I always knew going back to study was going to be a challenge, and medicine especially challenging. I tried to set healthy expectations for myself, not coming from a science background, and looking forward to being more social and engaged than I had in my undergraduate degree. Being a new course, I think everyone found that first year very tough. For me, it was not just tough because I had none of the basic science knowledge that everyone else seemed to have, but because I got very ill almost straight away after starting medicine. A recent trip to India had returned me to Australia with a nasty bout of E.coli, then I just never seemed to get better. I was told by several GPs that I was probably suffering from Giardia and anxiety/stress related to being both sick and the course.
Of course when I had Giardia, and I still felt terrible, the doctors again insisted it was anxiety. Nearly six more weeks passed until I was hospitalised with fevers over 40C and, eventually, a diagnosis of typhoid fever. Another week passed and I was discharged, having missed almost too many days to continue in the course. I made a conscious decision, after having been visited and supported by so many of my new medicine friends, that I should continue on. Of course, I don’t think I quite anticipated how difficult the rest of that year would actually be – from the simple stress of catching up, to trying to recover from significant physical illness, I began to feel more and more overwhelmed. Always the outgoing person, I generally assume no one ever expects that I suffer from quite strong social anxiety when I feel stressed with daily life. I knew I wasn’t keeping up with the material, and I found it utterly demoralising turning up to lectures where I either struggled to stay awake or could swear the lecturer was speaking at 3x speed in another language. I began to assume that everyone thought I was dumb, lazy or some combination of the two. This meant I no longer went to lectures or really enjoyed being around the new friends I had made. The anxiety I feel at these times isn’t really defined as a particular class of anxiety disorder, but mostly consists of what cognitive behavioural theory refers to as “mind reading” and “jumping to conclusions” – something we all do, but some do to a much greater extent than others. It’s the feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach when someone doesn’t immediately reply to your text message or doesn’t smile back at you when you pass them by in the corridor. You begin to wonder, what did I do? What did I do wrong now? Not going to lectures again didn’t really help stress levels either.
So, how did get I get through it all? I largely attribute my ability to get through that year to a strong network of friends both in and outside medicine. The medicine friends helped me study around exams, supplying notes to lectures I had missed, never once asking me why I needed them or judging me for asking. My non-medical friends gave me much needed perspective and assurance that whatever happened in my studies, I’d still have them in my life, and that I still mattered to somebody. I won’t lie and say that the first year of my medical degree wasn’t unquestionably the worst year of my life so far, but it made me realise the value of friendships, and the importance of your physical health and it’s impact on your mental health. I’m glad there were times I did skip some classes, as that gave me the opportunity to sleep or rest when I needed it, allowing me to focus at other times. I’m glad I did keep going back to the doctors, even if it felt like I was being ignored. And I am glad I’m still studying, and “nearly” finished my degree. I still get stressed, I still feel overwhelmed, but I know that when I’m physically well, and with a good group of friends, I can manage my mental health, and stay healthy overall.