Life, for all of us, has always been about balance. It might, I say with exuberant sarcasm, surprise you to know that this is certainly the case for a medical student. All aspects of one’s life comes under a certain amount of strain for this select group of masochists, whose sole purpose appears to revolve around making it through 4 or 5 years of relentless studying without losing their minds. Coupled with the fact that we all know perfectly well that studying does not stop with the title ‘Doctor’ and we have actually subjected ourselves to a lifetime of pressing our noses against books (or computer screens), stress is a constant presence in our lives.
So I have to express my incredulity as to how so many of my peers seem to be able to competently accomplish their academic goals whilst in romantic relationships, maintaining friendships and family relationships, working shifts, keeping up with their hobbies and, if social media tells me anything, go out for a drink or two at a reasonable amount of frequency so as to not be classified as a hermit. The level of admiration I have for their expert juggling skills is simply immeasurable.
I myself am committed to only a small handful of pursuits. As I creep slowly towards my mid-twenties I’ve come to the realisation that there is only one question one must ask when encountering another individual, whether it be in the hallway, or at a social gathering: “How are you?” And often the standard reply would be: “Good, how are you?”
Now in the off chance the conversation must continue, the follow-up question is: “What’s been happening with you?” or variations thereof. Unfortunately for myself, I’m quite limited in my response. I perhaps have two priorities in my life and that is my medicine career and the gym. If (and we must touch wood for this) I were believed to have gone missing there are really only two places to look. Three, if you count my home.
So consider me flabbergasted that one of my best friends is not only at placement every day, but works a couple of shifts, exercises a few times a week, maintains her two year relationship and still has time to go out with me for brunch or dinner every now and again. The idea of being booked in for two social events in one week stresses me out more than it should if I have to be honest. I do love to socialise, but I become quite highly-strung if I cannot make it to a gym session.
It all comes down, in the end, to priorities. Lately there has been a lot of coverage on burn-out, where medical students are struggling and failing to feel mentally and physically able to handle the stresses that come with medicine and maintaining a balanced life. We all, not just medical students, have many things we value, and wish to prioritise, and keep in our lives. But an expert juggler can still drop their pins after a while, not because they are incompetent, but because they are exhausted. Overstimulated nerves, become exhausted and fail. Overused muscles break down, and fail. An over-activated heart, will fail. We humans are not made to last forever.
I reached this topic in such a roundabout way to demonstrate that we are all different. We have different limitations, we value different things, and we have different strengths and capabilities. What one person can do, is not necessarily what you can do. This does not make you, or them, lesser. Sometimes it is difficult to remember to do what suits you best. Sometimes it is easy become caught up in the ever-increasing chaos, to forget to stop, take a step back, and reassess your surroundings. And it’s much easier to forget to take a look at yourself. Am I sleeping less, becoming more irritated, worried, stress, frustrated? And if so, what can I do about this? Perhaps it is a selfish thing to say, but I am my priority. I want to be mentally and physically capable to face what is in front of me. And I paint myself as a strong character, but I know there are others for which this self-evaluation is harder, or they are so focussed on their goals they forget to look after themselves.
There is nothing wrong with saying you are drowning. We shout and scream for help in an ocean when we feel like we are going under, because we know we need the help. I wrote this piece in the hope that it may serve as a reminder for those who have neglected their own health to remember to give themselves a perfect OSCE-worthy history and exam. Are you ok? And if you are not, find some help. Your family and friends are there for you. Your tutors and mentors are there for you. Professionals are there for you. Asking for help is a simple piece of advice, but for some it is difficult to follow.
Take a step back. Look after yourselves.