Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015
I am a proud nerd. I always loved school. Sitting down and pouring over texts came easily to me. As did paying attention in lecture and taking notes. I was thrilled when I got accepted to law school. It had been a dream of mine for a while and my hard work paid off.
When I started law school, my attitude slowly began to change. My class attendance was irregular and I was vocal about not caring about school. I goofed off in class when I did attend. At first, I thought that the fact that I didn’t care was healthy. Law school is known for making people care too much. I was not letting that happen to me – I was beating the system. Fellow students were consumed by their work, spending every free minute in the library. I laughed at the guy who asked me in October if I started my summaries. While everyone appeared to be working a lot harder, I was living it up, spending hours talking to friends during my free time and binging on television shows at home.
What I thought was a successful coping mechanism, took a turn for the worse. I was no longer able to pay attention in class when I tried. I would be lucky to get one page of handwritten notes in a 2-3 hour class. I was tired all the time. I either slept too much or could barely get myself to fall asleep. Socializing with friends was not fun anymore. It became exhausting. Feelings of guilt started taking over. If my friends were making me tired, I must be a terrible friend. I over-analyzed people’s words and body language and started to believe that they too felt I was a bad friend. The smallest negative interactions – real or perceived – would leave me in bed crying for days at a time. Social situations and events became increasingly uncomfortable. Carrying on normal conversation sapped me of all my energy. Every word I said, my tone of voice, my facial expressions and body language were so calculated. I was determined to appear “normal” and that I was still enjoying myself. I did not want anyone to perceive that anything was wrong. I had to remind myself to smile and laugh when a friend said something funny. Reactions that used to happen naturally had to be forced. More and more often I avoided friends in the halls because putting on a show time and time again was incredibly draining.
Why didn’t I seek out help in first year? Well, admittedly, I internalized the common rhetoric about mental health. I simply wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. I was lazy. Or alternatively, if I was trying my hardest and still not succeeding, I was simply not cut out for law school. I mean, everyone was stressed, right? And people deal with stress differently. Mine may have just been making me a little more reclusive.
So I tried pushing myself harder. Getting to class was difficult. I developed other symptoms that seemed to appear for no reason. My whole body hurt. And the jarring movement of public transportation exacerbated the pain. I also started having severe panic attacks. I nearly called an ambulance once because my heart would not stop racing for hours. If I made it to class, I still could not pay attention. I tried everything. I stopped taking notes on electronic devices. I bought notebooks to handwrite. I turned off my phone and kept it in my bag. I still could not follow lectures.
I hated law school.
At some point, I tried describing what I was feeling to some friends. “You’re not alone”, they said. “Everyone gets stressed”, they said. “Welcome to law school”, they said.
But I had been stressed before. I didn’t think that this was stress. And I felt that this should not be the law student experience.
At the end of my first year, I decided to spend my summer getting help. The changes I was experiencing could not have been part of my personality. The real me, or whoever I believed myself to be, must still have been around somewhere. I opened up to my best friends and family members. I told them that I thought I needed to address what was happening. They all supported me in getting help. I spoke to my doctor and a variety of therapists. I even got approved for academic accommodations.
I entered second year optimistic that things would improve. I had people on my side supporting me. Maybe the academic accommodations would reduce my stress levels and maybe I would be a little less hard on myself when I could not make it to school.
First semester started out okay, but things quickly deteriorated again. I missed class for nearly one month. My attention span dwindled again. And I could not keep myself from breaking down in public. My binging on television no longer served as the distraction it used to be because I could not pay attention to that either. It was background noise that kept my negative thoughts at bay. Silence was the worst. I would run through every interaction I had with people over and over in my mind, making sure that I had not appeared like I was losing it. I had to make sure I said and did all the right things. I felt stupid, incapable, and completely out of control. And control is what I desperately wanted.
I was terrified. I felt that all the connections I made with my new law school friends were deteriorating. I was not around enough. I thought people would forget who I was. Scarier still, I was forgetting who I was. It was as if I was in a pit of darkness, desperately grasping to find myself again. But the image of who I was began to fade. My personality felt like an abstract idea, one which I was not sure even existed. I felt numb and blank and empty.
I had my first major public breakdown in second semester of that year. It left me in bed for 6 weeks. I could not pull it together. Concerned family members told me to go out and exercise. I had no energy for that. I know how exercise helps your mood, but I was not in a place where I could access it. I cried constantly. It seemed like my face changed. I lost the sparkle in my eyes. I hated what I saw in the mirror. My feelings of guilt skyrocketed. I hated myself for being a bad student. I hated myself for being a bad friend and a bad family member. No matter what I tried, I could not stop those thoughts from racing through my head. I was completely aware that my thoughts were distorted. But deep down, I wholeheartedly believed them to be true. The thoughts were so intrusive that I could only keep them at bay for minutes at a time before I broke down again.
I lost all sense of myself. I lost all sense of control. And I was frustrated. Thank goodness that I had supportive friends and family members and therapists. Without them, I think I would have been completely lost. When they all saw that I was unable to make use of my existing supports in a way that helped me improve, they suggested I talk to my doctor about medication.
I refused the medical route for months. I was not “ill”. And I heard all those horror stories people tell about medications. “The side effects are horrendous” they said. “Your personality will change” they said. I was hesitant for a while. But after more thought, could potential side effects really be worse than what I was already experiencing? And my personality was already changed! I wanted my old self back. I decided to give medication a try. I started taking a combined anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication.
Now medication is not for everybody. There are plenty of examples where people were able to control their moods through non-medical counselling, physical activity, taking time to do things they love, etc. For me it was a last resort. And the change was miraculous. With very few side effects, the medication began to work in a couple weeks.
I noticed myself laugh naturally for the first time in ages. I cried – from happiness that time. I got back into a routine of going to classes. My brain decided to shut up. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the life in my face again. I felt excited about opportunities again. And *gasp* I started enjoying my classes.
Medication is not a solution. It is part of my holistic response and treatment plan to keep me out of that pit. Because my situation got so bad, I was unable to make use of the support I was getting. Medication is what opened the door to other treatments.I do not feel like I am out of the woods yet. To me, the medication is temporary. It is keeping me out of the pit for now, but I am standing dangerously close to the edge. But outside of it, there is a wide variety of supports I can now access. I feel energetic enough to exercise. I have been opening up to more friends and actually believing them when they say “I understand” and “I’ve got your back”. I am pursuing various therapy options to develop the skills necessary to keep myself out of the pit without relying on medication forever.
I definitely do not hate law school anymore. I am seeking out opportunities that I am passionate about and that I enjoy. I am getting back to being my nerdy, school-loving self.
I have learned a lot throughout my experience. Whatever I was feeling was absolutely not my fault. There is nothing more I could have done on my own to control my situation. I let the changes I was experiencing go on far too long. There is no shame in asking for help. It is not a weakness. In fact, living with what I was living with for a long as I did and then taking positive steps to change it is a sign of immense strength. I can appreciate that now.
Law school instills in us a spirit of competition, rather than collaboration. And a feeling that you and your fellow cannot both succeed. To me, this is a crime. We are all going through this experience together and should be able to rely on each other for support without worrying about how this will affect our position on the Curve. I found that the more I share with people, the more they are willing to share with me. I hope we can keep the conversation going and foster a culture of support and compassion.
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