Letter from Sam

Dear friend,

What I wish I knew ten years ago was that things would be remarkably different now. Today, I’m proud of who I am and I’m merrily slaving away in an MD-PhD program in New York City.  I’ll be here for 8 years and graduate just in time to collect Medicare.  Perfect.

I do get a lot of crap from my parents and others about the fact that I will be in school “forever.”  I remember standing as a 13-year old in a crowded auditorium – it was your standard career fair. I listened intently as a school representative told me that there are some programs where you can get two degrees…for free... with a stipend. That was it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into medicine or graduate school, and I was definitely not down with taking on the notoriously large amount of debt inherent in medical school, so I was sold.

Yup. I’m probably one of the only people who will openly admit that I was first interested in a dual MD-PhD program because I was terrified of debt and uncertain if I wanted to become a doctor or a scientist. And though at the time I thought that was the depth of my decision, I’ve come to recognize things that unfolded before, during, and after that time that reshaped and confirmed my decision.

One of those reasons is my lifelong battle with a disease called IgA Nephropathy. It’s an autoimmune condition that basically causes damage to your kidney, and little is understood about it.  I was diagnosed when I was an angst-filled 13 year-old, and felt pretty alone in the fact that I had to battle a mysterious kidney disease.  I was stuck thinking: Why do I have this?  How come no one knows much about it?  This got my wheels turning and sparked my interest in science and medicine.

Though that past helped bring me here, I’ve begun redefining my future. There is a 110% chance that I will be going into Psychiatry, and I also happen to be among the millions of Americans who have personally struggled with a mental illness. It likely started in my teenage years and continued throughout high school, college, and persists still to this day in med school. For reasons that some of you reading might feel yourself, I was hesitant to seek help until things hit rock bottom for me during my first year of med school. And for me, rock bottom looked pretty ugly: rapid and chaotic mood swings, haunting paranoia and obsessions, anxiety in each and every interpersonal interaction and relationship I had, and even thoughts of harming myself.  It wasn’t until I was in the depths of despair and hadn’t slept for 72 hours straight that I finally sought help. Since then, things have only been getting better. Treatment has been incredibly helpful, and despite being on a cocktail of medications, I have no complaints.

For that reason, my interest in Psychiatry is personal. Just like I long for clarity with my autoimmune disease, I also wish to gain a better understanding of mental illness so that we can all live our lives to the fullest.  That’s why I have decided to pursue a PhD in neuroscience to study the brains of people with mental illnesses to find biomarkers to help detect and treat mental illnesses.

The last layer to my interest in psychiatry is that I’m gay. In the community in which I grew up, being gay meant that you’re going to Hell, or have been influenced by the devil, or brainwashed by the liberal media, or something like that. I hid that part of myself for ten years and repressed it to the max, afraid of the shame my family would feel.  All the while, I blamed myself, and though I knew that being gay is not something that needed to be changed and was not a mental condition, there was this rather desperate feeling I had as I tried to figure out what was going on in my own world with the slim hope that I could conform to the world everyone else wanted me to fit.

Throughout my life I battled things that were pathologies of the body, but it seemed that the pathologies of society threatened to hold me back more. My journey led me to this career path and I intend to make the most of it so that people don’t have to travel the way I did to get here. We desperately need better clinical care and more advanced research into the underpinnings of mental illness, and it’s something I’m terribly passionate about.  Alongside medical school, I currently facilitate a group therapy in Harlem, and after every session I leave with a beaming smile knowing that I may have helped someone with mental illness. Someone like me, possibly someone like you. After finishing my second year of medical school, I will eagerly join a lab to work on the neurobiology of several mental illnesses.

So let me leave some take-home messages with you that have helped me and may help you:

1.) It’s OK to not have a perfectly articulate reason for choosing a career path. That’s the beauty of hindsight. Looking back now, I can easily identify the factors that pushed me along the physician-scientist direction, but I didn’t know all of them at the time.  Even if the applications and interviews demand your certainty, give yourself time to grow and learn.

2.) It’s OK to have selfish motives for school and work. Wanting to have answers to my own problems pointed me to my current career path, and holy hell, I’m so glad I’m here.  Over time, you realize that helping others who you can identify with is one of the most gratifying experiences on earth. Being selfish can tell you a lot about your current and future passions.

3.) Life can suck in a lot of ways, but the level of happiness and satisfaction gathered from finding a positive solution from a bad problem is unreal. But at the same time, I will never say to anyone struggling with mental illness, being LGBTQ, and/or having a chronic disease that: “hey, yeah I know it sucks, but just turn that smile upside down.”  Frankly, if someone had said that to me when I was a teenager struggling with all of those things, I would have just assumed they didn’t know what the Hell they were talking about. Which brings me to my last point….   

4.) While you as a person are unique, your problems are not.  Let me repeat that: the problems you are struggling with right this very moment are not unique.  Trust me, I know. Somewhere out there, there is AT LEAST one other person who is currently or has gone through the same thing, even if it’s a combination of a lot of bad things.  So always remember that you are never alone.  Somewhere out there, there is someone going through what you’re going through.  Reach out, be open, and find strength in community.

Cheers to you all,

Sam Owen