Finding my own kind of happiness

I still remember the day in eighth grade I asked my dad, “When will I stop being sad?”. He told me that it gets better, reminding me that those who truly know suffering are the ones who feel happiness at its greatest. I agree.

Well, today I am sad, but it’s the good kind of sad. I am interrupting my paper-writing to pause and reflect. I sometimes get this need to grieve for the loss of my mother, the woman who visits now and again but seems lost to her insatiable mental illness. At this point, I just want her to be happy, but I am powerless to help. The other day I realized that fighting mental illness is like fighting cancer. It can get better, you can feel hopeful; it can seemingly go away, it might come back, it might not come back; it might follow you to the grave. But mental illness is not like cancer in the respect that your neighbor won’t often help you with words of support or acts of kindness. Psychiatric disorders are somehow shameful, and nobody wants to ask for help. It is a very rare type of person who willingly aids the mentally ill, and for all of you beautiful individuals who have helped my mother in her struggles, I wish I could thank you a thousand times over. You give me hope for humanity.

I finally see now that you cannot save someone you love from drowning if he/she won’t stop swimming. You got to let go and trust that life will work itself out. In this very moment, my mom is in Michigan and plans to leave to California before she stabilizes on an appropriate medication regiment. In this very moment, my dad, brother, and sister-in-law are sorting through my mom’s things, setting aside sentimental items for storage, but mostly giving everything away through Craigslist and Goodwill. My mom seems happy now, at least that’s what her texts suggest. She’s finally looking to the future instead of the past, and I completely respect her for that. I understand now why parents struggle with letting their children go off and become adults on their own. It’s a scary thought. I worry about my mom taking care of herself. I keep trying to remind myself that she is the strongest person I know (if there’s an apocalypse, my mom would likely be the last one on Earth standing). But still. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to grieve. Allowing your mind to feel and accept your emotions is the best way to let them go. It’s the best way to find my own kind of happiness.

[[For anyone who sympathizes with mental health concerns, please just TALK about mental illness. Talk about how it’s okay to struggle with your mind, your emotions, your comprehension, your perceptions. There are too many individuals suffering from different types of mental illnesses, and we need to take action to change the landscape of mental health in today’s society. Otherwise, I would keep my personal life to myself.]]

The Opposite of Loneliness

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It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
– Marina Keegan

Personal Statement Throwback

I’ve been reading through personal statements for friends applying in the upcoming medical school cycle and decided to look back on my own. Best of luck to current applicants, and congratulations to matriculants! …

I grew up in a family of philosophers and poets, free-thinkers and political activists, intellectuals and athletes. My upbringing framed limitless goals for the future, which were as expansive as my interests. I wish I could say that my love for science and the desire to be a physician run deep in my blood, but my relationship with medicine began in college. In high school I had said, “I can see myself as anything but a doctor.” The universe only heard ‘doctor’, and my goals for the future shifted dramatically.

My first semester freshman year, I completed the physical science requirement with General Chemistry 103, thereby eliminating any future obligations to science. My chemistry professor shared his philosophies of life to the 100-person audience consisting of mostly pre-medical students. Occasionally, he paused from writing on the blackboard, turned to the large lecture hall, and broke into poetry. Reciting memorized works or thoughts of his own, he often began with, “Science is beauty, and there is beauty in science.” My introductory chemistry course taught me more than the art of balancing reduction-oxidation equations; I learned how to approach the unfamiliar world of science with my background in humanities. Medicine became a marriage between the disciplines of science and humanities, and I see now why my professor found it so beautiful.

Benefiting from an undergraduate liberal arts education, my interests adapted from humanities to the sciences. By the semester of Spring 2010, I declared my major in neuroscience for an interdisciplinary exposure to science and declared a minor in mathematics with a focus on mathematical modeling of biological phenomena. I appreciated the complexities of brain activity determining how we sense, perceive, behave, and function; thus my fascination with molecular networking in the human body began.

The transition into science felt surprisingly natural. My parents and non-nuclear family fostered an environment of self-reflection and independence, giving me the opportunity to grow in any field of my choosing. As my pursuit for a pre-medical education continued, my mother, already diagnosed with bipolar disorder, began to decompensate in mental and cognitive function. The impact of disease goes beyond the biology of the affected person and alters one’s abilities, lifestyle, and relationships. Her battle with mental illness reaffirmed my desire to become a clinician and inspired me to combine compassion, intellect, and curiosity into a career.

My proclivity towards psychiatry brought me to the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in July 2012. After settling into my research position, I remember meeting an 11-year-old patient in a wheelchair admitted for our childhood-onset schizophrenia study. Dark circles under her eyes, thin, and clearly agitated, this little girl was lost in her own world and could not register my “hello”. About three months later, when I walked into the unit, she jumped into my arms for a hug. Hand in hand, we paced down the hallway to calm her and to talk about the day. At rounds before the girl’s discharge, our team members reflected on her hospital stay. Her father smiled with tears in his eyes as he thanked us for bringing his daughter to life. With careful observation, diagnosis, and treatment, the psychiatry team prescribed her the right dose of antipsychotics that improved her functioning, and to some degree, saved her life.

The girl reminded me that although the human body functions remarkably, we are naturally flawed in biology. Perfect health is nonexistent, and physicians play an integral role in nurturing well-being. The responsibility of physicians goes beyond addressing immediate clinical presentation; they also provide hope for patients to think beyond their conditions and enjoy a better quality of life. I embrace the challenge of a clinician to address patient health within my community, no matter what specialty I ultimately practice.

The distinguishing factors between a good doctor and a great doctor elucidate traits that determine the success of one physician over another. A good doctor is quick-thinking and intelligent. A good doctor is highly organized and dedicated to medicine. A good doctor effectively diagnoses and treats patients. However, a great doctor executes the roles of a good doctor in addition to fostering interpersonal relationships with patients, colleagues, and fellow health professionals. A great doctor builds trust, fundamental for the success of a clinician. Beyond the academic traits necessary to be a good doctor, I believe I have the personal characteristics from my experiences to become a great doctor. In the pathway to becoming a qualified physician, medical school provides the necessary skill sets through relevant coursework, exposure to specialties, and actual clinical practice.

I aspire for a career in medicine, an ambition that feels true to my character. My foundation as a pre-medical student is strong, and I would appreciate consideration to attend your institution. I guarantee that I will be a valuable asset to the medical community, and medical school is the next step of my journey to becoming a qualified physician.

Oi, Brasil! Getting your visa 101.

Fun fact: if you decide to fly to Brazil for the World Cup (don’t get too excited – I didn’t manage to purchase game tickets), you are not just paying for that plane ticket. I was in for quite the surprise when thing after thing would cost me more money, but this is the game for trip planning. Big flight, little flights (Brazil is massive), lodging, tickets for events, visa, travel items, etc. etc. etc. I tell myself not to dwell on numbers, although I sometimes think I should have been an accountant…I really love lists, numbers, and especially lists of numbers.

I digress.

I had quite the DMV-type of experience at the Consulate General of Brazil in Washington. It was a straight shoot from Farragut North metro stop off the same line as NIH. I spent the last week scurrying to prep for this morning, and it was quite anti-climactic.

Things you need:
– Visa application filled online
– recent passport picture to include with the visa application page (The embassy will provide glue sticks. This seems very important.)
– flight itinerary
– photocopy of driver’s license
– USPS Money Order (a nice man at the post office makes life happier): $160 if you’re a US citizen, +$20 if you are mailing your application materials
– pre-paid envelope (priority mail, flat-rate) addressed to yourself so that you can get your passport back, with its fancy new visa
– passport
– visit the Consulate site for details: http://cgwashington.itamaraty.gov.br/en-us/visa_general_information.xml (I found this site horribly confusing because there is no all-encompassing list clarifying what you need to do. I will blame my lack of sleep this past week for my struggles, but thankfully, I have a fabulous roommate who checked that I was good to go for the embassy.)

Doing the above took a lot of mental energy. These extra errands came at a bad week for work (presentation at Postbac Poster Day yesterday!) and a worse week for my personal life (finally moved my mom into her new apartment, and just signed a lease for my own place). But, alas, I accomplished it just in time after using wood glue late last night to attach my passport photo to my application page.

Got into the consulate just as it opened, and the security guard was the first person to see. He spoke fast English and faster Portuguese. I must have looked like a deer in headlights, until I just responded, “I am here to get a visa.” It was easy enough to grab my ticket, DMV-style, and find my seat. In the 45 minutes of waiting there, I determined that I really liked this security guard. Wonderfully fluent in both English and Portuguese. I considered myself lucky because my roommate had to wait at least 2 hours when she came a week ago. After my number was called, the process took all of 30 seconds – probably could have taken 20 seconds if the woman did not check my expired Brazil visa from 2006 and ask about my previous trip (turns out they give 10-year visas now). Drop the goods, be content, and walk away. Guess that’s what happens when you are hyper-prepared.  The security guard’s smile is my last impression of the consulate.

All in all – a mildly stressful but positive experience. T minus 13 days until I get my visa and 37 days until I leave to Brazil!

Death’s Narrative

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Where’s the fight? he wondered.
Where’s the will to hold on?

Of course, at thirteen, he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.

With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die – a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was gray and orange, the color of summer’s skin, and his uncle appeared relieved when his breathing disappeared completely.

“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.”

Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
Yes.
I like that a lot.
– Markus Zusak in The Book Thief