It’s been a week since my MCAT and college graduation.
And, although I still have medical school applications, research obligations, volunteering, and work to think about — basically, everything I was doing except class — it is officially my gap year. I booked a hotel to see the solar eclipse in August. I’m even planning a trip to Moody Gardens with my boyfriend (it might be geared towards children, but a 1.5 million gallon aquarium? Yes please).
It feels like I have been granted reprieve. Reprieve, technically defined, is the delaying of a punishment — typically for criminals, but I think it applies well here. Medical school is brutal. After working 80+ hour work weeks since I was 16, I am excited to have a year to breathe, to gather my intentions, and to accomplish a few things before diving back in to the world of a medical student, where 80-100 hours a week is not uncommon.
Of course, not every person is attracted to the idea of medicine. Actually, a more truthful statement is to say that not every personality is attracted to the reality of medicine. Plenty of pre-medical students I know are attracted to the idea — in many middle-class circles, pursuing medicine is associated with prestige, status, accomplishment, and a nice house in the suburbs sometime in the future. There’s nothing wrong with this picture — for many people, this picture eventually becomes real — but the reality of medicine is much more brutal: grueling hours, terrifying consequences for mistakes (both in terms of the patient’s outcome and your own personal life), lots of paperwork, student debt, and high rates of depression, suicide, and alcoholism.
Interesting, while some studies find that 9 out of 10 doctors wouldn’t recommend medicine as a profession, others find that 9 out of 10 doctors are glad that they chose medicine. My personal interpretation of this and so many other conflicting results is this: if you are going into medicine because you like the idea of it, you might find that it’s not for you. But if you’re interested for the right reasons and have a realistic idea of what medicine will look like, you’re probably in the right boat.
So, when I say that not every person is attracted to the reality of medicine, I mean to say that there’s a reason that I worked 80+ hours during my undergrad and why I’m willing to dive right back in August 2017. I’m a busy person. Yes, I sometimes love to veg and play Civilization V and Farcry 4 — I’m even saving to buy a new computer so that I can play Mass Effect: Andromeda — but I begin to go stir crazy if I don’t have something to stimulate my professional, passionate, and creative sides. I might be on my gap year — I might have been granted reprieve — but I still need to fill the 12-14 hours each day with something productive.
I sound like a workaholic. One of my peers was asked if she was a workaholic during one of her medical school interviews, and I find myself thinking about how I might answer that if the same question is asked of me. Do I work for the point of pursuing some disembodied sense of success, like a carrot on a string, always moving out of reach? No. Am I perfectionist? Not for the things that don’t matter (patient success, dignity, and satisfaction is another story, of course). I don’t micromanage others or worry if a team project doesn’t turn out exactly as I imagined it. Am I addicted to working? Well, since someone might say that someone who spends most of their day playing video games is addicted to gaming, it might be accurate to say that someone who spends most of their day doing work that isn’t necessary for survival (obviously, some an 80-hour work week is a paying job) is likewise addicted to work.
But is it a negative thing? I don’t think so. Some people get life satisfaction out of travel, photography, or the wilderness. Hobbies like music, art, or writing can dominate the totality of one’s free time. None of that is unhealthy. For me, I get life satisfaction out of advocacy, volunteering, tutoring, and being part of groups that seek to address problems that I am passionate about. Does this mean my ‘hobbies’ are slightly more stressful than others? Perhaps, but not necessarily. (I dare you to ask a writer how un-stressed they feel trying a perfect a final draft).
I remember saying in a recent interview, regarding my current academic/research/work/volunteering/MCAT studying schedule, that, as long as I stay on top of my work, I’m not stressed. The interviewer reminded me of something: having a lot to do, whether or not you feel anxious or overwhelmed, is still a type of stress. So yes, in a way, my gap year might be a bit stressful.
But that’s okay. In the research I do, I code videos of cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. One of the things that therapists are supposed to do when explaining anxiety is tell the client that they get to decide how much anxiety they are comfortable with having/want to have on a daily basis. On a scale from 0-10, some people want their everyday anxiety to be a 0 or a 1 — virtually non-existent. Others want a 3 or a 4, because a healthy amount of anxiety can still keep them on their toes and “on top of things.” As long as the anxiety doesn’t bother them or affect their quality of life, it isn’t a problem. The same goes for me and my levels of stress. I like a little stress. I’m happy with a little stress. I want a little stress, and I’ve developed methods to keep myself from feeling overwhelmed and anxious throughout it all.
And so, this gap year, which will be documented in this blog along with other intersectional pieces about medicine and mental healthcare, is going to be a blast — and busy. Just a head’s up. Here are my goals:
- Continue to develop an understanding of all factors that will affect my future patient’s relationship with the healthcare system, including (but not limited to) mental health, race, ethnicity, gender, disability, weight, and social class. I intend to work with underserved communities because I grew up in such an area, and these factors are becoming increasingly important.
- Continue to advocate for the expansion of health and mental health services to all people, which includes a heavy emphasis on nuanced discussions about mental health.
- Develop an easy-to-follow plan for health and wellness that I can keep up during my time in medical school (otherwise, I’ll resort to mac’n’cheese. I already know this).
- Help my kids pass their standardized tests (SAT, summer school STAAR).
- Work on the draft of my novel (this is a long stretch, I know).
- Play through Mass Effect: Andromeda a couple of times and explore every romance option.
If anything, my reprieve is that I get to pursue the fun projects I couldn’t pursue when I was in school. I had to rank things by importance — volunteering, tutoring — and nix the other stuff. I’ve been granted a year where all I have to do is work 40-50 hours a week and pay the bills — the rest is up to me.
And you don’t know how excited that makes me feel.
*We’re already at 1200 words, so I’m not going to go any further. Whenever I talk about my workaholic tendencies I like to also include a discussion about meritocracy and disability. Weird, right? Not actually, and you’ll soon see why. I’ll write these articles separately and link them here in the future.