My name is Kate and I am fifth year medical student. I want to share my story with you so that even if one person out there reads it and it resonates for them, they will know they are not alone. My story is very similar to hundreds I have read; as medical professionals we all struggle with stress, overstretch ourselves with study, work and other commitments, and often fail to recognise, or ignore symptoms in ourselves until it is too late. I love medicine; med school opened up so many opportunities for me; I loved all of it. Then my migraines, which had plagued me since childhood, became slowly worse. By second year I had one every single day. They came with an aura, dizziness, nausea, dyslexia, photophobia and excruciating pain. Of course I was investigated; I have had MRI’s, CT scans, blood tests, seen neurologists, pain specialists, psychiatrists, physios, chiropractors, even natropaths. I have been on every medication from propanalol, sumatriptan, gabapentin, sodium valproate, topamax, every sort of painkiller you can poke a stick at. When I was told at the end of second year that my pain would never go away, and I must simply learn to live with it, I was angry. What sort of thing is that to say to a 19 year old? I was so disappointed in my chosen field. So I did what I had been doing for years; popped painkillers which barely took the edge off; opiates, anti-inflammatories, sleeping tablets. I slept less than 2 hours a night for around three years. My body was at breaking point, and I barely kept it together. I missed more and more uni and saw no-one apart from my partner who was one of the reasons I survived so long. I was so anxious before going into uni and terrified that my classmates would know something was wrong; I did not want to be chucked out of medicine. Everyone knows the stigma associated with mental illness, and I refused to think that was my problem anyway. I was just in pain, which meant that my low mood was normal.
My breaking point came after a tutorial about DSM criteria for a major depressive episode. I realised that I ticked each box; and had been this way for around 6 months. I had isolated myself so much that none of the students in my year had any idea; I am very good at smiling and pretending to be okay. The realisation that something was seriously wrong led me to become suicidal; I called my partner and he took me to see a doctor, who immediately started me on a SNRI. That was four years ago. Since then my life has completely changed; I still suffer from migraines every day. I no longer feel like I cannot cope and there is no reason to go on; medication combined with rest, getting my eating and exercise sorted out, and CBT helped me out of my hole. When my relationship fell apart two years ago everyone watched me carefully, waiting for the inevitable fall back into darkness. This did not happen; now I am equipped with the knowledge of my warning signs, of what helps and what does not, and professional help which is indispensable. I am strong enough now to deal with whatever is thrown my way. Not because I am invincible, or a medical student, or too tough for these things to affect me. But because now I am not ashamed to ask for help when I need it.
The medical faculty has stood behind me every step of the way. It has been difficult, exhilarating, crazy, and both the best and worst thing I have ever done. But it has taught me to be a much better practitioner; I will understand exactly what my patients will tell me and be able to reassure them that depression, anxiety, and any other mental illnesses are diseases like diabetes. They do not discriminate based on socio-economic status or job; they can strike at any time, and be utterly debilitating. Be strong enough to recognise when you are not feeling right; to ask for help, or to ask your fellow student if they are doing okay. One person is all it takes to save someone’s life when they feel utterly alone.