Holiday Madness

Snow has been falling and melting since Halloween, taunting us with the promise of a white Christmas, only to be snatched away again as another warm spell hits. As of this morning, we have two – maybe three – inches of slightly crusty snow on the ground. The southern part of the province was blasted yesterday, but by some miracle of the multiple lakes governing our weather systems, we were missed.

Around me people are shopping and decorating; others are giving somewhat depressing lectures as to why they don’t buy into the holiday season, muttering things that half-resonate with me like “Consumerism and materialism”. To a friend, I casually comment that I kind of agree with the sentiment. They nod, only half paying attention, eyes shadowed with that familiar anxiety I know all too well.

The pile-up of exams and end-of-term assignments leaves little room to focus on other things, which I why I dub the Christmas lead-up weeks my “least favourite time of the year”. Not because I hate Christmas – quite the opposite in fact – but because I tend to feel absolutely burnt out and “done”. Between exams and abstracts and band and choir concerts and simple menial things I should do like clean my room and laundry (hah), I go to bed exhausted but unable to sleep, planning my agenda for the next day.

The new year presents “fresh starts” that I seize with gusto, adding more and more things to my plate until I’m just trying to keep afloat again, promising emptily that this time – this time – I’ll do less. Eleven months later, December rolls around once more, and the phrase that most often escapes my lips is “I’m so tired”, or it’s slight variation, “I’m effing exhausted”. There is no sympathy – my peers are in the same boat as me, and the older adults sit by knowingly and promise, “It gets worse.”

“I just want a day to myself,” I lament to the boy, typing up an essay with frantic fingers, a third cup of coffee close to hand. He gives me the cynical look of someone who’s spent two and a half years with my madness, and says, “Stephie, there’s no way you’ll take a day to yourself. You’d find something to do.”

“Would not,” I argue. “I might go to the gym, since that happens about once a month anyways, and maybe I’d clean my room, since that happens about never, but the rest of the day I’d just relax.” He rolls his eyes at me. “I know you.” He says simply, which I don’t deny. I’ve recently found a new job, and will likely be spending the holiday weeks training and working.

I point this out, half in desperation, half excited, worrying that I’ll watch my free time go in a blur of coffee cups. “You’ll love it,” He says with a smile, and pulls me close. “And you’ll have lots of time to spend with yourself, and with me, and with your family.” Which is exactly what matters anyways.

* * *

I love to keep busy. In part, I think it’s some kind of anxiety coping mechanism. If you move fast enough, it can’t catch you. If you’re contributing, you’re not wasting space. This seems to be a common theme among my peers.

The media proclaims that, according to research, we early twenty-somethings belong to an entitled generation, expecting gold stars on everything we do. While I’m sure that holds true for some, I don’t really see it in the majority of my consorts. Rather, some of us work ourselves raw, fearing that in a world where “everyone succeeds”, we’ll be the ones that fail. Others quit “while they’re ahead” – why even try to keep up? In all cases, I think we’re terrified we’re not living up to our full potential. I’d go so far as to call this a cultural disorder.

Busy and productive are the principle measurements of success; we get off on comparing ourselves to what everyone else is doing. “Oh, you think YOU’RE busy? Well, let me tell you what I’ve done this month/week/today.” We pass this off as commiserating during our half-hour meetings for coffee with friends, sandwiched between two commitments off our ever growing lists of “things to do today”.

Sometimes we’re just venting, but I also think that often we’re seeking validation and approval. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself – it’s the fact that the fact that we’re putting aside self-care in the name of attaining some sort of arbitrary height of productivity that gets to me. I can definitely see something wrong here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be productive, but when did neglecting our wellbeing become so socially acceptable?

The other side to my personal “busy-ness” is that I love to do so many different things. I love to create music and play sports and go to the gym and bake things and curl up with a cup of tea and a book and attend school and learn as much as I can and help others out and play video games and travel the world and go hiking and skiing and swimming and skating and read articles and write. I just want to be so engaged in everything all at once, and I try to split myself up in as many directions as possible in order to do everything I want to do.

Coming to terms with the fact that I can’t actually do everything is proving to be a challenge.

* * *

In the next seven days, I have two exams left to write and a paper to review; one rehearsal and one band concert; another rehearsal and two choir concerts; a lab lunch, and work training. That’s essentially it. My plans for the three or so weeks off I have include working, yes, and cleaning my room and sorting out more of my clothes, because this is absolutely something that needs doing. But I also plan on taking at least a few days all to myself, and many days to spend with the boy and my family, and at least a few days to spend with my friends returning from out of town for the holidays.

I don’t love the weeks leading up to the holidays, but once I get past these we enter my favourite time of year, so I can’t really complain. I love the Christmas season because it’s time of rest and recharge following a year of growth. Maybe in the upcoming year I’ll focus more on my well-being, on not overwhelming myself. On seeing what I can cut out as opposed to what I can add in. I feel it’s time for a season of a different sort of growth.

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Life Talk: New Goals

I’ve successfully finished my second year of university and begun a full-time internship in a medical school lab. We’re studying the role of PNMT (an enzyme) in hypertension, and I am honestly having the time of my life.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking that I may want a career in a research area, and so far this experience is reinforcing that. It is beyond cool to be applying everything I learned in my biochem course last semester (Seriously, where was this when I needed to consolidate the procedure for SDS-PAGE and Western Blotting? I literally do that all day now!), and I will likely be getting a project to work on this summer and the next that I can use to write up my undergraduate thesis. For now, I’m working on finishing up some work for a couple of graduate theses to be published, which means I might just end up with my name on a publication. I am so stoked! 😀

So, where am I at? Well, I’m clearly not in Africa right now ( 😉 ); that’s been moved to the first semester of my fourth year, when I will (hopefully) be spending ten or so weeks there completing a medical/physio internship in a hospital and the remainder of the semester finishing up my honours thesis. I am currently still working towards a degree in Kinesiology and a concurrent major in Biochemistry. This won’t be changing any time soon – I absolutely love everything I am studying. 

In terms of this summer, my (meticulously planned) hours are occupied with my internship, my part-time job, socializing (can’t neglect the friends and boyfriend!), a course in nutrition, and MCAT studying.

Yup, I’m working towards my MCAT – I’ve been carefully considering graduate programs and have realized that an MD/PhD program is pretty much perfect for me. These programs are 7 to 9 years long on average (in Canada at least, and this time frame looks to be relatively similar in the States), and combine both a PhD and an MD degree into one specialized program.

Why do an MD/PhD? Well, I already know that research is what I want to make a career out of. Lifestyle and health have been my passion for many years now, leading me to major in Kinesiology, and it’s been so fun to delve into the biochemical aspects of the human body. The more I learn, the more I want to know – I want to fully understand the processes that govern our lives, and use this understanding to tweak my lifestyle choices in such a way that optimizes my quality of life. I want to inspire other people to do the same, to motivate them to make choices that can support them in the everyday, building a strong foundation to lead lives. In order to achieve this, I want to contribute to our overall understanding of human physiology – and research is the best way I can think of contributing to make a difference.

The particular area I’m interested in – reproductive endocrinology – offers many areas of research interest. Fertility problems are common nowadays – I myself am working towards recovering from hypothalamic amenorrhea – and the more I look into the complex interactions of our endocrine systems, our environnements, and our lifestyles, the more I feel that this is an area I can really help people in. Hormones are absolutely fascinating to me, and I believe that their actions are all linked to some extent. If we can understand the mechanisms underlying their actions (and there are many areas in which studies need to be done here), we can learn how to manage our environments in oder to take control of our health as a whole.

Completing an MD/PhD would give me the opportunity to both help others in a clinical practice and also allow me to conduct studies with human participants (as opposed to animals). I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and talked to countless people. I’ve been told that doing an MD alone offers plenty of opportunities for research, and I agree entirely – however, I truly value the amount of laboratory training that goes into obtaining a PhD degree and feel that it can only be beneficial for my development as a clinician-scientist (in both techniques and expertise in my area of study).

I am electrified just thinking about this. It’s a very long road paved with challenges – the MD/PhD program is approximately eight years, followed by two years of residency in gynaecology and a two year fellowship in reproductive endocrinology. If you’re keeping track, that means I’ll be in school (and earning minimal pay) until I am 34 or 35 years old, assuming that I get into a program on the first try. The uncertainty is scary – but I know that this is what I want to do.

My (unofficial plan) looks something like this:

– Complete lab internship and begin working on thesis project
– Write MCAT and achieve a 40+ score (have to aim high!)
– Boost average by 1.6% in order to achieve a 3.9 GPA (based on OMSAS guidelines)
– Get a volunteer job in a health area after MCAT is completed
– Continue with laboratory work
– Apply to PhD/MD programs in Ontario and BC
– Graduate with a B.Sc. (Hons) in kinesiology with a major in biochemistry
– Complete PhD in human physiology and residency in gynaecology 
– Do a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology
– Get a job in a research hospital and set up a practice and/or work in a fertility clinic

Well, this definitely got wordy quickly! I’ll post something soon on my MCAT study plan, just in case it helps someone out (hint: it doesn’t involve studying for 8+ hours at a time). God knows I can’t focus for that long!

Loving What You Do

I love what I do.

I realize that I’m rather fortunate in this regard. I watch so many people leave for work in the morning, cup of coffee clutched in one hand and car keys in the other, with that indifferently bored look. They come home miserable and grouchy with no energy for anything but the television, which they spend the evening planted before with dead eyes until their significant others come and drag them away to sleep, which in itself becomes an escape from the stress of the day past and dread for the next.

I’m a student. Not even twenty yet, with a good idea of what I’d like to make of my life and enough understanding of myself to know that that may change at any given time. I love to study. I love my field of study. I love my morning rituals of breakfast alone and coffee on the morning commute to school or work. I love the feeling of having spent a day working my mind. And I know I’m lucky, because I’ve found something I absolutely adore and would study regardless of wether or not I’m in a classroom at that given moment. Many of my friends and classmates dislike school – they see it as a means to an end. A degree leading to a job. Ideally, a well-paying job.

I hope that they love the job they end up getting. I decided (not so long ago) that my happiness was my first priority. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be well-paid, or that there’s even a job waiting for me at the end of this weird major + specialization of a degree I’m getting, but I know that I won’t settle (long term) for anything less than a job that I love. Money won’t make me happy; beyond meeting basic needs, such as shelter and food, acquisition feels almost anti-climactic. The working towards a goal feels much more fulfilling than the rewards of that goal itself. The latter is much more of a fleeting sense of accomplishment, followed by a let down period.

I don’t want to be one of those people who wake up and dread going to work. I want to really love what I do. I want to make sure I have time for the things I love, be that travel, spending time in coffee shops, making fancy meals, reading a good book, playing games with family, skating on the lake, hiking in the wilderness, camping, practicing the piano, going berry picking, writing. I want to have the time to give back to the community and spend time with my loved ones – I want time for myself, time for reflection and time for thanks. I don’t want to spend too much of my time stuck in my head (though I never want to stop thinking) or regretting the things I haven’t done.

Basically, I want to continue to love what I do, no matter where I’m at in my life. This is a gentle reminder to myself to slow down and make sure that I’m still prioritizing my happiness. When I’m happy, I can better help others to be happier, and things tend to fall into place.

Priorities and Time

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, organic chemistry lab book open on top of my biochemistry lab book, which is (as of yet) unopen. I have work to do – midterms to study for, lab reports to write up (as evidenced), a room to clean. My dishes from breakfast are undone in the sink. I need to do groceries. I’d like to go for a run. At least the laundry’s done.

A few more minutes tick away, and I’m no further along. I’m bored – the mechanism of a heartbeat is too wordy, information on organocopper synthesis from alkynes too scant, and for some reason I’m still stalling on the research I need to do on G75, a gel-filtration chromatography matrix – and being bored is one of the worst things in the world. I feel like I have the entire day to work (a rare happening courtesy of a day off my schedules part-time job), and that much unstructured time has me sitting unproductively, to say the least.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who stares down into the abyss of a seemingly endless amount of time and feels that there’s both entirely too much of it and, paradoxically, not enough of it at all. In a morning, ideally, I’d wake up, meditate, have breakfast, get dressed, wash my face, do my makeup, make my bed, make a plan for the day, and head out. I’ve done two of those things thus far.

These are little things – trivial, but they make me feel grounded. Right now, I don’t feel too grounded. In my attempt to get to the pressing matters, I let those little things go for a time. I think it’s time to re-prioritize them, because I can guarantee that I could have taken that half hour to do all those things and be just as – if not more – far along in the work I need to do. 

It’s finding – or making – the time. Accepting that maybe, just maybe, there isn’t time. Not for everything. I can’t always be a sister-friend-girlfriend-athlete-student-employee-volunteer. Not all of those things all at once, anyways. I could study everything I’m interested in, get degrees in kinesiology and biochemistry and modern languages and concert piano, but then I’d never develop a career – and that’s something I want more than just about anything right now. The building of a career is what gets me up at six in the morning to rush off to school and study; it’s what keeps me reading my textbooks on the long bus rides home and working on my assignments until the small hours of the morning, only to finally crawl exhausted into bed to another night of too little sleep. Rinse, repeat.

I love it, I really do – this mayhem and madness and the building of stress and the inevitable relief of the coming down, the rare mornings such as this one where I can sleep in to my leisure (7:45!) and enjoy a quiet breakfast alone over my (mostly untouched) lab assignments before my family wakes up and the day begins in earnest.

I don’t have time to do everything. I’m still trying to find the right balance of work-play-quiet – at the moment, the whole thing is heavily skewed toward the “work” aspect, but that’s student life de facto. Today, I’ll finish my two lab reports and hopefully have a much better understanding of the cardiovascular system – and tomorrow, a new day begins.

Overreaching

I definitely spend a lot of my time living in my head. It’s not that I don’t ever find enjoyment in the present moment, because I do. It’s just that relative to the time I spend dreaming, I spent little time really being present. It’s something I’m trying to be more conscious of. Like right now. It’s 1:14. I’m sitting on a comfortable couch in the library common room next to the Starbucks, sipping my coffee and doing my orgo lab report blogging. My mind is wandering. To the med school presentation I attended yesterday. To my plans for the future. I get unreasonably excited for “the future”, as though it’s something tangible.

The proverb “Today is the future you thought about yesterday” sums it up. The future isn’t really anything more than an idea. The only thing that’s “actual” is the here and the has been, and the only thing we can change is the here. That’s not to say goal setting isn’t important, because it is. We find personal meaning in something to aim for, and I think that’s important for everyone.

It’s what we do today that brings us closer to achieving those goals. And that’s the thing. When I dream, I’m usually intending on setting goals. For example, some of my life goals include traveling the world, writing a novel, publishing an indie album, writing a cookbook, learning to speak five different languages, achieve my ARCT in piano and achieve a black-belt level in Taek Won Do. Professionally, I want to go into clinical research in reproductive and metabolic endocrinology, as that’s an area I am deeply passionate about. Ultimately, I want to help people lead healthy lives with a focus on preventative, proactive measures rather than reactive measures.

To do these things, I have to take steps, and while I spend my time thinking about my plans or dreaming them up, I’m not really doing what it takes to get there. I spend so much time procrastinating. For world travel, I’ve been doing quite well – I spent last summer in Fiji and I have an internship set up in Tanzania, Africa (fingers crossed!) for this upcoming summer. I have been working on a novel for years now (it began with an idea a friend and I had in the sixth grade, and has since become something I feel like I *have* to get out of me sooner or later). As for publishing an indie album, that’s kind of more of a loose idea, but I play piano and sing and my brother and his friends are excellent guitarists/bassists/drummers, and I think it’d be so fun to record an album made up of covers and a few originals. Those last two are “just for fun” projects. 😉

As for learning languages, I speak English and French fluently – next up is Spanish, Italian and probably German, motivated by the fact that I hope to spend the first semester of my fourth year studying abroad in Europe (more points to the world travel plans!). I’ll likely take Spanish courses next summer. For my ARCT in piano – I have my grade 8 piano certification, but I haven’t taken piano lessons in a year and a half. I really need to get back into that. And as for Taek Won Do – I haven’t done Taek Won Do in about seven years, but I loved it and would love to get back into it again.

I guess I kind of feel like I’m “overreaching”. I set so many goals based on the things I love doing, but the reality is that I don’t have time to complete all of them. Not right now, anyways. My main function is that of a student. I’m doing a specialized degree with another major alongside, and so my course load is manageable but somewhat heavy. I work part-time, and may be getting a second job (which would be very fun! Details to come) and a volunteering job (I finally found an organisation that I feel would be a good fit for me, details also to come 🙂 ). Then there’s the social aspect: I want to spend time with my family, with my boyfriend, with my friends. I want to have time to read novels and blogs and practice for band and do homework and possibly sleep, eat, and take care of basic personal hygiene. Cleaning my room is an added bonus (no really, it rarely gets done – I know I’m not the only one who *never* makes the bed, but I feel like that’s probably something I can take five minutes to do). 😉 

Not to mention that while I’m spending time procrastinating, I’m not accomplishing anything to work towards my goals. I should really be doing my orgo lab report right now, because I need to get good grades in my courses in order to get into post-graduate programs and due-dates aren’t usually flexible (and come with heavy penalties when they are). And despite all that, I know it’s also important to take time to relax – and downtime is a lot more relaxing when you know you’ve actually gotten things done.