This article was published in The Guardian on 17/02/17 and was written by Linda Gask
“During my years of medical training I was tense and wound up almost all of the time. Then, just before my finals, things got very much worse. I began to draw up a complex revision timetable, which I obsessed over. I was as fearful of failing as I had been with my A-levels, but there was also a terrible sense of unease about what was happening to me, to which I couldn’t put a name.
I convinced myself that the best way to stay in control of my world was to design a kind of map for my mind and contain everything within it by the time the exams arrived. I ruled out lines on sheets of paper to create a chart to govern every waking hour for the next few months. I did not want to acknowledge the obvious parallels with my brother, whose strange behaviour would later be diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder.
The idea of studying medicine had come to me quite suddenly around the age of 15. I had discarded my previous ambition of being a biology teacher, and when I received an offer from Edinburgh medical school I had been determined to make the most of it.
But my confidence was in short supply, and I felt out of place in Edinburgh from the start – like many students, I self-medicated with alcohol. As a working-class girl, the first in my family to ever think of going to university, I didn’t share the same background as most of my fellow students. My mother worked in a factory, assembling transistor radios, my father in an amusement park repairing fairground rides, and my relationship with both had been increasingly difficult in the years before I left home. As a result, I felt even more alone.
I also had problems with anxiety which began before my A-levels. I hadn’t made the grades that Edinburgh asked for in their offer, but unexpectedly they had still given me a place. As the tension built during my years at medical school I had a few appointments with a student counsellor, but didn’t find it very helpful. I couldn’t understand what the problem was, although I know now, having had psychotherapy many years later, that it had a great deal to do with unresolved problems with my family from my childhood.
As I prepared for my finals, with my mind map, and my chart of each available hour, there came a point when I couldn’t go on. I can’t remember exactly what happened. I wasn’t sleeping or able to work. Sometimes I didn’t bother to get dressed, and it felt as if everyone in my year knew that I was a complete failure. My head felt like it was splitting open and I was struggling to hold the pieces of my brain together. I finally went to see my GP and he referred me to a psychiatrist who did sessions at the university health centre. With some medication, a lot of tears, and support from him I managed to pass my final examinations.
I had no idea where to go next with my life. I had wanted to specialise in general medicine, but my attempts at getting a training post were unsuccessful, and deep down I knew I didn’t really have the right talent for it. I began to seriously question my ability once again. The real problem was that the specialty for which I seemed to have the most aptitude as a student now seemed closed to me. During my student attachment in psychiatry I had been able to imagine myself without too much difficulty in the world of the people on the psychiatric unit. However, the fact that I could relate only too well to some of the experiences described by the patients also worried me.
I needed to find out if my fears were warranted, and finally plucked up the courage to telephone the psychiatrist I had seen a few months earlier.
“I wanted to thank you,” I said, “and ask if you thought it would be out of the question, after what happened to me this year, for me to train as a psychiatrist?”
“No,” he said warmly, “I don’t think it would be out of the question at all.”
Those few words of encouragement set me off on a very successful career path in psychiatry. It’s not been without problems. I’ve had recurrent episodes of depression, and at times it’s been hard. But I would not have fitted in better anywhere else in medicine, and I think I’ve been a more empathic doctor because I know what it’s like from both sides. I’m determined that medical students who experience mental health problems and worry about the stigma that still exists in medicine should not assume that they are simply “weak”, or that the door into a career in psychiatry is closed to them. It certainly isn’t.”