Vet Talk

Veterinarians' Perfectionism Can Drive Suicide

I'm a perfectionist, and I'm trying very hard not to be

March 26, 2021 (published)
NOMV was formed as a response to the suicide of world-renown veterinarian Sophia Yin.

Veterinarians are perfect. And that's a bad thing, so bad that it kills. The veterinary community experienced multiple tragedies the past few weeks. A type of tragedy that we are all horrifyingly familiar with, one that the community has struggled with for so, so long, but one that we can't seem to shake: suicide. Over the years many articles have detailed the suicide of veterinarians. Many social media posts have pled for understanding and compassion, and many reports have found that — year after year — veterinarians are one of the professions with the highest suicide rates. There are more gifted writers out there who can explain to you better than I why this is happening, but that's not why I am writing this today. I am reaching out to you, my colleagues, and you, kind soul who decides to take the time to read this piece. I am here writing just in case I can resonate with just one person out there and let you know that you're okay, more than okay, you're wonderful and irreplaceable and I may or may not know you, but I know that about you. All the veterinarians in the U.S. can fit on a football field. All of us are connected by one or two mutual acquaintances. And all of you are dear to my heart.

I am here to tell you about how I was a perfectionist, perhaps still am, and how that is horrific beyond words. I'm not sharing to dump my problems on you, nor do I want you to share my burden. I want to share my journey so you know there's at least one person out there who's a wreck but doing okay. If I can make even one person feel less lonely out there, I will bare my heart to the world.

I'm a perfectionist, and I'm trying very hard not to be. I'll tell you why.

I have always been a perfect child. Polite, smiles, and knows what to say to make adults laugh. I was still perfect all through my K12 and undergraduate schooling: straight As, 4.0 GPA, 2300 SAT score (in the old system), cum laude, department honors, research honors. I have been perfect for so long that I'm afraid if I stopped being perfect, my life would fall apart because I have known nothing else, and no one knows the person who is not Perfect Sherry. It didn't matter that in order to maintain Perfect Sherry I took more classes than necessary, stuffed my extracurriculars with violin, piano, orchestra, community service, officer positions, clubs, professor meetings, study groups, networking, clinical shadowing and study study study. It didn't matter that I'm so exhausted sometimes eating made me nauseous even if I've had nothing all day and the only way I can sleep is by sobbing into my pillow until my body cannot handle it. Perfect Sherry lives on and that's all that matters.

Until vet school.

Of course getting into the best vet school in the world is what Perfect Sherry does. But going through vet school, Perfect Sherry faltered, and my world shattered. The workload was nowhere near anything I had ever experienced before: 4-5 hours of lectures in the morning and then afternoons filled with labs. Exams every week or every 2 weeks, with new material all the way up until the afternoon before the exam. Weekends, of course, are filled with volunteering in student run clinics, of which Perfect Sherry is, obviously, an officer for. And of course, in the looming future Perfect Sherry would have a DOCTOR title, and Perfect Sherry must carry that title perfectly.

That is not an unreasonable wish. No veterinarian wants to make a wrong diagnosis or miss an illness that could be treated or prevented, and certainly no one wishes to see their patient weaken and pass away, whether by their fault or not. Every veterinarian wants to keep their patients healthy all their lives, fix anything that is wrong, and watch them be happy every second they've got. And I wish desperately that all that were possible and that Perfect Sherry was good enough to make that happen, and that all my patients and clients would live happy, illness-free, fulfilled lives. Every veterinarian and vet student out there throws themselves into studying, into becoming better, into trying to memorize every detail in textbooks and keep up with the latest research to try and fulfill that wish. But we all know that is not possible, and now Perfect Sherry doesn't know what to do with herself.

The first time I got a B, Perfect Sherry smiled a tight smile that doesn't reach her eyes and said we can fix this. When no matter how hard I tried I could not bring my grade back up to the A range, she frowned a little frown and said we can try harder. When my head would not stop swimming from exhaustion and I no longer knew what an appetite felt like or what sleeping well meant and plopped down in front of the TV to play video games, she said what's wrong with you. And I didn't have an answer for her. All my life studying harder and harder has always worked. I had more than a few shares of close calls but always made it. That gave me pause. What is “it”? What was I striving for this whole time?

To be perfect, of course. Perfect Sherry sneered at me.

So you don't mess up and kill your patients, for goodness sake. Are you so stupid I have to tell you that? Or are you even trying to be a doctor?

No! I shout back desperately.

Of course I want to be a doctor, and not just any doctor. I want to be a great doctor that can be there for my patients and make them better and make their families happy and give them a happy fulfilled life!

So get back to being perfect was all I heard in my head.

I probably don't need to tell you that what happened next is just disastrous. The harder I tried, the worse I got at it. Not only did my grades drop, I slept through classes, zoned out during lab, skipped meetings. What was going wrong? Why can't I get back to being perfect? How do I fix this? All this time Perfect Sherry watched with contempt as I failed time and time again and finally said,

It's because you never really had it in you.

What? What do you mean?

You don't have what it takes to be a vet. Give up now before the world has to suffer your failures anymore.

Vet school really does gather the most brilliant minds. All my classmates are doing the same things I'm doing and getting As. The exam average almost never drops below a 95%; It's you bringing the average down, good job. Many of my classmates also have jobs, are moms, are an officer in every club, or are fostering five newborn kittens that need bottle feeding every 2 hours. I look around me at how amazing everyone else is doing and watch as Perfect Sherry breaks down crying Why can't you be just like them? WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? I don't know. I'm sorry. I don't know how to make it better. I don't know how to make me better. I'm sorry so sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry. I'm sorry for my parents who support me wholeheartedly in this profession. I'm sorry for my classmates who have to suffer my incompetence. I'm sorry for my professors who have to watch as I fall asleep in class. I'm sorry to my future patients who have to have a failure be their doctor. Wait. I don't have to be their doctor. I can give up and remove myself from everyone's presence.

I would like to assure you, dear reader, that I did not try to take my life. No, I couldn't, it would probably hurt or something. I sat down in front of the TV and played video games until my eyes were too tired to stay open and I had a blaring headache from staring at a screen for many hours. Nier: Automata, to be exact, a game about two androids who struggle to find their place in the world when the war they had been programmed to fight no longer exists. Fitting, isn't it? I wanted to get away from the feeling that I'm not good enough, and all the horrible things Perfect Sherry says to me, even if it's all true and I deserved to hear every word of it. I threw myself into the beautifully crafted 3D world, enjoyed the virtual sunshine, took in the virtual forest, and felt the virtual emotions of characters who don't exist. And for the first time in a very long while, I slept.

I need to clarify that while I was struggling through all of this, the people around me have been nothing less than 100% supportive. No one blamed me for sleeping in class, no one complained I had been slacking on projects, no one told me I'm inadequate for getting Bs. Instead, I got “Oh yeah, that lecture droned on” and “Hey, let's go get food!” and “That test was hard” and “You're doing great, Sherry.”

Sherry. Just Sherry. Not Perfect Sherry. It felt like a very long time since I've heard my name without the silent “Perfect” attached to it. Of course no one had been calling me Perfect Sherry, but that's how perfectionism works. Anything less than perfect is a failure. Any misstep cannot be fixed. It is thin, thin ice waiting patiently for me to falter and drown in its icy depths.

It is a very long journey to ditch Perfect Sherry.

It is playing a lot of video games to drown out Perfect Sherry. It is watching my grade drop but telling myself it's okay it's okay. You're not failing. It's okay. It is setting up regular appointments with a therapist who my program luckily provides for free. It is telling myself that my grades do not reflect how good of a doctor I can become. That I will continue to learn for the rest of my life. That it is about more than good medicine but also good communication. That it matters that I care, a lot, about my future patients. That I am still a student and I can lean on the people around me. And I am trying very, very hard to believe everything I am telling myself.

I don't know that I entirely believe myself yet. But I am trying, and it is helping. I want to reiterate that I am not writing this to have you, dear reader, feel sorry for me, or to offer me comfort. I am here in the hopes that if someone else out there has a “Perfect” version of themselves too, that I can say I feel you and you're not alone. There are many reasons veterinarians have committed suicide, and we will never know all of them, if any. But just knowing that all of them walked alone, by themselves, into the darkness and never came back shatters my heart. Dear colleagues, you are not alone. I may not have the pleasure of knowing all of you, but I will absolutely stand by you and yell SHUT UP back to the voice in your head telling you you're not enough.

Perfect Sherry is still here. But now most of the time when she starts to speak I can shout SHUT UP with all my being and drown out what she is saying. And when my voice is too weak and I have no strength to stand up to myself, I know the people around me who can.

I know the voice in your head can be so very loud, and that my desperate cry on this page can be so small in comparison. But if enough of us yell at the top of our lungs, perhaps it can reach you. You are enough. You are loved. You are perfectly imperfect just as you are.

Resources

Not One More Vet, Inc. is a 501c3 with the goal of ending suicide in the veterinary community.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800) 273-8255

After A Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces

Facts about Mental Health and Suicide Among Veterinarians

Preventing Suicide and Building Resilience (veterinary)

VIN News Service, search suicide for numerous articles

VIN Foundation Vets4Vets and Support4Support


VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.




 
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