We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re gonna catch a big one…I’m not scared!
Looking back on 5 years of med school, I can honestly say it’s been the most incredible adventure. A bear hunt filled with life-changing experiences shared with the most wonderful people; but at times wrought with obstacles that a savvy medical student must navigate to ensure survival. Whether it’s the egotistical consultants with insatiable appetites for the public humiliation of unwitting students; or the endless onslaught of written exams and OSCEs that always seem to focus on the exact things you didn’t study; or the constant threat of physical, financial and social oblivion that we supposedly consented to. We all eventually learn that
We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We can’t go around it. We’ll have to go through it!
When faced with the heartbreaking reality of mental illness that so many of us will experience, the road to recovery can seem so impossible that you question why you ever embarked on this bear hunt in the first place. If you ever find yourself ready to turn back or give up completely, please believe me that there is no obstacle so great that we cannot find a way through. That is, if we are prepared for the journey, accept the things we cannot control and let ourselves be to receive help when we need it.
You can’t ‘get over’ depression however hard you try; just like Ronald Weasley and his Devil’s Snare, fighting against it alone can make things much worse.
You can’t go around or avoid anxiety; it arbitrarily devastates and can bring even the strongest and most resilient people to their knees.
Sadly, you can’t dig a hole to bury your head in the ground hoping to wake up on the other side of loneliness and heartbreak unscathed.
When you’re standing at the edge of the world, surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of hopelessness and despair there is only one way to overcome, and that way is through.
Setting out on a bear hunt, an experienced adventurer will hope for the best, but plan for the worst – and this means having your wits about you even when the sky is clear. If a storm were to rudely interrupt your journey, only a fool would ignore it, or spend all their energy trying to make it stop. It’s also rather silly to blame yourself or somebody else for the weather; it’s completely out of your control. The storm clouds of mental illness can arrive without warning or permission to ruin the most perfect of days, and they certainly aren’t our fault.
And when it rains, it sure as hell can pour.
Like when you find yourself violently sobbing for hours under your bed screaming to the black sky for mercy and reprieve. When you are so physically crippled with fear and panic that you collapse next to your trolley in the cereal aisle. When the ghosts of your past and the demons in your mind haunt the deepest recesses of your being, convincing you that everyone would be better off if you just disappeared.
When every inch of you is soaked through, the wind stinging your eyes and the thunder pounding your ears, please remember that just like the most terrifying storm, these moments will not last forever. With this in mind pack a sturdy umbrella in your knapsack, a woollen blanket for the cold nights and be willing to adjust your speed while waiting for the sun to rise.
When the most elementary functions of being human start to disintegrate like your sleep, appetite, energy, motivation and ability to enjoy everyday things – let these barometers trigger a contingency plan of regular sleep, exercise, healthy eating and mindfulness. When you seemingly lose control over your own body as it launches a full-scale revolt of palpitations, weakness, breathlessness and the mental pandemonium of panic, find the courage and humility to raise an umbrella by accepting help from professionals like your GP, or starting medications for a time if needed. When all hope is lost, and you are certain that your mind and heart are beyond redemption, cling desperately to the warm blanket of close friendships and family. Believe them when they say that you are dearly loved, and life is better when you’re around.
Many seasoned bear hunters will speak of obstacles so immense and frightening that simply surviving becomes a daily battle. Sometimes the mud is so thick, the river so wide and the forest so dark that a wise adventurer must adjust their trajectory and expectations accordingly, even if it means slowing down momentarily to focus on each individual step. This can be remarkably difficult to practice as a medical student, considering most of us have powered through the open fields of life with extraordinary motivation and zeal.
When encountering mental illness the temptation is to maintain the same velocity; keeping all prior commitments and projecting the same external demeanour lest others think you aren’t coping. Realistically, this is not only impossible but also dangerous. If you reach the end of some days thinking, ‘all I have achieved today is getting out of bed, and not killing myself’, you have in fact taken a most momentous step; one requiring a level of courage others may never truly understand. That is accomplishment enough.
Most importantly, never go on a bear hunt alone. Make the excruciating choice to be vulnerable to those who care about you, and share your struggles with them just as you would your triumphs. Silence is deadly. Sitting in your room alone with your heartache and suffering day after day may feel romantic. Setting out on an adventure without needing anybody’s help may seem stoic. But when the lies of your weary mind are the only words you hear, they can be powerfully convincing. Find the strength to open up a window and let the light in. Reach out a hand and let the world help you get through this storm. Your story is so important, and an incredible adventure is waiting for you on the other side.
For those who haven’t experienced mental illness and are running through the open fields conquering any obstacle in your path, and those who have emerged on the other side striding along the road to recovery: I beg you with all that I am to have open eyes and minds to see those struggling to make it through each day. Open your heart to be the light that shines through their window, the hand that pulls them out of the sinking sand and the warm blanket that holds them through the darkest nights.
We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one, and I’m not scared.
Because we can get through this.
Matt McAlpine is final year medical student at the University of Western Sydney. Having a personal experience of mental illness through medical school, he has developed a passion for encouraging young people to be open about their struggles and seek help when needed.