Medical students: It is OK to not feel OK

I pulled into my driveway at 1 in the morning after spending eight consecutive hours in the library. I shut the engine off and allowed the music to continue. And I didn’t move.

And then I started to cry. Initially, I resisted the tears, then conceded to the overpowering emotions so desperate to escape. And for ten minutes, I sat in my dark car in the cold at 1 in the morning and cried. If someone were to catch me there and ask me what I was crying about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell them. I didn’t know. All I know is that the tears needed to come out.

This was two weeks ago, and I haven’t told anybody that story before right now. It felt embarrassing. And now, as my first semester of medical school comes to completion, I understand that it wasn’t a unique experience. Emotional and mental breakdowns lay dormant in each individual who goes through this training — ready to erupt at any moment. Students deal with sleep deprivation and the pressure of testing and a lack of time for the things that make them come alive; while physicians deal with real-world trauma and the need to balance family with their career. This is an inherently emotional journey. And because of that, we should embrace those fears and feelings more so than ever before.

Unfortunately, we don’t think we can. We consume a perpetual stream of messages that tell us it is not OK to break down, to be unhappy, to be frustrated; that we should instead be bold, confident, and impossibly happy in every moment. We watch popular media of a manufactured “good life,” we hear songs that tell us to “roar,” we read books that sell 101 quick fixes to happiness. We try to obtain that impossible standard by throwing ourselves into distractions that pull us further and further away from knowing ourselves, our limits, our potential for growth. We consider sadness the enemy. We avoid feeling bad, because we think feeling bad IS bad.

I need to offer a different perspective: It is OK to not feel OK. In fact, it is important to not feel OK, and I will tell you why: Because breakdowns lead to breakthroughs. We need those difficult experiences in order to learn about our barriers and capabilities. We need them if we are to grow in any real, tangible way. They are nothing to be ashamed of. Despite the stereotypes, there is no rulebook that says we must be stoic, lifeless beings navigating this world of medicine. We are allowed to be dynamic, compassionate, fallible humans who experience triumphs and failures, happiness and sadness, frustration and elation.

So let yourself feel. Let yourself sit in your parked car in your driveway and sob, telling yourself you don’t think you can do it. Then when your tears dry, feel that visceral, newfound confidence that says, “Yes I can, because I am.”

Jamie Katuna is a medical student.  She can be reached at her self-titled site, Jamie Katuna, and on Facebook.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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