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Burned-out at 27: What Happens When You Fall Off the Carousel

I’ve been a Grey’s Anatomy fan since forever, way before I went to medical school.

I remember watching all first three seasons in a record-breaking short amount of time and thinking I wanted to be Meredith Grey.

Now, let me clear the air before I keep going. I did not become a general surgeon to be like Meredith Grey. Honestly, I chose to pursue medicine for unoriginal reasons. Mostly I was just a huge nerd (read: straight A) who was also kind of social, so I wanted to work with and help people. Call me a freak, but I also like blood and life-or-death situations and I enjoy saving lives with my two hands. Anyway, I knew going into residency that my life would be nothing like Grey’s Anatomy.

First of all, these people have infinite amounts of energy. Who actually smiles when the alarm clock says 5:30 AM and the sun isn’t even out? I don’t get it. And to answer the burning question I get every single time: no we don’t have sex in on-call rooms. For starters, these rooms are basically pseudo-glorified hospital rooms with a cheap bed and mattress and actual hospital bed sheets with the thin lined blanket that patients sleep under. There is absolutely nothing inviting or sexy there. Plus, we’re normally working/operating when on-call, which takes me back to Grey’s Anatomy where they have unrealistic amounts of free (sexy) time.

The carousel never stops turning, you can’t get off. My favourite Grey’s Anatomy quote.

Our life as surgery residents is fast-paced and sometimes involves too little sleep. We live in a bubble bursting with performance anxiety and unspoken competition and it sometimes, at least to me, feels like a spinning carousel. I am the kind of person who is a real bitch to herself and in this, I know i’m not alone. We strive to be better, which is intended to push us further, but in the end, we’re never good enough. At the end of each day, I have a tendency to focus on what I haven’t done, rather than what I have accomplished.

So the carousel spins and spins and you wish you weren’t so dizzy, but you have to keep riding it. You can always get off, of course, but then you’re scared it will keep going on without you. I was always scared to spin so fast that I’d fall off that carousel. But I was scared to step off, too.

Then it happened: I fell off the freaking carousel.

Performance anxiety started being so toxic to me that I couldn’t fall asleep anymore. Not just at work. I was getting anxious about my “performance” outside of work too. That dreaded 5 AM alarm clock became my worst enemy. I have ADHD (yes, you can get through medical school with ADHD. Not everyone gets diagnosed in 3rd grade. One of the smartest girls I’ve ever met is a lawyer and was diagnosed after her bar exam. Sky’s the limit when you were blessed with brains, baby). Despite proper treatment, I was literally trying to be everywhere at once, but never actually being present anywhere.

Terribly exhausted, I had to stop: I burnt out.

I rode that carousel as best I could and made it spin too fast.

I am writing this, because I don’t hide my problems from anyone and I’m not scared of talking about it. Mental illness is surrounded by such strong stigma. We have to keep talking about it so that one day, people understand that it’s as real and tangible as physical illness. Even in the medical community, it’s poorly understood. You’d think doctors know best, but some don’t.

I took a sick leave in the middle of my fourth year of residency.

That’s 8 ½ years of training in the rearview mirror with 1 ½ to go. Now, I am on sick leave for exhaustion. I’m not depressed, I’m not suicidal, I’m not psychotic. And please, I am not lazy.

I took part in the Salty Souls Experience in El Salvador last year, and I was supposed to go back to their new Ecuador trip this year. Besides having had an amazing time there, I met new girls who believe in a balanced, healthy, fulfilled lifestyle, just like me. I decided not to go this time, because of the aforementioned situation.

I didn’t feel like I’d be a great addition to the group at this particular moment in my life. And I was so nervous to tell them I was dropping out of the Experience this year. The girls’ response to my situation was such a relief: they completely understood and told me they couldn’t wait for me to get better and hopefully take part in a future Experience with them. These wonderful ladies live completely unconventional lives, which would scare the shit out of most of us, truthfully. I hadn’t realized that they’re probably the best people out there to empathize and understand how that so-called conventional lifestyle can lead to burn outs, depression and worse. Marie-Christine then suggested I share this with other Salty girls, hopefully to convey a positive message of hope.

My message is this: yes, the carousel never stops turning, but you can slow it down.

YOU have control over how fast it spins. You don’t have to fall off of it like I did. And this doesn’t just apply to surgical residents with crazy lives that never really stop. It applies to all of you. We all have crazy lives, we all have jobs that are demanding, we all have daily struggles that can be draining and stressful: bills, grocery shopping, eating at least three times a day, car problems, family issues, relationship (or lack thereof) troubles, friends asking to go out for drinks on weekdays when honestly you’d rather just sleep, but you never see them and you’re scared of missing out … The list is endless. Maintaining that balance is hard.

I had to make inevitable changes to make it work and hopefully, it will. I used my time off to sleep a reasonable amount of hours and learn how to reorganize how I was functioning on a daily basis. It helped me think about what really mattered to me, and what I wanted to prioritize. It helped me spend less time worrying about what others are doing (hello, social media, I’m talking to you) and focus on what I need to be doing.

We are overstimulated and it gets exhausting.

I could literally write a book about that (kidding, I have no time to write a book). We might have a chosen the conventional lifestyle (because hey, it’s not ALL bad either), but we can decide to slow our own pace even if the world is telling us to speed it up. There’s always going to be something more that you could be doing, but focus on what you’re doing right now. Try to live in the moment a little bit more. We are generation who has real issues with being present in the present. We think about the past a lot and stress about the future, but we forget about today. I know it sounds super cliché, but I’ve come to realize that it’s true.

I’m learning to be a little more forgiving with myself.

We should all try to cut ourselves some slack. Because literally no one else is going to cut you any slack. Ever. They are all busy trying not to fall off their own carousel.

We might not be surfing on Mondays in Ecuador, like our beautiful Salty girls, but I like to think that their mindset is applicable to us too, no matter how fast our own carousel spins. We’re young, alive and capable. And we’re entitled to imperfection. It’s okay to say no, it’s okay to take time for yourself, and it’s okay to order pizza when you really don’t feel like cooking. It’s okay to skip a workout, skip a Thursday happy hour, skip anything really, when you need it.

Slow down. Pick your battles. And then you won’t fall off the carousel.

About the Author:

The Salty Souls team is a growing tribe of women who aren't afraid of getting wet, sweaty or salty. Who left cities and belief systems behind to build a new, epic reality on the wilder side of life. You can follow our adventures @thesaltysouls

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