Winter Quarter Week 5 Reflection

Hey guys, I hope you all had a week filled with gratitude, productivity, growth and happiness.

This week for me was a little rough emotionally/psychologically. I think the effects of sleep deprivation finally got to me. Sleeping two to three hours each night in the library or study lounge and going non-stop between classes, studying and dancing, my mental health began to suffer.

The good news is, I feel confident about the human aging midterm I took on Tuesday. No way am I getting an A- in that class again. I got back my first chemistry quiz and was pleased with my score of 38/40. The mistake I made was very silly– I forgot to read one of the questions in its entirety and didn’t answer the last part of the question! I guess spending the night before the quiz camped out at Powell library made my brain foggy. At least I know my concepts on thermodynamics are solid. All this hard studying has been paying off… But at what cost?

I don’t even know why I’m pushing myself to study so intensely. I may not even be premed anymore. Why must I compromise my physical and mental health for the sake of getting good grades? Of course, academics are important, but health comes first. The thing is, I’m saying these words, but am having trouble believing them… All my life, I’ve pushed myself to the limit, putting in 100% to all my endeavors. I can’t settle for mediocrity. I just can’t.

Today, I caught up with an old high school friend, Roy, who remarked at my “insane work ethic”. He told me he believed that I would find success in whatever I end up doing, even if it is not medicine. I’m not going to lie– hearing those words made me feel great. Lately, I’ve been beating myself up, telling myself that I’m not studying hard enough, that I need to be working harder, in both school and dance. In listening to that self-deprecating voice, I’ve been pushing myself to the brink of obsession… obsession to be perfect. I recognize all these unhealthy thought patterns that my former therapist and I worked so hard to rectify…

It is a strange thing to say, but sometimes, I feel like I am not whole if I don’t feel stressed, anxious, depressed, or some other negative emotion. During one of my down moments this week, I wrote, “I’m feeling exhausted and depressed, but strangely complete”. For most of my life, I believed that I didn’t deserve to be happy, because I hungered for success. I believed that the harder I worked and the more I suffered in the present, the greater the future returns. My years as a gymnast fueled this way of thinking. Training was never easy and many sacrifices were made in the pursuit of my sport. As much as I loved gymnastics, towards the end of my career, I mostly felt pressure to perform, live up to expectations and be perfect. I can’t say I was in an emotionally or psychologically sound state when I was a competitive athlete.

Being a (maybe) premed student at a competitive university, I find myself reverting to my former belief of needing to “suffer” to feel “worthy”. There’s a strange satisfaction I get in staying up until 5 a.m. studying, or going straight from class to the dance studio to the library, no breaks in between. I like being busy. I feel invigorated when I’m pushing myself to my limit. But, in the process, I’ve been completely ignoring my mental well-being. I’ve been exhibiting strange behaviors– purposeful sleep deprivation; studying on the floor of the laundry room; drinking coffee at 12 a.m.; being overly uninhibited in social situations (probably too tired to care what anyone thinks anymore); falling asleep in lectures; acting enthusiastic and bubbly around friends and peers, but feeling a whirlwind of negative emotions inside. Confusion. Stress. Anxiety. Emptiness. Exhaustion.

A few days ago, after getting back from dance practice at 10:00 p.m., I called my mom because I just needed to vent. At that point, I was feeling the stress of impending midterms, as well as sheer mental and physical exhaustion from juggling school and all my dance commitments. I had a pile of homework awaiting me, but all I wanted to do was sleep. As I spoke to my mom, I started crying at the bottom of the steps to my residence hall, releasing all the pent-up tension of my present reality. People stared at me but I didn’t care. My mom has never taken well to crying, however, and that night was no different. She snapped at me, telling me to buck up. I ended up getting angry at her and hung up the phone. I had called her for comfort and solace, but she had given me even more stress. I fell into a hole of self-pity.

I know that happiness is in my control. I can choose to be happy. I don’t need to feel sorry for myself… but why do I insist on holding on to the negativity, the stress, the self-imposed pressure, in order to feel like a whole person? Why is it that I can never find absolute serenity in the present moment? That I can’t be okay with, simply, being? Why must I find a reason to be stressed all the time?

I had to quit the UCLA Latin dance team on Monday. It was just too difficult to spread myself over so many extracurricular commitments. I was very sad about leaving all the friends I’ve made through the team… some of them are my closest friends at UCLA. I regret quitting before we even got to showcase our bachata routine… but it was something that, I feel, needed to be done, for the sake of preserving my personal sanity.

Yesterday, I was walking to campus for TA chemistry office hours, when I saw a man in a white coat walking the opposite direction. Getting closer to him, I saw the words “neurosurgery” imprinted in blue letters on his coat. Without really thinking twice, I changed my direction, wove my way through the onslaught of fellow Bruins heading to class, and approached this man, asking him, “Are you a neurosurgeon?” He replied in the affirmative, a little surprised at my boldness. I asked him if I could walk with him, and he replied that I may. I introduced myself as first-year psychobiology/pre-med student. I asked him what kind of advice he would give to eager pre-med students like myself. His reply: Medicine is not what it used to be. In the past, patient care always came before anything else. Now, it is “everything else, then patient care”. He doesn’t like the way our healthcare system has degenerated, and he advises aspiring physicians to go into medicine only if they really love it. He himself knew since age eleven that he wanted to become a physician, but he is a self-proclaimed anomaly. Most people don’t know their callings at that age. He told me, if I have any doubts about medicine, then it may be best to seek another career path. His wife is actually a writer and apparently wrote the screenplay for the movie Narnia. She writes all day, every day, and loves what she does. He has four grown children, none of whom followed in their father’s footsteps towards medicine. Some became lawyers… but none doctors. I expressed to him how in awe I was to actually be in the presence of a brain surgeon– a pediatric brain surgeon, nonetheless. I confessed to him how I’ve always revered neurosurgeons (all doctors in general, but neurosurgeons especially), putting them on a pedestal and viewing them as godly and almighty human beings. Yup– I’ve really let society drill that label into my head… but you can’t deny that neurosurgeons are pretty freaking badass.

What surprised me about this man was his humility, warmth and willingness to help a girl finding her path. There’s a stereotype that neurosurgeons are arrogant individuals… but this one was as far from arrogant or condescending as you could be! I asked him about his thoughts/feelings the moment before he cut into a person’s head for the very first time. He replied that it was, of course, a bit scary. Then again, you don’t start out by performing an entire solo surgery… you start by assisting the attending surgeon, making small incisions here and there. As with anything, you begin with the fundamentals and build your foundation from there. I asked him, “What if your hand starts shaking in the middle of surgery because of nerves?” He replied, “Oh, that can’t happen.” Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him if I could get his email to reach out in the future. He kindly gave me his card. When we parted ways, he told me, “Maybe we’ll get a writer out of you!” What an incredible man. I emailed him yesterday, thanking him for the spontaneous conversation, and asking him if he offered any shadowing opportunities. He replied the email this morning:

“Dear Belicia,

What a pleasure it was yesterday to meet such a vivacious and delightful young lady who is struggling to find her calling in life.

After forty years of working with patients I decided to retire from clinical practice and now have a laboratory where I use human cadavers to teach surgical residents from all specialties including OBGYN relevant human anatomy and basic surgical technique. This means that I no longer have direct contact with living patients but hope to improve patient care by teaching the up-and-coming young surgeons in training. Because I am no longer working in the wards I will look into seeing how it would be possible for you to shadow one of my clinical colleagues and experience the world of modern medical practice.

Please keep in touch while you decide which career path to follow.”

I’m so blessed to have made such a connection and found another mentor to guide me… After speaking to the neurosurgeon, though, I questioned premed even more. I wondered, if I have so much doubt and uncertainty about going into medicine, then is this path really for me?

I’ve resolved to take all GE classes next quarter. Drop the organic chemistry. Explore potential interests. Philosophy, theater, creative writing, neuroscience, political science. Have more time for dancing. Really make an effort to take myself off the premed track so I have the freedom to venture into uncharted territories. I’m hoping that, by the end of my freshman year of college, I will have found an academic field that truly piques my interest.

At the same time, I still want to get good grades to keep my options open, should I later decide to go to medical school. That’s why I am putting so much pressure on myself to do well academically. It’s actually really funny how the roles of parent and child sort-of reverse when the child goes off to college. In high school, it was always my mom pushing me and my brothers to study harder and get better grades. Now, in college, my brothers and I are the ones overloading ourselves with pressure to succeed, while my parents tell us to “just try your best” and “be happy”.

Anyway, I know this post was filled with a lot of rambling… but as always, I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read my blog and experience my journey–struggles and all– with me.

I had dance practice all evening, so the rest of the night (or morning, shall I say), will consist of studying and more studying. Fun times. But again, I draw on the strength I garnered as a gymnast– all the willpower and focus and determination– to get me through whatever difficulties lay ahead. I wish I could somehow learn to enjoy life, in spite of being in a competitive environment where the pressure to succeed is immense. I don’t like the way I become when I am placed in such environments… I start to lose sight of myself, my relationships, my humanity… I sometimes feel like I transform into a robot of sorts, when I go into my “tunnel-visioned” state. I don’t think life has to be this hard. But I choose to make it so. Why? Why do I choose to be unhappy? The answer evades me. I’d probably need to help of a professional to answer that question.

 

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