I was on top of the world. I was about to start Medical School. For me, that had been a dream that was finally coming true. After so much hard work in my exams, so many entrance tests, so many interviews and a failed attempt one year, I was finally there. I was finally about to meet new people, make new friends, be able to move on with my life. My life, as far as I was concerned, was sorted. Oh, how wrong I was!
Many people start Medical School, or indeed University, with the same naive optimism that I did. My guess would be that it comes from the deceitful nature of Freshers week. Everyone is excited at the prospect of finally being free from their parents or guardians, feeling free from the so-called chains that they have been held back by at school that they tend to overlook the real nature of Medical School. All the introductory mental health, “we are here to help” talks go unnoticed. I doubt that I will need this’, I remember thinking to myself rather stupidly. But the truth is that approximately one in four of us will experience mental health problems. That includes Medical Students and Doctors – mental health does not discriminate one bit.
So what went so wrong for me?
(I have tried to finish on a positive note, so please bear with it)
During Term One of Medical School, I just remember feeling on top of the world. Everyday, I would get out of bed full of energy no matter what time I would sleep. I would attend all of my lectures and tutorials. I was always talking to anybody and everybody, not afraid to make a joke or have some good ‘banter’ with my closes friends. Just typing this right now fills me with a very bittersweet type feeling. It is hard to explain. On the one hand, typing this makes me feel on top of the world, reliving these memories in my head and remembering how amazing things were. On the other, it fills me with deep sadness. Sadness that things have changed. Sadness that I’m no longer the same person that I once was. Sadness that now here I am, sitting all alone in my room, abandoned in my illness. It is funny what depression can do to people.
“You need to accept change!” some of my friends always told me when things started going wrong. How can I accept this state that I am in? It makes me angry when people make comments like that – for them, they’ve all moved on to new friends, been able to keep themselves positive so of course it is easier for them to accept change. Me? I got trapped in my depression. I could not move on like they did. Their comments to me seem almost…annoyed at my lack of illness. Again – how can I accept the change of going from on top of the world to suddenly feeling as though the whole world was against me?
When Term One did eventually finish, I remember thinking to myself: “Wow, I really can’t wait to start the next term! I’m loving it here at Medical School!” Oh, how my thought changed as things progressed…
Term Two began and almost as though it were a sign, it didn’t get off to the best of starts. By the best of starts, people are probably thinking that I failed some sort of exam or something, or ended up breaking a leg. But no. What I actually mean is that…I had a bad dream.
On the night before Term Two was about to start, I found myself doing something that I’d not done in a long times. I found myself awake far earlier than usual. Even more unusual – I found myself crying very sadly, with no signs of wanting to stop. Our Medical School thought it would be a good idea to place an exam on the day second term started, so perhaps that’s why I was feeling unusually upset, I thought to myself. But no. I’d never felt THIS down about an exam before. Then I remembered.
For most people, New Year’s Day is a time of massive celebration. For me, it’s hell. It’s the birthday of my Granddad. My Granddad who I’d seen weaken and die before my eyes. My Granddad who had helped raise me, teach me many things, who lived with us before I moved to Medical School. And I dreamed about him the day before Term Two. My dream was very strange. In my dream – you guessed it – I saw my Granddad. He was alive and standing next to me. I knew he was dead at the same time, however. I don’t fully remember what we were talking about but what I do remember is me hugging him all of a sudden, begging him not to go and saying that I missed him so much. That resulted in me crying in my dream. That resulted in me crying in real life too, which is why I found myself awake that day.
At the time, I remember shrugging this dream off as though it were nothing. It’s just a dream, I thought to myself. And perhaps I was right, but things didn’t improve from their either. Suddenly, in my lectures, I found myself unable to concentrate or listen to what was being said. I would always start thinking about my recent bereavement. Then things got worse – one of my closest friend’s (well, ex-closest friend – we ended up falling out) family member had died. Not only did this bring back, rather selfishly, memories of my own bereavement, but it made me feel rubbish seeing my closest friends in tears like that. I hate seeing anyone in pain, let alone my best friends!
This feeling of not being able to do anything for my closest friend led to me feeling useless. Of course, I tried my level best – from staying up nights for her, to buying her treats from time to time. Having been through a bereavement, it is true that nothing can magically make someone recover from the pain of it. It is a pain like no other. You just feel your whole world fall apart. Despite that, however, I found my self-esteem lowering. I found it even more painful when it seemed like they appreciated everyone’s efforts apart from mine. Slowly, my self-esteem started to drop.
Then matters got even worse. With this closest friend, we made a deal to live with each other the next year, and find a couple of other potential housemates. For various reasons, this didn’t end up working and I found myself kicked out of the group of people. As my Psychiatrist put it a few months later – “But you were one of the people who helped ‘found’ the initial group!”
Suddenly, I was no longer feeling on top of the world that I once was. I now had trouble sleeping at night. I had begun to lose my appetite. I was losing weight dramatically, and very fast (my BMI had dropped to about 15 at one point!). I wasn’t enjoying things as I once was. Times were spent in my tiny room in halls, just crying my eyes out. Bereavement, check. Feeling unwanted and underappreciated, check. Low self-esteem, check. Messed up housing, check. Exams approaching fast, check.
Term two ended. And this time, I couldn’t wait to leave and have a break. For the first time, I didn’t feel like going back to Medical School.
Term Three. The last term. This was also meant to be the hardest, with lots of lectures, anatomy teaching, dissection and of course – final year exams. Everyone around me seemed to be stressed out. Opening up to anyone about how I was feeling, therefore, seemed almost futile. “Oh we’re all feeling this way – it’s exams!” people would say to me. It was as though people didn’t understand that it wasn’t exams that were the top of my concerns at the time. Slowly, I felt more and more isolated from everyone, as though I didn’t belong.
For the first time, I decided also to speak to my GP about how I was feeling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she immediately diagnosed me with severe depression and prescribed me on antidepressants. Well, the antidepressants were…interesting to say the least. A very rare side effect of the antidepressants I was taking was confusion. With my luck already as bad as it was, I was one of the few who ended up experiencing this side effect. I found myself walking alone for hours at night with memory lapses, walking in the rain, not knowing what I was doing. In one extreme case, I got so confused that I ended up almost getting run over by a truck. I had to go to A&E at least five times a week at one point. I remember feeling very embarrassed going – I felt as though I was taking time away from patients who actually needed help. This is what stigma has done – it has made even us suffering from mental illness treating it as though it’s not a ‘real’ disease.
Eventually, I ended up referred to a psychiatrist who referred me on to a crisis support team. I was grateful for all the help but at the same time, my ex-friends started losing their patience. “We can’t get on with our own lives because of you” some of them would end up telling me when I asked for their help. Ironically, not one of them visited me while I was in A&E or when I was eventually admit into a psychiatric ward. My already crushed self esteem was getting lower. I wonder – if it was something severe like cancer which I was suffering from, would they have said the same thing? I felt betrayed too – after all I did to help them even when I wasn’t feeling my best, they had the audacity to come and say that. Still, they don’t understand why I ended up upset at their comments and that is why, unfortunately, I am now left friendless at Medical School. My Psychiatrist feels that this is for the best – I am still not so sure.
After I came out of the Psychiatric Ward (on my birthday, ironically), I was slightly upset to see that not one person was waiting to see me or welcome me back, or even say happy birthday to me. Usually, I wouldn’t have cared. The nature of this illness, however, meant that I was feeling constantly on edge, constantly suspicious of everyone. Sadly, this upgraded version of ‘fight or flight’ has done me no favours! Not only was this, but I had my exams in a week. I still had Anatomy of Abdomen, Anatomy of Pelvis, Gastrointestinal, Urinary and Neuroscience to revise. All in a week.
Then, suddenly, late at night, I started hearing voices. My depression had become so severe that I was now experiencing psychotic symptoms. This was the final straw, I decided. I was not going to let this illness, or what had caused the illness beat me. I was going to fight even harder. Sure, there was no way I could get rid of the symptoms or the feeling as though I were crap, but I had to somehow ignore it. So I worked my butt off. I worked like I’d never worked before for my exams. My Dad was ultra supportive – being a Doctor himself, he still remembered much of the pre-clinical stuff that he had learned and stayed up all night with me after his own work, looking through my lectures that I had missed while I was in hospital and going through them all with me. To my Dad – thank you. Thank you for being the one person who never once left my side.
Exam Day. I was nervous. To make matters worse, it appeared as though I had no seat in the exam room. Well, I did, but I couldn’t find it because it wasn’t placed alphabetically like everyone else. My Medical School had kindly decided to give me a seat near the back of the room, in case I needed to rush out if I had bad symptoms. I am thankful to my Medical School for all their support. I did the exam, and I thought it went terribly. Throughout I was hearing negative voices, trying my level best to ignore them. When we were told to put our pens down, I rushed out to go and talk to my crisis support team in tears. I’ve messed everything up, I told them.
Months later, came results day. I was immensely nervous – so nervous, that I told my tutor beforehand about how bad I felt. His text was very reassuring:
“Hey mate. I’m sorry you’re going through a tough time at the moment, but we will make this work even if you have failed one or two. Actually, the most important thing right now is yourself.”
This alone made me trust my tutor immensely. But he didn’t stop there. On the day before results, knowing how nervous I must have been, he phoned me early in the morning to tell me that, I had passed. Despite my results being due at 5pm that day, and him being a busy plastic surgeon, he managed to phone me early in the morning to ease my nerves. What he said was even nicer:
“It’s a credit to your character to succeed whilst struggling with so much adversity. Very proud of you mate – well done.”
Then it sunk in. I had passed! Somehow, despite everything, I was going into second year. I had managed to fight my depression. Sure, it was still there (and badly), but I had managed to put it to one side and do it. Wait, what? I was going to second year!
How am I doing now?
The honest answer? I am still feeling very down these days. Many people think depression is something that just goes away easily like that, but sadly it requires more patience. Yes, I have managed to pass but I am still scared of Medical School next year. I am going friendless, after my depression caused my friends to leave me. What if it happens again? Will I be able to cope? Will I still be able to be a doctor?
Those questions constantly run through my mind. But then I tell myself – I could overcome such adversity once. Therefore I can do it again. I will keep fighting.