“Oh, shit,” I said to myself as I sat on the toilet, pants down, grasping at a pink plastic stick between my legs. “I’m pregnant.”
I stared at the baby blue “+” sign. There was no mistaking it. I didn’t have to wait the 60 seconds for those fateful intersecting lines to appear.
“It’s a girl,” I thought, and my heart swelled with joy. Within seconds that transformed into anxiety and fear.
Fear of how the fuck I was going to handle this.
The hot tears flowed freely. “I’m an intern.” A resident, only three months in and ready to quit, filled with crippling self-doubt.
I was halfway across the country in a new city, away from family, and now pregnant.
“Three more years…only three more years,” I told myself. This was the only opportunity I had to pay off my MASSIVE student debt.
It would be difficult, but I could do it, right?
I was wrong.
The fact that I was growing a human inside me seemed irrelevant by the following day.
My Pregnant Reality as an Intern
My alarm still rang like a siren at 4:00am, the demands of my internship no different than other residency programs. On a good day I would leave the hospital by 7:00pm, only to finish charting from home by the midnight deadline. This was the expectation, six days a week, with one “golden weekend” a month off.
As the months went on and my belly grew, I was averaging five hours of sleep a night on a good night.
When we were understaffed on the labor and delivery ward, I missed prenatal appointments. I delivered three babies into the world within an hour, sweating under a hot surgical lamp during an episiotomy repair. My abdomen cramped, and I assured myself they were false contractions.
I fainted on several occasions from exhaustion and poor nutrition.
I even became a patient, earning myself a night in the hospital for monitoring of high blood pressure and bleeding. I was working 80+ hours a week, and it was affecting my health, my well-being, my unborn baby.
By the end of my pregnancy, I had had enough.
I contemplated never going back.
And then… she was born. 7lbs and 1oz, and perfect— no drugs, no IV’s, no D5LR or NPO, me and my precious, healthy, baby girl.
Like many new parents will tell you, maternity leave was not the bundle of joy everyone envisions. Mine was extra special because of reasons I cannot legally disclose.
Now we were on our own, and it was time for me to return to my training.
I had completed 11 of the 12 months of intern year. If I took one more day of maternity leave, I would have to repeat the year. Postpartum depression and 89 days later, I went back.
Was it the right time?
Was I emotionally stable enough to endure it?
Would it be the worst year of my life to date?
My baby had trouble sleeping. I would cradle her fragile body and rock her for hours on end. My facial muscles sore from constant shushing, my throat dry from singing lullabies, I cried silently in desperation for a moment’s rest.
From the moment I returned to work, I was fighting for my child.
I was given the time and space to pump, but the assembly line of patients was not conducive to a new mother. After six months, I was pumping less than an ounce of milk, transparent and watery in consistency. In retrospect, my baby awoke so much because she was starving.
Because I joined the academic year three months late after maternity leave, I had to make up my absence from the on-call schedule by cramming it into what remained of the year.
I had nine months to complete six months of hospital medicine and nine weeks of night call (6pm – 8am or 12pm). I would sometimes work up to 19 days consecutively, often on weekend nights. My days were not for sleeping but for caring for my daughter since I couldn’t afford more childcare.
I was working non-stop—all while raising an infant.
It wasn’t just the hours in the hospital—desensitizing me to death and disease—nor the guilt of a sleep-deprived and absent mother. It was the loneliness I created for myself that eroded me.
In part, the culture of medicine requires you to be tough. The expectation is to keep your personal problems to yourself. But I DON’T blame them. We were numb. And we were silent. I was silent.
When you’re surrounded by death, it’s easier to shut down than to feel. It’s easier to be annoyed with the family that wants to “do everything possible” than to have compassion for them.
When you are that exhausted, you feel a moment’s pleasure when a patient dies, because now your list is one less. When you are that exhausted, there is no room to take care of anyone else, including yourself.
My emotional intelligence withered with my empathy. My life was leading me into a spiral of self-hatred. I wasn’t “burned out,” I was clinically depressed.
A Dark Time
I hated being a doctor.
I hated being a mother.
I hated being alive.
It was the darkest time I have ever experienced. I was so deep in depression that I couldn’t think clearly—my head was in a fog and my mind in a storm. I had crippling anxiety that kept me in bed for days. I suffered silently, afraid to show weakness.
It was a struggle to survive.
I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me.
It’s Medicine’s dirty secret that in the U.S. alone, 400 physicians kill themselves every year.
That’s more than one doctor a day.
I wasn’t going to be part of that statistic. I wasn’t going to let it break me.
So I did something about it.
I had a choice. I made a decision.
I got help. I worked on MYSELF. I prioritized MY health and MY wellness. I swallowed the pill and my pride and recaptured my life before it captured me.
I decided to be “selfish.” I put myself first, like everyone always tells you to do, yet shames you when you do it.
The Road Back
I practiced radical and sacred self-care and compassion, even if that meant spending less time with my kid and more time with myself.
And guess what. Every. Aspect. Of. My. Life. Got. BETTER.
In the span of one year, I presented three posters, presented at conferences, gave dozens of lectures, organized committees, volunteered, nurtured relationships, traveled, won awards, led social events, read a dozen books, scored at the top 99% of my board exam, all while raising an infant in residency and with a smile on my face.
I got better at my job.
In practicing a deep compassion toward myself, I developed deep compassion for my patients. I heard their stories. I understood them. I connected with them. They connected with me, trusted me and took steps toward bettering their health. Slowly, I remembered why I went into medicine.
I fell in love with healing again.
I grew as a mother.
I had patience. I understood her. I had fun with her. I learned to appreciate and be grateful for the challenging moments. I stopped yelling. I stopped resisting single motherhood and instead embraced it.
I fell in love with my daughter again.
By the end of my journey, I had not only survived, I was THRIVING.
I fell in love with life again.
I learned the power of saying “NO,” and the importance of filling your own cup before you can fill others.
Don’t get me wrong, I had enormous amounts of help from anyone and everyone that would give it. No one does anything alone.
But it had to start with me, and it has to start with YOU.
If this resonates with you, I’m telling you now:
THERE IS A BETTER WAY.
No matter your situation, there is a way out and a way up.
It starts with looking inward.
It starts with caring for YOURSELF, with self-COMPASSION, and self-LOVE.
You CAN do it.
You CAN change.
You ARE STRONG.
You WON’T be broken.
Juli La Rocca, MD is an Integrative Family Physician with a passion for helping single mothers heal and thrive. Her website is www.unbreakable.mom and you can follow her on social media @theunbreakablemoms.
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