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Steele Fairless

Home > Humans of Medicine 2017 > Steele Fairless

At the beginning of the year I sat down at my dinner table with a new group of housemates and a close friend and we completed a ‘getting to know you’ questionnaire. One of the questions was ‘Do you have a secret hunch on how you will die?’. For most, this question is probably relatively innocent but for me it touched my deepest fear. I eventually told my friends that I thought I would die by suicide.

I first became acquainted with the complexities of mental illness and the reality of suicide at quite a young age. At the time I didn’t have the maturity or comprehension to see it for what it was, a combination of genetics, past trauma and environment. Intellectually, I hope to use this to one day work in mental health and to provide truly empathetic care to my patients. Personally, it has also left me fearful. I fear that my genetics and the trauma I have experienced may predispose me to one day developing severe mental illness.

I used to rationalise my hardships by believing my resilience had been tested early and that my adulthood would run more smoothly. This year however, I faced further challenges and I learnt that resilience is finite.

I told the world I hoped to be a medical student, but I think it misheard me for medical patient. Five days before my first (already deferred) mid-semester exam I was getting emergency surgery. I sat the exam and tried my best to keep up with the pace of medical school while recovering. Unfortunately, I didn’t recover fully and my physical health deteriorated again. I deferred yet another exam.

I found out I would need another surgery with a lengthy wait time and lengthier recovery. I tried to be patient but my symptoms felt unbearable, my coping mechanisms became mal-adaptive, and my mental health took a serious hit. I found myself having anxiety attacks, waking up in tears, and my suicidal thoughts had moved to planning.

I think having seen all of this before firsthand allowed me to take a step outside myself. My brain was looking for a solution to the problem in front of it and had become fixated on one thinking pattern. I found a better solution to my problem, I discontinued my studies to focus on my recovery. The university staff were behind me every step of the way and even at my worst they respected that I could preserve my own wellbeing and my future in the course did not come into question.

I’ve since had the surgery, and got a job as a lecturer while I am recovering and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. If I am back on my feet I have every intention of resuming study in 2018.

However, some lessons can’t be taught in the classroom. For me 2017 has been one of those lessons. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that life can throw you as many curveballs as it likes. Sometimes they might be for the worse, but eventually they will be for the better. Either way, you need to be here to find out.

Steele Fairless, Monash University, MD1 (2017)

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