Two years ago today, I donned a cap and mortarboard, heard my name called, strode onto the stage and collected the testamur for my law degree. Ten minutes later, I burst into uncontrollable tears.
Rewind 6 years, when I’d decided to transfer into a law program from good ole arts. I was academically a bit bored, even though I LOVED my English subjects. All my friends were studying law and I had a bit of FOMO, plus I’d always thought I’d study law and could genuinely see myself as a practicing lawyer, Elle Woods style.
Law school turned out to be one of the most gruelling experiences of my life. While I never expected it to be easy, I also didn’t for a second think that I could have anxiety or depression. Yet, I did.
Law school is a unique environment: students who were at the top of their classes in high school are suddenly just scraping by, or falling somewhere in the middle. Competition is inherent in studies of law: a set number of students will fail each course, and only a very small number can get high marks. You are literally being taught how to argue, and how to prepare for the worst, and to never expect the best.
Added to that is the intense competition for part time legal work, summer clerkships and then graduate positions intense. There’s a huge surplus of law graduates fighting over few top tier jobs, and you’re lead to believe that only the top tier jobs matter (which is bullshit, by the way). You live and breathe the law for five years, and are constantly wondering how you’re tracking against your fellow students.
For me, this was toxic. In the middle of my fourth year of law (a combined degree takes five years), I melted down in a big way and dropped out of law entirely. There were a few other things going on but I’d been fading for years, crushed under the weight of law. My confidence was shattered and my internal monologue was overwhelmingly negative. My mental health had been compromised and pushed to the side for far too long, and I was paying the price.
It got so bad that for a time, leaving the house for anything other than exercise (which I forced myself to do) was almost impossible. I couldn’t sleep at night, but would sleep all day. I knew I wasn’t able to carry on with studying law at that time in my life and it was time to put my mental health first, but I felt like a completely and utter failure.
I graduated with an Arts degree in English and Politics, but felt completely empty on the day of that graduation ceremony. I couldn’t separate the achievement of my Arts degree from the failure of not being able to handle law.
I went on and scored a coveted graduate job in an advertising agency which would completely change my career ambitions. Six months into that role I decided that I was ready to go back to studying law and re-applied to the graduate law program at my uni, was accepted again and luckily received full credits from my previous studies. I went back to uni in a much healthier frame of mind, able to separate myself from my studies. I really enjoyed my final year of law school. I’d worked out what areas I was interested in and what would be useful in the future, and stuck to those kinds of subjects. I treated uni like a job, and did my best to keep to a similar schedule to when I had worked full time.
My final subject was Advanced Contracts, which I studied from my family home over a few summer months. I received my one and only high distinction for that course.
I wanted to share my law school experience today for a few reasons. Firstly, I was so damn proud of myself on my graduation day. Finally having the testamur in my hand and knowing no one could take it away from me and that I’d truly earned it was the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had.
Secondly, I wanted to share this story because I wish I’d believed that I wasn’t alone in these feelings throughout my studies. Of course I knew that I wasn’t alone. There were support services available and lip service was always paid to asking for help when you needed it. But while the teaching staff went through the motions of looking out for our mental health, we students never spoke about it to each other which made it feel like it was surely just me who was struggling, and that I was somehow weaker than everyone else.
If you are suffering from anxiety, feeling like the drudgery of every day isn’t worth it, or are just having a bad day/week/month/year, please believe that you aren’t alone, and that it gets better. Experiencing highs and lows is an essential part of being human, but when the lows seriously outnumber and outweigh the highs, and you feel like you might not be able to pull yourself out it – ask for help. Take up the support services around you, and lean on your friends and family. In the interim, go for a walk, play with a dog or cat, read a book, cook yourself a healthy, hearty meal – just generally be kind to yourself. I realise these things don’t treat the problem, but they sure as hell make you feel better, if only for a moment.