When I went to practice as a small-town family doctor in Idaho, I worked a shortened schedule of only eighty hours a week, seeing thirty patients a day, delivering babies, and working in the emergency room.
From Idaho, I went to work in China for a year, breathing in the coal-soaked, mercury-laden air, before I landed back in Massachusetts, working a crazy schedule of shifts in an inner-city emergency room.
Then suddenly (or so it appeared at the time), my brain broke—along the with rest of my body.
Sitting with patients, I often couldn't remember what they had just said, or where I was in eliciting their story. I tried to take careful notes and keep track, but I couldn't focus on conversations, couldn't remember anyone's name. I started taking pictures and writing down personal details about my patients to serve as my peripheral memory so I wouldn't embarrass myself the next time I spoke to them.
During lectures I had to give as part of my job, I would get lost in the middle of a sentence and had to ask the audience what I had just said. When I read a book, I had to go over passages again and again just to glean any meaning. At night, I read my children bedtime stories but had to robotically mouth the words, because I couldn't simultaneously read aloud and understand what I read.
Sleep eluded me. Exhausted and bone weary, I would lie down in bed at night and remain sleepless for hours. After finally drifting off, I would wake the next morning feeling as if I had never slept.
Depression and anxiety, which I had never known before, became constant companions. At times I felt I couldn't go on any longer. My capacity for pleasure and laughter faded into a distant memory.
The worse my body felt, the worse my brain functioned. If my stomach was bloated and swollen and I had diarrhea, I couldn't think or sleep. If my tongue was inflamed or my eyes swollen and red, I became depressed. If my muscles ached and twitched, I couldn't focus. If I felt bone-weary fatigue, I would forget what I was saying or why I had just walked into a room.
Some doctors said I was depressed and recommended antidepressants. Psychiatrists suggested antianxiety drugs. My family doctor prescribed sleeping medication. A neurologist told me I had ADD and I needed stimulants. Others said I had chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. All I knew was that my brain was broken, my focus gone, my mood depressed, my memory fleeting, and my body wasn't working.
All at once, I couldn't pay attention, remember, or experience joy and happiness. It was as if I had suddenly "contracted" three terrible diseases—attention deficit disorder, depression, and dementia. How could my brain have failed me? The part of me that was strongest suddenly became my weakest link. What had happened?
What I experienced was extreme and I hid it from the rest of the world, except for a very few close friends. I faked it and pulled myself through each day.
But after that summer day in August when my brain broke, weary and fighting brain fog, I began searching for answers.