Law school pals, I’m calling a group meeting. Gather around the dinner table. Pull up a chair, help yourself to an espresso martini, take a complimentary cronut, and put away your goddang iPhone. Right, are we all here? Fabulous. HI. We need to talk. Not about the latest episode of the Bachelor, or that flared pants are back, or the fact the level one fridge is about as grotesque as a 4am Brunswick gutter (who’s rice milk is that?).
We’re a family here at law school, and a family shares their feelings, even when they’re not particularly awe-inspiring or extraordinary, and especially when they’re ones you’d rather hastily stuff to the back of your closet, like last season’s crop top micro trend. There’s something I need to discuss with you all. It’s a topic that has been brewing as long as it sometimes feels like a soy chai latte does in the 10am coffee queue.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder last year. Talking about it makes most people uncomfortable, because it’s enormously personal information to absorb. I’d imagine telling someone you have anxiety evokes a similar atmosphere to when you’re at a house party and someone reveals that their favourite band is Nickelback. Only, it’s your mental health, so people can’t exclaim and cover their ears or scoff or back away quietly or change the topic to Donald Trump’s luscious toupee. Most react supportively and calmly, but sometimes there is an element of awkwardness because it’s difficult to know what to say, and how to say it. Yes, having anxiety is wonderfully difficult to admit to, because there’s that fear you’ll be judged, or even just treated differently the next day. So, usually it’s easier to pretend you’re fine – to your friends, to your family, to the random guy on the tram witnessing you stress-eat an entire packet of Twisties, and above all, to yourself.
There was no one thing that triggered my anxiety. It was more like life just suddenly got too overwhelming. There I was, a wide-eyed, stressed-out first year, battling to balance four subjects, a hectic part-time job, extra-curricular activities, a boyfriend, a social life, family commitments, health issues, that inevitable law school pressure, and still somehow being told to dedicate time to ‘relax’. Slowly, I began withdrawing from my family, cancelling plans with my friends. Trying to pretend I was happy took too much strength. Attempting assignments seemed like falling into quicksand, hobbies no longer had appeal, and every expression of love and support slid right off me. It was like I couldn’t feel anything anymore.
The panic attacks began- in supermarkets, while driving, in my bed, at the Toff, on trains, in the level 2 toilets, and even, to my horror, in the middle of a Property class. Every day seemed too tough, each hour felt like an Everest. My chest was used to pounding, my palms continuously sweaty. Then, one insignificant weekday, the thought of walking down my street to the bus stop terrified me. I was too scared to leave my house, let alone contemplate mustering the energy to haul myself to university. The condition became too debilitating to function; relentless dread consumed my brain. Anxiety was crippling my life. And that’s when I realised I could no longer pretend I was coping.
Having the perfectionist, Type-A, typical law student personality that I do, I found it excruciatingly shameful to admit to my loved ones that I needed help. Not only did the icy grip of anxiety paralyse my days, but to add a whole other layer of torment, I would actually guilt myself for feeling this way. My life was amazingly privileged, safe, and full– how could I possibly confess that my days felt unbearable, that I was afraid of everything – when there were people all over the world who were suffering so much worse?
My stupidly high expectations wouldn’t let me accept something was wrong. I defiantly resisted every treatment my doctor and psychologist gently proscribed, because admitting that I was struggling felt like defeat, like I’d failed somehow. To make things worse, I would hyperventilate every time my face tingled and heart raced; the classic signs of a panic attack in its infancy. Yes, that’s right, my panic attacks gave me panic attacks. I achieved peak panic. I was literally freaking out that I was freaking out. It was basically something out of Inception. You’ve got to hand it to me. Like many budding lawyers, I don’t do things in halves.
Upon reflection, it is so magnificently depressing to analyse why I felt the way I did. How have we got to this point that we beat ourselves up for not coping? Why is it that we equate struggling with failure? What does that say about us? Why does we put so much pressure on ourselves? I’ve begun to wonder how many fellow ducks exist here at university– calm from above, but furiously paddling to stay afloat beneath the surface.
When law students support each other, the vibe around this building imaginably mimics that of Tony Abbott at a Speedos’ convention–there’s a lot of love in the room. But when assignments pile up and deadlines loom and the exams tundra rears its ugly, unsolicited head, the stressful environment we create for each other can be so damaging. We joke about being anxious to the point that our hair falls out, and freely laugh off breakdowns and late-night crises. So many of us turn a blind eye to our emotions, because we’re too busy trying to keep up. I know the Juris Dogtor is great and all, but there’s only so much good one fluffy therapy pup can do.
The thing is, once I got over my irrational shame of finding life too mountainous, acknowledging I had anxiety became a huge relief. Rather than punishing myself for not understanding something in class that day, for not having time to see my boyfriend’s parents for dinner, or even just for having a really crap day, accepting that there was a name to explain how I felt meant accepting that my feelings were legitimate – that I wasn’t alone in being overwhelmed. Instead of enduring yet another restless evening hallucinating about failure, I began forcing time to rest and relax; to do something for myself and only for myself.
I’d love to say that these days I wake to a 6.15am spin class, recite Mother Theresa quotes in front of a mirror, and then inject kale into my veins, but that would be a lie of Belle Gibson proportions. I go to Zumba classes because shimmying to ‘Uptown Funk’ alongside fitness nuts, school mums, and elderly Vietnamese women is one of the greatest pleasures known to man. I limit alcohol because I don’t like the way it makes me feel, but put me in front of a pear and goats cheese pizza, and my life gladly transforms into an episode of ‘Man vs Food’. I study some pretty ridiculous hours, but I also hit the d-floor on a Saturday night, make time to hang out with my family and boyfriend, sleep in, and go on massive Netflix binge streaks. I visit a psychologist a few times a month, and words cannot describe how outrageously awesome it feels to finally talk to someone. There are still anxiety-ridden days where I can barely face getting in the shower, but those moments are fewer and more far between.
So, what’s so special about my story? Well, the reality is, nothing. I’m just another student here at law school, sitting in your 2pm Criminal Law seminar, hiding behind my armour of patterned pants, winged eyeliner and enthusiastic conversation. It doesn’t matter what grades you get, how many friends you have, what shoes you wear, how much money’s in your bank account or what your Instagram looks like. Mental health does not discriminate. Law students aren’t superhuman wunderkinds; we’re only flesh, blood and bone. If we don’t look after ourselves, we fall apart. Can we all please kick the stigma of anxiety right in the guts? The air in here can be suffocating. There’s nothing wrong with struggling to breathe. It’s okay to not be okay. It begins with giving yourself a break.
First published in Purely Dicta 2015 Edition.
Side note: slight changes have been made to ensure the vague anonymity of where I go to university. I mean, I know we are best friends forever, lovely internet pals, but please don’t come crash my 11am Corporations Law class. Unless you want to do my readings for me.