Self doubt. Fear. Loneliness. Defeat. Can you relate to these feelings? I can! As a second-year student, there are still days when I catch myself questioning everything. But, why? Why do we question our abilities on a daily basis when we were selected from a pool of highly competitive applicants for one of the most prestigious careers. We are constantly being reminded that medical school is one of the hardest battles you will ever encounter, but does it have to be a confidence killer too? Who personally enjoys feeling so down and gloomy even on the brightest days of the year? Isn’t it time we change a few things for ourselves and our colleagues?
Medical school is not only academically challenging but also mentally draining. The first month of medical school, faculty told us how easy things were during the first block and how much worse they will get within a matter of weeks. There was a common metaphor frequently used, “Medical school is like a fire hydrant. Right now it is just a trickle, and pretty soon it will be opened up.” In the meantime, I found myself struggling with the introduction course that was apparently “only a trickle.” Every time I heard this fire hydrant metaphor, I lost more confidence in myself. I began to feel like I would not prove myself to be good enough to become a competent physician. Where did that feeling of confidence I felt when I received my acceptance letter disappear to? As the fire hydrant was further opened and we approached “more difficult” courses, that anxiety heightened. Not because the material was more challenging, but because I was prematurely told that I would struggle, and I convinced myself that this was true.
I responded to these feelings by shutting down my emotions, family and friends, and even shutting down from myself. I subconsciously eliminated all aspects of my life and all emotions not directly associated with studying. I barely slept or ate. Conversations with other medical students were rarely about anything but the material or how stressed we all are about an upcoming exam. Everyone around me seemed to have a similar response to the stress associated with medical school, so it was easy to convince myself that this is normal and what it takes to be in medical school. But what is normal, really? Was I even listening to myself anymore? Shutting down seemed right. It was the only way to keep going without falling apart.
I continued to shut myself off for a few months until one day I was having a seemingly normal conversation with a friend about our favorite type of books. Real books that had nothing to do with medical school. That night I broke down, and I had no idea why. I was too busy trying to convince myself to keep a strong face because if all the 213 students around me seemed to have it together, how am I allowed to feel so down? I realized that I could not remember the last normal conversation I had with anyone since school started. I realized that I had been depressed for a long time. How did I miss all the signs and symptoms they taught us in medical school? Anxiety, insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, weight loss, social isolation. A good physician would not ignore these evident symptoms in a patient, so why is it okay to ignore them in oneself.
Over the next few months, I learned that not only me but many in my classroom and across the nation are dealing with the same roller coaster of self doubts. I told myself that this is unacceptable. I need to make a change. Before I can even think of changing my future patients’ health, I needed to change mine. I decided to become more honest about my feelings, both with myself and to others. This is also when I realized I was not happy. Yes, my social media appearance may paint a different story, but I knew I was no longer the excited medical student with a genuine smile in my white coat ceremony picture. Along with self confidence, I lost one factor that truly defines my identity: being happy. But, why? I have never done anything in my life that did not make me happy. So, why was one of my most awaited careers making me this unhappy?
I still don’t have answers to many of my questions, but in the past 544 days I have learned to listen to myself and my needs. I am not the person sitting next to me, and I do not need to become a different person to succeed in medical school. If you need a second to catch your breath, then do that. If you need an entire day to catch your breath, then do that! As long as you define your normal, there should be no doubt in your head that will stop you from keeping true to your identity. We ALL belong here for our individuality, and the daily cloud of self doubts will go away if you actively search for the sun. Some days those doubts will still be there, and that is okay too. Medical school is not easy! But one thing you and I have to promise ourselves is not to give up on us. The others in our life are celebrating us, it is time we do the same. If needed, call a friend from your childhood, and they will remind you how incredible you are! Trust me, it works. Not only that, they will remind you how far you have come to be where you are today and how much you deserve to be here. They will remind you how lucky your patients will be to have you as their physician.
As you already know, this will be a long journey, but it can be less dreadful if we start listening to ourselves more. Don’t get me wrong, medical school is actually pretty awesome! If you are a student I am sure that sounds absurd, but we are given this opportunity to fulfill our dreams and learn incredible skills. We are quite literally becoming tools for saving lives. Yes, there are and there will be many more days of self doubts, failure, missing important life events and feeling incredibly lost. But, no need to fake it ‘til you make it. We need to change the way we think and talk about medical school. We need to create a community where students feel comfortable talking about their most vulnerable days as well as their strongest days. We cannot give up just yet. There is so much hope for us and it is time we believe that too.
Next time you are feeling a little down, just remind yourself, YOU belong here! There is a reason you were accepted and have been given this opportunity. It won’t get better with time if you don’t let it. Don’t focus on failing as a physician when you have not even given yourself to succeed as a student today. A little pinch of honesty and daily dose of self care will go a long way.
Pavitri Dwivedi and Kelsey Scott,OMS-II, Class of 2020.