The very first day of school, we talked about burnout. Collectively, we nodded our heads, having spent the last six months bracing for an inevitable descent into gloom. I was ready to run the gauntlet, to pop out on the other side haggard and learned; part of the club. I imagined myself, like so many medical professionals I’ve met before, telling war stories of insomnia and humiliation. Earning my stripes.
Weeks went by, and I felt fine. Normal even. Yes, I was working hard. All the time. But it was work I volunteered for. Work I felt privileged to do. The weight of this education did not pull me down, it pleased me, to be buoyed up by this profession, its history, its challenges.
Somehow this had been left out of the pre-matriculation conversation. I started wondering: where was the preface in my GRE book where it said this is a gateway to joy. Why wasn’t there a footnote on my undergraduate transcript that said: congratulations, this is honorable work, and it will enrich you. While applying, why didn’t I hear: you will know felicity, you will feel safe.
What am I trying to say? That no one warned me that I would be happy. And I’m writing this because I wish that someone had.
I want to acknowledge the real problem of anxiety and depression in medical education, and I never want to suggest that those individuals are just “not looking at it the right way.” This is difficult, and overwhelming, sometimes leaving me feeling like I’ve never been good at anything in my life. But I also want to leave room in the discussion for the possibility of cheer.
I always thought that medical education was the trial you stand to offer proof that you are hardened enough to do this work. That medicine will break you if you are too vulnerable. Perhaps, for many, it has been billed that way.
In the coming years, I’m going to try something new: staying soft, gentle, amazed. This education is not a contest of who did the most and slept the least. It won’t impress me if you can leave the hospital unflappable, in the face of terrifying loss and disease. For me, this is an exercise in staying as tender and uncalloused as possible. Learning to be kind to myself, and warm. Learning how to say “this is painful,” and “I don’t know” without fear of appearing weak, and therefore green.
Because, ultimately, I am green. Bright green. Delightfully so.