I’ve never quite fit into “the box”. It seems that everywhere you go, people want to label you: gay or straight? Dirty hippie or polished professional? Clean-eating juice faster or candy bar craving meat lover? Everywhere we go we are inundated with ads telling us how we need to look, feel and even act so that we can fit into society’s pre-determined boxes. But I’ve never quite fit into these boxes. I’m the kind of person that likes to go out to a fancy restaurant the evening after I get back from a three day backpacking trip. I like to dress up and I like to wear the same thing for a week. I’m spiritual and scientific. These seeming contradictions reach into nearly all aspects of my life and, at one time, served to make me feel isolated in many ways. How could I reconcile my desire to dance in circles around a fire with my love of reading science journals. Weren’t these things mutually exclusive? Spiritual people can’t be real scientists. Worse, how would I combine these worlds, with the people in them so firmly attached to their ideals and so unwilling to see the other side? I needed to pick a box and stick with it.
But there’s a secret that I didn’t know. The box isn’t real. It’s an artificial construct of society, created to establish so-called norms that allow us to label people and convince ourselves we understand them. Once we place people in their corresponding box we can suddenly say “Oh those people” as if their entire existence could be understood based on whether or not they dress professionally or like to read. It allows us to live our comfortable little lives blissfully unaware of the myriad ways in which humans exist all around us. It lets us create artificial divides and prevents us from understanding those who are different. This isn’t to say that we should all have the same interests, far from it. Sometimes society gives you the box and sometimes we put ourselves in the box. But regardless of how we ended up there, the more time we spend in it the more we believe in its existence, and the more power it has over us.
Choosing naturopathic medicine as my career and future was both an easy and difficult choice. Shortly after moving to Rochester, NY to open my practice as an herbalist I felt unfulfilled. I had such amazing experiences in herb school that forever changed the way I think, and even feel, my way through life. But I wasn’t fully satisfied; though I had learned a lot about health and the human body I felt limited by what I could do. Nine months into my new life in Rochester I embarked on a new journey: I decided I was going to be a doctor. I spent the next three years deep in my studies with fierce determination I never knew I had. I knew that my history of poor grades was working against me and I believed I had to prove that I could be the “good student”. As I dove headfirst into my new path I realized I had a strong hunger for knowledge. I not only liked science, I loved it. But the intensity of my studies came at a cost; I spent less time outdoors, my botany skill atrophied and the part of me that loved plants and their magic seemed lost to equations and graphs. And that was ok because I finally had a box where I belonged: I was going to be a doctor.
My preconceived notions of my future MD box had me searching for ways to increase my chances of getting into it. One of these ways was to become an emergency room scribe at a local hospital. Though I had shadowed several physicians before this job, it was here that I really had my first true taste of medicine and it was awesome. I had the privilege of witnessing people’s lives being saved first hand. Even in non-emergent cases I felt excited. How amazing to be a part of this person’s journey and process as they seek help and care. But while many people experiencing acute and severe disease states were saved, many others with chronic conditions were only palliated, or worse, not helped at all. Patients with laundry lists of medications were the rule not the exception. I couldn’t help but ask myself “how many people here today could have been prevented from coming if they were just able to implement simple lifestyle changes?” but my future MD box, which promised a steady job and good lifestyle said “that’s just the way it goes”.
I don’t remember how I came across it but somehow I ended up reading that Naturopathic physicians were getting licensure in my home state of Maryland. Naturopathic physicians? I knew a little about what they were, I even had a friend who, though no longer practicing, went through the schooling but I didn’t really know what it all meant. That little article, however, had me in research mode and suddenly I was learning all I could. Naturopathic physicians are fully trained as primary care physicians and are taught the same standard of care as taught in allopathic medical school. They are also taught nutrition, herbal medicine, spinal manipulation and much more. The curriculum draws on the ancient art of healing while being grounded in modern science. It values evidence-based medicine which includes both clinical trials and anecdotal evidence. Most of all, it felt like a career in which I didn’t have to live in what was beginning to feel like a very small box. Here I would have options: I would be able to provide lifestyle and nutritional advice to those who want it but I could also offer nutraceuticals or even pharmaceuticals to those who want or need them. Suddenly I was torn. My future MD box wouldn’t allow me to use herbs or spend hours getting to know a single patient. Old herbal medicine boxes suddenly came back into focus, wanting me to jump into them. But maybe I didn’t need any boxes at all? Maybe I could be everything I wanted without having to sacrifice parts of myself.
The decision was both easy and difficult. The path seemed clear, obvious even, but my fears of society’s ideas of success (a box of its own) coupled with my desire to be taken seriously (also a box) wrestled with my newfound desire. Careful thought and meditation helped me take that first step outside of the box I had convinced myself I belonged in. And that’s when I learned the secret: the box doesn’t actually exist.
So here’s my advice: take that scary step outside of your box. Go on, do it! That first step can be a dauntingly hard one to take, but once you do the boxes of the world melt away and you become truly free to be your whole self. And that is one of the healthiest things you can do.