On a cool fall morning in 1983, I hopped on public transportation at the bus stop in front of my parents’ house. Next stop, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. My first day as a 1L.
As the bus doors opened in front of the law school, I could feel the churn of the “first day of school” breakfast my mom had cooked coming up in my throat. I thought I was going to be sick. The feeling worked its way back down and settled in near my feet. My approach to the law school entrance became more of a terror- induced shuffle than a confident stride into the future.
I came to a stop at the large glass doors. I peered into the lobby, where other 1Ls were milling about waiting for orientation. They all looked so sure of themselves. I wondered what these future masters of the universe knew that I didn’t. What tools had they brought to cope with the uncertainly of the next three years that I didn’t have and, in my mind, would never have?
I now know that the biggest tool anybody has to cope with law school or life itself is to ask for help.
The baggage I carried
I was completely wrapped up in my own insecurity and pre-existing mental- health issues as I slowly pushed open the door to join the crowd. Those issues were: body dysmorphic disorder, two eating disorders (exercise and traditional bulimia), clinical depression, and problem drinking.
I’d developed bulimia my freshman year in college. I’d been a severe problem drinker or “alcoholic” since my sophomore year. That same year, I’d also begun exercising excessively, for the primary purpose of “burning off” every single calorie I consumed. Not quite the resume for law school success.
More important to me than academic success at Pitt was hiding the shame I felt dealing with these mental- health issues. I’d told no one. I’d sought no help of any kind. Addiction and eating disorders are still stigmatized today. In 1983, it was exponentially worse. To tell someone would have been to risk “infecting” them with my problems. Better to stay silent.
I now know these truths
Looking back at that time and that terrified, troubled young man, I wish I could take the “Hot Tub Time Machine” back to 1983 to when he was eating that breakfast to tell him a few things I’ve learned over the decades. Now almost 12 years into eating disorder and addiction recovery, here’s what I’d say:
• People are for the most part empathic and want to help. It’s often a projection of the worst possible result that keeps us from asking for help. Today, not only do people want to help, but our schools are better prepared to do so with a much better understanding of mental-health issues law students deal with.
Deans of students are knowledgeable with regard to mental-health struggles. They’re not the enemy. They want you to succeed.I know it seems unthinkable, but many law professors want to help as well. In my day, I’ve spoken to quite a few students for whom a professor was the first person they confided in and were very glad they did.
• There are recovery resources available. There are many more than in my day. Your dean of students can be a guide. Does your state Lawyers Assistance Program accept law students? Despite your character and fitness fears and preconceptions, LAPs are confidential.
Does your city have a recovery group such as Lawyers Helping Lawyers? In my experience, they also take law students.Today you can even get peer support online if you want to start anonymously. A great resource is the online support site In The Rooms. Better to start somewhere than nowhere.
• Listen when people say self-care is important. It’s OK to have a life outside of law school. Even more importantly, it’s very OK to have a social life within the school that doesn’t revolve around drinking or getting drunk.That doesn’t mean having a beer with the buds is a bad thing. We’re not a profession of teetotalers. When drinking to excess, however, becomes the focus of relaxation and the only thing, that’s when it can turn into a much bigger problem. Balance. Balance. Balance.
• Pausing is permissible. Things just too overwhelming? Pauses are OK. In my day, there were no pauses. I often wonder how my path would have changed if I would have taken a break to deal with my issues.I know students who’ve taken that break, taken care of themselves, and returned to school and excelled. It’s, of course, a decision that should be made with a lot of input, including from your school’s dean of students.
What may be most important to know is that you’re not alone. So many people want to help you succeed if you’ll just open yourself up to them.
Looking back all those years ago, I don’t know how my life would have changed if someone had reached out to me or I would have opened myself up for one moment of self-awareness and asked for help. But I don’t see how it could have been a bad thing.