Depression and Medical School: Part I

My journey as a medical student started off unfortunately with a low note. Three weeks into my program my girlfriend told me over Skype that she wanted to end our relationship. Four years just obliterated with 5 words over a Skype conversation because she didn’t think it necessary to actually call. Mutual friends would later reach out and confide that she had been cheating on me.

Although I see this now as a blessing in disguise, at the time it felt vulgar, pedestrian and callous, The-Lord-of-the-Flies-savage almost. There I was, feeling physically ostracized in a different country, mentally incompetent by the tons of information thrown at me, and emotionally assaulted by the fact that my biggest support system was abandoning ship; it was the perfect trifecta for a breakdown. It set off what felt like the loneliest existence I ever hope to go through. Having to redefine yourself in the absence of your biggest comforts is never easy. And although, I probably didn’t love her as much as the idea of having someone there to coach you through the tough times, it was still all very brutal.

I don’t mean this to be a Dear Abby column dishing out relationship advice (God knows I don’t have any) nor is it meant to be a bitchy commentary on my personal life. I do not judge my now ex-girlfriend, and I still think she’s a wonderful person inside and out. I also know I’m not solely a victim: I learn to give just as good as I get. However, before everyone pens me as some poster boy for Adele’s next sappy song, I wanted to use this blog as a platform to illuminate what not to do and give hope in times when life and circumstances invade your medical microcosm.

Life doesn’t stop for anyone and in most cases, neither does medical school. You learn very quickly who is worth the anxiety and the stress and who is not. Something as trivial as a cheating girlfriend and a breakup can often times act as a downfall because we’re actually medical students moonlighting as tightrope walkers and any slight misstep, miscalculation, or external influence can lead to disaster at times.

First the bad:

It all sounds so very melodramatic now that I’ve moved on but there are moments where life gets the better of every student. Days following the skype message, I experienced a behemoth surge of emotion. It’s like I became my very own medical case study:

A  25-year old medical student presents with extreme lethargy, situational depression, lack of initiative, and isolation.

You feel okay but you’re not okay. Sometimes you’re both at the same time while you’re never really either. It leads you to constantly ask if the heart is the most integral muscle in the body then why the hell does it flounder when you need it the most? It’s more than just feeling lost or stranded; it’s about being shipwrecked and knowing that no one is looking for you. You become completely and utterly unhinged and alone. And with it comes desperation.

As much as you logically tell yourself that one person who hurts you is not worth throwing your own life away, you still can’t seem to get up in the morning for class, sometimes even just to brush your teeth. Days went by where I would wake up only so I could fall back asleep again. You corner yourself into isolation because no one or no thing could possibly understand your misery, so why try? Time and time again, I would come extremely close to packing my things, reaching the airport, and getting on the first flight back home. I wanted out because I thought it would ease the pain within. From our pre-med days, we’re inculcated with the mindset that the path of medicine is one that requires diligence and little room for error. Thus, in medical school, lack of motivation may as well be a death sentence.

Apart from my motivation, I also lost my appetite. I couldn’t keep anything down, losing a good 10-15 pounds. I also became claustrophobic; I couldn’t study in the library or my room because I would be inundated with this overwhelming sense of doom. I started studying outside, close to the ocean because the waves were the only things loud enough to drown out the voices in my own head and help me concentrate on the task at hand. To say I was in a bad place is an understatement. I however, also had some pretty faulty logic to blame for my predicament:

I used to think the bravest person in the world is the student that sits alone at their desk, wrestling with their grief, their isolation, their deprivation, and their hopelessness for the pursuit of something bigger and more noble than themselves. But it’s not. It’s the student that gets help, that finds he or she is not alone in their struggle, and starts picking up the pieces, resting on the shoulders of their social support system when their own feet seem to falter.

Medical school can be a terrifying, grueling, isolating experience. But it doesn’t have to be. I was soon to learn it can be a pretty collaborative process as well. My friends were soon to become my saving grace…

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6 thoughts on “Depression and Medical School: Part I

  1. I’m also a medical student (about to graduate soon) and stumbled on this entry while searching Google for something else. Your writing is powerful and your emotions heartfelt. Last year, I was in a situation similar to yours and I can attest that getting up in the morning day in and day out to go to clinics was incredibly difficult considering the hell I was going through in my personal life. I agree, friends and family can be a rock and source of wonderful support, but I found that the passing of time is what really allowed me to begin to heal and reflect. Every major event in your life will change you, and this is no different. At the expense of sounding preachy, use your experience of pain and suffering to really understand your future patients, to go beyond the diagnostic checklists and to empathize with patients in a way that only one who has suffered can. Good luck in your medical journey.

    • Thank you for your sincerity and openness. You raise a lot of invaluable points, and it’s nice to know others have gone through many similar situations, if not worse! I wish you all the best in your path!

    • Thank you for reading and for having the strength to seek out help, if that’s what you were pursuing. Your comment gives me great validation for what I do, even if there is no intended audience. Hope you are doing better.

  2. Wow, reading this really struck a chord with me. I am also a medical student, now in my second year, and I went through a similar experience last year. Except my unbelievably painful breakup was with someone in my class, and he not only cheated on me (with someone else IN OUR CLASS) but was also emotionally abusive. I had to make it through the second half of my first year of med school being forced to see my ex and his new gf with each other and shoving their new relationship in my face every. single. day., and I also lost my entire emotional support system because all of my med school friends chose him over me (why? I still don’t understand) and I had no other friends or family in the area because I was from a different province. I don’t even know how I survived that year, but after being diagnosed with severe depression, losing 22 pounds, and crying myself to sleep every night for months, I managed to finish the year with an 80% average. You never know how strong you are until you have no other choice, I guess.

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