This is one of the many questions racing through my head as I walk through Victoria Hospital, tail between my legs and eyes at the floor. I’m approaching the Obs/Gyn call room after calling my boyfriend in tears for the millionth time this week while he tries to get his daily 6 hours before returning to night float. The bags under his eyes remind me that I’m the worst. I’m selfish, needy and lifeless. I’m not the person he fell in love with, I’m not the friend my classmates have relied on, I’m not the student that got into medical school. That person has been stolen with the body left behind.
I feel like I’m watching my life through a screen while an unidentified figure presses random buttons on the remote. The brightness has been turned down, colour desaturated with random alternations between fast forward and slow motion. The volume has been cranked so much that light vibration of emails, messages and schedule alerts and the inner mumblings of eating disorders past overwhelm my senses. Everything real that occurs around me is muffled and agitating. I’m begging them to press pause but they would rather taunt me with the OFF button, caveat being that there is no button to turn it back on. The OFF button has never looked so temping.
We are now laying in the call room which could also be used as an industrial sized fridge. I don’t cover need to cover up. My skin has numbed itself, so it can no longer feel the sweat of anxiety or the tears of depression. My stomach tied itself in a tight knot. My body is on standby – unwilling to fall asleep but never completely awake.
The exhaustion from this morning weighs me down like a ton of bricks. How many calories did I burn smiling and laughing in all the right places? I’m not cut out for this. One clinical methods session feels like I ran a marathon and I want to be a doctor. Good luck.
How did I get here? Last week I was bouncing around from study spot to the gym to the next exam feeling on top of the world. I may have gotten through an exam week without failing at least one, this was huge. I developed a foolproof plan to rock MSK and was pumped to spend a weekend in Blue Mountain with my class. I was going to clean up the apartment and leave some special treats to give my hardworking clerk the weekend to himself. Now the thought of leaving the apartment ties the knot in my stomach tighter and tighter. The thought of telling people I’m not going doubles it. Disappointing my boyfriend and impinging on his need for rest and solitude sends me into a tail spin. I have nowhere to go. Nobody deserves to put up with me right now. I don’t want to put up with me right now.
There has already been three episodes like this since September. I’ve been dealing with mental illness since I was a kid. I always got tremendous satisfaction when doctors, counselors, whoever would ask “have you ever thought of hurting yourself” because the answer was always a definite no. Through the panic attacks, critical weights and depressive episodes, suicide was never an option I explored. It was empowering to think that even though my brain hates me, it wasn’t going to kill me. So now that these thoughts have popped up after 15 years, they are hitting me hard. Maybe they were by the 22 pounds I’ve gained since starting medical school. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m walking on eggshells around the UME due to my failed exams and missed mandatory sessions last year. Mental illness has finally gotten the best of me and I wasn’t strong enough to stop it. Imagine fighting a war for 15 years and losing. Imagine doing ground-breaking research for 15 years and having it thrown in the garbage and discredited. Would you want to start over?
What I should be doing is going to class and learning about this dreaded and deadly brachial plexus everyone is raving about. Hypothetically, if I was to take my own life, how pissed would I be if I spend my last days worrying about the brachial plexus?
I am someone who wants to dedicate their life to caring for others and alleviating their pain and suffering. I believe that is he goal of most medical students. I feel tremendous guilt when I’m having suicidal thoughts because my mind always goes back to the patients. There are children diagnosed with terminal illnesses. We lose mothers, fathers and loved ones to cancer every day. These people did not deserve their fate and would do almost anything for another day. And here I am telling myself I care for these people while I take my life for granted. I wonder if the other physicians struggling with mental illness feel this way. I wonder if these thoughts contribute to the shame and secrecy that pushes us into a corner.
My class should be getting back from Blue right about now. I’m dreading the explanations of why I ghosted everybody. Double dreading the explanations on why I don’t know the brachial plexus yet. As you can tell, I did not spend the last couple days studying the brachial plexus but I’m happy to report that it is not because these are my last days. I can feel the fog lifting and I’m not ready to give up yet. I realized I wasn’t ready when I spent two hours planning my clerkship rotations and talking about all the opportunities I have. My eyes are wider, my feet are faster, and my head is higher. Once I open this textbook to the brachial plexus in a couple minutes we will be 100% certain that I’m not going anywhere fast.
I could go back, cut out all my run-on sentences and edit this into a clean reflective piece but I’m choosing not to for three reasons. First, I think my chaos narrative is best reflected this way. Second, reading my thoughts and feelings from three days ago is petrifying. I barely remember that day, I can only remember the overwhelming sense of guilt and darkness. Third, and let’s be honest probably the most likely, is that I’m lazy and words are hard.
I also don’t know how to end this gracefully, so I’ll end it with some people I’d like to thank. The beauty of having a broken mind is that a somber reflection ends as an award acceptance speech.
To my mother, sisters, best friends and family: I am sorry I’ve been keeping this from you and not answering my phone. To my niece: I could never leave you. To my class: Even though I haven’t been open and honest with you guys please know that you are all the most welcoming and trustworthy people on the planet. I am in no way doubting your FIFE capabilities and I’m always here to FIFE you right back. To my favourite clerk and on-call superhero: I don’t know what I’d do without you these past months. Your confidence in my recovery makes me believe it’s possible. You are the love of my life. To Learner Equity and Wellness and Schulich School of Medicine: You are doing a wonderful job. Thank you for caring about us. And finally, to medical students and future colleagues: Be honest with each other, reach out when you need it. We got this.
If you or a friend is experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact 911 or visit your closest Emergency Department.
Visit Learner Equity and Wellness on-site or online for resources and support:
Cheyenne LaForme is a second year medical student at Western University and the Local Officer of Indigenous Health. She is using a portfolio-style reflection piece to raise awareness about, and cope with mental illness. She is originally from Hamilton and Mississauga’s of the New Credit First Nation and received a B.Sc. in Life Sciences at McMaster