Scientific studies show that the rate of depression for medical students is 15%-30% higher than the general population and out of those students only 15-20% are seeking help. Much of the challenge is the work load, lack of sleep, and the pressures of competition to get in to medical school, to keep up with your classmates, and to score high enough on national board exams to qualify for the residency of your choice. But who has time to seek counsel or prioritize rest when you have an exam on Monday? Just as much and maybe more the medical spouse maybe struggling with isolation, because if his/her spouse isn’t able to pause for a moment for his/her own mental and emotional health very rarely are they giving to their loved one.
Tom and I were married in July 2015 and in July 2016 moved to Bunnlevel, NC a week before he started medical school. I referred to Bunnlevel as the middle of no where. It was the most isolated place I had ever lived. And remind you I lived in a third world country for 7 years. We were surrounded by hundreds houses of military families. We were not military. Our neighbors were nice, but our lives didn’t intersect in any way other than maybe putting out trash on the same morning. Although the area had many neighborhoods due to the military component, there was only two Food Lions, one McDonalds, a Dominos, an ok Mexican restaurant, a CVS, and a terrible Chinese restaurant. For the first time since childhood, I let myself get McDonalds far too many times. We were 30 minutes from all of Tom’s classmates, the church we started to attend, and a familiar suburban culture. Both of us felt isolated.
In our two years of this medical school journey, I’ve found more and more husbands and wives struggling with isolation. Many share the expectation that stress from medical school applications and interviews, possibly newly married, and a big move would decrease after the first block starts. Only it increases. The medical student is overwhelmed with adjusting to an intense schedule and trying to figure out a study routine where he or she can actually get through the material not to mention one that will allow for enough time to review before quizzes and exams. Sleep. Eat. And not burnout in the first block. Are his/her main goals. While non-medical spouse is left exploring a new town. Alone. Meeting new friends. Alone. Applying for jobs. Alone. Eating lunch and even dinner. Alone. Maybe not everyday but it can sure feel like it.
The constant requirement of having to put oneself out there to meet knew people can be exhausting. Medical school probably more so than undergraduate is so competitive that applicants are coming from all over, especially at a private school such as ours. Meeting people from other areas of the country requires a cultural awareness and understanding that are sometimes unfamiliar. Awkward social interactions often begins to seep lies into your mind that you are different, you don’t fit in, or you are alone. From the way people greet each other, to humor, to the way they establish friendships can vary by region of the US. Add on peoples’ upbring and family dynamics (military, non-traditional, kids, SINKS, animals, etc) and you have a bunch of “random” people put together who share a similar life goal but seem so different.
We can focus on our differences or compare our new acquaintances to our college bffs, but that will keep us from forming our new ‘tribe’. In a season where our medical spouses are carrying an 80 hour work load, we need each other, so we must step forward in faith that deep friendships can form among us even with our differences. And I believe God created us to need to bring together our differences in order to fully know Him.
Personally, the CMDA ministry of Side by Side has been one of the groups of women who have become my tribe. New women join with each incoming year and next year some of us will live hours from one another due the rotation sites our husbands are placed in. Although, I may not see these women sometimes but once a week, it’s a joy to meet together, to share prayer requests, to be vulnerable with life struggles, and especially to know I am not alone. We may raise our kids differently, we may attend different churches or no church at all, we may be different ages, or have different ideas of relaxing, but we have learned to open up and depend on each other. From swapping breast pumps to craft ideas, I have seen these women grow in friendship with one another and be a support system so that we don’t put our burden of loneliness on our husbands. So that we can enjoy this crazy season of being ‘without’ our spouses for 80 plus hours a week.
If a Side-by-Side chapter or spouse organization isn’t available at your medical school, it might be an opportunity to work with the medical school and start one. We came to a school that was four years old and the one spouse meet up group was struggling to take-off. One of the spouses approached myself and another woman about starting a Side-by-Side chapter. It was my first time hearing about such a ministry. All of us lived 30 minutes apart from one another, but we committed to meet once a week and host some fun events each block. Yes, it took coordination and extra planning, it takes one night away from home or a Saturday here or there, and it took laying down our fears of others rejections. Over the course of the past two years we have seen our group grow and have recently added a day-time gathering for mainly SHAMS who have little ones they are juggling and can’t always leave them with dad in the evenings. If starting a group seems overwhelming, I would love to talk with you and help you. If you have been transplanted in an area where you know no one are it’s two years into medical school and you don’t know how to even begin connecting with others, I’d love to chat. The medical school journey is a LONG and know one should feel isolated during this journey.