I’m in a fog these days

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

The year 2011 has been incredibly stressful and full of many changes. It’s been academically rigorous since it is my junior year of college and I studied for the medical school graduate examination for months on end. I also had really tough science-based classes like Biochemistry and Physics II to cope with this past semester. My stress level was extremely high from January to May, and I thought I would be relieved at the end of the spring semester to end all of it. I did well in all my classes. I planned on taking the MCAT, then completing my med school applications, and then going out of the country to enjoy my summer. It was an awesome plan–an awesome plan that would never materialize in reality.

I was already on the edge on begin with, but May 11 was SUPPOSED to be a good day since I was supposed to take my exam that night and head back home to my parents’ house. It wasn’t that simple. I got the phone call that a close family member had committed suicide by hanging. I thought my stress level was high before. Well, it was of monstrous proportions now. This close family member was near and dear to my heart, and I could not imagine that he would ever be capable of anything like this. My heart was/is broken, I’m confused, hurt, angry, and I feel like screaming in my head half the time. It still hurts immensely, but the pain is better than it was the first days after the tragedy. But I will never understand it, because it was senseless and oh so hurtful to everyone who loved this man. He was someone I was supposed to look up to as well, and it is painful to think of the example he set for us.

Flash forward nine days, it was MCAT time for me. I took it and thought I did okay. I got my score back and I BOMBED it. I bombed it worse than any practice test by a huge margin. I was shocked, appalled, frustrated, etc. But what’s done is done, and there is no taking it back now. Though I’m upset, it’s not mindblowingly upsetting because I’d frequently questioned a career path in medicine. I would stop and think about all the negatives of the profession, and somewhere in my heart I was not okay with it. I knew the road to medicine was too long and difficult for me, but I persisted because I was so ambitious and driven that I thought it would be lazy to quit. Well, it would’ve been a lot easier if I’d listened to my heart before, than now.

On top of all this, my mom is a pain to be around these days. She acts like she’s the only one grieving the death, and she explodes on everybody, about everything, all the time. When I told her I bombed the MCAT, she flipped. She made me sound ungrateful, lazy, antisocial, and pretty much any other word you could use to call someone a bad daughter. She made me feel awful. I wonder if the stress from the suicide contributed to my lousy MCAT score. I’d be so sad if it did…but I’m already a very sad person these days. I feel depressed. My self-esteem is gone; I’m one huge big mess.

I don’t know what to do. I’m in a fog these days. I’m reeling from the suicide as well as the blow to my career plans–even though I wasn’t too passionate about them after all the stress I’ve endured on the premedical path. Since February, I’ve wanted to pursue a career in law, and I think I will do it after I get a little bit better mentally. But life just seems to be one big problem these days. I think I am suffering from depression, or lingering grief symptoms. I’m not sure which.

A: Please stop being so hard on yourself. It sounds to me like you are grieving. You are still working through the anger and hurt and sadness of losing someone you loved and admired. It makes absolute sense to me that you feel like you’re in a fog. It’s normal and appropriate.

Meanwhile, the unconscious is a wonderful thing. You already had doubts about your choice of career. In a way, your grief let you do what you didn’t have the courage to do on your own. You gave yourself a way out by doing badly on the test. You and I both know that you can elect to take the test again. Many people are so nervous during their first try that they don’t do very well so they spend more time studying and take try again. You could too. But your mother’s reaction tells me that it’s been tough for you to simply have a rational discussion about a change of direction. You had to blow out to get out. Okay. So now you are free to think about law. Sounds fine to me.

Your mother is a pain for the same reason you’re in a fog. People grieve differently. Some people, like your mother, take it out on others. Some people, like you, take it out on themselves. Ideally, people love and support each other through it. Since it seems your mother can’t do that, I hope there are other people in the family who can. It’s important to remember, to tell stories, to share how much someone meant to you, and to mourn. If there is no one else who knew him that you can talk to, I hope you will consider looking for a grief support group. Many hospitals offer that service. You could start by asking your doctor for suggestions.

Please give yourself time. It often takes months and years to fully metabolize a sudden and senseless death. Right now you’re still in the acute stage. That will level off. But don’t be surprised if every now and then you feel overcome by sadness for a few minutes or hours. These “grief attacks” are often set off by a smell or sound or story that reminds us of the person we lost. They are expected and normal.

I hope you give yourself the summer to relax a little and to think through what you really in your heart of hearts want to do for a profession. You are clearly intelligent and disciplined. It looks to me like you can be successful at whatever you choose. You have reason to have faith in yourself.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Jul 2011

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). I’m in a fog these days. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/07/04/im-in-a-fog-these-days/