It was not at a specific moment in time nor the result of an inciting event, but soon after medical school began, I started to forget who I was. I don’t mean early-onset Alzheimer’s or a drug-induced psychosis type of forgetting; I mean lost all sight of what made me me type of forgetting. I had so quickly become a PID, a test percentage, a body in a chair, that I had forgotten there was more than just a few standard deviations separating me from my fellow classmates.
When (and why) did we start defining ourselves based upon our career path, our point along the bell curve, our class ranking? When did being a supportive friend, a loving spouse, or a kind stranger stop being what made us admirable human beings? When did struggling become a sign of weakness to ourselves instead of an opportunity to become stronger? I feel passionate about these ideas because the identity I had concocted for myself in medical school did not serve me well. I saw myself as the bottom of the barrel, the weakest link, the broken crayon that once was vivacious and colorful now left broken and lost. Of course this was not the first time I’d felt this way in my 27 years of life, but it was the first time that it truly interfered with my ability to function.
When you are in medical school the rest of the world disappears into a cloud of fairy dust that you occasionally catch a glimpse of, remembering its magical powers and wondering why you ever chose this field in the first place. You become stuck on this comparison merry go round that you just can’t jump off of and find yourself spinning in circles losing sight of everything. I imagined myself as the only one on this merry go round, trying to hold my grip on reality while everyone watched from outside the fence, blind to the fact that I was unable to escape. I wanted to feel proud of myself again. To feel acceptable. To feel seen. I wanted to stop seeing flashes of “failure! stupid! weak! loser!” every time I looked in the mirror. I no longer identified myself by the important roles in my life that I was proud of: daughter, sister, friend and aunt. All I saw was myself the medical student: a miserable, incapable, misplaced medical student.
Entwined in my flowery words and attempted poetics lies the bare boned truth of it all: I was suffering from anxiety and depression. My mind turned into this self-destructive universe, a sort of tug-of-war between my unyielding perseverance and my inability to believe that I was capable of anything but failure. While fighting to survive in this place I had worked so diligently to get to, I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole I could not escape unaided. What started as one failed exam slowly morphed into my loss of motivation to get dressed and loathing of interaction with anyone besides my boyfriend whom I lived with.
I had so much anger growing inside of me. Anger towards my classmates who seemed oblivious to my misery. Anger towards the faculty for not seeing my plummeting performance as a sign that something was not right. Anger towards myself for my perceived weakness and inability to “fix it” on my own. I could not fathom how everyone else around me was going on with their lives as if nothing was wrong. I felt like running through the halls with a loud speaker yelling, “Can’t you see I’m suffering?! Stop ignoring me! I need help!”
After months of suffering, fighting like hell to keep my head above water and barely getting by, I finally threw in the towel. I took the advice of the (wonderful) school counselor whom had become my savior over the school year. Weeks later I knew that this was the most precious gift I could have ever given myself. The struggle certainly did not end there but it did get immensely more manageable.
My unsolicited advice to current and future medical students would be to end the silence; to stop shoving your difficult experiences into the hidden lockbox where you store your other secrets and instead, start sharing. It may seem that all of your other classmates are cruising along and are passing with flying colors but I guarantee you they’re not. You are not the only one keeping in tears, considering quitting or feeling like a complete failure; holding these things in only makes you feel more isolated. There is absolutely no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed. By speaking up, you will surely inspire someone else to ask for help.
“I’ve lost a grip on where I started from
I wish I’d thought ahead and left a few crumbs
I’m on the hunt for who I’ve not yet become
But I’d settle for a little equilibrium
There is a war inside my heart gone silent
Both sides dissatisfied and somewhat violent
The issue I have now begun to see
I am the only lonely casualty
This is not the end though…
Cause I have sent for a warrior
From on my knees, make me a Hercules
I was meant to be a warrior please
Make me a Hercules.”
-“Hercules,” Sara Bareilles
Therapeutic Misadventures catalogs the unanticipated effects of medical school and the emotional roller coaster that is medical education. It is a peek into what it really feels like to be a medical student and the perpetual challenges that come with that life. Spoiler alert: it’s hard.