By Sherihan Goni
Med school is tough. Between the crazy influx of information, long hours of study trying to keep up, many many cups of coffee and the all-consuming, exhausted sleep that follows, often it becomes hard to maintain a social life. It becomes really easy to isolate oneself from people, to hide behind a laptop and piles of books, until one day you sadly realise you’re better acquainted with the grooves on your desk than actual people.
I used to think that I was pretty good at balancing friendships and study. Being constantly surrounded by the same people in my cohort, most of my close friends were in my course and we could study together and then have lunch and catch up on the latest. There was the weekly calls to my one interstate friend, and long message threads with the few people I kept in touch with from high school. I even managed to make friends outside my course, funnily enough from hanging around the library for too long. And of course there were the brunches. So many brunches.
Then third year happened.
When I had talked to people about what to expect in third year, most of them said “Oh it’s a chill year”, and then something about ward rounds and of course the matrix. None of this really prepared me for the impact that it might have on my friendships. I mean, obviously I knew that people would be moving around. Some of my friends were going rural, people would be scattered at different clinical sites and it was very likely that I would never have to set foot on campus again. But the reality of this situation only hit me on my first weeks of placement.
I remember vividly, the nervous excitement of a new place and new people, and my impatience to tell my besties about everything that had happened. One of my best friends had moved all the way to Mildura and we had promised to call each other as often as we could. Me, being my naïve self, assumed that I could easily do that every day. But as is with most things, life can get in the way. It took many tries untill we finally found a time to sit down and properly talk.
Things like that kept happening with all my friends, whether it be missed skype calls, chronically postponed brunch dates or just being unable to reply to messages. Even at home, often I was cooped up in my room, studying instead of spending time with family. It’s not ever anyone’s fault, and there aren’t any bad feelings, but sometimes it can get frustrating. Coupled with the huge learning curve of clinical years, and for some, getting used to a completely new town or place, it can be easy to skimp on or give up entirely on trying to maintain relationships.
What was possibly more worrying for me was the realisation that this could be the beginning of the rest of my life. After all, the course was only going to get harder from here, and the career I had chosen was infamous for being stressful and demanding. Friendships and having a good social support network had always kept me sane and gotten me through some of the toughest moments in my life, so the idea of losing all of this frankly scared the hell out of me.
It also made the statistics of medical students and doctors experiencing higher rates of burnout and psychological distress all that more tangible. The self-imposed social isolation that medical students and doctors can easily fall prey to make them prime targets for experiencing feelings of disconnectedness, ultimately leading to a greater incidence of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety.
Me, being the person that I am, most definitely did have a good sob after coming to all of these conclusions.
What you soon find out though, and what I have realised over the past few months, is that there is no easy way to make sure that your study life, social life and sleep cycle are all completely perfect. You need to learn how and when to prioritise study over socialising, but always remember to make time for the people that matter to you. Distance doesn’t have to be a bad thing either; for me, it has made each of the moments that I get to spend with my favourite people all that more precious. This year has also made me realise the true meaning of quality over quantity, that you don’t need to talk to or be with someone constantly as a definition of good friendship. Sometimes all it takes is a message asking how they are or a phone call once a week to feel truly connected to someone. Ultimately, med school is tough, but it’s the support of friends and family that get you through the tough times.
Feature image by Nevit Dilmen at Wikimedia Commons.