I was always looking for the next fix. When I was a toddler, I’d look for the next sugar bomb dessert, the next best Lego set, the next level up in video games, the next night out. Maybe I was destined to let a little loose in college – I was wired this way all along!
Then by some miracle, I made it to medical school. I did mostly avoid those sweet desserts and nights out.. But instead I was always looking forward to the next unit, then for more pathology during 2nd year, then to be done with Step 1, and then 3rd year, then one rotation to the next, then Match, then residency…
When will it end??
I shifted my fix from endorphins to ambition. By ducking my head from goal to goal, I started missing out on the present journey. Before I know it, I’ll be retired or suddenly find myself on my deathbed, wondering where all the time went and what I did with my life. I’d think about all those times I kept looking forward to “the next fix”, and wonder if it all was worth it..
Morbid imagery aside, something inside me clicked during medical school. Working with patients during the first year made me realize how privileged I am to be a med student. If I just “jump through” all the hoops, I’ll soon carry the responsibility of taking care of the sick, entrusted to heal. Hearing the stories of how one’s life becomes so rapidly intertwined with one’s sickness reminds me of how fragile we are as humans. I love the analogy of a house of cards (mostly from the tv show). We work hard to build it up, delicate piece by piece, yet it can fall apart at any given moment.
The fortune of not being debilitated, and having generally normal day-to-day function, in some ways can be a curse. We take our well-being for granted and neglect it just to fulfill our academic and professional goals.
- I ignored my scoliosis for two full decades, while it crept up on me the whole time. Poor posture with occasional back pain progressed into frequent hip, lumbar, and shoulder pains.
- After discovering the aromatic and awakening experience of coffee at 21, I progressively drank more and more each year. It helped me stay awake in class and at night to study. Since the nature of our career is endless studying, I couldn’t see myself tapering the caffeine despite my constant GI trouble.
The extra cup of coffee, the decadent sugary donut, the endless excuses to avoid the gym, or losing a few hours of sleep to study, can be helpful at times, but it quietly chips (yum..) away at our health.
In my own personal effort to control my health, I began to use art as part of my therapeutic journey. I started an art club at my school to be more involved in something I enjoy. Among many things, it helped me appreciate the present moment. Each color, or stroke, whether deliberate or impulsive, has a purpose. Regardless of how satisfied you are with the result of the art piece, you experienced it each step of the way.
You should find your thing that keeps you grounded to the present. Be engaged in what you do. Socialize when you get the chance. Will studying an extra couple hours really make a difference in becoming a doctor? Don’t be hung up about getting the top scores. It’s literally impossible for everyone to be at the top. Recognize that all you can do is try your best, and appreciate that you did.
I’m still addicted to the next thing. This much hasn’t changed. What changed is my mindset. I still eagerly look forward to my next goal (Match!), but I have art and mindfulness to ground me to the present. Definitely don’t quit donuts and things you enjoy! But find something to ground you to what you’re doing now. You’re going to be a doctor! How awesome is that! Everything you’re going through now, whether it’s personal or academic, is shaping you to be an individual that will help heal others. Appreciate how unique your journey is, and savor it!
PS I’m taking care of my back with PT and mindfulness (another story). I finally quit last year coffee last year, and my GI thanks me for it. I found a healthier alternative, but you guessed it, that’s another story.