my apartment every day. I applied to medical school and found the best fit school for me.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Starting medical school brought back many of the insecurities I faced in high school. I found myself in an uphill battle trying to learn anatomy at such a fast pace. I walked into my first anatomy practical and froze. “You worthless piece of garbage,” I told myself, and in that moment, I lost myself. I failed that practical and felt as though I wouldn’t make it through the term, let alone through medical school.
I was wrong. What I found was that people who knew me barely a month were willing to sleep on the floor of my apartment, split an entire Key Lime pie with me (my favorite) and to hold me while I cried. My sister stayed up all night on the phone with me, and my brother knew just the sarcastic jokes to share to remind me for what I live my life, and the blessing I have to be a future clinician.
I have a special perspective on well-being because I live day by day trying to maintain my mental health. I do my work, but I am incredibly fortunate to have parents who have made countless sacrifices, and that I have the privilege to have access to the care I needed. I have the best support system I could imagine. Whether it’s opening an old French book or beginning to write this piece, I know what I need to do to harness my strength. Along the way, I have not always been the best friend or the best family member, and I have hurt many people I love. I live each day to make amends for the mistakes I made in the past, and to work on strengthening myself for those in my life and for my future patients.
As I look to the future, I’m sometimes still terrified. Will I graduate from medical school (someday)? I hope so. Do I know what specialty I’d like to match into three years from now? Absolutely not. But I am more than my diagnosis. I am an older sister, an (improving) friend, a health policy nerd, a Francophile, a Disney fan, and a not-so-secret fan of Edith Wharton. And what my experience has given me is a unique perspective on advocacy and a special insight into caring for patients. I may not have all the answers in my life, and I may be afraid of what is to come, but what I do know — in the words of one of my favorite songs, “I am on my way, I can go the distance…I know every mile will be worth my while.”