The high-pitched wail of the pneumatic saw cutting through the tibia, and the little bits of tissue the blade flung onto the surgeon’s gown were not enough to get to me the first time I saw a surgery, during my senior year in high school. It was the smell. Sliding down the wall in the corner of the operating room, wondering if lunch would stay put, I began to question my career choice. Certainly, no respectable doctor would almost pass out at the sights and smells of the operating room. No one else in the room was sitting on the floor.
Eight years later, by the end of medical school, those horrifying things no longer bothered me. Blood, guts, and mucous didn’t faze me anymore. I could assist my mentors with surgery and run off for lunch between cases. What had transformed a pale, withered lump in the corner of the operating room into a confident new doctor, heading off to a general surgery residency? I had become desensitized. Repeated exposure had transformed the grossly abnormal into the routine.
Wikipedia’s definition of desensitization: The diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.
Think back to a few months before your high school graduation. Standing in the kitchen with Mom and Dad, reading your first financial aid/student loan package from Dream College University. Is your hand shaking from the opportunity or in fear of the looming debt? It’s a little scary, taking on debt for the first time. Maybe even horrifying.
You conquered the fear and took the plunge, joining the ranks of other Americans in debt. When the sophomore financial aid package arrived, it was a little easier to tack on a new loan. After all, nothing bad happened with the last one. Some big dude with a bat didn’t show up to break your legs for not making any payments. The bank wasn’t sending any nasty letters. Everyone was saying it would be easy to pay it off after graduation, when the big bucks would be rolling in.
So you did it again, adding the next student loan to the debt pile, and still, nothing bad happened. Each year it got easier and easier to add more debt. You gradually became desensitized to the debt. Something horrible, initially, had become acceptable.
Fast-forward to the final year in medical school. Eight years of “add it to my debt and I’ll pay it later” have passed. It was so easy to add more debt the eighth year. What will it matter if you borrow a little bit more?
If you take a moment to reflect on your borrowing years, you realize how it happened so gradually. You became so numb to the idea of debt; it meant nothing to you anymore. For eight years, you added to it, and nothing happened. Life went on, and you kept getting what you wanted, always thinking it would be easy to pay later. This laissez-faire attitude sets you up to make some bad decisions.
When the real estate agent talks you into looking at a much more expensive house than you were considering, taking on the extra debt is no big deal. Debt is nothing, just toss it on the pile. When the car salesperson shows you the proper choice for a doctor, he can easily convince you to drive away in your dream car with those “small” monthly payments. Debt is nothing, just toss it on the pile. When you drive by the RV lot and see the perfect motorhome, you’re sure you can handle the payments. You’ve not had any trouble—yet. Debt is nothing, just toss it on the pile.
Only after you begin to face the consequences of piling on all this debt, do you realize what a monster you have created? When you reach the point where the easy monthly payments are not so easy anymore, you begin to think about debt in a new light—but now it’s too late. You already owe the money. You made the deal. You signed the papers. You are hooked like a Chinook salmon at the end of a fishing line.
But do not despair, there is a way out, and you don’t have to stay in that desensitized mode. Break the spell and realized what the debt is costing you. Debt is a disease, and until you come to that realization, you run the risk of just letting it slide through your life as if it were no big deal. It is a big deal! It could be costing you your financial future. Resensitize yourself to the effects of debt and get out from under its burden. You can become debt free again.
Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett. He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice Right and The Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt.