University of Toronto Law Student, Class of 2015
This is a simple story about the most important lesson I learned during law school. It details my journey from “normal” to clinically depressed to happiness and authenticity.
I came into 1L with few expectations. Gaining admission to U of T Law had been my goal for at least three years, and arriving was something of a letdown. It was another “accomplishment” on the list, but the only thing that felt real was the crushing isolation of being surrounded by people I didn’t feel I measured up to, in an alien culture I didn’t grow up in, buried by piles and piles of work. I didn’t know, concretely, what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I liked or was interested in. All of my choices to date had been utilitarian: what will bring me the greatest amount of socially-validated “success” for the least amount of effort?
This approach had served me well, but I hit a wall once the amount of effort required was significant. What was the point of striving if it just resulted in new challenges, new and more dangerous opportunities for failure?
In late September of 1L, I started to lose my motivation. To be prophylactic, I began visiting a U of T mental health counsellor. It didn’t help – I was resistant to the process and also thought that this new phenomenon was just laziness, a personal, moral failing that I should push through. The situation declined over Fall semester and the counsellor broached the topic of medication. I balked. Depression was an excuse lazy whingers used to justify their weaknesses, allowing them to maintain an undeserved self-respect.
By end of November, I began to notice a sharp decline in my mental speed. Ordinarily a fast talker, I could barely string sentences together. Words weren’t even at the tip of my tongue; they weren’t there at all. I couldn’t remember names of old friends. I didn’t want to go out. People were an imposition on my already severely-limited reserves of energy; whenever I received a text or IM, I resented the intrusion. Everything felt awkward; nothing flowed. I slept constantly, often through numerous alarms. I began to miss classes. Having missed them, the guilt made it difficult for me to go to the following classes.
These physical symptoms made me realize that something was terribly wrong. It was in my head, by it wasn’t just “in my head”. I spoke to U of T Law’s Assistant Dean, Students (Alexis Archibald, at the time), embarrassed about the involuntary tears seeping from me, and requested a leave of absence. I began taking Zoloft, which piled on weight, but at least brought me back to a functioning level.
I began working intensively with a private therapist. We worked on my perfectionism; my harsh self-talk; my severe judgments of myself and others that, projected out, made the world a scary place. We worked on authenticity, acceptance, learning to trust oneself. Learning to trust that I want to do good things, and do them well. We developed a strong therapeutic alliance and with her help, I dismantled the broken architecture that had drained my energy and identity, year over year, until what was left was negativity, dragging a shell of a human being.
A year later, I returned to school part-time, then full-time. During the process, I felt completely supported in my decisions by the school. I went off the Zoloft. I began to feel hopeful, excited, and optimistic about the future.
Three years later, I still see my therapist periodically, but it’s just a check-up. I try to maintain balance and mindfulness in my life. I try to exercise, eat well, sleep enough, etc., but don’t beat myself up when I fail. Try again. I look at mistakes as precious learning opportunities, not setbacks. I look at the system I’m living in – internal and external – not just the symptom.
I celebrate small peaks of success that are more meaningful because of the valley I painfully climbed out of: getting my first law school A; working on a start-up; learning to live my truth; having a successful summer at a major Bay street firm; developing stronger bonds with family and friends. In many ways, I’m back where I started. Sometimes, I look back and wonder if there might have been a way to avoid the darkness and proceed directly to the light. This is not a crucible for the faint of heart. But without it, I would be a different person; someone who hadn’t felt the emotional truth that degrees or no degrees, wicked or good, success or failure, I am always enough and there is always tomorrow.
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.”
– Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
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