I have been grappling with the sometimes-tenuous relationship between my expectations and reality since I was a six-year-old girl, kissing my perfectly healthy mother goodbye before school. When I got off the school bus that afternoon, I expected my mother to be waiting for me at the bus stop, a snack to be on the table, and my father to be at work. Instead, it was my father waiting for me, no snack, and the news that my mother had taken a nap that morning and had never woken up.
Several years after my mother’s death, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, but I think emptiness is a much more complete way to describe what was happening inside my head. When people think of depression they think of sadness and tears, but depression is more like a parasite that sucks away all human emotions; happiness, anger, even sadness cannot exist as long as depression is present. Being depressed is like being locked behind a one-way mirror; isolated, invisible to your loved ones, and forced to watch them live their happy lives without you.
But even during the darkest period of my life, I have never been passive. When I was in eleventh grade, I told one of my teachers I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. She responded by saying the odds were not in my favor and I should come up with a backup plan. To be fair, I was a student at a residential school for emotional teens where my classmates and I were not even trusted with plastic knives, so I’m sure she was only trying to be realistic. Still, though I maintained my drive to make something of myself and refused to live in a cycle of self-pity and complacency, my depression always pushed against me.
By the time I started college I had already tried twelve different antidepressants and five different therapists. I found it hard to get out of bed and brush my teeth most days, so, yes, an eye towards law school was extremely ambitious, but the only other option I had was to stay in bed with my dirty teeth and hope that one day some doctor would find a cure for my depression.
I think back to that high school teacher, and why her admonition about my odds felt so devastating. It was because at the time, other than having my mother back, I wanted nothing more than to practice law. Losing her at such a young age obviously shattered my illusion of safety and my fragile understanding of the world around me, but it also conditioned me to avoid any situation that might result in a feeling of loss or disappointment. When I was younger, this conditioning prevented me from seeing difficult tasks through; it seemed less painful to give up than to risk failure.
However, when I was a little older, the sixth therapist that I saw was able to break through walls in my mind that I did not even know I had built. I had always been honest about the fact that I was still depressed about my mother’s death, but what I had not realized was that I was also afraid to be happy. I knew what it felt like to lose the person I loved most before I knew what it felt like to lose a baby tooth. Like any other child, I expected my mother to be there to protect me and make me feel safe. Instead, she died for no reason other than that her heart just stopped beating. Happiness, like life, seemed like something I could not control. Therefore, I did not want it.
For me, healing was more than just learning how to be happy; it was also learning how to accept sadness. I will always miss my mother, and I have learned to be okay with knowing that while the empty feeling in my heart will get smaller each day, it will never completely go away. What was harder to accept was that while my mother’s death might be the great tragedy of my life, disappointment and failure are inevitable features of trying to accomplish anything. Now, I have learned to work to achieve the things that I want without attaching loaded expectations to the outcomes. As I succeed at things that I had at one time given up, I realize that I have always had the intelligence and the talent I needed. What I lacked was the confidence and resilience.
In a way, I think I am luckier than the average law school hopeful. While I have had a difficult start in life, my experiences have conditioned me to be resilient and inexhaustible. It’s easy, especially for ambitious and goal-oriented people, to spend a lot of mental energy dwelling on things that you cannot control. My biggest strength is that I have finally learned to let go of those things.
Christina Green is a 1L at BC Law interested in Child Advocacy, Criminal Defense, and Civil Rights. She welcomes comments and questions from readers. Comment on her posts, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.