If you’re new here, hi, I’m Al, and I got really sick last year, healed, then got really sick again right as I was beginning medical school. I’ve been writing this post for a while in bits and pieces, struggling to put together what I’ve learned in the past year. It’s been tough for me to put some of these emotions into words- even titling this post is a bit uncomfortable. “Lessons I Learned From My Quarter-Life Crisis” doesn’t even start to cover the events that triggered said crisis, nor does it address the fact that it is most definitely ongoing.
Even the name of my site is a bit tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the fact that making “adult” decisions triggers existential dread. But some of these decisions actually did pertain to my existence—many of them were framed in the context of a very real fear surrounding what would change if I lost my foot or my illness became critical. As such, this isn’t advice, nor do I expect this to be applicable to anyone else’s situation. It’s intended as a way of processing, expressing gratitude, and putting down into words what I hope to do going forward.
1) Don’t Adhere To Plans at All Costs
Out of everything, this is probably the most important quarter-life crisis lesson I’ve learned. I’ve always prided myself on my tenacity, but my need to stick to the plans I’ve made for myself has put me in situations that have jeopardized my health and well-being. In the past, I’ve been able to stick it out and accomplished what I set out to do. However, these achievements often came at the cost of other aspects of my life. I learned the (really) hard way, but the most important thing I’ve gained from this is the recognition that goals often are reached by multiple paths. Being too rigid prevents creativity. Having to create a new path encourages growth.
2) Let Time Run Its Course
September is an important month for me—last year, it was the year my life took an unexpected turn when I left medical school. This year, it is the one-year anniversary of finishing antibiotics for osteomyelitis. Reaching this 12-month mark is important for me, as almost all recurrences of a bone infection occur within the first year.
After my first infection, I thought I had healed until what I thought was a sprained ankle revealed itself to be the infection returning. After healing from the second infection, every minor ache and pain, even those that would be expected after three surgeries, immediately sparked fear.
Maybe it’s because I really love data, but there’s something deeply comforting about knowing that just by waking up each day and going about my life, I’m statistically further and further away from that fear being real. Some things just need time.
3) Regrets Aren’t Worth It
I spent a lot of time beating myself up for going to medical school in the first place, and not seeking help the moment I felt pain in my foot. I regretted the fact that I dragged my sorry butt to Portugal despite a brewing foot infection, and spent a horrible 48 hours trying to get back to the US. I regretted that I spent the money, time, and effort to move, only to move back in with my parents. I even regretted leaving school, although I knew it was the right decision, because I felt like I had “given up”.
We all have moments where we wish we could have behaved differently or said something else. Dwelling on my regrets did nothing to change what happened, and if anything, spending my time perseverating over my past decisions only further solidified any negative beliefs I had in my head. Although I likely will never be the type of person who can bounce back immediately, I have put a lot of work into focusing on my present decisions rather than worry about what could have changed.
4) Be Open
I’ve always considered myself to be fairly open-minded, but this year, it’s taken on a new meaning. In the last year, I’ve been open to embracing the weird and random, saying “yes” to situations that push me, make me uncomfortable, or don’t fit perfectly into my vision of the future. If I have an opportunity to take on a weird task or start a new side-project, I’ve embraced it.
My partner often talks about how passion isn’t just innate, it’s developed. I never had the words for this until we spoke about it, but I realized this year just how true this was—the things I am passionate about are such because I have nurtured them and raised them to be. Being willing to embrace something that could develop into something far more important is a combination of openness and time.
5) Listen to the Pros (And Everyone Else Too)
When my orthopedic surgeon first suggested that I not start medical school in the first place while healing, I completely ignored him. Earlier that day, he had referred to me (and his PA) as “girls” and I immediately discounted him as patronizing. While the prior comment may very well have been patronizing, it had little to do with the quality of his medical advice. By immediately writing him off, I did myself a disservice.
The keyword, however, is listen, not “allow other people to decide for you”. It is very likely that I’d have listened to him, but still have decided to do what I wanted to do anyway. However, at least being open to the advice and suggestions of others, I can allow myself to analyze from broader perspectives and see what I may have overlooked.
6) Not Everything Needs to be a Lesson
This is a list of lessons, but I also think there’s something to be said for the things that don’t result in a lesson. I used to believe there was a deeper meaning behind everything that happens in my life. While I don’t necessarily have “regrets” over the decisions I’ve made, because I believe they all play an integral part in who I am today, I also realize that I have made bad choices, experienced pain, and felt sadness, and sometimes, there’s no underlying “reason” that it occurred.
Trying to create deep philosophical explanations for things that were largely just crappy only made me stressed when I couldn’t come up with much.
7) Ask What Matters
Although most of these lessons could be summed up as “I could afford to be less hard on myself”, the most significant practice I adopted this year was to continually ask myself, “What matters?”. As a daily practice, I think about what matters most on any given day. While sometimes, it is admittedly task-oriented or focused on a specific goal, most of the time, it’s about telling the people I love that I love them, extending compassion to others, and being present.
I could not have predicted the impact of COVID-19 and the subsequent changes it kindled. I especially did not assume an event like a pandemic would occur so soon after such significant personal crises. Asking what matters has helped with my quarter-life crisis and dealing with a global crisis. As a result of this practice, I feel more capable of coping with COVID-related difficulties—it is deeply grounding and forces me to zoom out before panicking in the moment.
Quarter-Life Crisis Lessons
I have still have a lot to learn, and I am most definitely not over the quarter-life crisis stage of my life. I will probably freak out over a lot of the things I think I have resolved here, but I am looking forward to waking up tomorrow, knowing that I am one day further from my foot acting up and one day closer to a better evaluation of what matters.