A Tragic Reality Check

Alas, the further I fall into the abyss of medical science, the less I have been writing. Balancing passions of life is quite the challenge, but we shall carry on.

I could talk endlessly about this module, Musculoskeletal, and about the countless hours of dissection, labs, lectures, and feeling legit in scrubs. I could talk about all the work that has gone into clinical exams and our first [terrifying] Integrated Clinical Skills assessment. I could discuss the struggles of the average medical school student. Maybe I will talk about those later, and maybe I won’t.

The reason I wanted to post on a late Saturday night [when I originally wrote this] is because I need to talk about some grave reminders we get when we experience serious reality checks: 1) we’re human, 2) we don’t live forever, and 3) there are more important things in life.

At 12:36am Friday morning (I know because I looked straight at the clock when I was abruptly shaken awake), my boyfriend told me his former roommate and close friend attempted to commit suicide. I was shocked but not surprised. I know that might not make sense to others, but it’s certainly a distinction to me. At that very moment, it was like my mind went clear. Looking back, I would have expected my response to include panic and tears. But it didn’t.  I remained quiet as Andrew described how his night progressed, how he walked from a bar to visit his friend, how his friend’s current roommate broke the news, and how he drove to a nearby hospital in a panic.

Lying in bed that night, vigilance had taken over. I felt alert as if an emergency had taken hold, as if my fight or flight response was in full gear. I knew I had to do something. Both Andrew and I knew that we had to wait until the morning, when he figured out exactly which psychiatric facility we could find our friend and when we could visit.

Navigating rush hour traffic that evening frustrated me as we headed to a hospital nearly an hour away. With a gallon of fruit punch in Andrew’s hand and a box of chocolates in mine, we were armed for some loving and ultimately enjoyed our visit, all things considered. After signing in and dropping our belongings in a locker, a kind employee escorted us inside to a room filled with grey foldable tables, rectangles lined against the wall by the window, with fold-out chairs tucked under. The only individuals in the room were exactly who we expected: the man himself and their other former roommate with his girlfriend. The following hour and a half was full of laughter, nostalgia, and light-hearted talk regarding grave circumstances.

I kept looking at the wall of art made by the patients, abstract colors, sketches, landscapes, quotes both deep and snarky accompanied by illustrations. I desperately wanted (and still want) a one-on-one talk with him. He’s one of my favorite people. I get how his mind works. I see where he’s coming from. And I desperately wish I could help. Way back, he helped me in a dire family situation when I had nobody else I could call – I knew he would help with no reservations or judgment.

I came to a realization a couple months back when William and Mary had their most recent suicide – there is a stark polarity in decision-making when it comes to the choice to live. Because, when you think about it, every day you live is your choice. To a certain extent, that is quite empowering, whether or not it seems like a decision you would ever consider.

I graduated from an amazing institution that has been criticized as the “suicide school” in Virginia, the College of William and Mary. I can’t say I know all the statistics, and I can’t vouch for one side or the other. Certain people believe this to be a horrible misperception of our university, and others think the title reflects a greater problem that needs to be addressed. The facts I know are the following: there were 3 suicides during my 4 years at W&M and one this past August. If anything is for sure, these unfortunate tragedies reflect the vulnerability of our college years and the need to support one another.

In the William and Mary community, if you didn’t know the person, you knew a friend, a classmate, a hall mate, a professor. The campus went quiet a day or so before the shock wore away. Quickly thereafter, we fell victims to the same stress and runabouts of daily activity, until we would hear horrible news again, this time a new name, a new story.

My heart goes out to those with depression. It’s a crippling disorder that makes you consider your options in ways that most people don’t. For now, I am grateful my friend is alive and has not been permanently harmed from the event, physically at least. The mere thought of losing him hurts my soul, a reality check that both curbs my frivolous complaints and inspires me to move forward in my career. Right now, I want to be a psychiatrist so badly, more than I have every wanted something in my life. I want to help people like my friend, like my lost members of the Tribe, like the countless individuals out there struggling from severe depression, as well as other individuals suffering with mental health illnesses.

If there’s anything I wish for humanity, it’s compassion. Unconditional compassion, for our friends, neighbors, and strangers. I am convinced this world would be a far different place if we listened to compassion as a paramount factor in decision-making. Maybe then it would be easier to seek mental help. Maybe then we could save precious lives.

There are some great articles out there on the subject, and just a few suggestions for anyone’s interest:
-The challenges of suicide prevention on campus after three suicides within a year: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/12/AR2010111202853.html
-About Tracy L. Cross’s research on suicide in the gifted: http://www.wm.edu/news/stories/2013/cross-book-explores-suicide-among-the-gifted123.php
-Blog post of a Tribe member’s own struggles, written after the most recent suicide at W&M: http://wmblogs.wm.edu/skyler/one-tribe/

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.]]

Pain of the Human Condition

Blue lights flash violently behind me. The police car has an unusually bright white bulb attached to the left of his windshield. It is dangerously distracting…seems ironic for a cop car. My auto-pilot hands pull my Honda to a side street, and park, and take my seat belt off. Released from restraints, I begin breathing deeply as if in meditation.

I have no idea how fast I was driving, and quite frankly, I don’t give a shit. I roll down my window and wait.

An officer approaches. He says his name and states how fast I was driving. Apparently I was in a zone that adds a $200 fine to any speeding ticket. Good to know, I think. I already forget his name and want to fast-forward to bedtime.

“Did you just take your seat belt off?”
“Yes I did.”
“License and registration, please.”
“Mind if I open my glove compartment?”
“Of course.”
As I reach over, a snap resounds and I see my silver heart pendant fall between the seat and emergency break. A chain falls into my lap.
Handing over my registration, I say, “Guess it’s one of those days.” I pick up the broken chain of the necklace from my lap and place it in the passenger seat next to my cell phone, a Droid devoid of use. I dropped it into the toilet the day before. Shouldn’t have left it in my back pocket.
“Where are you driving from?”
My voice cracks, “My mother’s.” I think he hears the pain in my voice.
“Have you been drinking?”
I attempt to close my glove compartment, and somehow, the entire drawer breaks and falls to the ground.

You know, part of me wonders how much the ticket will be. Part of me knows my car insurance company will take away that snazzy no-moving-violation discount for the next 3 years. I could really use the extra $1200. And yet, I am okay with the ticket. I am okay about the phone, the necklace, the glove compartment, the insurance money.

Epiphany strikes, and usually when that happens, you had better hold onto it and listen. Guess that is what I am trying to do now. I am learning about pain of the human condition. I am learning what it means to find importance in what matters and to let go of what you cannot control. I am learning to appreciate the good and to embrace emotions when it comes to the bad. I am learning that it is okay to be sad.

Just moments ago, when I was sitting in the parking lot at my mom’s apartment complex, I was thinking of friends who I could ask for help. I needed to recruit extra packing hands so that my brother, sister-in-law, and I wouldn’t be in over our heads for my mom’s big move tomorrow. Here’s the thing: my mother suffers from severe mental illness. There we go. I said it. It’s public. Whatever. We need to get over this stigma of mental health, and I will join the crusade.

Here’s the other thing: I realized I had few friends who would spare time for an exhausting favor, and far fewer friends who would not judge my mom for her illness. That amounted in my head as no friends at all who would be willing to help, except for one who is actively involved in a mental health awareness group on his college campus. Within seconds of texting him, I received a positive response back, complemented with conscientious questions. Such kindness with an utter lack of judgment.

As I sit in my car, I think about this friend. I think about my brother, my sister-in-law, and my boyfriend. I think about the few people in this world I trust to understand my sadness and my overwhelming desire to address the pain of the human condition. This world is cruel somehow, with so few people in this world who care about what truly matters, sometimes myself included. We get so wrapped up in details and routines, that we forget about what it feels like to be overwhelmed by real pain, the type that attacks the gut and your heart at the same time. It’s nice to not care about the little things, though. It makes me feel like my life is headed in the right direction. Maybe by healing someone else’s pain, I can also heal my own.