When I was about twelve years old I told my parents that I wanted to be a doctor. They beamed with delight. I could see the dollar signs in my mother's eyes and a look of relief in my father's face, secretly believing that I would be able to cure him of all the critical diseases that he feared but never ended up having.
And that continued for all of ten seconds until I continued "I'm going to be a Psychiatrist," and looks of confusion and disappointment swept all pride from their faces.
"Is that even a real doctor?" my mother said.
"What is the difference between that and a Psychologist? Don't they both just talk?" my father asked. "What if I catch Small Pox???"
I didn't know the answers to those questions. I did know, however, that even at a relatively young age I liked to talk with and listen to people. Some of my friends would come to me for advice when they had fights with their parents or their friends and I'd listen and tell them precocious words of wisdom. "Your mother sucks," "don't give in, insist on two desserts," and "tell her your dog ate it." I was like Lucy from The Peanuts and I dreamed of the day I'd have my very own booth to dispense advice from.
But I was undeterred. When I began 7th grade I sat down with my guidance counselor as part of the "Welcome to Middle School" introductory program. When I told him that I wanted to be a doctor he asked me if I was good at science. "You need to excel in the sciences if you want to be a physician," he warned. Having successfully made a clay volcano with baking soda the year prior I had no issues with confidence in that department.
My Earth Science teacher loosely knew my father and therefore took a particular interest in my performance. I got a 76% on the first test, the college equivalent of a C (Warning Sign 1). "Did you not understand the complexities of Tectonic Plates?" he asked. I hadn't but promised to do better if he didn't tell my dad about the test. I didn't do better due to a lack of ability and, quite honestly, a lack of interest in the material (Warning Sign 2). Eight months later I was moving on to 8th grade with a final grade of 79 in my first real science class.
Nothing changed in my second year of middle school as I again finished with a mediocre grade. Due to faculty incompetence, however, I was invited into Honors Biology as a freshman in high school. Still not making the connection between an interest/ability in science and the makings of a successful medical student I accepted.
I almost failed out the first marking period after not mastering the Punnett Square and nearly slicing my finger off while dissecting a frog (Warning Sign 3). This prompted my teacher to advise me to enroll in non-Honors Chemistry for sophomore year. Not to be deterred in my quest to be a highly qualified pre-medical student I rejected that advice, silently wondering why the administration would let a 15-year old kid make decisions as important as these, especially when he was screwing up so greatly.
I got through Honors Chemistry with a B average thanks to a group of students that essentially cheated off of each during every assignment, experiment and test. I decided not to take Physics as a Junior and, having completed the mandatory two years of science to graduate high school, decided to that AP Music Theory would be more interesting than something pre-medical (Warning Sign 4).
Through both idiocy and sheer determination, I fought my way through every required pre-medical science class in college: C + in Biology, C in General Chemistry, B in Physics, D in Organic Chemistry (which included knocking over 2 beakers and almost lighting my face on fire in the lab hood), and a B in Biochemistry (Warning Signs 5-9). This last grade was possible only because my friend changed two of my answers on the final exam before I turned in my test to the professor. By the time junior year came around I began to "consider other options. You know, just in case" (Warning Sign 10). I educated myself on alternatives to Psychiatry and decided to major in Psychology, giving myself the possibility of either career path.
I took the MCAT as a senior and did, as everyone predicted, horribly on both of the science sections (Warning Sign 11). However, I scored very high on the Verbal section which got me interviews at some medical schools. Around the same time I took the GRE, did well, and started applying to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology. I got many more interviews from those schools (Warning Sign 12). Psychiatry was still more appealing to me, but for all the wrong reasons though: money. At 22, I figured that both jobs were basically the same but psychiatrists did the medication as well and got paid more money. It wasn't until much later that I learned the more about the real differences in the professions.
At the graduate school interviews they talked about things like Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy, Depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and tons of other acronyms that were fascinating to me. I left each one completely enticed by the idea of attending. At the medical school interviews, however, that talked about Tay Sachs Disease, micro-organisms and leprosy, subjects I had little knowledge of nor interest in knowing (Warning Sign 13). I thought about asking when the students got those cool silver circles to put on their heads but abruptly reconsidered when one of the doctors asked me about my commitment to researching Lou Gehrig's Disease throughout my medical training.
"I really like mental illness," I said.
"You like mental illness? As in you wish you had one?" she asked.
"No, I'd like to treat it. I'm interested in Psychiatry."
This was in the mid-90's when the emphasis was on developing a greater number of primary care physicians. Specialists-to-be weren't met with the greatest approval.
"Why would you like to treat mental illness?" the doctor asked.
Oddly, I hadn't ever been asked that question. "Well, I've always been intrigued by people, what makes them tick, why they do what they do. I'm especially interested in abnormal behavior."
"Do you like drugs?"
Do medical doctors consider beer to be a drug?"I'm not against drugs for mental health, but I really like the concept of verbal and behavioral interventions."
"So it seems you're more interested in the mind more so than the brain itself," she concluded.
I hadn't heard it put to me that way before. She was right.
I left the interview, went home, and canceled the two remaining medical school interviews. My parents were mildly disappointed but they, unlike me, could see the writing on the wall throughout most of my adolescence. I wasn't cut out for Histology, dissecting cadavers or even using a stethoscope.
A couple of days went by and then a few offers came in from graduate schools. Being a good sport my dad took me out to celebrate and toasted me as "the next great Psychologist." I asked him if he could name a single great Psychologist and he said, "Frasier Crane."
"Frasier Crane is a Psychiatrist. He's also fictional."
"Oh," he said. "Well, you'll be the first great one then."
"Great" is too strong a word, but I make it work. So before you write me any more hate mail about my lack of insight and introspection, just remember: I could have become the surgeon who will be operating on you one day. Believe me, neither of us wants that.