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My name is Craig (pseudonym). I am writing this to share my experience as a human, who happens to be a medical student.
This journey began on my birthday, when tired and bleary eyed I rolled over and unlocked my cracked phone screen.
At this point, I’d had rejection emails from every state in Australia, save for Victoria. My hopes were low and I had honestly forgotten that I’d ever even applied to my eventual university home.
As the emails loaded I tiredly closed my eyes, the all too familiar blue circle going around and around and around…
Finally, there was an acceptance email.
And so my journey began, with me running around an empty house yelling and whooping and scaring the dog stiff.
For the rest of this piece to make sense I should give a little background on myself. Most importantly for the context of this piece, I have suffered from major depressive disorder, anxiety and borderline personality disorder from the age of 15.
Fast forward to my move to Melbourne. I felt alive and excited! New places, new people, a new course and independence! I felt like a dog on a beach. So much to do! to do! all the time! all the time!
Alas – the motivation and excitement were not to last.
My life as a medical student has been difficult. Budding relationships, independence, responsibility and the stress’ of a difficult course in conjunction with mental illness has led to 2 and a half of the most difficult years of my life.
In my first year, after enjoying ‘playing the field’ I found myself in a relationship. This beautiful woman sparked intense passion and excitement, and true to my romantic roots, I quickly fell in love. Our relationship was very fast moving, and before long I found myself contemplating a long term future.
I can remember the night it came crashing down incredibly clearly. You see while I loved her, my own confidence and self esteem were low. In the weeks leading to our break up my mental illness was significantly impacting my functionality. I had entered a constant state of hopelessness, anxiety and depression. DALY’s were effected but more relevantly, my interactions in our relationship were too.
And I understand why she broke it off, it wasn’t fair on her. Being surrounded by constant unhappiness will wear you down and make you unhappy.
In short, I was spiralling, and when the break up occurred, it broke me.
I swallowed half a bowl (I estimate approximately 150-200) of pills. A concoction of SSRI’s, SNRI’s, MAO inhibitors, serotonin modulator receptors and any other class of antidepressant you can think of.
I ended up in ICU with serotonin syndrome (all the while asking the doctors to explain to me in great detail what was happening like the annoying shit I am). I was intubated, put into an induced coma for 2 days and then kept in ICU for a week. After this I spent a month in a private mental health hospital, which caused me to miss the first month of second year.
After this experience I am a changed person. While before, I was depressed and had difficulty managing my emotions, I still had passion for some things. I had the motivation to try and do well and made an effort to continue living as normal. Now, I’ve almost given up.
Two days after discharge from the mental health hospital I was thrown back into the world of university. At the same time, I was attending half day ‘strategy groups’ every Tuesday in order to try and pull myself out of the hole I was in. I turned to a multitude of vices in order to cope, distract and forget. Sex, drugs (never on placement), television, sex and drugs were my world. I never allowed my mind to not be stimulated by something, lest it be allowed to reflect on itself. And when I rarely did have this opportunity, I would feel extremely suicidal.
Midway through the year, I readmitted myself to the private hospital. I was very volatile and extremely suicidal. I felt I needed the structure, support and safety the hospital could provide.
On the second night I was caught naked in another patients room who was due for discharge the next day. I was promptly kicked out of the hospital and I resumed wading through my days.
University was a second thought to me. I was merely existing from day to day, not truly living. I attended only 2 lectures in the entirety of the year, only showing up for compulsory tutorials and labs. If I am honest, I only remember the occasional event throughout the year, the rest is lost from memory. I would essentially pass by cramming before exams with the support of a good friend.
At this time I began DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) in place of ‘strategy group’ as an outpatient. This took up an entire Tuesday every week. This was difficult to manage as well as keeping up with university.
The DBT at first seemed pointless. I felt bored, out of place and frustrated. I was by far the youngest and there was only one other male.
But as time went on, I began to realise the value of these sessions. And as I began to participate my recovery was on its way.
I think that possibly the most important thing it gave me though was perspective that my death would not only be effecting me. While I can still rationalise suicide to myself with “it won’t matter, you aren’t there,” I came to realise the effect it would have on my family. They had flown within 24 hours to see me on the night of my attempted suicide (from interstate). The DBT helped me realise the love they do hold for me. I can remember being roused at one point from the coma before I was put back under. I saw mum, dad and my little sister surrounding me looking devastated.
In August of that year I met a girl, and even though it didn’t feel right, and it felt unhealthy to me, we began a relationship. I believe I was seeking comfort in someone.
Second year continued in this fashion, with me doing DBT, using escapism to manage my emotions and generally scraping by. I passed the end of the year after having to sit supplementary exams, and getting through by the skin of my teeth.
Third year began. Placement excited me and for perhaps 5 days I was able to motivate myself and attentively attend hospital placements. Then began a cycle of missing classes, not showing up and avoiding leaving my room at all costs. The university, more stringent on attendance now, noticed my absences and so I was called in and given a warning.
Now, more than halfway through the year I am still just existing from day to day. After another break up with the girl from August, and the death of a close friend, it seems as if the year will never end. But I have come to the realisation that this is the time that I need to “get it together” or defer the year.
It’s time for me to grit my teeth, grind through the burn-out and make the final push to get through the ever-looming exam block.
Mid-year exams were done, our break had passed fairly unremarkably and we were back for the slog again. At times it did feel arduous and tiresome, but as the famous saying goes, ‘nothing good comes easy’. That is probably one of the most comforting things I can say to myself in any difficult time, knowing that this is preparation for all the more complex challeneges ahead.
As we continued our classes, our group tutors held sessions where they would offer us feedback. The session would also be a way to find out where we were at mentally, physically and psychologically. The reason I bring these sessions to light is because there is so much I took from that sit-down with my tutor. Not only was I woken up to my own potential, but I was alerted to the fact that if I didn’t harness it, I would lose it!
It was one of those light-bulb moments where you finally gain some direction as to where your life might be heading. Nothing she said was new to me. However, it’s very difficult to explain, but when someone more senior and outside your usual circle of friends and family reminds you of your capabilities, it begins to raise more questions than answers.
The trip down honest self-conversation lane begins and occupies a lot of mental space. Your thoughts become filled with questions such as, ‘why for so long did I doubt myself?’, ‘why didn’t I back myself when it counted?’ and the stereotypical Í’m such an idiot’ also manages to creep in. In the end however, I realised that all this reminiscing and self-questioning was useless. The past is history and I can’t change a single thing about it. The best thing I learnt from the consult, was that honest self-appraisal was crucial.
On a personal level, I would no longer tip-toe around issues and let ‘time’ work it out. There would be no more ‘slipping things under the rug’, I was ready to tackle my demons head on, no matter how long it took. In fact till this very day, I and every other person on this planet are still a work in progress. That will remain until we live our last days, however if you focus on the journey, you might just be pleasantly surprised with what you come across along the way.
As part of our introduction to the new regimen we’d signed up to, our systems were in for the shock of a lifetime. During the orientation period a scenario was put together to brace us for the chaotic nature of the journey ahead.
Lo and behold the dreaded car accident scene on a country road was awaiting. Although it was a fictional representation of what would actually happen, our freshman minds were not ready for such a storm. The only training any of us had undertaken beforehand was a first aid course, which was all this situation would assess. However, the nerves it took to keep calm cannot be underestimated. The description of the case may allow you to fathom why many found it difficult to deal with what was at hand.
Before that, an understanding of us as a cohort may provide some context as to the kind of people dealing with this in the first place. Many of my peers, including myself, have science backgrounds. As you can imagine, scientists are a very unique kind of people. They live in a world of microns, nanometres and even pictometres, which are so small that in some cases they can’t even be seen under a microscope! The world of science, is a world of order. Everything follows a particular process, there is a system that our predecessors, through their research, have determined these micro-particles follow. So the plan is to continuously look for new systems and processes to find order in and amongst disorder.
Therefore, a structured mind that typically is in control of everything it encounters cannot fathom such chaos that is the rural accident scene. The scene was set out on the freeway with a body thrown away from the car, and a family in the car with differing severity of injuries. Of the family, there was a frantically screaming woman that needed to be reassured, an old man with a massive cut across his forehead that was very needy and a young man whose breathing sounded like Darth Vader. There was also the added issue of the screaming woman indicating that she had ‘lost her baby’. Let us not forget also the man (represented by a dummy) that lay on the floor lifeless and unconscious.
Now I hope you can see that orderly minds, see no order in such a situation and that is why many of us struggled to deal with what confronted us at the time. It indeed was a valuable learning experience, but also an indication of the turbulent nature of times ahead. To me it spelled out in bold letters ‘Welcome to Chaos’.
After being accepted into medical school, we were to spend our first year in a rural town. I had never previously lived outside the metro suburbs, so I could feel a huge learning experience coming. Boy did it come, and when it hit it almost knocked me off my feet.
The reality of country life is that what it lacks in population, it makes up for in serenity and natural beauty. This exact reality is what I failed to appreciate and it hindered my ability to make the most of the circumstances. The view of the never-ending greenery took your breath away for a split-second. Once you remembered the isolation of the town, all of that was quickly forgotten. Being accustomed to a large extended family and regular socialising with friends, I encountered probably my toughest challenge to date: independent living.
It sounds crazy, but when you’re used to being surrounded by people almost all the time, getting used to your own company for large parts of the day is difficult. It also proved to be extremely rewarding because I learnt so much about myself in the process. In fact, I matured in that year more than I had in all the years preceding. Mind you, by no means did I have it tougher than my colleagues. There were some who moved from interstate and even overseas. Those students had it much harder than I did, I could still drive a couple of hours down the freeway and visit family. They needed a flight home to see theirs.
One of the memories that is entrenched from my drives to and fro, is a particular road near the town that was always covered in thick fog. Coming off the freeway you pass through the fog and then almost like a gateway into the surrounding natural beauty, the road becomes engulfed on either side by livestock, lush green grass and rows of trees. Automatically tuning one to become tranquil, at ease and relaxed.
On a lighter note, the following video is an insight into the routines of the time.