Taking a Leave

When I started law school, I didn’t think it would go like this. I thought the hardest thing I would have to face would be the workload, and my commute. The only thing I feared was my anxiety taking over, and making it hard for me to get by. I was scared, but excited, at the prospect of three years doing something I had been working so hard and so long to do.

When I started law school I never thought I would miss almost all of my 1L spring to a chronic illness I had only just learned I have. I didn’t think I would have to postpone my finals to accommodate surgery to get better. I couldn’t imagine I would miss almost all of my 2L fall to that same illness, after the first surgery didn’t work. And never, in all my wildest fears did I think I would be taking the spring semester of my 2L year off to have another surgery; my second in less than a year.

But here I am.

As some of you know, either from being familiar with me, or reading my column here, I was diagnosed with endometriosis — a chronic reproductive illness that affects roughly 1 in 10 people with uteruses — in the middle of my 1L spring. I was hopeful things had turned around after what I thought was a successful surgery in June, and I was ready to take on an exciting semester filled with classes I was passionate about, like Domestic Violence and the Law, and Children’s Law and Public Policy. But three days into school, I made it just about 40 minutes from my house before I had to pull over, because the throbbing in my back was making me lightheaded. I cried over the phone to my parents in the parking lot of the Square One Mall. It had been almost three months since my surgery and I was supposed to be better, so I reasoned my body was simply tired from the busy start of school; from carrying books and going up and down stairs, and commuting an hour and a half each way.

But I didn’t get better. I was still in pain at the end of September, and October. I attended class sporadically, but spent most of my time at home, with my heating pad held tightly to my abdomen, trying to keep busy.

Desperate for answers, I turned to online support groups for others with endometriosis. I talked to many women who had gone through what I had — a failed surgery and nowhere else to turn but hormones that gave us hot flashes, nausea, and depression. I found a small group of doctors, scattered across the country, who were doing something different; something that seemed to be working for women like me. It was a more intensive procedure, a longer surgery. And while nothing was guaranteed to work, I was desperate for relief, and I had tried almost everything else. So I picked a surgeon and set a surgery date in January. And, with a heavy heart but a clear head, I made the difficult decision to take a leave.

I have been incredibly hard on myself since starting law school; since… forever really. For months, I couldn’t see a semester off as anything more than a failure. I wasn’t strong enough to fight through the pain, I told myself. I had promised myself I would do anything to get into law school, so why couldn’t I grit my teeth and do anything to get through it?

But for a year, I had been fighting the inevitable: that I was too sick for school, that it wasn’t my fault, and that I needed to get better. Still, I didn’t want to be that student who graduated late. I wanted to be a normal law student, who went to classes and graduated at the normal time. I wanted my law school experience to go as planned.

I think we all must have an idea of what law school will be like, and we hope it goes as smoothly as possible, so we can go through classes with our friends, and graduate on time, and start shiny new jobs with all our classmates as we settle into the lives we came to law school to start. But sometimes things don’t end up looking like the idea you had in your head.

Here on the Impact Blog, I’ve written about how important it is to remember that this is your academic experience, and to not let the paths of others influence you, or make you feel any sort of way about your own. Whether you’re here to be a corporate lawyer, or a researcher for a nonprofit, you’re an equally important member of our BC Law community, and you should never feel that by taking a divergent path, you are anything less. In deciding to take some time off, I realized that this advice should apply to more than academics and your career path. It should apply to your law school experience in general. When I first thought about taking a semester off, I felt ashamed. I didn’t want to tell my friends, and I hated the idea of watching them all walk at graduation without me. But I hated the idea of enduring another semester missing classes, and never knowing if I would be well enough to make it through the day, even more.

So, I’m proud to say I no longer see taking a leave as a failure. And it’s not because I’ve come to terms with the fact that my health is out of my control, or that I will still be recovering from surgery well into the Spring semester. Instead, I know it’s not a failure simply because I know it’s the right thing for me.

I say all this because I think there’s an immense amount of pressure in law school to tough it out, and to run with the pack. But things happen in our life — things that are in our control, and things that aren’t; things that involve our health, and things that require our time — and we have to deal with them. And in doing so, whatever that takes (be it time off, a reduced course load, or a week spent away from classes coping), we don’t fail.

This semester I thought a lot about my favorite quote, which is coincidentally by my favorite author, Tennessee Williams. He said, “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.”

There are few statements I believe in as strongly as that one, but this past semester I feel like I’ve learned what it really means. I used to think that to survive an appalling circumstance with grace meant to hold your head high, hide your pain, and move forward so no one is the wiser. But there is nothing graceful about mistreating your body and yourself. I’ve come to realize that surviving something with grace involves being kind, even gentle with yourself. It means being in touch with what you need to do well, not only at school and at work, but in your life outside of all that, and allowing yourself those necessities.

And while this was an immensely hard reality to face, I feel lucky to have made it with the support of the BC Law community. I had all the help I needed and more, from Dean Abbene, my professors, and my friends. And I’m reminded why I chose BC Law. It’s law school with grace, and a heart.

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