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Navigating Life Transitions

There is something about a big life transition that often forces you to reflect on the life you have lived this far.

A short story

When I was 24 I just got to medical school. And at my white coat ceremony one of the attendings was speaking and she said “my hope for you all is that you have a serious illness from which you fully recover.” My immediate reaction was… why would you ever say that? Particularly because I’m not a lucky person and after the words came out of her mouth I felt a heaviness in my stomach.

So fast forward a few months after that white coat ceremony. I came home for Thanksgiving to visit my parents. Was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer. Had major surgery right around my birthday was stuck in the hospital around Christmas, and needed multiple rounds of radiation thereafter. The only thing I was excited about at that time was that if I lived through this my car insurance rates would drop because I was now 25.

Thankfully I survived. And then clawed my way through medical school because I wanted to graduate with my matriculating class and despite my parents wanting me to take time off I said no and went back anyway. When I started medical school I was initially on a military scholarship. When they found out I was sick. They dropped me and said I could reapply in 5 years when I was healthy again. To which I said no thank you, because I didn’t want to be part of an organization I was willing to commit a lifetime of service to, only to be dropped flat on my face at such a difficult time in my life.

Then I came to residency where I was fortunate to have incredible supervisors and mentors. I learned all about therapy, how to treat complex cases of PTSD, was taught to think critically and to see things from different angles. To always question what I think I know about a case, and to always be intellectually curious. I was taught to value strong leadership, and to push myself to be better than I was the day before. I was reminded that our humanity is the difference between being a good doctor and a great one.

What’s the point?

The point is that life happens to us whether we are ready for it or not. Sometimes we just have to ride the waves. There are times in our lives where things are going to go swimmingly, and there are other times in our lives where it seems like everything is going wrong. It’s easy to take a look at social media where we tend to portray the best versions of ourselves, look at someone we know who appears to have the perfect life and beat ourselves up because we don’t look like that. But the reality is that even people who appear to be perfect take their turn when it comes to personal difficulties. The ebb and flow of life is part of the human experience and is something that we all have in common.

A few words of wisdom

When it comes to navigating major life transitions the first step in any situation, particularly a stressful one is to take a few moments to breathe. Taking a few seconds to calm the mind and slow the heart puts us in a better position in which to think more clearly. It is very difficult to think logically and rationally when our senses are on overdrive.

Sometimes taking a few deep breaths isn’t enough time for us to really think through a difficult situation. If it’s not a life or death emergency, sleep on it. Give yourself the time you need to make the best decision you can.

If you’re still stuck talk to people you trust. Take their advice into account, and consider the angles they are coming from. However, it’s important to not let your actions be dictated by other people’s opinions. At the end of the day your life is yours, and you get to decide how you want to live it.

One of the best ways to prevent yourself from learning the hard way when it comes to major life transitions is to find someone who is a good mentor. Someone who you feel lives life well, in a manner that is in line with your goals and values. Being open to learning from others can potentially save you quite a lot of heartache and headaches in your life.

And remember, life at times is difficult. There are days when it feels like we can’t win but it is important to remember that we are not alone in our difficulties. We all take turns when it comes to enduring struggles. You just have to ride the wave.

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