CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Aspiring physician finds friendship at the cash register

Posted July 14, 2011, at 6:33 p.m.

Elderly people have inspiring stories to tell, informed by history and experience. Young people’s stories lack the same depth of history, but their youthful passion can be equally inspiring. In some cases, inspiration doubles when the two overlap.

While buying milk at our local Irving gas station, I encountered an unusual young man working the cash register. Somehow, our brief counter conversation expanded from common pleasantries to books, education, medicine and life aspirations.

In a strange coincidence, I later learned that Norman Stern, my vivacious 90-year-old neighbor who took up painting late in life (April 8th, 2011 Conversations With Maine), had met the same young man at Irving a few months earlier. Twenty-five-year-old Justin Martin so captivated Norman’s interest that he offered Justin a free art lesson and coupons to use at A.C. Moore. Many months and art lessons later, they now are devoted friends.

This unusual friendship piqued my interest in Justin even further. Both men are fervently enthusiastic about meeting people and engaging in life. Justin was not always so open and engaging, however, and that is part of his story.

The tale of Justin’s childhood is, sadly, not uncommon — a home life fraught with conflict and hostility caused him to become troubled and withdrawn. In spite of his social withdrawal, maybe even because of it, Justin excelled academically.

Valedictorian of Mattanawcook’s class of 2004, Justin went on to four years at Boston College. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in finance.

“I just had this competitive drive to get to the top of the mountain, to keep climbing,” Justin said.

If he had been happy at home, he wonders if he might not have been so intent on schoolwork, studying behind closed doors in his room.

The day came, however, when Justin realized that he was being driven by institutional standards, not by his own values. Many of his achievements left him feeling empty.

Social and emotional struggles continued to haunt him in college. During his junior year, he said, “It started to get really bad.”

One night he found himself considering suicide, and he called campus police for help. The subsequent counseling and medical treatment that Justin received transformed him.

“I had been so self-absorbed. Now I started noticing when other people were having a bad day. I really opened up and turned my attention to other people.”

Realizing that he was not the only one who experienced isolation and despair was a revelation. He describes his transformation as a kind of mental and emotional rebirth.

“I tell people I’ve been alive for four years,” he said with a laugh.

Always a voracious reader, Justin began studying human psychology and mental illness on his own.

Around this time he completed his financial degree and went straight into a lucrative job. After 18 months he found himself disillusioned with the world of finance and quit. He had become too intent upon reaching a goal that felt more true to his ideals.

Justin now is passionately determined to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist, so that he can help people who have struggled as he has.

“If I can help just one kid, that will be mission accomplished in my life.”

There is a long road ahead. Justin has been accepted into a post-baccalaureate pre-med program at Columbia University in New York, but he needs to build up his savings before he can begin, which he hopes to do in January. Then he’ll have to pass qualifying tests and be accepted into a medical school. It is a battle, but Justin says with conviction; “I will not lose this. I WILL be a psychiatrist.”

Meanwhile, Justin continues to read and learn everything he can — not only about psychology, but current events, finance, and religion. “Some people think it’s weird, but this is my enjoyment — learning.”

Feeling that he missed out on 21 years of human interaction, he is also invigorated by meeting and talking with people every day — people like Norman Stern who open him up to new worlds of knowledge, art, and friendship. They meet two or three times a week, study painting, go to the pool to swim, or spend time at Norman’s home where Justin helps with house and garden work.

“Norman is probably one of my best friends around here,” Justin tells me. They may be 65 years apart, but they found common ground — the determination to keep thinking, keep learning, look forward, and never give up.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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