I’ll be up front. It’s been a painful year. No big surprise—residency has a tendency to suck, intern year especially. No one who goes into this enterprise is unaware of this. Coping mechanisms are essential—hobbies, friends, family. Alcohol’s in there somewhere, too. Social media tends to be a double-edged sword — I would feel on some superficial level connected to the family and friends I’ve left behind, but my conclusion after checking my Facebook or Instagram feed for the twentieth time that day was that everyone is spending all their time vacationing in exotic locales and eating exquisite food. (That’s an exaggeration, of course, because no resident has time to putter around on the Internet that frequently. But the end result is the same.)
First year. It started out as a joke. “I left my career for this?!”
Med school and I were still on our honeymoon. There was a lot to study, but I remembered enough from my prerequisite science courses and I learned enough physiology on the job that it was bearable. There was still free time, time to volunteer, time to hang out with friends and family. It was almost like being in college again.
Second year. The fire hose of knowledge that one is expected to handle was wide open. The stack of pancakes that is daily studying grew high enough to rival the tallest buildings. People were unhappy with the recent changes to the curriculum. Negativity was everywhere. The stress of studying for our first board exam was wearing everyone down. I was worn out. “I left my career for this?!”
It wasn’t that I loathed my job or that I wasn’t good at it. I was good at it. My manager’s manager told me up front, in an effort to get me to stay, that there would be an irreplaceable void in the team when I left. But the truth is that it took me a long time to get to that point, to develop competence and credibility.
And here I was starting all over again.
With just over three days left in the calendar year, I caught up with Joe, an old friend from my post-bacc. It had been about four months since we last hung out, but with the way life has been going, it might as well have been ages. “How’s it been?” he asked.
I said, “Well…I’m still standing.”
Finishing up M1 year wasn’t too bad. If you asked me then, I would say that it wasn’t easy, but everything’s relative, of course. In this case, relative to our first block of M2 year, the first time my school was doing a block/systems organization for M2 year, M1 year was a cakewalk. Slogging through that first M2 block was like having to partake from a fire hose dispensing not water but pancakes at high pressure, which you might attempt bravely to eat but all that happens is you end up as the battered, worn-down survivor of flapjack-force trauma and maybe, hopefully, you ate enough to pass the exams.
With no time to recover between blocks, with stressed-out friends all around, the rest of the semester was spent treading water (or is it pancakes), not really being able to focus on anything but the immediate (and not even doing a good job at that). In the face of the ramped-up stressfest that M2 year was proving to be, maintaining my usual outward composure was coming at a high internal cost when I already had little emotional reserve to spare. I tried to remember how I handled things the last time I felt this way. I thought of Scott. I thought of the price I was paying for this change in direction in my life, the seven years (minimum) I was giving up in order to retrain; the lost income, the down-prioritization of friends, of family, of love. The implications of changing careers felt quite different now that I was firmly on the other side of 30.
Over Thanksgiving break, I finished a couple of books I had begun to read before first year started.
“To go through medical training, you have to resign yourself to long periods of time when you will simply do an inadequate job with all the people who mean most to you.” –Perri Klass, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure
“Life is bigger than what the trajectory of our medical careers will allow. And just because medicine tries to consume our entire lives doesn’t mean we have to willingly hand them over.” –Michelle Au, This Won’t Hurt a Bit (and other white lies)
If I read those words before starting school, they wouldn’t resonate quite so palpably. Those other things–otherwise stated, the more important things in life, the things taking a back seat to school–are what makes this worthwhile, what makes it possible to dedicate oneself in turn to the service of others.
The end of the semester eventually came, and with it no failing grades and a temporary reprieve from school, but no real resolution, for the cycle would only start anew in due time–and it only gets worse. All I can say is that this is the new normal–and hopefully I figure out how to reclaim what’s important in my life from this all-consuming beast that is medicine.
Since moving back to Chicago, on nearly every Sunday, I take the CTA to the old neighborhood to see my parents for Mass and lunch. I ride rails and buses that I’ve known since childhood. I pass both tourist landmarks and landmarks of my life. I remark at the changes that have taken place since I was away and embrace the reassuring constancy of what has remained. But most of all, there’s a part of me that’s still in a measure of disbelief that I’m actually home again. The excuse of my birthday got me to reflect (more so than usual) on just where I’ve been in these few decades and wonder just what I thought, during those times, I would be doing with my life. I’m not exactly sure that I had any concrete thoughts about where I’d end up, honestly, but at the very least, that certainly means I never thought I’d be back home. I mean, when it was time for me to go to college, moving Very Far Away From Home was no insignificant motivation; and it seems to me that a lot of my decisions subsequent to that were driven by the desire to establish Clear Separations between me and the life I left behind.
But all that seems somewhat silly now. My parents aren’t getting younger, and someone needs to watch over them…and maybe there’s some feeling of a need to make up for lost time. And, as much as I love and miss New York, and as much as I learned to love Wisconsin (and PA, too, I guess…), there’s no denying that there’s really only one place I consider to be truly Home, and it’s not a bad thing to come back to it. And if I consider that this all started with an invitation to interview received well after I had considered my application cycle as complete and had already begun planning for another four years in Wisconsin…I think I was incredibly fortunate. Weird, how these things work out sometimes.
So many days have gone by since starting school and it’s all a blur to me. I think this is what happens when something–in this case, studying–is so consuming as to nullify any awareness of the world around you. On one level, this perception of the passage of time is a good thing, as I want nothing more than to be out of the classroom and in my clinical rotations, learning how to do the stuff I actually want to do; but on another, every day that goes by without so much as registering in my consciousness feels like a waste of a day. And days aren’t exactly an infinite commodity.
There were ways to slow things down that I used to do a lot of. Write. Take pictures. Only nowadays it seems like I don’t have time for that because of school. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I could make the time, but I need to improve my studying discipline: it presently sucks.
I think I’m going to try to write more in addition to this (and I’m definitely going to have to make sure I’m on the ball with my studies), but because my earlier Project 365 seemed to work brilliantly, here goes one for 2012. And because 2012 is a leap year, it’s actually a Project 366. The aim is the same, though.
So. Let’s begin.
I never made much of an express effort to get to know Wisconsin. I didn’t want to waste time dating it if I didn’t think I was in it for the long haul, didn’t want to get attached. I’m only passing through, I thought to myself. Then, at some point in these last almost-eight years, these surroundings became so familiar, these people I have met have become such fixtures in my life, as to tinge this long-anticipated departure with a hint of sadness.
I’m moving back home, but in a way, I’m also leaving home.
On my last day of being a twentysomething, I thought perhaps I should try to make the 365th photograph somehow meaningful. I drove through the neighborhoods in which I spent my childhood, thinking the familiar might spur my imagination, trying to picture in my mind that last image…eventually coming to the conclusion that I was trying too hard. This wasn’t what I had set out to do one year ago. A photograph I took on that day of an El station seemed to connect nicely with the first photograph I took for the project; but after some thought I figured that I already had enough images of public transportation. In the end, this is what I chose to represent this day, ordinary on one level but with some serendipitous significance, hints of a tangential nature to an as-yet unwritten future. That this project concluded in the same city where it began is no accident; it is the city of my birth, the city I think will always be home.
In between, it was not altogether uninteresting; though there were times where the decidedly uninspired photographs reflected the ordinary, mundane days underlying them, quite a bit happened on both ends of the emotional spectrum. 29 was not without its moments of sorrow and grief, losing an old friend to cancer and having another friend go through a tragedy of his own, but in the realm of things I can control, I can say that 29 was the year I finally, successfully, made my ultimate career move. I think that this year, straddling two chapters of my life as it were, catalyzed a fair amount of introspection that no doubt informed many of the photographs that made it into the project.
On a personal level, I like to think I’ve managed to improve my skills a little along the way and also inject some narrative into the imagery. Having a decent camera on the iPhone helped immensely in keeping up with the demand of generating a photograph each day; using something with considerably fewer controls than what I’m used to certainly forced a different dimension of creativity.
When I began, I said that if I could say I lived and experienced each moment of every day, then I will have been successful. I dare say this to be true. To those who followed this project to its end and offered your comments and support, you have my thanks.
(with apologies to Aaron Sorkin)
Even as I charged ahead towards a new future in my trips to Boston and DC, in my visits with old high school and college friends I was reminded of an altogether different past—a past in which I envisioned something completely different than the path I now find myself following, a future characterized by Fourier transforms and Smith charts. Delighted as regions of my brain probably last exercised in college sprang back into action talking shop with Amanda and John the electrical engineers and Angela the computer engineer, I nonetheless felt wistful at leaving all of that behind. At the same time, in Donna the teacher, and in other classmates and friends who went onto separate careers, I found some reassurance.
Technology never stopped exciting me. Math and physics still excite me. But are they enough to make me want to wake up in the morning?
Only if I can directly help someone by doing it.
I’ll just have to find some way to be an EE-doc, I guess.
It’s probably a good sign that I haven’t felt much need to post anything lately. Were it not for the end of the third quarter of year 29, I might have let November go without a post and kept October company.
Probably all that needs to be noted (and it’s old news for anyone keeping up with my Facebook status updates) is that my long national nightmare of disposable income now definitely has an end date (see the Countdown to Freedom in the blog sidebar). The anxiety of “will I get in somewhere” has since been replaced by “will I have a choice of where to go,” which is at least less stress-inducing but still admittedly tied to feelings of self-worth, however irrational it may be—yes, the applicant pool is beyond saturated with qualified candidates, but I wouldn’t be human if I said my ego doesn’t bruise at least somewhat from rejection.
I suppose all that’s left for this last quarter before I turn 30 is to have fun and enjoy it, but I’m hard pressed to remember a winter that wasn’t colored with some sort of melancholia…