How medicine killed my happiness

I was always a happy person. Depression was not something I thought about or understood. At least not until I started my journey to become a doctor. Looking back it seems like it was the perfect storm. Arriving at medical school, I was fresh faced and hyperconfident after four years of college where I was the big fish in a small pond. The first semester was a slap in the face. Surrounding me were people just as smart as me. In fact, many were smarter. They were better prepared. They were learning the material quicker and working the system more efficiently. They were ruthless. They were swimming and I was quickly sinking.

The narcissistic blow of working my absolute hardest and still not excelling was bad enough. There was more though, much more. In fact, looking back it seems like the perfect storm was brewing. This was my first time living far away from my family and my boyfriend. There was no support system readily available at the very moment I was being tested to my breaking point. My beloved grandmother was also dying from cancer. As I was trying to learn how to be a doctor to help people and cure illness, she was losing her battle to cancer. Every class was a reminder. Pathology…cancer. Human behavior…death and dying. Worst of the worst, gross anatomy.

Entering medical school as a sweet, naïve microbiology major having never taken an anatomy class was not the best idea. This class was hard, amazingly hard. It was cut throat competitive and the pace was rocket fast. Not only was I behind in the material and falling further behind by the day, I was miserable. I was forced to immerse myself in death right as I was mourning the first big loss of my adult life. I entered a very dark place and stayed there for awhile.

Walking into the gross anatomy lab every day was the hardest thing I have had to do before or since. I was literally touching death, smelling it, staring at it and trying to learn it’s secrets. Every cadaver felt like someone’s lost family member. It felt like my grandmother. While my fellow students seemed to be happy telling jocular jokes and soaking up the learning opportunities, I snuck off to the bathroom to cry. I finally realized I needed help.

Ironically help was not hard to find. It was also not far away. The college had a psychologist literally embedded in the medical school, just around the corner from the gross anatomy lab. Not the most auspicious sign, and clearly I was not the only one struggling. However, even as a tender, PGY-1 (first year student), there was enormous stigma associated with getting help. We slunk into her office and scuttled out a back door. Even when talking with her, I never felt comfortable truly admitting my pain. Ultimately, I was alone in the darkness and it took months to emerge slowly into the light.

I was never diagnosed with depression and never treated. However, I felt the pain, loneliness and grief with the life transition I was facing. My grandmother passed away, I passed gross anatomy, and life continued to pass on by. However, when I emerged on the other side, it was as a changed version of myself. Like a butterfly after a wind storm, my wings were battered and scarred. Although I never personally went through another period of depression, I had the understanding and empathy I needed to help others.