Lessons From My Leave

If you’ve been following my law school journey here on the BC Law Impact Blog, you know that it hasn’t been an easy one. I was diagnosed with endometriosis – a chronic reproductive health condition that can cause back pain, pelvic pain, fatigue, and infertility among other debilitating symptoms – in my first year of law school. After a failed surgery between my first and second years of law school, and a successful, more intensive one in the winter of 2L, followed by a semester long leave, I am happy to be back on campus.

I spent the spring and the summer doing research for If/When/How on abortion access for teens, watching way too much of the X-Files, and working on my recovery. Getting your life back after a chronic illness sidelines you is a longer, and harder process than I expected, and I’m still working on getting my body and my mind back to where it was before I got sick. In the meantime, I’m taking it slow at school, and reflecting on what I’ve learned in the last few months. Here are some things I’ve learned about myself and law school along the way, and how you can apply them to (hopefully) make your time at BC Law a little easier:

 

1. I am not very good at taking time off. If you’re like me, get better at taking time off.

Two weeks after a four-and-a-half-hour surgery, I was back doing research work from home for If/When/How, working as an assistant to Carol Sanger, and editing a 60-page note. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for time off but it did take me until August to realize I hadn’t had a real break in months, and I desperately needed one. In law school there’s a lot of “yes” pressure – that is, pressure to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. And by all means, you should soak up this experience for everything it is worth. But learning how to say no, how to unapologetically set an automatic away reply on your email, and how to rest your body and your mind, are crucial skills for surviving law school and beyond.

2. You’re good at things you’ve never even considered.

During my leave, Professor Hong recommended me for a part-time gig helping Professor Carol Sanger at Columbia Law School promote her new book. I didn’t have any experience with that kind of work, but Professor Sanger is a bit of a celebrity in my world – she is one of the foremost scholars on abortion law and reproductive rights, so I said yes, noting that I would be doing some learning on the job. As it turns out, I loved the work. I got Carol’s book reviewed in major publications, and booked her for high profile events like a panel talk at the Strand in New York. And while I’m not planning on leaving the world of public interest law for book publishing anytime soon, it feels good to know something else out there makes me happy; that I can succeed at something if I put my mind to it, and it’s the right fit.

So, take that class that looks like it’s outside of your “track.” Try an externship that doesn’t seem like it’s exactly what you think you might be good at. Beware the impulse to only pick jobs and classes that reinforce your understanding of what you’re already good at – don’t be afraid to try new things just because you fear you might fail.

3. Listen to your body…

There was a period between my first and second surgery when I was unsure what was going on with my body. I thought something was wrong – I still had persistent pain – but my first surgeon assured me everything was OK. Months later, my second surgeon found that not only had the first surgery failed to remove all the disease, my condition had worsened; the first surgery exacerbated some of the active disease, and some of my organs had started to fuse together. Needless to say, that little voice inside me telling me something was wrong turned out to be very, very right.

So, if you find yourself falling asleep in the library, GO HOME AND SLEEP. If you wake up with a head cold and the room is spinning, stay home. If you find yourself (as I did) squinting to see the board, because hours of reading tiny text in your casebooks is degrading your eyesight, get glasses. Bring snacks for when you’re hungry, be honest with your professors when you feel overwhelmed, and be kind enough with yourself to do so without beating yourself up.

4. …and get help when you need it.

 When I was sick, I was constantly anxious and very depressed. I was unsure if I would ever feel better, and that terrified me. I assumed that after my surgery, all those dark and nervous feelings would go away, but even as my physical health improved after surgery, my mental health lagged. I decided to see a therapist who explained that I was experiencing a form of high-functioning PTSD – a clinical way of saying, you’ve been traumatized, and your coping method was to throw yourself into your work (see tip #1.)

Mental health is an incredibly taboo subject in law school, and the legal profession in general, which is why it’s no surprise lawyers have incredibly high rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Law school is a lot of work – A LOT OF WORK – and many of us are at a juncture when decisions about finances, work, and our private lives are weighing heavy. It is your right, it is your duty to yourself to take care of your mental health as you would your physical health. BC Law has resources, and we have amazing medical care here in the Boston area. Seek it out when you need it; I assure you, it will only make your law school experience better.

5. BC Law will be there for you.

 Through all of this, Dean Abbene was there every step of the way. My professors tore down every stereotype of law school being a cruel and callous place with their endless patience and compassion. Even now, returning to campus and navigating my physical limits as I am still recovering, I know BC Law has my back.

Life comes at you fast, as the kids say these days. And sometimes it hits you when you’re in the middle of a law degree for which you’ve worked your whole life. Check in with your professors – be honest with them and they will guide you in ways you didn’t even realize were possible. When my health started failing, it was an email from one of my 1L professors nudging me to reschedule my finals that put me on the right track, and made me realize I didn’t have to suffer in silence trying to keep up with everyone else. Everyone at BC Law is rooting for you; they want you to succeed more than anything else, and they are there to make sure that happens.

6. Law school requires you to be strong, but that doesn’t always mean what you think

I was pretty forthcoming about my disease and my efforts to get better, both here on the blog, and with friends and colleagues. But there were certain things I chose to keep private, like the way I had become acutely dependent on my parents, even to do simple things like cook or run errands, and the emotional agony of the uncertainty that an end would ever be in sight. I didn’t want people seeing the things that I thought made me look weak – the fear, the anxiety, the neediness.

In law school, it’s too easy to feel like we’re all in competition to be the most overworked and most unaffected person on campus. We post funny memes about procrastination and our lives falling apart, but on the inside, we’re wracked with stress wondering if the person in class next to us is taking better notes, or whether our post-grad job will be as prestigious as our friend’s job. But strength is a lot more nuanced than some one-dimensional ideal of keeping a stiff upper lip. Sometimes strength comes in showing our friends and loved ones our innermost selves, even the parts we tuck away for fear of judgement. If you’re feeling nervous about your grades or your job or your ability to cope in law school, chances are your friends are too. Admitting that doesn’t make you a weak person. On the contrary, it makes you stronger – stronger for putting yourself out there, and stronger because you will without a doubt be met with understanding (and commiseration.)

7. You will be surprised by your resilience.

My 2L fall was a nightmare. I took a bunch of courses I was dying to be in – Domestic Violence and the Law, Family Law, Children’s Law and Public Policy, and Con Law 2, only to find myself stuck on the couch sandwiched between two heating pads for the greater part of it. But with some (lots of) help from Dean Abbene I managed to move around my classes so I could take an independent study and cut back my course load. Not only did I pull the best grades of my law school career that semester, the note I wrote for my independent study earned national recognition.

At BC Law you’re surrounded by brilliant, top notch students, and it’s easy to feel intimidated, or like you’re not doing enough to succeed. But you’re all here at this exceptional school for a reason. You worked hard, and you have the chops, so take some comfort in that fact when things get tough, and I guarantee you will be surprised at how much you can accomplish.

8. Consider your circumstances, and what makes them possible. Use that perspective to raise awareness and do good.

Proper care for endometriosis is prohibitively expensive – and only a handful of surgeons can perform the procedure properly. I was incredibly lucky – I found a surgeon in Maine, just an hour and a half from where I live. I could take time off from school to accommodate my recovery, and my parents were able to cover the costs of my surgery. But I know so many women who are still struggling, either because they can’t afford the surgery, or take time off work, or travel to see a specialist. So, in the past few years I’ve written about endometriosis extensively in a number of publications hoping to raise awareness, and I one day I want to use my legal degree to do even more for endometriosis awareness and research.

At BC Law, we come from diverse backgrounds, and many of us are marginalized in ways that others are not. But, as I’ve pointed out in my column before, we all share the immense privilege of being law students. I urge you to take some time to consider the power that a J.D. brings, and think about what made it possible for you to get here. Consider what your advantages along the way have been, and think about ways to help those who might not be so lucky. This can take many forms; donating money is always an option, as is volunteering. But you can also use the platform you have as a law student at a prestigious university to raise awareness. Write op-eds about the importance of public education, pitch articles to publications about the importance of immigration reform, or LGBTQ rights. BC Law has some great publications here on campus – the Impact Blog and the Magazine, and they are spaces you can use to amplify issues that you feel are underreported.

If you’re interested in supporting proper education about endometriosis and its treatment, please donate to the School Nurse Initiative.

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