Can You be an Alcoholic and Still Get Into Medical School?

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Session 293

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Michael joined me to talk about his struggle with alcohol since middle school, failing his first application, and what he did to succeed the second time. He was raised in a family that dealt a lot with alcoholism and addiction and he struggled from middle school through college until he got himself together to clean up his life and succeed on his journey to medical school.

If you’re struggling from alcoholism or addiction, please seek help by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

Ultimately, there’s still hope and Michael proves that this can be done!

[02:50] His Interest in Becoming a Physician

With Michael’s mom as an RN, he got exposed to medicine at a young age. He thought being a doctor was cool although he didn’t really understand what it meant then. When he was a kid, he just wanted to be able to do what doctors do.

A very common story for a child of a healthcare. But as to asked why not a nurse, Michael recalls asking his mom questions about anatomy and physiology. Oftentimes, his mom wouldn’t have an answer for him and would refer him to the physician. So that was put into his mind that if he was going to know those things, he would have to learn what the doctors knew.

[04:50] The First Stumble: Battling Against Alcoholism

Michael explains his first stumble was at middle school. Her mom was an alcoholic but she has been sober now for about 21 years. His dad, meanwhile, was a meth addict and moved away when he was 8 years old to get away from troubles in their hometown. His older brother also used to get into a lot of trouble. And for him, he was his sort of his role model. He was hanging out with him and so he got into drinking beer and smoking pot when he was in middle school.

At the same time, he always wanted to do good at school. He knew as a kid that if he wanted to be a doctor, he had to get the best grades. But he found himself not doing this in middle school. At this time, his mom was already sober and she noticed what was going on. She sat down with him and talked with him and encouraged him to get Bs. From then on he started doing it and his grades just took at upward trend. Eventually, he started to get straight As. This was his first turnaround.

By the time he got into high school, he was getting straight As and was in the football team. He was doing all sorts of extracurricular stuff. On top of this though, he was still doing alcohol. Good thing, Michael was able to relegate his drinking and smoking to the weekends or couple of times here and there.

Michael admits that his grades and being a student athlete actually took cover for him as people wouldn’t be expecting him to be doing the wild stuff. But throughout high school, it got worse.

By the time he sent his college apps in and football season ended in Fall of 2004, he went on vacation. He felt he was working so hard while he had these friends he’d party with on the weekends who had it easy. He wanted the same. So after most of his responsibilities were done, he really took advantage of it. He went on vacation for 7 years.

[Tweet “”Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It got a point where I couldn’t control it anymore. I didn’t have the say and I lost the power of choice.””]

He got to the point he was cutting classes and just wasn’t in control anymore. He hoped it was just a phase. He had friends who went through the same and they just got out of it and had their stuff together. They left all the drinking and drugging behind. But this was not the case for him.

He saw his mom got to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and got sober and she changed completely. He knew that if he got to a point she did, then he’d seek the same kind of help seeing how it works. But then got to the point that he no longer thinks he can ever quit and that if he ever will quit. There were times he wanted to but that’s the cunning nature of that disease. He simply describes it as pure insanity.

After graduating from college, he squandered four years of an incredible education. He didn’t realize how many opportunities are afforded to matriculated undergrads until he left. He graduated from one of the best public universities in the world and spent the next year putting tags on clothes on the back of a surf shop. It was his choice. He saw it didn’t fit but he couldn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t in him to stop what he was doing and just found himself in this vicious cycle.

[12:55] Failing Grades

He graduated from college with a 2.59, not medical school material though. He also remembers during sophomore year, the last semester that he had taken premed courses. he spent his first three semesters on the premed track and failed miserably. He failed classes, getting Ds and Fs. Then he got sent to a “save your semester” workshop where they were guided as to what they can do to do better. Then he switched majors.

Another reason he did well in school is because he didn’t want the party to end. He was motivated to keep his grades up because he didn’t want to leave school and have nothing to do. It motivated him to keep showing up.

[14:44] Time to Change

In December 2010, a year and a half after he graduated, he was hanging out with his buddies and living in the pad with amateur skateboarders. As they went out to a bar, he had just enough money in his bank account to pay his rent. He had no savings. He then gave his rent check to his roommate and still wanted to go party. The next day, his friend cashed the money. He was then left with no resources. Until he just got to the point the point that he was tired of hustling and stealing. He was tired of lying and cheating people. And something inside him just changed. He realized he didn’t want to do what he was doing anymore.

[Tweet “”My bottom wasn’t any one particular point, it was just day after day, waking up to this terrible realization that all those great plans I had for my life were not going to happen.””]

He knew to his core then that it wasn’t something he wanted to do anymore. So he turned to his parents and asked her for some help. They then got him hooked up in a program and it took him 6 months relapsing and drinking. But eventually, he got sober and he has been sober for 7 years now.

[17:50] Was There Still a Chance to Go to Medical School?

At that point, Michael just didn’t know what he wanted to do. And he had convinced himself that becoming a physician was not an option for him anymore. But his AA sponsor encouraged him to do what he wanted to do, which was being a doctor. And so he pushed him to just try. So he went for it.

[Tweet “”Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to just make the effort even if it took half a decade?””]

He didn’t really know how to go about it. He did some internet searches but didn’t know who to talk to. He did find out what a postbac was and he only knew of formal postbac programs that had minimum GPA requirements which he didn’t meet obviously. So he just started to go to a community college and took difficult classes just to prove that he could still do hard work. He also applied to a couple postbac programs and got rejected from all of them. He then found one postbac program that was informal and had an open enrollment. Unsure if it was legit, it turned out they were. At this point too, he was working full time. He worked with his father and they started rekindling their relationship as well. For the last six years, he has been working with him and out of that he was able to develop a relationship with him. While he was working there, he started going to this informal postbac program in 2013.

[Tweet “”I just took some difficult classes just at community college just to prove that I could still do hard work.””]

Moreover, he started volunteering at a hospital where he lived. And he did all of this for four years and at night on the weekends. The first two years, he took three classes and nonstop, every quarter, there were no breaks. He describes it as being crazy. The university where he did his postbac had a spring break but for some reason, they didn’t. He took a final Saturday morning and the next Monday, he was starting his next quarter. Looking back at those two years, he was wondering how we were able to do all that.

[22:22] Applying the First Time and Failing

Luckily, Michael didn’t have any criminal records. Reason for this is that at the back of his mind, he always knew he wanted something for himself in the future so he was always very careful. Whenever hanging out with his buddies, he was always the annoying kid who would stop them from doing crazy stuff. He still had that little voice in his head and it paid off because he never got caught.

Looking at his chances, Michael admits he felt overconfident. He thought that if could just great straight As then they’re going to look past the 2.59 GPA and the lack of extracurriculars. But it wasn’t the case the first time around.

Applying the first time, he applied to 21 MD schools and got zero interviews because he admitted his alcoholism. This is what he thought was the reason for it. And he was advised by many people to not include this part of his story. Not because it has no value but because there’s a lot of stigma out there about mental health and about alcoholism in physicians and drug addiction.

[Tweet “”There’s not a lot of faith in the plasticity of the mind and in the value of the lessons that are learned by somebody who’s been to the bottom.””]

Michael feels like he can look at other people’s behavior now and can understand them and that he gets them now. As to why everybody’s advice and deciding to tell his story, he didn’t know how else to explain his undergraduate performance. He didn’t realize 2.59 is not good, but you don’t have to blame all of them on the alcoholism.  He also thought it made him a strong candidate since it shows resilience and that it shows a potential that he has a lot of compassion which he can have for his patients.

This is what I tell students that in the perfect world, it wouldn’t matter. But if you have 8,000 applications and there’s a potential risk of the stress of medical school that can cause a relapse of alcoholism or worsening a polar disorder, there is the stress of medical school is something you’ve never faced before, and this is a risk.

So he told his story and didn’t get any acceptances. No interview.

[Tweet “”In the perfect world, being sober shows your resilience and that you’ve overcome, but it’s also still potential risk for that medical school. Are you going to be a safety threat to yourself, to fellow students, to whoever?””]

[28:25] His Second Time Applying

Michael reapplied without mentioning alcoholism. And reconciling this, he did feel a little disingenuous but at the same time, he felt he only needed to put down the most pertinent information. So he left that part out of this story and he got three interviews, two acceptances, and one waitlist.

[Tweet “”While it is my story, it may not be appropriate for this venue.””]

All his interviews were close files and in one of them, they asked for his resume where he put his GPA and MCAT score. So they asked him about it. And he told them he was a young man who lacked maturity and the fortitude to address his responsibilities. And this was true. He just basically did everything on his own. In short, he didn’t mention about alcoholism during his interviews.

As to whether he will reveal his past struggles to future patients, Michael says he wouldn’t want to jeopardize his position wherever he’s working and potentially negate his ability to help other people in the future. But he would practice the principles he learned over the years like compassion.

[Tweet “”In order to respond appropriately to what’s in front of me, I have to be able to perceive it accurately. I have to seek to understand what I’m looking at.””]

[35:30] How to Stay Away from the Temptations

Michael says that the temptations have been removed. After taking the course of action, he feels he’s now at a place of neutrality where he no longer needs to shield himself from booze or difficult situations. He adds that he needs to keep an open mind and not tell himself how well he should be doing with something he hasn’t done before. He will also take advantage of the support he has. He recognizes how this is a team effort. He knows he needs to be able to ask his fellow students for help and honor that relationship by coming up with his end of the bargain. In the last 7 years, this has been such a big part of his life being of service to the people he is involved with and this was very helpful for him. Additionally, he still is going to AA meetings and he is still going to be calling his sponsor everyday. There are three guys he sponsors and they call him everyday. He will try to maintain this over the next four years and be of service to them.

[Tweet “”It’s a team effort. I need to be able to ask my fellow students for help and then also honor that relationship by coming up with my end of the bargain.””]

[38:36] Choosing the School and Specialty

Michael looked in a little bit as to which school to choose in a way that it can support him from a mental health standpoint in the future. Ultimately, he went with the school that when he went to the interview, he looked at how invested were the people in their students. The school he chose appeared to be the most involved, interactive, and invested in their students.

Also, he didn’t have the chance to investigate the 12-step community in those areas but it’s a global thing anyway so it’s available everywhere you go.

Although he has dealt with alcoholism, he doesn’t find himself interested in addiction medicine so far. As it stands right now, the approach he took is a spiritual one so he doesn’t think it coincides well with what how medicine is addressing addiction. But the way he approached addiction has worked for him and it worked well in a lot of people’s lives. He recently read a book by Michael Poland called How to Change Your Mind. It’s about a psychedelic research going on right now. So this is something that interests him. As well, he likes internal medicine and he likes surgery. So eventually, he will have to make a decision.

[42:02] Final  Words of Wisdom

Michael had a lot of doubts and fears. And after getting 21 rejections and has done so well in school and on the MCAT and his volunteer program, it didn’t make sense to him. And once he got his last rejection, he got sick for four weeks. He thought he wasn’t able to do it again. But there’s always somewhere deeper you can go to dig to find that energy and inspiration. It’s there even if you can’t see it at the moment. It’s there, you just need to keep going.


How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

If you’re struggling from alcoholism or addiction, please seek help by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

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