True Story: Med School Made Me Have A Nervous Breakdown

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of Alison and her time in med school.

Tell us a bit about yourself! 

Hello there! I’m Alison, I’m 28, and I live in southern NJ, not far from Philadelphia. I currently work as a clinical research assistant at a children’s hospital in the department of oncology. When I’m not working, I enjoy reading, knitting, snuggling my cats, hanging out with my husband, baking, indulging in a glass of red wine (or two!), and of course, blogging.
When did you know you wanted to work in the medical field?
I’ve known since I was 9 that I wanted to be a pediatrician, which is still true. One of the things I love the most about medicine is the ability to connect with people on a variety of different levels. I also like that I will never stop learning and that every day will be different. It’s a very exciting field, and I really believe that I wouldn’t be fulfilled doing anything else.
I think a lot of us have heard horror stories about medical school and medical residencies. Could you tell us about an average course load? And how much time you’d spend studying/writing/preparing for your classes?
Haha, well! I preface this by saying that I don’t know about every single medical school out there, but for the most part, med school is split up into two parts: classroom and clinical. First year is dedicated to learning everything there is to know about anatomy, physiology, microbiology, genetics, histology, and biochemistry. Second year is still classroom work, but it’s more geared towards clinical medicine and you get to dig into specifics on all of the body’s systems. I would say in a traditional program, you’ll spend anywhere from 4-8 hours a day in lecture and lab.
As a first year med student, I personally spent 7-8 hours a day in lecture or lab, and then another 2-5 hours studying and reading at night, even more than that if we had an exam. It was… exhausting.
Prior to medical school, had you struggled with any mental health issues?
Beginning in 7th grade, I started to struggle with depression, anxiety, and self-harm. At 15, I went on my first antidepressant and I’ve been on over 14 different antidepressant medications. In addition to medication, I’ve also been seeing a therapist on and off since I was 12. The one I see currently is amazing, and I’ve been seeing her since 2008.
When did you realize that you were really, truly unwell?
The moment I knew that I was really in trouble came in two parts.
The first was when I was crossing the street to get to class. I remember thinking, “If I got hit by a car, I wouldn’t have to go to class anymore.” The second came a few weeks into the second semester when one of the deans pulled me aside in the hall and asked if I was okay. I told her a little about what was going on and she suggested that I take a leave of absence. Ten minutes later, I signed the paperwork to take a year-long leave of absence from the program. I spent the next two weeks lying in bed. At 2 am on night, I called my mom and told her that I was “thinking of taking all of my pills”. It was really scary.
Was there one specific thing that triggered your nervous breakdown?
It was more of a “perfect storm” of events. From the start, things were not going well for me in med school. I felt constantly overwhelmed and I had crippling anxiety every time we had an exam. It was so bad that I would leave an exam in the middle to throw up. Some friends and my dad lived nearby, but I still felt very isolated. I failed exams due to anxiety and being underprepared from not being able to focus and study, and that made me feel even worse. I was seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist, and was on multiple medications. First semester, I failed two courses that I knew I would have to retake and pass that summer, or else I would fail out of the program. The combination of having failed two classes, feeling isolated, being generally disappointed in myself coalesced into the worst depression I’ve experienced to date.
What happened when you had your nervous breakdown?
After signing the paperwork to take a leave of absence from school, I was basically shell-shocked. I spent the next two weeks sleeping, barely eating or showering. I found myself thinking about how I would commit suicide, and that scared me. I called my mom and she immediately demanded that I call the school’s crisis line. The woman who answered told me that she would stay on the phone with me and that she was sending two police officers to my apartment. I was terrified, because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me.
How did you recover? 
I was admitted to the psychiatric unit for four days and I think I did nothing but cry for the first 48 hours. I didn’t like my psychiatrist they assigned me, and they changed all of my meds really suddenly, so I went through withdrawal and felt really sick. It was definitely useful to be “away from the world” for awhile, but after four days, I was more than ready to go home.
My family helped me move back home and I started with a new psychiatrist who worked to find me a good medication. I also started seeing the therapist that I’m seeing now. I took time for myself and tried to re-enter life as a non-medical student. So far, so good!
You’re heading back to med school this year – congrats! How are you staying healthy and making sure you’ll have a different experience this time?
Thank you! I’m still in therapy and plan to continue with it, as well as my meds. The school I am attending is in my home state, where many of my friends and family are located, and my husband is incredibly supportive. I have a lot of people looking out for me!
Have you found any books/websites/tools/apps to be particularly helpful in helping you manage your stress and depression as you navigate school?
Honestly, my best tool is my therapist. I’ve also found a lot of support online, both through Twitter and blogging, as well as through The Bloggess’ website. While the main focus of her website is definitely not mental illness, she is a huge champion for the cause. (Some of her best posts are here.)
What advice would you give to other people with mental health issues who are undertaking big, exciting, potentially stressful endeavors?
It is really important that you always take care of yourself, mind and body. It sounds so silly, but get enough sleep, eat well, and take time to have some fun. Remind yourself that you are not the sum of your achievements. Never be afraid to ask for help.
Lastly, “Depression lies.” Don’t let it fool you into thinking you are worthless. You are so, so important. Be kind to yourself. We can all use that reminder every once in awhile.Thanks so much for sharing your story, Alison. Do you have have any questions for her? Have any of your had health issues that were triggered by school?

P.S. True Story: I have depression and True Story: I dropped out of my PhD program

photo by natshots photography // cc

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  1. Anonymous

    As an unhappy pre-med major and busy resident advisor in college, I can definitely relate. I was stressed about my future (I'd recently decided medical school wasn't for me and no idea what to do) and extremely depressed. After a resident committed suicide during my security shift, things got much worse. I finally realized (with help) that I couldn't learn or look after others when I couldn't look after myself and left college. Good for you, Alison, for doing what you needed to do to take care of yourself. Good luck this year!

  2. wade

    I refuse to take medicine and see my illness as natural, the way my brain is by natural design. Unfortunately I cant cope with exam anxiety and couldn’t continue medical school after four years. The medical school doesn’t even want me back in the program. I really do need help but I am in a small town without proper care. I once was a very intelligent man but without finishing the degree I have no work, money for food or medicine. I was told with a psych history I wont be allow to study medicine any further. I lost my license and ever physician knows I am sick. Why didn’t I get the medicine I needed before I fell from the highest point in my education and career? Why are the good medicine kept secret and for the elite only? left out in the cold on the coast of Canada.

  3. Anonymous

    I had a similar experience. What I learned?
    It’s not your fault. Breath.

  4. Sarah

    My brother is struggling in medical school.He had to repeat 2nd year and is now in 3 rd year.He has developed a drinking habit and over spends a lot.My parents a re concerned .He sleeps all the time and we don’t know how he will study so my mom isn’t sending him back as she’s concerned .Im scared how he will react and what if he has a nervous break down as he cry’s too.How can I help.He doesn’t listen to advice so please help me !im scared if the concquences.I have a major exam coming up too and idk what to do.

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