Can you recall moments in your adolescence when you were completely living in the moment, not caring or thinking much about the future? The future seemed, like, forever away. Plus, you just wanted to enjoy life as it was in that very moment. Ahh…if we could find just a bit of that carefree attitude we used to have, minus the naiveté, even for a moment. Well, my fellow medical spouse, I challenge you to do just that. What is something all us medical spouses have in common? We have NO idea what the future will look like for us, and we also have very little control over it!
You’ve heard time and time again that medical training “is hard.” Ok, what does that mean exactly? I’ve talked at length about the various reasons medical training is challenging and you can read some articles here and here. This article, however, is about an aspect that is often overlooked but greatly affects your day-to-day life. This aspect is that you’ll be living in the state I call “the unknown” for the next seven plus years (yep, I said SEVEN.).
You are going to spend the better part of a decade relying on someone else to decide a big chunk of your future, all while having to be fairly self-sufficient and self-reliant in the process because your med spouse is going to be busy.
In the beginning, the medical journey starts with not knowing if your spouse/partner will get accepted into medical school, (not to mention which medical school). Once they are accepted and you make that first transition into the “medical life,” the real journey begins—the journey of faith in your spouse.
Faith that they have made and will make the right choices for them, for you, and your relationship. Faith they’ll be able to get through training, and be a decent and pleasant person to be around during the process. Faith they’ll find a speciality they love and a job they’ll love post-training.
In addition to this faith, we medical spouses have no idea where we will be living, what we might be doing while our spouses go through medical school and training, and if we’ll be near family or find friends along the way. I personally am a “planner,” so the lack of ability to direct the next steps of my life has been a big lesson for me, and continues to be. But even if you’re not the planner type, this lack of control and direction can cause so much anxiety, frustration, and at moments, even a total unraveling. To move from something known and comfortable, to something completely different and new takes a huge leap of faith. Faith in your spouse and in yourself to handle this challenge.
Before my husband went into medicine, he served on submarines in the Navy. I recall very clearly our first sea duty assignment (i.e. a 3-year assignment where a submarine goes out to sea regularly and serves deployments). He was sent to Hawaii (an incredible experience!) but it was also a very odd position to be in. I moved out to the middle of the ocean with him, thousands of miles from family and friends. I had no job and no idea about the state I was going to call home. I just showed up with my spouse, he checked into the submarine, and then I rarely saw him for the next three years.
I started to wonder: why am I here exactly? To be with my spouse? But my spouse is never here! It felt like I had completely uprooted my whole life to be somewhere mostly by myself. It was a mind game for sure. Those moments I did get to see him were wonderful and totally worth the sacrifice, but it wasn’t without real day-to-day struggle. I had to make moment-by-moment decisions on how I was going to view my situation, how I was going to act and use my time, and how I was going to make a great experience out of a challenging situation. Sometimes I spent weeks feeling sorry for myself and drowning in negative thoughts and behaviors. Other times, I found some clarity and some good in the situation. That experience taught me a lot and prepared me for the medical journey that would be coming.
So, what can YOU do about your situation, about living in the unknown? You essentially have two choices, and it all comes down to you, and you alone. YOU have to make the decision. Your choices are:
- Wallow and retreat.
- Look for the good and make your life the best it can be in your current, imperfect situation.
These are not absolutes, and most of us will fluctuate between them often, if not daily! So how exactly can you choose #2 and find a way to embrace your imperfect situation?
The hard truth is that even if you knew exactly what the future looked like for you, such as where you’d live and what jobs and support you’d have, would that really make much of a difference? Is happiness ever guaranteed? Tomorrow could be your last day on Earth. You could discover you have a terminal illness. (This just happened to a friend of mine who at 38 was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer—talk about living in the unknown for his wife and kids.)
But more probable, you could end up really disliking what you thought you’d always wanted. That future you’ve created in your mind may not live up to your hopes and expectations. The reality of your situation, and every person’s situation, is that the only thing you know for sure and have any control over is “the moment.” The little blip of a second that’s rapidly passing with every inhale and exhale you take. Moment after moment after moment. No past, no future, just now. That’s all you really can know and trust. And YOU have the power to make this moment whatever you want it to be. Yes, you may be limited by geographical location or lack of family and friends nearby. However, there’s so much more that you can focus on that can bring your life into something fulfilling and rewarding under limited circumstances.
How can you do that for yourself? What can you do today to make your life closer to what you want it to be, right now? No waiting for “it to get better.” Better is now. The idea is simple, but the implementation is anything but.
I challenge you to think about the following truth: there is no perfect version of yourself or your life in the future. There’s just today, this moment, this decision and action. This unknown you are living in, is actually a great opportunity disguised as a great obstacle. I challenge you to embrace this opportunity to look deep inside, ask the hard questions, and start making your life what you want it to be right now. I’m not talking about material things, I’m talking about your outlook on life, how you spend your time, and what you’re going to contribute during your precious time here on Earth.
Embracing the moment and working to change how you think and react to the stresses inherent in a medical spouse life is hard work, but it is crucial in finding lasting happiness and fulfillment. It takes a gradual awareness of what your habitual thought patterns are and how those patterns create a cycle that you repeat over and over. A thought creates a feeling which creates a reaction. We all have our “thing,” whether it’s getting angry, worrying, doubting, etc, and it takes continuous self-reflection to step outside ourselves for a moment and notice what our pattern is. Once we’re more aware of our habitual patterns, we can pause each time we’re triggered and have more choice in whether we fall into the same pattern, or make a different choice that time.
This topic goes way deeper than what can be discussed in a brief article like this, and there are many ways to explore this topic. I recommend exploring some of the following resources for more details on the “how-to.”
As you dive into this world of self-discovery, please wrap yourself in a blanket of grace and compassion. Even though we strive to find a happier and more fulfilled today and tomorrow, we are also enough as we are today. These authors are masters at helping people understand this dichotomy, and I hope you find some gems of wisdom that will resonate with you. You can find some peace and joy as you live in this unknown—you don’t have to wait for it to get better!
– “You are a Badass” by Jen Sincero
– “The Power of Now” by Eckart Tolle
– All things Brene Brown, start with her TedTalk “The Power of Vulnerability”
– “Full Catastrophe Living” book by Jon Kabat-Zinn (it’s a whopper of a book, but fantastic!)
– Tara Brach’s podcast
Sidenote: Have you heard of Hoopla? You can access it through your public library membership. It’s a free app, similar to Overdrive, that is very user-friendly and has an incredible selection of best-sellers and new releases, including audiobooks. Hoopla has most of the books referenced above!