Revealing that I failed was gut-wrenching. I thought I could control it – when, how and to whom I told my story. I was wrong. It happened here and there, now and then. It was unplanned, erratic, haphazard. It was not in my control.
I first told Khutso*. It was not hard at all because we had both already failed one block, so I knew she would understand. It was not planned though, as I would have hoped. I was returning a book I borrowed from her and she asked how I’d done. The words could not have rolled easier off my tongue – “I failed the year.” Telling her, in fact, was the easiest of all. As she and I continued speaking I realized she would be my rock in this whole situation. She held the world’s wisdom in her heart and would share it with me whenever I needed it. Khutso made me realize how important it is to have friends who check up on each other, how important it is to GENUINELY ask ‘are you okay?’ She was that friend to me, and a huge part of my journey to healing was led by her.
Khwezi* was different. We ran into each other one day, exchanged greetings and she asked me how IPC went. I said I would rather not talk about it and, she immediately knew what happened. She asked how I was so calm and, she would be depressed if this happened to her; I must be some different kind of strong. The talk was not intended to insult me but, it left such a bitter taste in my mouth that I immediately asked Khutso for the contacts of a good therapist. Khwezi made me question whether I was dealing with something in the correct manner – something she never had to deal with. Our encounter, however well-meaning, taught me that not everyone can give advice, and it made me question the need for unsolicited advice. We are not all therapists. We have not all gone through every bad thing known to man. What Khwezi taught me was to be careful when counselling a friend, especially if that friend is going through something I personally have not experienced. If the friend asks for advice, I’ll go to town giving every idiom and proverb I know. If the friend does not ask for advice, perhaps all the friend needs is my ear.
After Khwezi’s encounter, I went to see a psychologist. If I were to come out of this strong and breathing, I had to check my mental health. After 3 sessions with the psychologist, however, I stopped attending. The sessions made me anxious. I looked forward to the clock hitting the hour mark. I felt there was no point to the sessions and would resume only if the anxiety of attending was overpowered by the need for professional help. I cannot emphasize how important mental health checks are. I know just how toxic an unhealthy mind can be. And seeking help should matter just as much as would be the case if one had lung disease. So, I will not give up on therapy. Maybe.
Two of the people I was most afraid to tell were my mother and my clinical partner. Mother was a straight A student, top student in class and is still carrying her study material, flourishing in her post graduate studies. I was never an A student. I was a hard worker, but I never got perfect scores. Going to varsity was my way of showing that at least some of her intellect had rubbed off on me. Now to tell her, after 5 years of flowing through medical school, that I failed final year? I had anxiety just thinking about it. I flunked every opportunity to tell her until the last moment. But I eventually did. I texted her – too worried that my voice would shake and render a phone call useless. Her response brought me half to tears: “MAKGONA KE MABOELETSA” – A Sepedi phrase that simply means practice makes perfect. I anticipated brutal, hurtful words. Instead she showered me with love and understanding.
My clinical partner, like my mother, gets to study one week before exams and his test scores will be higher than mine. He will read once what I read five times and be able to explain it faster and better than I. He already knew about Internal Medicine – he knew I failed it because he was there after the exam.
But I could not bring myself to say I failed again. It was too painful, perhaps more painful than it should have been. It was painful for reasons I myself do not know. So, it happened one day. I had not planned on telling him for at least a few more weeks. We were on call during Psychiatry. I was the moodiest I had been in a while and said things I should not have said. Knowing he would not understand my mood save I tell him, I did what I planned not to do. And he said he had suspected it! I was acting weird and he knew it had to be something huge. He did not say anything because he thought I would tell him when I was ready. God bless his dear heart. The two people I was most afraid to tell amazed me with their response. I was awed.
The awe, however, lasted a minute. The other half of my parentage squeezed into the conversation and just as quickly reminded me how little we knew about each other. When I told him I flunked final year he immediately asked about bad influences. Not what happened; not how did it happen; but ‘are your friends bad influences?’ I was probably more upset at his response than I should have been. He DID deserve to know because it would be him paying my fees for the next year. However, I still reserve the right to feel however I want to feel about this man. It’s the one privilege I have as a single mom’s daughter! I felt somewhat sorry for him though. He had to be okay with being the parent who pays for varsity without reaping the rewards of being appreciated. He had to pay his way into my life, with no assurance of ever reaching the goal.
I owe my sanity to all these people who helped me when I came to them. Not everyone who helped me is here recognized, but their contribution is highly appreciated. The support of good friends can bring light in an ever dark place.
*Not their real names