HIYOH & the First Month of Dental School

Back in May of this year I started planning my first real hiking trip: a three day trek on the Appalachian Trail (which then became a three day hike on the North Country Trail). In my quest for knowledge of all things hiking and backpacking related I joined a couple of Facebook groups for women who hike; they were a little intense but quite helpful and interesting. One of the phrases I heard quite often in these groups was “hike your own hike”. It was repeated as a kind of hiking mantra or motto.  But it seems a little obvious right? Everyone is one their own journey and moves at their own pace and all that. Yeah yeah. Blah blah whatever.

Months later, in August, as I was running a trail half marathon with little to no training that phrase popped back into my head: hike your own hike.

It occurred to me that the same holds true for running: you are running your race and no one else’s (even when you’re running with or right next to them). That aspect of personal improvement and competition with yourself is something I’ve always loved about running. And at that moment I was on track to run the worst (time-wise) half marathon I’ve done to date but I actually felt proud of myself, like I was doing okay. I was running my own race and I was killing it (compared to myself and my expectations for myself). My sister died in early June, barely two months prior; it put my summer off to a bad start. After that I had a couple weeks of bare minimum levels of functioning. Then my work schedule got crazy (partially to accommodate some of the time off I needed to be with my family); I was working a few nights in a row and then having a few days to function as a normal person. Up and down, back and forth, awake for 24 hours straight then trying to sleep during the day but also trying to not waste the time I could/should be spending with my kids. The thing about working nights is that messes with your body beyond the exhaustion part of it, going back and forth between being awake all night and trying to function during the day multiplies those negative effects.

SO there I was on the morning of August 4th (which, fun fact, happens to be my former wedding anniversary) running slowly through some random woods in Michigan as the day got hotter and more humid by the minute feeling not too bad about myself and my race. I definitely wasn’t winning any awards on this one but, considering the circumstances and the challenges I’d faced, that was okay. I was running MY race; my unique life experiences had brought me to that place and were a part of the accomplishments of the day. No one else was dealing with exactly the same things I was so maybe even if they were faster it wasn’t a big deal; we were playing with different decks. (Then again maybe it was an even bigger feat. Who knows what personal struggles brought them to that moment of their lives.)

Fast forward another few months (okay, two) and here I am, not running or hiking much but I’m finally starting to grasp the full meaning of “hiking my own hike”.

I started dental school this fall. The average age of my class is 24. There are a handful of people who are turning 21 this year. Most of the others are 22 or 23. I am not; I’m a non-traditional student. A really non-traditional student. I’m 38, a single/divorced mom with five kids, the oldest of them just a couple years younger than some of my classmates.

We have very different lives, my classmates and I. There are a few who are 30 or close to it and a couple who are married. Pretty sure I’m the only one with kids. I’m one hundred percent sure that I’m the only one in my class with five kids. But right now (and for the next three and a half years), these are my peers. These are the only other people in my life who really understand the demands and expectations I’m dealing with.

Dental school is Crazy; the course load is insane! (22 credits this semester) And it’s literally a complete reversal of what my schedule has been for the past seven years. I’m awake by 5:30 every morning (some days closer to 4) and out the door by 6:15 (okay, 6:30 the weeks my kids are home). I spend two and a half to three hours a day commuting to school. Two days a week we have roughly five hours of heavy science lectures (and a couple others) in the same classroom. It’s hard.

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Balancing dental school and family life…it’s messy sometimes.

But I expected that. It’s dental school, it’s supposed to be hard. (If it was easy everyone would do it.) The one thing I didn’t anticipate is how isolated and lonely I feel some days. Dental school, like nursing school or any other set program, is one of the few times in your adult life you are surrounded by people going through the exact same thing as you. Typically that produces some deep-seated friendships and a strong sense of camaraderie among classmates. And I do feel some air of community with my classmates but often I’m set apart by the differences between their day-to-day and mine. It’s been taking a minute to get used to.

Much like the race, different circumstances and life experiences brought everyone to this place. While we are (according to the school) all high achieving and highly qualified individuals we did not go through the same process to get there. We are not all dealing with the same challenges and struggles as we adapt to dental school either; some of us have trained more than others. While I’ve been struggling to find my place socially, I’m finding that my crazy life experiences have prepared me for dental school in ways I could not have imagined. I’m used to juggling a wide variety of demands and having very little free time. I know how to prioritize things when everything id SO important but you just don’t have time to do it all. And functioning optimally on little sleep has been my way if life for a while. Heck, I’m less tired than I’ve been in years because now the five hours of sleep I’m getting is actually at night. (Sleeping at night is AMAZING, y’all!)

Yeah sure, it’s been ten years since I took anatomy and I don’t remember the enzymes of the TCA cycle or glycolysis but my other life skills are coming in pretty handy.

We’ve all got different tools, strengths, and skills and we’re all out there using them to get where we need to be. I guess that’s what hiking your own hike is about.

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