By Marc Drake
I had a professor in college that would always say, “If college is the best four years of your life, then you should kill yourself the day after graduation.” It was a crude and exaggerated joke, but the sentiment was clear: Life goes on after college. Life should get better.
During school, I took this as a given. I enjoyed the opportunities and benefits my university offered, ranging from writing for the student newspaper to attending soccer matches while studying abroad in London. I was truly grateful to be in my position, and I acknowledged these experiences would mark a special time in my life.
However, during most of my undergraduate experience, I operated under the assumption that my best days were ahead of me. Everything I had accomplished up to that point was just a precursor to great things to come, and I was determined not to regard my college years as the “glory days.”
Three months out of school, however, I wasn’t quite so sure about this anymore. I had elected to take a gap year before medical school to get some more clinical experience, earn a little extra money, and most importantly, to take a break before I jumped into the next few years of intense studying. I started my first “real” job in Chicago and decided to live with my parents in the suburbs (“You’ll save so much money this way!” my mother had insisted). But a few months in, I realized I was profoundly lonely. Lonelier than I had ever been, in fact.
“During college, I had always romanticized the idea of loneliness — it was the catalyst for great art, music and new ideas, I thought. But by the time I began realizing the value of others’ company, it seemed as if everyone who really mattered was gone.”
Everyone who I had grown up with had left home. I felt estranged from my coworkers, who were living in Chicago and seemed to have booming social lives. My friends from college all seemed to be off earning impressive salaries in impressive cities while my experimental year was proving to be a bust.
During college, I had always romanticized the idea of loneliness — it was the catalyst for great art, music and new ideas, I thought. But by the time I began realizing the value of others’ company, it seemed as if everyone who really mattered was gone.
Despite the paucity of social support I felt I was receiving from my peers, I had two important things to help me during my difficult days: a loving family and a supportive significant other. Their care left me in better shape than swathes of the population. So why did I feel so down all the time?
While my friends wrestled through the dating world, I was in a committed long-term relationship — I was doing something right. We had seemed to master the distance thing in the past, so we weren’t worried about that aspect too much. We would still see each other regularly, and I had anticipated that this year was going to be a great one for both of us: I would gain experience in healthcare and be able to attend the medical school of my choosing, while she would continue grad school, thriving as she always had. But she continued to succeed, as expected, while I struggled to adjust to the disappointment of the year.
Work was not what I expected it would be. My advertised responsibilities were incredibly different than those I was expected to complete, and I did not get along with my coworkers. I soon learned that the medical school application process was filled with rejection. As the months went on, I noticed conversations with my girlfriend were becoming more and more strained; she obviously was growing tired of hearing how terrible traffic was every morning, about the prejudices of my coworkers, and how I missed my friends. I was surprised by how our conversations left me feeling: angry, impatient, fatigued. I realized I was beginning to resent her for all of the fun she was having, all the great things that she was doing.
“My professor spoke of the dangers of hindsight. But in my gap year, I learned the dangers of focusing exclusively on the future. With my constant comparisons and anticipation of things to come, I realized that I was looking for happiness in my accomplishments. ”
After five years of dating, she truly felt like an extension of myself, and up until then, I had no trouble celebrating each of her successes as my own. Now I felt as if I had exhausted all of my empathy. She was thriving in her situation; I was drowning in mine. Hearing her speak about how she attended another conference, went to another party, and how all the students she was teaching loved her made me feel as if my life was wasting away. I wanted to share in her success, not live vicariously through her. Maybe my best days were in college, I began to think. Despite her efforts to make time for me and provide support, I had trouble feeling adequate. She was doing everything right, both within the relationship and out, and that was exactly the problem.
I assumed that when I got into medical school, I’d feel better about my situation. It would make these miserable feelings worth something — a justification for the poor gamble I had taken. To my excitement, the acceptances eventually began to trickle in. But as the initial thrill wore off, I noticed I was still struggling with the same negative emotions.
My professor spoke of the dangers of hindsight. But in my gap year, I learned the dangers of focusing exclusively on the future. With my constant comparisons and anticipation of things to come, I realized that I was looking for happiness in my accomplishments.
I’ve had to shake the idea that the perfect resume is what will make me happy. Instead, I’m trying my best to embrace my hobbies and the people around me. Though it has been a persistent challenge, I’ve slowly learned the joys of living in the present.
Marc Drake is a medical research assistant living in (a suburb of) Chicago.