The Time I Forgot Why it Mattered

This story was originally published at JamesIsTrying.

I spent years working towards getting into NCNM’s naturopathic medicine program.  When I got here, I convinced myself that I was prepared in every way.  I’d done all of my pre-reqs.  I was motivated.  I was confident.  I knew that I’d have to put in an absurd amount of hours studying.  I was ready to make sacrifices.  I’d mentally prepared for every scenario I could think of and I was absolutely sure that nothing would knock me off of my path.  My first year was going great.

And then my grandfather passed away a few hours before my final exam in histology class.  Within moments of hearing the news, I was back to studying histology.  I spent no time consoling my family.  I offered no support.  I sat alone in my apartment and looked at photos of cells and tissues before heading to class.

I missed a perfect score on that exam by one point.  It took me a long time to forgive myself for putting my test performance ahead of offering support to my family.  Or maybe I haven’t forgiven myself yet.  I’m not really sure.

I’ve taken plenty of exams that I’ve since forgotten about, but I will never forget that histology exam.  I was so focused on not being thrown off track that I abandoned what was really important to me.  I was angry with myself.  I was resentful.

The term ended a few days after that and I had my entire summer break to re-align my priorities.  A few weeks before classes started up again, I realized I couldn’t afford to continue on with my dual-degree program.  I was enrolled in both the naturopathic medicine program and the research master’s degree program.  I had no choice but to drop out of the research program.

I thought long and hard about dropping out of the medical program, too. I suddenly started looking at it as a financial investment. My conclusion was that between my first year at NCNM and my pre-med/biology bachelor’s degree, I’d passed the point of no return. It was sort of like I’d bought a shiny, new, non-refundable Lamborghini that didn’t have an engine in it. I could either spend the rest of my life paying off my failed, incomplete investment, or I could finish school and get that engine. I decided that I had to finish.

I started my second year feeling trapped. I felt like I was only continuing the program to avoid throwing away my investment. It wasn’t really about my passion to become a doctor anymore. It’s slightly misguided, but I was angry at medicine, at this career, at NCNM.

My grades reflected my shifted perspective. It took all of my willpower to force myself to study and, even then, it was as though I was trying to push a square through a round hole. I daydreamed. I thought about other careers. I tried to come up with a more financially responsible way to spend the next three years. I showed up to classes entirely unaware that there were quizzes and assigned readings. Things were not going well.

I was completely disillusioned. It certainly didn’t help that second year is dedicated to learning about all of the awful ways the human body can fall apart. Every day, we are endlessly lectured about new and horrific diseases. And we’re not yet learning much about treatments. We’re fed all of the terrible things that can happen in life, but we’re not fed the hope that can go along with it. We’ll learn about treatments next year, but it’s easy to lose sight of that. The world was starting to look ugly to me.

About three or four weeks into the term, there was another tragic death in my family. It hit me hard. My schedule was too hectic to be able to travel to the funeral and even if I had the time, I couldn’t afford it. I was extremely upset. I blamed school. I was filled with guilt, anger, resentment. I finally started to admit that I was no longer having any fun. I didn’t want to be here anymore.

I was so broken. I woke up on a Friday morning after spending the night having unrelenting nightmares about my recently deceased family member. On my walk to school, I suddenly started sobbing uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Luckily, it was sunny out and I was wearing sunglasses, so I was able to convince myself that I looked as cool as a cucumber. I had to walk around the academic building about four times before I was composed enough to go to class.

During a class break, I was walking up the stairs with a classmate when she said, “Hey, how are you?  Is everything ok?” I heard the caring concern in her voice. I looked at her and saw the heartwarming compassion in her eyes. I wanted to collapse into her arms and tell her about my nightmares. I wanted to tell her that I hated school. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to tell her that I’m angry, that I’m not having any fun, that I don’t want to do this anymore. I knew that if I told her everything I would feel at least a tiny bit better. So naturally, I looked away and said, “I’m great.  How are you?”  Then went back to class.

That was a really big mistake. I woke up the next morning sick with an upper respiratory infection that kept me in bed all weekend. No self-respecting NCNM student would consider this a coincidence. I concluded that if I didn’t talk to someone about my issues then my mild infection would turn into one of those terrible things I learned about in Clinical/Physical Diagnosis class and I would probably die. I was in a very dramatic mood.

I forced myself to open up to two classmates. Admittedly, I told them the absolute bare-minimum of what was happening with me, but they were both so perfectly compassionate. They said all the right things to me. They made me feel a lot better.  Although, I didn’t tell them everything.  I got over my cold, but I was still angry and unhappy.  I still didn’t want to be here.

The next week, while I was riding my bike home on a cool, drizzly Portland night after an evening workout, I was thinking about all of the things I had to do for the upcoming week.  I was so deep in my stressful thoughts that I was only paying attention to the tiny bit of road directly ahead of me.

As I was riding across the Hawthorne Bridge with my tunnel vision, I had a sudden flash of awareness.  I saw something that didn’t seem right.  I stopped my bike and looked back.  There was someone on the railing of the bridge.  I rode back and saw a young guy slumped over the rail with his feet dangling high above the cold water below.  He was wearing a black coat with his hood pulled up tight over his head.  He had his arms crossed in front of his hunched shoulders and he was leaning forward.  My heart started pounding.  He’s going to jump.

I timidly walked my bike towards him and said, “Excuse me.”  My voice was shaky and quiet.  He didn’t hear me.  “Excuse me,” I said again.  He looked at me.  “Are you ok?  Is everything alright?”  It took him a second to realize that I was talking to him and when he did, he seemed to quickly understand what I thought I was seeing.

“Oh, yeah!  I’m just enjoying the amazing view,” he said with a big smile.

“Ok.  Great.  Just be careful up there, it’s slippery!” I responded.

We shared a few more words, laughed a little and then I left.  I stopped for a second before climbing back on my bike and looked out at the view he was enjoying.  It was gorgeous.  I’d never seen Portland look more beautiful.  The rain made all of the lights in the city shimmer and dance.

As I rode away, I was completely overcome with emotion. My tunnel vision opened up and I was able to see everything around me.  I was thinking about that guy.  Where did he grow up?  Why was he alone?  What was he thinking about?  Didn’t he know that dangling off a bridge in the rain is a terrible idea?

I felt the cold rain against my face as I pedaled down the street.  I smiled.  I saw a woman walking towards me, unsuccessfully attempting to navigate a giant puddle.  She looked up at me and smiled.

The street lights bounced off of the glistening street and surrounded everything in a warm glow of sparkling gold.  It was perfect.  My eyes started filling with tears.  A few strangers and a bike ride through the rain had reminded me of why I decided to be a doctor.  I was reminded that I love and care about people.

The next day, classes felt different.  I didn’t need to force myself to study.  I didn’t daydream.  I didn’t think about other careers.  There is nothing else I’d rather be doing.  I was simply thrilled to be learning all about people.  My grades almost immediately rebounded.

I started to understand the mistake I’d been making all along.  I’d convinced myself that I was ready and prepared for everything.  But I’m not prepared.  There is absolutely nothing I can do to be prepared.  I am not ready for what’s coming next.  I never will be.

I’ve been dealing with a constant fear that I’m not strong enough to get through all of this on my own.  Relief, however, comes with the truth.  I am not strong enough on my own.  I can’t do this alone.  But I am not alone.  I am surrounded by people who will help to pick me up after I fall apart.

I called my mom and she told me all about the funeral I missed. She told me about the inexplicable rainbow that opened up in the cloudless Chicago sky as the funeral came to an end. She told me that she wishes I could’ve seen it, that I could’ve been there, but she’s proud of me for being where I am.

After I hung up the phone, my girlfriend hugged me as I cried until I fell asleep.  And the next morning, I woke up with more strength than I could ever have on my own.

Post by James Munro, Student in the NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program