Nowadays, it is so easy to fall into a mousetrap that is governed so much by what everyone else around you is doing, and what they expect of you. Politics, finances, staff shortages, body image, social media – the combination of pressures has simply become a norm – the modern-day rat-race. Yet, not everyone is coping with it. Understandably.
As a young person, a student, striving towards big dreams and ambitions, I am forever finding myself scampering after deadlines, stereotypes, numbers and percentages, unachievable goals. On more than many occasions, I have scampered into a stumble, and fallen many a time. Laden with below-par health, 3 disabilities and a chronic illness, I have admittedly struggled to cope. I have become entangled in the mousetrap that is our rat-race. It was time to revaluate things.
Having recently heard more about the concept of LTFT career pathways – ‘less than full-time’, and how so many colleagues on LTFT plans approach and cope with these concepts, it has got me increasingly thinking about my own career pathway as a medical student pre-qualification, and whether or not, what I’m doing right now, is helping me through the process, or in fact, disabling me more. Speaking to many colleagues currently on LTFT has helped me crawl towards the conclusion that taking things more gradually in the build-up to a career is in no way something we should be ashamed of. At a time when there is just so much pressure and workload, we instead need to stop and open our eyes up to the question of whether we are actually doing more harm than good, unnecessarily forcing through one misery after another, that can simply be avoided, if we let our own pathways form the lead.
I wrote this a week or two back, when I was hospitalised following another couple admissions to Intensive Care. At this point, I knew too well that my percentage attendance at medical school – the rules and regulations, the rigid protocols, would mean me being kicked off of the course inevitably. I was thus undoubtedly fretting, stressed and overwhelmed – the stress of my future career had shadowed over the stress of my ill health, acutely. And this was not helping my recovery.
I have become a distant stranger to social media, I am entirely entangled in a disorientation to all time and space, and thus I write this at perhaps one of my roughest points in time. But that makes it the best time to write this blogpost, because, after all, words enlighten true feelings. I am low. The bed beneath me has entombed me in an ache of concrete, the four off-white walls looming a tired clinical haze in every periphery I stare from, as I lay rigid. Still. Waiting. Running into my third week bedbound and hospitalised, two Intensive Care admissions and two intubations, all washed over by a flurry of fevers and shivers. In between each admission, I’ve lay waiting timeless hours on different stepdown wards, haunted by the moans of the night, watching the glowing-green trolley tables spontaneously rotate as I hallucinate from all the potent drugs and lack of sleep. Little did I know that my 25th birthday came and went whilst I was unconscious in ICU. My rise and then great falls, and everything in between, has left me unknowing to what day, date, time we stand on. I am confused and I am stressed. I awoke to find it was Saturday. Three days before an important medical school exam that I can no longer sit, due to my inpatient status. I have dates and agendas flying around recklessly in my head, fretting over what I’ve missed, what deadlines I have looming and who or who hasn’t been informed of my absence at my next important appointment.
When all falls from your own hold of control, you feel lost, meaningless and powerless. You stand still, but that doesn’t mean time stands still. No. And I can honestly tell you first-hand that it is the single worst feeling to feel, above any bout of sickness or ill health. Coming around is arguably the worst part of recovery, and acceptance of these events has been flung even further into the big black hole of denial – my mind. At this rate, catching up on anything, catching up on life, seemed virtually impossible. Whilst my head is racing ahead of time, trying to frantically catch up on the lost time that I will never get back, my body isn’t budging. I have thrown tantrums and wailed threats to self-discharge, imprisoned by sickness and yet I still gain nothing from this. Sometimes, it utterly sucks being a medical student constantly burdened by a chronic illness of your own, that then so frequently lands me into the acute, life-threatening situation. I sometimes ask myself, “Why?”, “Why me?” But, otherwise, contrary to belief, I rarely ever let it ever occur to me. I don’t let it define me. But on days like this, when I feel completely imprisoned by the lack of capacity to remove myself from the hospital bed, sometimes I do wonder whether it’s all really worth it?
Fact is, I could’ve given up a long, long time ago. But I haven’t. Yet. This now brings me up to my 13th ICU admission in 2 years, and I’m only in my third year of medical school. The constant cycle of building up strength, having a few really good weeks at work, then crashing and burning, fighting, then dwindling out a bedraggled recovery process – urging for that Occupational Health appointment and begging for acceptance back onto the course – it’s draining. But the wheels continue to roll and this cycle forever continues to run. How long I can wind this vicious cycle, I really don’t know. But there’s definitely an essence of resilience, perseverance, somewhere, otherwise I would’ve broken to pieces long before. But then, what’s the secret to this resilience? Perseverance? And is this vicious cycle really doing me any favours?
- What’s the Long-Term Goal?
The one most important question to ask yourself first, is, always focus on the longest-term goal. Where do you ultimately want to end up? You may be hit by the blips and bullets, you may have to pause in life and restart up again at another time, or you may have to find another way around the barbed wire fence, but either way, set your eyes on the final product and it will always be reached, eventually. Over the past few days I have truly realised this, as friends, family and healthcare staff have desperately tried to get through to my troubled self – we all have our own end-goals we’re focusing on, but not one of us are ever at the same point in time, and that’s totally okay. This first-hand evidence comes from experience – from the ICU nurse who had battled through an ICU admission herself, the radiologist who had to halt getting her qualifications due to pregnancy and family commitments, the friend who took 2 years out of medical school to focus on her own mental health and wellbeing. And there’s no shame in any of this.
2. Focus on the Right Tense
But, as well as having a clear focus on the long-term goal, it’s also about knowing what tense to focus on and when. For instance, it’s no good thinking about your next training session for the half-marathon when you haven’t even walked the length of the ward corridor yet. It’s also no good wallowing through the dark hours of the night, fretting about your inability to sleep as you lay awake, agitated. Focus on the future, the coming of the morning, and your mind instantly becomes at ease, and in my case, a tired, sleepy ease.
3. You’re Always in Someone Else’s Shoes
And, on that longer term note, I no doubt know that I will possess plenty of empathy to offer to my future patients, out of the hardships that seem to mingle so solemnly at the time. On the note of empathy, of all the 7.53 billion people on this Earth, at least someone else, somewhere, has the same shoe size as you, right? This can only mean that you’re really not alone. Somewhere, someone is in the same shoes as you, going through the same situation, the same circumstance, the same struggles and the same triumphs. Looking at it this way is only comforting and reassuring, and makes the longer, bumpier journey a little less lonely. I only have to look to my left or right to see other patients fighting off their own battles, life and death, or other colleagues commence in their careers LTFT, and it’s this that makes you appreciate that we are all just human, we are all individuals, and we all have our own journeys which we take on at our own pace. Nobody else’s.
4. It’s Okay to Break
Being human also means that it is also totally okay to crack from time to time. We are not unbreakable and we are certainly not invincible, as much as I like to think. It is entirely normal to feel weak at times, for it in fact takes a lot of courage to lose that strength and let that weakness seep out. Every rock-face becomes weathered, and the crockery will always become chipped at the edges over time, but they never lose their purpose. I’ve broken so many times this week alone, but I’m slowly gathering the pieces back together and trying to make more positive sense of what I can now do to resolve things, rather than resent the things I have no power to change. And then, I guess, in some ways we almost need to become broken at some stage for us to realise the bigger picture – realise that perhaps we do need to accept some support, we do need to slow down, we do need to revaluate our routes and approaches.
5. It’s Never Forever
But what we also require is a little resilience and perseverance in our lifetimes, and some just need it more than others. What I can say is that it’s never needed forever. I guess this focus has made recent events from my side a little more bearable, knowing that things won’t always be like this, that I will eventually leave this concrete hospital bed and back to my own home. You could argue then, that most things, in the dimension of realistic terms are finite. Therefore, nobody is asking you to repeatedly sweat the small stuff, to drain your precious energy resources on life’s avalanches, because nothing lasts forever, so you just have to sit tight and wait for the snowstorm to pass. That is resilience.
Having slept on this many a night since I’ve returned home post-discharge, and following the warming advice and words of wisdom from other fellow colleagues already undertaking the LTFT route, I am no longer ashamed or afraid of taking things more slowly now. Ever since starting Medical School, I have been so desperate to grab every opportunity I can, speed through the course, and jump to the end where I get to qualify as a real doctor, help real patients, and have a real career. But if I continue adopting this mind-set, and keep crashing and burning in the process, nobody is going to benefit – your patients, your colleagues, nor yourself.
Some things, especially the big milestones, are hard to swallow when they don’t quite run the course you want them to, but the long-term goal will always be the same, it will always be there, and I have come to appreciate that actually, it is far healthier and more fulfilling to reach that long-term goal with every opportunity at my feet, rather than trying to scrape by, as I’ve done previously. For my final year of medical school I have hence already decided to go part-time – a huge step to acceptance from my part. It’ll mean studying my last year of Medicine pre-qualification over 2 years, rather than 1, so that I can be sure I am taking every gift of learning wholeheartedly, as opposed to half-heartedly. Whilst on one hand, this past month, or many, has been rough, it has brought me onto the other side – the side of acceptance, resilience and ridding all feelings of being ashamed, a failure. I can only hope that this experience of learning the longer, harder way, can help reassure and teach others in a similar situation of stress and pressure, that this is a perfectly acceptable, admirable and sensible decision to embrace. Regardless of where you are in your career then, it will always be yours, and providing you take on the reigns, nobody else can control the pace other than you and your own stride. And the cracks along the way? – they are the signs of resilience – it’s nothing to feel guilty about. Embrace this, share this and use this to the best of your ability, otherwise, like me, you may find yourself embarking on the easiest sections of the career road via a far more complicated route than it needs to be!