Safe vs. beautiful
November 30, 2009 2:06 AM   Subscribe

I have to decide whether to return to medical school next year or not. Looking for lots of perspective.

Hi everybody. At the start of this year I entered my third year of medical school in New Zealand. In April I decided to withdraw for the year. Then I went to America and travelled on my own for three months. I've been home for about another three months, and it's finally getting close to the point where I have to make my decision: do I go back next year or not. It's a really big issue and the decision involves so much of my life and me that I apologise in advance for how long this post is going to be.

I left high school and went straight to university in a NZ town, living with my Dad. In NZ you do a preliminary year for competitive entry to med. I got in. I finished second year.

I was miserable. I was very lonely in my first year, among other things, I was living with my dad and his girlfriend for the first time, it didn't work out, also I missed out on student life. And I was also young and very insecure, and I hadn't even started to understand myself or the world around me or the hurt of my childhood. My first year of university was very bad - I was unhappy, I blotted it out with study, my marks and my discipline deteriorated, I wasn't enthusiastic about what I was doing anyway.

I just went into medicine because it was there, it was obvious. It was right in plain sight, and it required no risk. It was safe. I didn't actually want to do it for it's own sake. Nobody in my family is in medicine.

I hoped that when I got into medicine, with the smaller classes I would meet more people and be happier. And while this was initially true, once the excitement of the new had worn off, the same problems sprung up again. My new friends quietly drifted away. I stopped going to classes. I avoided myself in mirrors. I stopped trying to make jokes in small group work, and just sat there like a zombie. I stopped paying attention or studying.

I was also working on the med school yearbook in 2nd year. I was the editor, and I ended up spending an entire month slaving away at it. I didn't try and delegate so I just did the majority of it myself. I wrote about a quarter of it, and did all the proofing and editing work myself. I'm not being arrogant when I say the end result was amazing. My classmates were blown away - I still get enthusiastic compliments about it, a year later. There's some significance to this that I can't quite think of the words for right now.

After throwing myself into the magazine - to give myself an excuse for not talking to people? - I had to spend a solid month working nonstop, 9am-midnight studying to catch up and pass my exams. I am intelligent, so I made it.

Again I hoped that the next year would be better. I spent the summer being lazy and smoking pot. Towards the end of the summer the pot started to destroy my self-esteem. By the end of the summer, and the start of third year, I was in tatters. Within a week of the new term, I didn't want to go outside. I barely listened in lectures. I didn't go to labs or tutorials.

I also started to fixate on my female flatmate and I decided that I was in love with her and that she would fix my life. It was classically insecure. I tried to use her to make me happy. But she did manage to talk some sense into me by getting me to admit how unhappy I was in medicine, and then helping me decide to leave and go travelling. In May I realised how selfish I had been with her and apologised and put my bad behaviour to rest. Then I went travelling.

My family is largely Americans who have drifted to NZ. I didn't consider this when I chose America, so it was basically an accident that I met my father's side of the family. They helped me realise how much I had blamed myself for the awful things he did to my life. I also met a girl and had experiences which made me start to like... and even love myself. I felt good about myself. I felt powerful, I felt brave and wonderful. I'd never felt like that before.

Then I came back to NZ. It's taken me a while to get back on my feet and get a job, and I've been thinking about next year, thinking about myself, talking to people and trying to come to a decision.

Why would I go back to medicine? Because I'm still scared and it's still 'safe.' Because it's easy, and there's a job at the end of it. Because I've already started and I might as well keep going.

These are terrible fucking reasons. I know that.

I get scared of lots of things. I get scared of starving to death and being unemployed in a recession-stricken resource depleted globally warmed world. But I have to accept that medical school won't protect me from the collapse of civilisation. Nothing will protect me from that.

I think that if I go back to medicine I will feel the same way. I won't be taking a risk. I think I will sink back down into misery and feel ashamed of myself and never know what to talk about because there is no passion in my heart.

I am passionate about books and words and language and I think that the only thing that would be fair to myself would be to throw myself into the unknown and push myself as far as possible.

I keep trying to imagine some course of action that leads me to a job that is: of absolute value and meaning, satisfying, monied-up, I am passionate about, immune to The Collapse of Everything, morally invulnerable, ethical, invulnerable to my negativity and critical analysis, respected, safe and easy, so-on and so-on.

I think I have to accept that there is no such thing. If I have tied myself up into knots and made myself miserable by constantly searching for some rational way to justify my actions, and I have failed and know in my heart that perservering will lead to only more failure, then the only logical thing to do is embrace the irrational.

I think that there is something beautiful about being in the middle of a recession and saying, 'you know everyone does an arts degree because they have no idea what they want to do, but I'm not everyone, I'm beautiful and I want to dive into the arts because it's in my soul.' What is life if you don't take risks? You might not make it, but if you don't try you'll never know if you could have or not...

Maybe I have answered my own question. There is the fact that my mood and attitude fluctuates a LOT and I have changed my mind so many times (each time for what felt like perfectly sound reasoning at the time) that it is dizzying. Still, I am looking for perspective.

What would I do other than medicine? Go to university and try and study whatever the fuck I'm interested in. Get a job and make some money. Go live somewhere that isn't a fucking cold empty New Zealand village where I can find people who are like me. Become an academic. Write my book. Get a job doing something ethically dubious like working in marketing or corporate psychology or something. Embrace the fundamental flaws of human life that I've spent so long trying to think my way out of.
posted by schmichael to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you can find a way to see the beauty in medicine, sometimes stark - sometimes gruesome - sometimes divine, finish the degree and take what you have learned into the arts, you stand a pretty good chance at making very great art and a significant contribution to the growth of the human race.
posted by krilli at 2:15 AM on November 30, 2009

So what have you been doing while you have been out of school that is artistic? Anything? What kept you?

Do you absolutely hate medicine? If you don't, I'd suggest you stay in med school. There's a big difference between "almost a doctor" and a doctor.

You're not unique in your quest to find self. But most self-discovery doesn't need something so radical as jumping on a random new path. Do something out of your comfort zone while at school for starters. Talk to people. Be more social. You might find that you have a lot more in common with some people than you thought before.

Good luck.
posted by inturnaround at 2:25 AM on November 30, 2009

I am passionate about books and words and language and I think that the only thing that would be fair to myself would be to throw myself into the unknown and push myself as far as possible. (schmichael)

This. This is your answer.

Don't go back to medicine. You know it's not for you. Find things that you want to throw yourself into, like you did with the yearbook. Make things. Write things. Be creative. Move away from the village that seems to stifle you so much, work as a clerk in a bookshop so you can surround yourself with words while you think up your own, read, think, and spend as much time as you can making art.

You know that's what you ought to do, you just need someone to give you permission.

And, yes, yes you may.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:49 AM on November 30, 2009

It's not clear to me whether the primary impetus to change is passion for a particular new path, or a desire to escape old patterns or reject aspects of yourself that you don't like. You've mentioned a love of books and words, an inclination towards an arts degree, but most of what you've written has nothing to do with what you love and everything to do with what you think makes you unhappy.

As one who has not always been the happiest individual, and who has done a fair bit of escaping, allow me to warn you that escapism leaves much to be desired.

You'll find that some of what you want to escape is inescapable because it's part of yourself. You can work on and even through such issues in any number of ways (therapy, religion, art...) but you can't duck out of that noose by changing career paths.

On the other hand, another sort of problem crops up when want to escape is actually possible to get away from; if escape is the driving force, then your incentive disappears the moment you succeed. If you use art to escape medicine, art may soon lose much of its luster.

I don't mean to paint a gloomy picture here. The way I'm inclined to see it, you can absolutely change your life for the better. It's just that art vs. medicine probably has very little to do with it. You're clearly suffering from a lot of anxiety and something of an identity crisis, but none of that is the fault of med school. Medicine is just a trade, albeit one that you now associate with passivity, fearfulness, a stifling small town, troubled family life, etc. Those are potent associations, but they are not inherent in medicine, and could easily follow you into another career.
posted by jon1270 at 3:49 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Think carefully about whether you were miserable because you were studying medicine, or whether you were miserable because:

- you were young, lonely, insecure and struggling to adjust to a new life
- you were caught in a series of toxic living situations
- you isolated yourself from your friends and classmates
- you became lazy and smoked a lot of marijuana
- you had low self esteem and unresolved issues about your childhood
- you may have been suffering undiagnosed clinical depression all along

My intent in pointing out these possible factors is not to blame you for your misery, or even to dissuade you from quitting medicine, but to suggest that perhaps studying medicine is not the only reason you were miserable. If you change degrees without working on the rest of your problems, you may find that your misery dogs you from degree to degree, and later, from job to job. A change of scenery is no escape if the real problems are inside your head. It's a cliche on AskMefi, but please see a counsellor before you make a decision. Your university should provide them cheap or free.

Inturnaound is right - if you were as passionate about 'books and words and language' as you claim, you would have spent the past six months doing something to do with books and words and language. Were you writing regularly as you traveled? Were you devouring books by the dozen? Did you work hard at it, even though you didn't have to? Because that's the level of passion you'll need if you want an arts degree - and subsequent career - to be as easy and enjoyable as you seem to expect.

Right now I think you're contrasting the stress of studying medicine with the hedonistic joy of travelling and a vague notion that studying arts will be a breeze. Tread carefully. Before you make a decision, be certain that you're being honest with yourself.
posted by embrangled at 4:24 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

you seem unhappy and you seem to be blaming it all on medical school. You think the grass is greener on the other side. I have an arts degree and I am fairly unskilled in terms of useful knowledge. When I was you age, I was like you and thought life would be great with a BA. But jobs are jobs for most people and many of us don't get to make a difference because we are cogs. I think you'll regret leaving medical school. but it is your life. Get some counselling.
posted by anniecat at 5:14 AM on November 30, 2009

I disagree with embrangled. Many people who wind up in language-based careers have exploratory times like the one OP describes. The fact that he may or may not have been "writing consistently" and "devouring books by the dozen" is not necessarily any kind of litmus test.
OP: From what you write, the one episode of work that you found completely involving and whose results you thought were "amazing" was working on the yearbook. This to me suggests you might want to go into publishing in some capacity. There are many venues for the making of texts. I'd check this avenue out before returning to med school with a heavy sense of dread. You could always return to med school the following year if your other path didn't work out. Best of luck.
posted by fullofragerie at 5:18 AM on November 30, 2009

Be sure to not confuse finishing medical school with having to spend your career as a doctor. The big picture is that a year or two spent finishing medical school isn't very long and it has the huge benefit of keeping your options open.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:33 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry your first few years of university have been so hard, Schmichael -- for a lot of people it can be a lonely, difficult start. I agree with jon1270 and embrangled that you will need to spend the next little while sorting out what exactly was happening to you -- it certainly seems very possible that you have been suffering from depression.

I wanted to add, though, that it may take quite some time to work through these things, and that in the meantime, medical school is probably *not* a great environment for you. My experience is with the North American medical school system, so YMMV, but in general, medical school, particularly during the clinical years, is incredibly tough on your sense of self. The workload is brutal, you are chronically sleep-deprived (which affects your emotional resilience), and the system is designed to constantly expose you to new responsibilities and challenges, so it often feels as if you can't do anything right. Medicine is still has a somewhat machismo-filled, suck-it-up-and-do-the-work culture, and that makes it emotionally and physically punishing. Many of my previously healthy and seemingly self-confident classmates struggles with depression and anxiety during those years, so if you are already battling self-esteem issues, you may find medicine a very difficult road to take.

This is not to say that medical training is not a worthwhile and, in many ways, rewarding way to spend 6-10 years. But you say that you have never been particularly interested in the work, and are looking more for security and a well-laid-out path. I would suggest that these are *not* good reasons to subject yourself (and the patients who will be under your care once you start hospital rotations) to the misery of med school. I went into medicine excited, knowing it was what I wanted to do, and my classmates and I *still* daydreamed about quitting and pined for the arts for a good chunk of our clerkship and residency years. I'm very happy now (only 6 months out of school), but it was tough, and I think most of my previous classmates would agree that it's not really worth putting yourself through unless you're sure you really want it.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 10:57 AM on November 30, 2009

You'll have to decide if you want to finish the difficult slog through medical school. I just wanted to remind you that safe and beautiful can work together: Vincent Lam, W. Somerset Maugham, António Lobo Antunes.

Or if you like to travel and have a bit of the cowboy in you, you could be beautiful in quite a different way with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Best of luck with your decision.
posted by Cuke at 7:28 PM on November 30, 2009

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