My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was in late high school.
Studying medicine was already on the cards, but with the stress our family was under, I didn’t get the marks I wanted. They were still good and I should have been pleased, but they weren’t what I told myself I needed. I felt crushed, and it was the first time I realised I had a problem with expectations and perfectionism.
I studied an undergraduate degree close by, partly so I could be with my family over the next few tough years. In the final year of my degree, dad passed away.
I didn’t know how to handle grief. I went back to classes too soon, though I was convinced otherwise.
I put pressure on myself to keep up momentum, graduate on schedule with high marks and buried myself in extra-curricular activities (that I admittedly loved). My girlfriend and family could see where I was heading, but I thought I would be fine.
For about six months, the constant self-talk of anxiety wore away at me until one day, I experienced my first and only panic attack. I never want to have one again. My heart pounded, my chest and throat tightened and I really did feel impending doom. I laid down in case I passed out and breathed deeply until it passed.
It was the wake-up call I needed. The next day, I booked an appointment with a counsellor. I kept up the appointments until I graduated, and they did help me a lot. Then I was rejected from medical school for the third time, let it get to me, and lost so much of my progress.
Fast-forward a few years and I made it to medical school. I still battle the perfectionism and expectations. When I lose sight of the important things, I remind myself that life is so much more than accomplishments. When the study gets tough, the anxious thoughts still flow. In my first year of medicine, they stole hours of my sleep too many times.
Then I finally followed the good advice we hear so often at medical school and found myself a GP in my new hometown. I told them about my history, grief and panic attack. I asked about mindfulness, another thing I kept hearing about at medical school. They pointed me to some great guided meditations – nothing mystical, just awareness and relaxation. So far, they’ve always been enough to help me fall asleep.
I’ve always had a great support network – faith, family, friends. Now I have strategies too. Good study breaks, journaling, prayer, exercise, hobbies, mindfulness. Some of the ways I think and act are still far from healthy, but I’m glad to be heading in the right direction.
The advice I wish I was receptive to in my worst times is this: don’t wait until things get out of control to seek help. There’s nothing heroic about bad self-care and stubbornness.