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Behind our masks: The problem with hiding our problems

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“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

—Arthur Fleck, “Joker

Shockingly, I found some time in my 2L schedule to see “Joker” over the weekend. It’s a gritty commentary on society, violence, mental illness and, in my opinion, it complements this week’s mental health awareness mission quite tastefully. I have no intention of dedicating the rest of this piece to Joker or deeply analyzing its role in today’s society, however, I couldn’t help but pull the above quote as it represents a disturbing message all too familiar to us law students.

I grew up as an anxious kid, which might actually be kind of surprising to anyone that knew me, mainly because I got really good at hiding my mental illness. You see, when you grow up being told you’re the extrovert, the life of the party, the friend, the perfectionist, the emotional support, the one who gets good grades, the overachiever, the one who always has it together, the leader, the community builder, the role model, you’re no longer allowed to show any cracks in the foundation—or so I had convinced myself. Law school only makes this worse.

As law students, we regard ourselves as the academic elite. We’re here because we’re smart, we’re brilliant, we worked hard, we’re go-getters, and we resemble all of those natural born leader qualities that we grew up constantly hearing from mom, dad, coaches, and teachers alike. In turn, we train ourselves to disguise our weaknesses. We conflate illness with instability and deficiency. So, instead, we smile, put on a brave face, have a glass of wine or two or three, and power through diversity galas, informational interviews, and big law cocktail parties, while exiling any signs of mental weakness to the darkest innermost parts of our psyche.

The problem with mental illness is that it’s selfish, unrelenting, and unparticular.

When I say I suffer from anxiety, I don’t just mean that I get a little uneasy before a final exam or clammy palms before that big life-changing interview. Rather, my anxiety is more akin to that of an awful ex-lover. Most of the time, it’s bad for me, and I know that, but occasionally, it’s so tempting to indulge and engage the toxic ruminating thoughts that plague my mind no matter how unproductive and self-destructive they may be.

I call them my “bad anxiety days.” These are the days where I wake up, my stomach is an aching pit, my teeth dull from incessant grinding, my knuckles raw from a horrible coping habit of constantly rubbing them, short, panicked breathing, and I know that today is going to be a bad day. Today, I’ll spend every hour thinking about all the work I’m not going to get done, sitting down, attempting to start, getting distracted by another intrusive thought about how I’ll never get anything done, and that I’m a failure, followed by several hours of scrolling my Twitter feed to avoid facing the reality that is the obnoxious blinking cursor on that blank outline that will mercilessly taunt me until I inevitably give up and “just do it tomorrow.”

Sometimes, there’s literally no reason for it. No test, no meetings, no awkward coffee dates, no interviews, nothing. “There’s no reason for this,” I’ll plead with myself trying to convince my body that of the 23 years I’ve gone through this song and dance, today will be the day I magically stop worrying.

Instead, I’ll convince myself that somehow everyone hates me, that I’m not living up to my potential, that I’m a disappointment, that I don’t belong here, and that I’m a fraud. I’ll hang on every single word you speak, looking for subtext that isn’t there. I’ll re-run our conversations in my head while trying to read for tomorrow’s class, chastising myself for every little social mistake I’ve ever made. I’ll wonder if I offended you or that attorney I met last week. I’ll go weeks on end depriving my physical health and then spend the afternoon feeling guilty when I fall victim to a 20-minute nap or a social media binge.

Today, I’ll have an amazing conversation with someone I deeply respect and look up to. I’ll leave feeling great about myself and this awesome professional relationship I’ve cultivated. The world is my oyster and my career prospects are enchanting. My future is bright, nothing can bring me down, and oh my god, what if he actually hates me?

And like that, the intrusive thoughts take over. What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not doing enough? How am I worthy of this person’s time and mentorship? The other mentees are smarter, more accomplished, more set in their careers. When am I going to publish? Why didn’t I do law review? Why did I say that? Why did he say that? I should be reading. Why haven’t I gotten anything done today? How is she doing more than me? Why can’t I write this paper? Why does it take me so long to do so little? What if my mentor drops me? What if I’m replaceable?

And the crazy part about all of this is that while I am actively intrinsically beating myself up for no good reason, you won’t even know it’s happening as we’re engaged in casual conversation about today’s notes. Because as I said, I’m really good at hiding my mental illness. On the outside, I’m the smart, put together, extroverted, friendly, law student that you’re supposed to see. But what you don’t know is that tonight I’m going to break down into a mental and emotional ball of tears, utterly drained, overwhelmed, and exhausted, all while trying to find a reason to do it again tomorrow. You’re not allowed to know this because I’m not allowed to not be okay.

The worst part is that there’s no reason for any of this. I have a happy, healthy, normal, or as normal as a law school allows, life. I’m lucky to have colleagues, a faculty advisor, parents, and a husband that are nothing but supportive and dedicated to my success, which makes me feel all the more guilty.

And that’s just it. The problem with mental illness is that it’s selfish, unrelenting, and unparticular. It doesn’t care about your upbringing, social stature, intelligence, or wealth. It thrives on self-doubt, self-consciousness, and insecurity; issues we all have. And unfortunately for us, our highly stressful, highly pressurized, highly judgmental field makes for the perfect Petri dish for mental illness to flourish.

The worst thing we can do as law students and soon to be lawyers is to continue to ignore its existence both in ourselves and in each other. Key to mental health awareness is sharing these stories within our community and destigmatizing the illness so that it is okay for us to sometimes not be okay; so that we don’t have to hide that we have a mental illness and so we’re not expected to behave as if we don’t.

Jess Miers Jess Miers is a 2L Tech Edge J.D. Candidate at Santa Clara University School of Law. Her work as a faculty research assistant focuses on the study of Internet law and policy. Jess is a passionate advocate for online free speech, dedicating her life and career to defending the Internet.