Mental Health Doesn’t Matter…Right?
Writer’s Note: There is a trigger warning with this post. I talk about things that may be difficult for some to process, including suicide and mental illness. Please check in with your mental and emotional state before you continue reading. If you are in need of support, please click here for a list of resources*
I’m 23 years old, and I’m about to do something I haven’t done in almost 20 years. I’m literally about to wet the bed. My bladder is about to burst, and yet I know if I leave my bed I’m going to die. If I even move an inch, I’m going to die. I can’t breathe, my heart is pounding, my ears are ringing, my clothes are soaked with sweat, I can’t see clearly and I’m on the verge of throwing up. I haven’t left my bed in 3 days and I have medical school orientation in 2 days. There’s no way I can keep up this façade of perfection and I’m going to lose everything that ever mattered to me. I cry incessantly thinking about having to go to school and I start fantasizing about getting hit by a bus on my walk to school. This way, it’s not my choice to not go to medical school and I’m not letting anyone down. I am so ashamed that I don’t even share with my family or friends what is going on. As I lay there, desperation and hopelessness set in… I’m worthless, I’m nothing, I’m weak and I’m a failure. I might as well just end things myself. I called the suicide hotline four times that night, seeking solace from a stranger, grasping for something to keep me here.
It’s been 2 years since I had my first panic attack and subsequent breakdown, and writing this right now evokes painful emotions and visceral reminders of what happened. I had just returned from Taiwan a week before medical school and flew back to a new town smack dab in the middle of Appalachia. I was jet-lagged, emotionally labile from seeing my cultural heritage for the very first time and having to start a new life somewhere I did not want to live. When I finally opened up to family and friends about what was going on, many of them felt that this breakdown came out of nowhere. Reflecting back on that time, I realize that it was an untimely culmination of events combined with how I was socialized in my upbringing that resulted in me leaving medical school. I moved from Athens the very next week and swore up and down that I would never return… And yet I sit here back in Athens, 3 months away from finishing my second year of medical school.
I’ve basically been on a life track to medicine as long as I can remember. I can’t ever recall having a discussion with my parents about other options, and it was always assumed that I would just become a physician. While it is quite a blessing to have the resources and opportunity to pursue medicine, it’s also difficult to reach adulthood, come into your own and realize that you do not have a say in what you want for your life. The discourse between what you need for yourself, and duty to family is one that I continue to struggle with. I’ve always had an anxious personality (I’ve been nicknamed grandma by my family) and I thrive on schedules and structure. There was a lot of pressure during my childhood to be perfect, and I remember always feeling like I was a disappointment. There was constant anxiety and feelings of inferiority that ruled my actions and thoughts, and I learned to accept it as my normal. My anxiety reached a climax during that week before medical school, when I started to lose control over everything. Combined with no sleep, no eating, and isolation, and my breakdown starts to make a whole lot more sense.
My unplanned gap year was when depression really started to manifest in all aspects of my life. I had no purpose and I failed what seemed my only duty in life. Everything in my life before was reliant on my becoming a physician, and without that success, I was worthless. I couldn’t face myself or anyone from my past life. Coming from an immigrant Asian family, mental illness is basically thought of as an excuse lazy people make up in order to cruise through life. It is not validated, it is not understood, and it is something that evokes deep shame. If you’re struggling, you’re expected to suck it up and persevere through it. I do often wonder why I wasn’t able to push through the anxiety and depression. My dad would call us “strawberry” in times when he felt we weren’t being tough (since strawberries bruise easily and are fragile). During my year off, I felt relentless guilt that I was letting down my family, spitting in the face of my parents’ sacrifice. Was I being a strawberry? Was this just a first world problem that my privileged self was struggling with? Why couldn’t I just keep going, when a lot of people deal with way worse and still push on? How could I face my dad, knowing that I wasn’t strong enough to do the only thing that he wanted me to? My parents had given up everything for me, and I couldn’t give them anything in return.
My healing process is much too long, and much too incomplete to talk about in this post. I battle with my mind and my emotions every day, purely due to the nature of medical school. Medical school strips a lot out of your life, simply because you must dedicate all your time to studying. I’m going to be honest, I was debating whether to write this on my own experience or not. I still carry a lot of fear that people will find out that depression and anxiety is something I struggle with every day. It feels like a dirty little secret that I have, especially because weakness is not allowed in this profession. We have been socialized to cringe away from mental illness, and this stigma carries through to the medical field, even to the very people who are treating the illness. I’m sharing this incredibly personal and vulnerable side of me not to inspire people or talk about how far I’ve come. Let’s be real, yeah? But to normalize what this culture has plagued as abnormal for so long. Nobody ever wants to admit weakness, especially if it’s one of the mind. If we expect anything out of our physicians, it’s perfection. Little do people know, that rates of depression among physicians and medical students is sky high. But no one talks about it because society view doctors as invincible, perfect people. Reality check: physicians are human too and are not above mental illness. A lot of issues with the healthcare system and discrepancies in care are due to this unrealistic expectation. I am not weak, I am not crazy, and I am not defined by my depression and anxiety. It does not make me any less worth of a person and it does not affect my ability to be an excellent physician. In fact, I am going to be a better doctor because I can empathize with how patients feel in these situations. It will not affect my competence or my ability to care for patients. What did affect those things, was my refusal to accept that I needed help.
Had I not accepted that I needed help, that this was a problem I could no longer hide, if I had continued to dismiss it with a flippant attitude, I would not be here today. I had to learn how to validate what I felt and accepted that I could not hide from my mental illness no longer. My nature is one that worries constantly, takes to sorrow easily, internalizes pain and empathizes intensely. This causes me to think about things and feel things to a degree that other people do not. But I know that in order to be healthy, taking care of my mind has to be a priority. I am not ashamed that I participate in therapy and I take medication for my depression and anxiety. It took a long time for me to accept that this was what I needed. Some people have high blood pressure or diabetes, I just so happen to have depression and anxiety. But it took an incredible amount of humility, honesty, strength and self-validation to be ok with seeking help.
Wherever you are today, hear me when I say this.
Your worth is not tied to your success in life or how many degrees you have.
Your worth is not tied to anything that this world can offer you.
You are intrinsically worth as much as every other human out there, solely because you are you. I encourage every single one of you to hold this fact steadfast.
Prioritize the health of your mind and body. It may seem selfish, but you cannot care for others unless you are whole inside. I’ve learned this the hard way. Give yourself permission to be honest with yourself and to validate your own feelings, emotions, thoughts and passions. You are worthy of your own love and care.
Jo is currently a medical student at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. She grew up in Powell, OH and graduated from Olentangy Liberty High School. From there she attended The Ohio State University and graduated with a BS in Biology. Her passions in medicine include global and public health, women’s health, natural and Eastern medicine, education and social aspects of wellness. Outside of school, she enjoys cultivating her many plants, cooking (and eating!) and reconnecting with her Taiwanese heritage. Jo is always thinking about why the world is the way it is, and as a result, always looking to build relationships with people who challenge her to think in new ways, dismantle societal norms/ systems and create new spaces (so please reach out if this resonates with you!)
Jo Educational History:
2012 - HS Graduate, Olentangy Local School District
In progress - Doctorate in Osteopathic Medicine (D.O), Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
Connect with Jo:
Josephine Chen (Facebook)