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Paws

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I have been in al-anon for a few years and it has been great for my being able to deal with a particular family member's alcoholism. I feel cool about it and even briefly mentioned the alcoholism in my family, and how it has helped me to understand that there are common social issues affecting many families, patients, etc., in my personal statement.

But I never came right out and said: dude! I am in al-anon.

But I just had an interview and the guy was really drilling me about why I did this at this time and that at that time and I just tried my best to make honest and intelligent questions.

The truth is, if I had just said I went to al-anon because I didn't understand this family member's behaviour and it was really freaking me out and if I had just elborated on how much I have learned and what I great thing that I did go and get help - well, it might have made my responses more congruent with my actions. But no, I didn't want to admit it. Too personal I guess.

But in my thank you letter, I kind of want to say, I did this at that time because I wanted to get help and understand ... etc.

Is this too personal and is it "the kiss of death"? so to speak? I mean, are we supposed to be honest, but not too self-disclosing? It's kind of a big part of my history (ok, so now everyone here knows ...).

Have other people struggled with these sorts of serious family issues that turned out to be big growth experiences for them? Like divorce, death in the family or whatever?
 

Reckoning

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Paws,

If you think it is too personal, it's too personal.

That said I think having some experience with alcholism or addiction is a huge personal asset and one that will be valuable to you as a doctor. The way I see it if you have navigated a relationship with an addict with any semblance of success you have learned a great deal about personal boundaries, how to have compassion without getting taken along for the roller coaster ride, how to define where your relationship begins and where it ENDS. You also understand how addiction can change a person and send their life into a nosedive. I mentioned alchoholism in my family in my personal statement because it led me to become a big brother. I see it as a necessary link.

A note to your interviewer will reinforce that you are conflicted about it but that you are conscientious about getting your story straight. I don't think there are extra points for full disclosure here though!

Best of luck with you decision...
Rrrrrrrrrrr
 

Nanon

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Originally posted by Paws

Have other people struggled with these sorts of serious family issues that turned out to be big growth experiences for them? Like divorce, death in the family or whatever?

I have. My mom is an unmedicated schizophrenic, and I'm the person who takes care of her. I grew up in her care, and as a result had very little formal education, especially when I hit highschool. The impact this has had on my education, let alone my life, is enormous. And yet, I have no idea how, or even if, to include this in a personal statement. It's not just that it's "too personal." It's also a highly charged, highly stigmatized issue in our society - even (and maybe especially) in the medical community. Add to that, that most people, when I tell them my story, have a hard time believing it. They wonder how my mother has somehow escaped institutionalization for 30 years. They don't get it how I could have been in her custody at all, let alone for most of my life. Some people seem suspicious about the fact that I've been able to go to college and do relatively well with no high-school, and while taking care of my mom. And some people wonder if maybe I'M schizophrenic, or otherwise mentally ill by association. I'm not looking forward to answering these questions in an interview situation.

So, no. You aren't the only one...

Nanon
 
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Paws

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Hey Nanon,

Great post. I mean, I'm sorry about your mom and growing up with the 'stuff' around those issues, but it is good to hear what you have to say about it. I think you sound very sane - :)

I agree about the social stigma associated (sometimes) with these situations. I think that is what I am wrestling with here. I agree with Reckoning that it's best to say less and just focus on what we have learned. But for me in this particular interview, the guy just kept talking about these intensely personal questions he had about my life history. That was really ALL he talked about and he just kept asking these probing, intensely personal questions. He was nice enough, but I was too self-conscious (for reasons Nanon stated above) to just come out and say: "ok, I quit this job in 19xx so that I could stop and really deal with the issues surrounding my family." It would have been a more honest, and integrity-oriented answer, but I caved and said other more neutral things. It felt like he was not fully satisfied with the answers I gave, either.

This is why, in retrospect, I feel like he was trying to give me an opportunity to be really honest and I dropped the stick.

I think I am going to send something simple in a thank you note, and say just what I said above. It was an intense interview and it feels like the right thing to do - in this particular case.
 

Cheeze Whiz

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wow I am very glad to see this topic. I have also been wondering how to handle this. One of my parents developed a serious drug addiction, this happened during my early teens until I was about 20. Needless to say, it had a big impact on my life and all personal issues aside, it has had a big impact on my academic history. I did not grow up with ANY stability and I pretty much raised myself. I went to my local state school....for no other reason than "it was there" and it was all I could afford anyway. I had zero direction or any idea what college was about. My Ugpa is about 2.8.
I am now a super-duper-hell-bent pre-med at nearly 30yrs old but my academic history is with me FOREVER, about 6 years worth. I started post-bacc before I was ready, so those first two part-time years were also a 2.9gpa mess. The past few semesters I have finally settled, and my grades are up!
I plan to apply this year and am SO VERY torn about mentioning my past in my personal statement. I do NOT want my tale to come across as a sob story or as an excuse, but on the other hand, that past has brought me to this present. Considering academic reasons alone, I feel it may help explain my very inconsistant academic history and very late-blooming stability and discipline.
Addiction is difficult to discuss, I feel ashamed and defensive because it was my parent. I am not sure how I will feel disclosing this to potential peers.
So I am still debating what to do. I also fear writing this very personal history out and having it sent out all over the country!
 

Mistress S

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I'm also still trying to decide how to deal with this sort of thing in personal statement/interviews...there is a lot of alcoholism in my family (dad, who has nothing to do with me, and ex-stepdad, who unfortunately did), as well as mental illness, poverty, and physical/emotional abuse that led to me spending a good portion of my childhood and teen years in foster homes, group homes, and in the care of various family members. Obviously all of this had a huge impact on my life and education, but I am not sure if I should address it for the reasons others have stated--embarassment, too personal to talk about, fear of being misunderstood or seen as "guilty by association", like I may not be a stable person because of my family.

I spoke with my pre-med advisor about this on two seperate occasions: the first time, she advised me to mention it because she said med schools really want to know you and will be interested in what I have overcome; more recently she seemed discouraging, saying that I have a strong app without this and don't want to be seen as trying to gain "extra points" by applying as disadvantaged, and that it wouldn't make much of a difference anyway. So I'm really confused, on the one hand I feel that it is a part of who I am and that I am proud of all I have accomplished despite my past, but on the other hand I worry about being perceived poorly because of it and since my app is good without it (I don't have anything to "explain away"), I wonder if I should just leave it out.
 

Reckoning

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All,

It's good hear that others have wrestled with some of these same questions. I think you guys focus too much on the "stigma" of being the sons/daughters of someone with mental or addiction problems. The fact of the matter is that you are adults with your own ambitions of becoming a doctor. Furthermore, you didn't choose your parents. I can't really imagine someone "stigmatizing" you about your childhood, at least someone who is worth having a second conversation with. Having overcome a chaotic childhood to get to where you are, you are freakin' champs!

I think you should weigh whether you want to talk about it just like you weigh any other experience in writing your PS or interviewing. Is it important? Did it shape who you are? Will it illustrate well who you are? If not leave it out. If so include it.

My .02,
Reckoning
 

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I also come from an unstable/alcoholic childhood. I never finished high school and it took me 9 years to complete my B.S. in Biology. I managed to complete my M.S. in 2 years though. If anyone has noticed my lack of a high school diploma (I have a GED), they haven't mentioned it. I have been asked why it took me so long to finish college (and why I went to 3 schools), but a brief explanation that my father died when I was 21 and I was taking care of him seems to satisfy interviewers. I also go on to explain that I moved from GA to CA at that point (and therefore changed schools) so that I could start with a clean slate. I avoid the issue of alcoholism by not mentioning what caused my father's death. If I think it's appropriate, I explain how I "overcame a difficult situation" and worked hard to achieve a high academic standing. If you can step back from your situation and explain how something has shaped who you are, I think it's in your benefit to do so. Just don't delve too deeply into an emotionally charged topic. Find a good point (or two) and stick to the positive aspects. Good luck!
 

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While I don't have much experience hearing about student applications that include dealing with an alcoholic/mentally ill parent, I do know a lot of people write about their experiences caring for a dying family member. This typically strengthens their application.

If you feel comfortable talking about your experiences, explain them... show how they have made you appreciate people with addictions/mental illness and other ways in which it has positively influenced you.... however, don't include too much baggage. But talking about your experiences in al-anon would not be a bad thing. A terribly high number of physicians are abusers, and experience with this could be a strength.

I wish all students had better feelings toward people with addictions.

Good luck!
 
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