When you hit rock bottom in life, very few things can scare you afterwards. Rock bottom for me was the aftermath of failing my first medical school exam. In the weeks leading up to the exam it would take up all my energy to just get out of bed each day, let alone do things I used to enjoy. I almost thought it was normal (or at least not a serious issue) to spend breaks between lectures crying in the bathroom before pulling myself together for my next class. While attempting to study before the exam I experienced my first panic attack: I was sweating, couldn’t breathe and felt like the world was closing in on me.
Looking back, these issues probably started years ago but due to the gradual worsening of symptoms it was difficult to distinguish whether it was ‘just a bad day’ or something more serious. To people looking in from the outside I probably seemed fine, and that life was great. But when you do a good enough job of holding it together people don’t suspect you aren’t okay and don’t ask. Seeking help is scary, and when no one is worried about you it makes you begin to wonder whether your problems are merely imagined.
Rock bottom is not a pretty place. Failing that exam felt like personifying failure rather than simply failing a task. Having spent many years feeling worthless as a person due to insecurity about my appearance and personality, I attached my self-worth to succeeding in academic pursuits. I had metaphorically put all the eggs into one basket, and failing the exam stole that basket away from me. I quickly spiraled into a depression with thoughts that scared me – thoughts of not being here tomorrow. I had to decide to go in one of two directions. Thankfully I chose the route of going to my GP and finally seeking help, regardless of perceived consequences.
Before this incident occurred, I was so scared of other people’s judgement that I did everything in my power to make sure no one found out about how I was feeling. Hitting rock bottom meant that stigma was something that no longer scared me. That’s why I publicly acknowledged my struggles with mental illness – to do what I can to fight the stigma of mental illness. In saying that, the first time I spoke about it was a sanitized version that omitted failing the exam and subsequent suicidal thoughts.
I received messages from people struggling with similar issues who said that it was reassuring to know that they weren’t alone in these battles. It is relieving to no longer be in shameful hiding and I have experienced no negative consequences; rather my support network has increased. For both of these reasons I have decided to share my experience with other medical students – people statistically likely to experience mental health issues at some point in their journey. Seeking help is okay, and it will get better.
Lauren Groenendijk, University of Sydney MD1 (2017)