One of the things my mother has always emphasized is the importance of privacy, of keeping things within the family...
Fall 2011: “Congratulations, we are pleased to inform you have been accepted into our medical school.” It felt unreal. I’d gained admission into a U.S. Medical school I’d wanted since I was a kid. I was born severely premature, only 2 pounds, and medicine saved my life. I wanted to give the same hope to patients and families as my neonatologist and doctors did for me. I didn’t know the struggles awaiting me in medical school.
Approximately 1 year later (Late Summer 2012): Med school orientation; it was finally happening. I was going to be a doctor. For the first time, I instantly felt accepted by all the South Asian people in my class. I always felt different from other Desis but I never understood why. I had a few close South Asian friends as a kid, but for some reason, I was hesitant to hang out with other South Asians at school. Maybe I knew there was something very different about me and maybe I worried they sensed this uniqueness and judged me. Perhaps a lot of it has to do with the stigma of South Asians being highly accomplished and ambitious achievers. I also grew up in a dysfunctional and abusive household where physical and verbal abuse were common.
Med school began. I was frantically studying, attending lectures, coming home, studying, and repeating the routine. It was my first time away from home and it was a big lifestyle change. On my first exam, I was 0.7% away from passing. “It’s okay, just the first exam. It’s okay I’ll get the hang of it. Lots of people struggle when they first start med school. I am going to be fine.” The second exam came, and I failed. I went to advisors, learning specialists, and social workers to control my anxiety and change my study-style but none of the changes and techniques were working. Everything was happening so fast and I was failing repeatedly.
2 months later (Fall 2012): I received a letter from the school: “We regret to inform you that you have failed three classes in our medical school curriculum. You are hereby academically dismissed from our program. If you wish to appeal our decision, you have 30 days to set up a hearing and gather the necessary supporting documentation for possible reinstatement.” I couldn’t believe it. In two months, I had failed out. I did so well in undergrad, and my first standardized patient told me that I would make a great doctor because I was so good with patients. I felt like I was the first South Asian person to fail out of med school. I knew others had left because of the lifestyle, stress, and commitment, but I felt sure it was very rare for a South Asian person to fail out due to academic struggles.
1 Month Later (Winter 2012): I went on a downward spiral and was desperately searching for answers. I felt lost and in shock. I flew back home, and saw an adolescent psychiatrist and clinical psychologist. I needed to know what went wrong. “You learn differently,” the clinical psychologist told me. “You have ADHD and a visual-spatial learning disorder.” As he said these words, I felt a mixture of emotions; frustration, relief, and embarrassment. I felt like everything had been snatched away from me. I felt hopeless. It felt like my hard work had failed me. My childhood struggles came back to haunt me and ruined my big dreams. And yet, the diagnoses resonated with me. Growing up I felt different and had experienced struggles with fine motor skills and attention. Things were starting to make sense.
My parents struggled to accept these diagnoses, and it is still a point of conflict in our relationship. They say I “destroyed our reputation” and they often chastise me and try to guilt me for the challenges that I’ve faced. My mom criticizes me for taking medication to help with my ADHD symptoms. The diagnoses caused a huge strain in our household and damaged our already fragile relationship.
I developed suicidal ideation. I was in my apartment, living on the 8th floor and thoughts crossed my mind to jump out of the window and end it. I was breaking dishes, crying endlessly, and feeling emotionally unstable. I drank alcohol for the first time, trying to numb the pain. I was able to successful appeal the school’s decision and they rescinded the dismissal. I had the opportunity to return to medical school for the following year but with these new diagnoses and my damaged mental health and self-esteem, I decided not to return and fully withdrew from the school.
I’d always valued education over everything and sacrificed so much of my personal and social life to follow my dreams. My life now felt unrecognizable. To make matters worse, my family doesn’t “believe” in learning disabilities and ADHD so I haven’t had their support through these struggles. They make me feel like the laughing stock of my family. My cousin is a doctor, why couldn’t I be more like her? I think the downward spiral and feeling worthless stems from the pressure our culture puts on educational achievements. I understand medical school is difficult, but the pressure and stigma can damage and prevent success. Today, I am working in healthcare, just in a different way than I originally planned, but I still face backlash and harassment from my family because of the South Asian stigma against mental health.
They say time heals are all wounds. I know comparing my life with others isn’t healthy, but sometimes I cannot help it and social media certainly doesn’t help. I tell myself it’s not my fault I was born this way. I wonder how things would have been if my parents had been better and had gotten me help while I was growing up. If they had taken me to a clinical psychologist as a child and I had been diagnosed earlier, things would have been very different. I do still wish things had turned out differently. I’m learning about how my childhood trauma and premature birth affect my abilities and mental health. I take the medications I need, I prioritize myself, and I see a therapist regularly. It’s hard work but my wounds are healing.
I hope you find the strength to get through whatever you are struggling with. My experiences have taught me to accept myself for who I am and to try to stop worrying about what other people think of me. My experiences have sparked my passion to fight against the mental health stigma so prevalent in the South Asian community. I wish everyone could get the help they need whenever they are struggling; mentally, socially, emotionally, and academically. We need more ADHD, anxiety, and learning disability awareness in our community so that children can get help before it’s too late. I am very thankful for having a community like MannMukti where I can share my sorrows, struggles, and triumphs with mental health. To all of those who are struggling: we have to keep going, find our strengths, and heal our wounds to end up where we are meant to be and with what is meant for us.