I recently met with a group of doctors who gather at Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s house monthly to discuss a variety of topics and seek meaning in medicine and in the human experience.
The topic of the month was “Safety”—our quest for it, our desire for it, and, as we discovered, our complete inability to attain it, given the certainty of uncertainty.
It got me thinking about how many years I spent striving to feel safe. It’s not like I grew up unsafe and spent the rest of my life seeking it. My childhood was full of white picket fences and loving parents and bike riding in the middle of the barricaded street at neighborhood block parties. I was rarely sick, never abused, and nurtured like an object of precious affection. With the exception of seventh grade, mean girls, premenstrual acne, and the inevitable heartbreak of unrequited crushes, my young life was as safe as they come.
Yet, I sought even more safety, perhaps to fend off the imaginary demons that might threaten such safety. When you have so much to lose, life automatically feels unsafe. Somehow, you know it could all be taken from you in the blink of an eye.
Medical School Trauma
My sense of safety ended the first day I started medical school, when our dean announced that, although we all graduated at the top of our college classes, half of our class would be graduating in the bottom half of the class (a statement to which a fellow classmate snickered, “C=MD.”) For the first time in my otherwise pretty sheltered life, medical school felt wildly unsafe. Not only were there HIV-infected needles carelessly thrown at me, there were also medical school professors sexually harassing me, screaming at me across operating room tables, telling me I was worthless, and threatening to fail me unless I did as I was told in any number of sordid ways.
Any sense of safety I once had abandoned me by the time I graduated.
Residency was no better. And then, during my third year of residency, I was on vacation in Colorado Springs with my cousin. We were driving up to a scenic overlook on Pikes Peak in a convertible, when two masked and armed men blocked a tunnel we were driving through and held us up. After the terrifying experience of being thrown to the pavement while guns were shot off all around me, my cousin and I found ourselves still alive, uninjured, but feeling massively unsafe. I dreamed about being shot for years after that, a trauma that subsided until September 11, when my feeling of being unsafe resurfaced and lasted several more years.