An open letter to myself: Slow down and breathe.

I’m a second-year medical student at St. George’s University in Grenada. If you are also a medical student or in a similar, grueling field, you can probably relate. I’m mainly writing this as a way to vent and get out all of this anxiety. But also because I know there are others in my class, and in the world in general, who feel the same way. If you know me, you know I hate crying and hate being weak. Well, today will be that exception. Today, I need to open up so I can move on. Feel free to share this post with anyone who needs a reality check or just needs some reassurance that this too shall pass.

Dear stressed out me,

*God that is so cheesy. Okay, snarky Jasmin needs to leave.*

Today, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to let go of being the perfect student.  I need to stop killing myself over every little mistake I make. And I need to accept that what I am doing and how I am doing it is more than enough.

Medical school is hard.

But I knew that coming in. Everyone hears how medical school is where you get information thrown at you like a fire-hydrant blasting water at your face non-stop. I knew it would be endless hours of work and studying and books and labs. I knew it wasn’t going to be like high school, where I could cram my notes and get As. I knew it wasn’t going to be like college where I had to read the textbooks and study for a week still do well. I knew I was entering an educational war zone. But I didn’t realize it would be an emotional and physical war as well.

Especially this term, I have come back from classes with more self doubt than ever before. I’m starting to hate everyone around me, hate the school and basically hate every living breathing thing that gets in my way (I’m talking to you, volley-ball players outside my window). I have started to think, ‘what’s the point?’ Why put myself through four years of hell, only to maybe get residency and pursue my childhood dream?

It’s the question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. And that’s not okay.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a doctor. I grew up around them. And I was blessed to have a dad who loves his job more than he loves anything else (other than me, obviously). I saw how much passion he had for his work and that was something I wanted for myself. Of course, I discovered writing along the way, but I knew deep down I still wanted to be a mini-Dr. Singh.

But now I don’t know how much more I can take. Hours of class and lab and revision, only to put me at the class average. I know what you are thinking — woman, get over yourself. The average is fine! That’s the thing. It is fine. But me, being me, wants to be more than fine. I was raised to be at the top. And I started up there when I first got here. And it was the best feeling in the world. But soon, slowly but surely, the medical school hounds were biting at my ankles, dragging me down from my unhealthy reality.

At the start of it all, I was happy and smiling and on top of everything. Now…

I am dragging myself out of bed, forcing myself to go to class, only to be so sleep-deprived that nothing actually goes into my head. Sitting in labs hating everyone around me because they all look so put together and know the information, while I pretend to know what I am talking about. Drinking unknown quantities of coffee  to the point that the caffeine doesn’t work anymore and my GI system doesn’t know what to do. Staying up until the early hours of the morning, trying to understand 10 slides out of a 200+ slide packet (on just ONE topic). Skipping meals because I haven’t had the time to go to the store, or because I can’t be bothered waiting in line for a sandwich, or because eating takes time from studying. Crying my eyes out to my mom and dad, wishing they could be here to console me, telling them I’ve made a mistake with this whole medical school mess. Crying myself to sleep thinking about how much I have left to do and how there is no physical way for me to do well.

Medical school is where I had my first panic attack, and I am sure it won’t be my last. Panicking not because I didn’t know the information, but because I psyched myself into thinking I didn’t know it, or that I wasn’t smart enough. Or that I wasn’t meant to be there.

How do I maintain a healthy lifestyle while also knowing every nit-picky detail on the slides and every page in the textbook (in the hopes of getting the highest score on the test)?

I don’t. It’s not possible.

I just finished my second to last semester for M2. Of course I passed (you think my parents would let me write this if I didn’t?). But I didn’t get the ridiculously high scores that I wanted. Which is starting to become an uncomfortable reality for me. A lot of people tell me it is okay, that I am doing better than a lot of people in the class. But I was never comparing myself to the class – I’ve been comparing myself to me. To the girl who always wants to be (and was) at the top.

Last term, I talked to my adviser about my fears and my grades. He looked at them, shook his head, and told me to stop worrying and that I was doing much better than I thought. I wanted to snap back and say “Excuse me? Not worry?? How dare you!”

He then told me his story. How he too was raised on the notion of being on the top, had sleepless nights worrying about not being number one. So he knew where I was coming from. We were both trained to be people no one could possibly be.

But he reminded me of something really important, which I forgot until today. My grades, those stupid numbers at the top of exam reports that line me up to the rest of the class, really don’t matter as much as I think they do.  Now, this might be a shock to most of you, because it was to me. Grades do matter of course — but am I really understanding the material?

That’s what matters.

What matters is whether I understand the concept — the story behind why a lack of surfactant in a newborn leads to decreased surface tension and thus alveolar collapse (leading to respiratory distress syndrome and all that fun stuff that I know none of you all care about). If I can explain a concept (not just memorize Q+A and key words), then I can answer any question thrown at me. I took this advice to my finals and it worked. Shocking, I know.

Is it better to memorize old exams and slides to get that perfect 100, only to forget the information as soon as I walk out of the exam venue — or is it better to work slowly and really grasp the concepts, be able to teach it to someone, and walk out of that exam with a slightly lower grade but still remembering everything? My professor said the later.

But how do I take this common sense information and force it into my very thick, very stubborn skull? It will take time, for sure. But living the way I am now, constantly stressed and unhappy, is not going to get me to my goal. I’ll have to learn to adjust to this new “lifestyle.” A lifestyle of focusing on myself, working as hard as I can, and accepting every card that is drawn for me — for accepting that whatever will happen, happens for a reason.

And I’m already halfway there. Admitting that what I have been doing is wrong was the first step. And I have the support system to help me get to the finish line. I’m lucky enough to have people around me who accept me with my flaws and are willing to help me at every step. Without them, I would not have made it this far. We will drag each other across that line if we have to — those people are hard to find. I’ve been blessed.

But I also have my parents to thank. So to my parents, thank you for being there. For listening to me cry and telling me that I will be alright. For reminding me that at the end, I will be fine. More than fine — I will do well and be some great doctor-writer person (next Dr. Sanjay Gupta, maybe?). For already planning out my entire future, dreaming about me working and you playing with grand kids (which by the way, is still freaking me out, so lets slow down on that front, okay?). For telling me how I am doing everything right and that I have nothing to be worried about.  For telling me how proud you are of me.  Hearing you say that reassures me that what I will do moving forward is the best thing for me.

So starting today, I’m going to *try* to not worry too much about where I stand against the rest of the class. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing — working as hard as  I can to get those concepts down. I’m going to give myself sleep, food and small breaks and not beat myself down for watching a sunset or two. I’m going to thank this school for pushing me to the edge because these so called “failures” is what is driving me to come back with a vengeance. I’m going to thank my professors for giving me those hard exams because I know at the end of the day, they are trying (in their own twisted way) to prepare me for the Boards. For the exams that REALLY count. So I don’t get an A? That’s OKAY. Suck it up. Get over it.

Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

– From a Jasmin who is much happier

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