by Suhail Wani
If someone asked me to tell them how my first year of medical school went, I would say that I thought I would be happier. This isn’t to say that I was somehow unhappy or didn’t enjoy the course, but rather that before starting university – and specifically before starting medicine – I had formed an idea about the supposed transformation it would bring within me. In my mind, I saw myself becoming, and almost immediately transforming into someone with a completely different mindset from the one I had in the final years of high school: someone who might be less stressed, less concerned with the final results, someone who might be a just little more at ease.
That last frenetic year of school was filled with anxiety over assignments, exams, deadlines and of course the eternal question of whether I would get into medicine or not. At the time it seemed, perhaps naively, that once all this had passed and I had received that long-awaited offer of acceptance, that many of those worries would evaporate and instead be replaced a sort of buoyant optimism at beginning this new journey. This new person would not obsess over things such as marks or positions, nor would they make constant comparisons and appraisals of themselves, rather, they would simply be motivated by the intellectual curiosity of medicine and the hope that that curiosity could one day be harnessed- to use a well-worn phrase- to help others.
However soon after that initial excitement had dissolved and the cold shock of medicine with all the work that it entailed had begun, I felt myself slipping back into a rhythm of thinking that I thought I had shed. I was again looking at the world with a magnifying glass, continuously examining each obstacle I faced. I was losing any sense of proportion in the process and elevating the issue to a level of anxiety-inducing importance that it didn’t merit. After a daunting lecture concerning the impending intern crisis and the bottlenecks that loomed ahead, those lofty notions of being intellectually curious without being troubled by the final outcome, of simply being interested in things for their own sake dissipated. Everything, academically or otherwise, now seemed like something that had to be attained, ticked off and categorised on a form (I have since discovered that there is in fact such a template for us at the end of our degree) with uncertain consequences for failure to do so.
Despite all the new and exciting experiences that medicine has exposed me to, there was again that gnawing fear that what I was doing wasn’t nearly enough, that it wasn’t for the right reasons, that it was just a means to an end, in the service of some later goal. As the weeks and months passed, this internal questioning carried on and took out its share of enjoyment from the course. It put me into a state of weariness that would come and go – some little thing might go well and I’d clutch at the happiness it brought, but if something didn’t go so well (like not passing a clinical assessment), I would be mulling over it for days after. I felt a sense of breathlessness, of simply treading water, and it exhausted me. I would like to say that amongst this all I had some sort of momentous epiphany that made me change the way I had been thinking, but really I guess I could say that I was tired of being tired.
It was a gradual process and I suppose in many ways it’s still an ongoing one. It was the realisation, however obvious, that obsessively assessing and appraising myself was utterly unhelpful in being able to find happiness or satisfaction. That not everything that you did or maybe didn’t do had to be viewed through a catastrophising prism that saw every event or rather non-event as determining the future course of your life. Medicine is a long-term undertaking: not every curve needs to be an exhilarating one where you’re overflowing with accomplishments, and though in spans of it you might just be treading water, slowly and perhaps maddeningly so, chipping away at the mountain that is medicine; there is meaning and purpose in this as well. In the bustle of medicine and the flurry of opportunities we’re exposed to, many of which we fail to grasp, it is important to remember the years of work – all the successes, both big and small that have brought us here – and realise sometimes, just sometimes that it is enough, that you are enough.