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/