The Struggle is Real: Having Anxiety at Law School.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I Object!

My first year at Melbourne Law School is nearing a distressingly rapid close. And, like a premature “greatest hits” CD, I can already see the highs and lows of the JD flash before my sleep-deprived eyes. But there are no feelings of nostalgia or glory. Rather, I feel cheated.

My expectations of law school seem to have had a fairly gruesome punch-up with reality. But I don’t blame the pamphlets, the inspirational introductory speeches, or even the professors. I blame my television, beyond reasonable doubt. With Foxtel as my witness, I can safely assert that the ratio decidendi of my perception of law school has been entirely based on popular culture.

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 After one too many late-night viewings of Law and Order, I eventually came to the somewhat spontaneous conclusion I should study law. “Think of the campus!” I told myself as I filled in the application forms. “The parties! The content! The opportunities! The handsome men!”

So, like most naïve twenty-something ladies, I watched Legally Blonde the night before my LSAT. Aside from the entirely misleading assertion that she aced the test with a 179 (yeah, okay, Reese Witherspoon), a teeny tiny part of me secretly believed that Elle Woods’ time at Harvard would fully mirror my JD experience. I read up on important Aristotle quotes to be asked on the first day. I bought an Apple Mac laptop (minus the bunny costume). I was even prepared to combat the ferocious Vivian Kensington’s of the world, what with my witty comebacks and plethora of university-appropriate plaid shirts.

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Alas. With the exception of a messy LSS shindig or nine, the majority of my time at law school is spent sitting in the back row of PPL with one eye on a treaty and the other on a 20 per cent off ASOS sale. Goodbye, dreams of accidentally non-themed parties and incredible criminal court internships. Hello, Saturday afternoons in my coffee-stained pyjamas cramming a DR essay. I don’t dream of Luke Wilson. I dream of Kirby.

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The study at law school was destined to be easy! We were all meant to become instantly fabulous and achingly intelligent within our first few lectures, right? According to my TV, the JD was just going to be one really drawn-out, complicated episode of Boston Legal. So, I power-strutted in to LMR with the aim of being Atticus Finch by July, minus the whole “mockingbird” thing, and then working as a paralegal for Crane, Pool and Schmidt by the end of November. As it turns out, you can’t just waltz in to a courtroom, point at a freshly shampooed perm, and yell, “I object!” Who knew? As it turns out, there are hundreds upon hundreds of cases to learn, judgements to critique, statutes to memorise… Well. There goes my plan of acing my Constitutional Law exam just by writing “It’s Mabo, it’s the vibe”, a la The Castle. Looks like I might have to delay my transformation into Scandal’s feisty Olivia Pope (and debut of a killer power suit) until third year. This is coming at quite a shock.

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And where, for the love of all things legal, are the handsome Harvey Specters? I surely speak for 90 per cent of the cohort when I say that I, rightly or wrongly, founded every single preconceived idea of the legal profession on Suits. So, essentially, a steamy corporate bubble of crazy clients, power brunches, and cheeky hook ups in the photocopier room. But as stunning as those in the Student Centre are, they’re no Rachel Zane. The only saucy midnight rendez-vous I’m having at law school is on the level three library with my Obligations textbook. This isn’t very Erin Brockovich. Intelligence has been long-heralded as the sexiest quality in a person, but all this newfound contract formation knowledge makes me feel a lot more Judge Judy than Ally McBeal. I fear for the day I may be forced to date within the law school. What’s that? You can recite chapter 3 of the Constitution by heart? Excuse me while I take off all my smart casual business attire.

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The closest I’ll get to the Bar for now is the Corkman, and so it appears the television has let my sky-high expectations and I down. Yes, the legal student life isn’t as glamorous as the small screen would tell it, but at least the journey ahead of me is slightly more Mike Ross than Maury Povich. Who knows? Perhaps this JD will turn me into the next Josh Lyman (but with better hair, obviously).

 Now, back to the library for the next saucy date with my textbook. Wait! Was that William Shatner standing by the level 6 lifts? Oh no, just Glyn Davis. Well, a gal’s got to dream.

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First published in Purely Dicta Edition 1 2014