Finding Strength in Asking for Help

A note: The following essay was written by an upper-level law student who has chosen to omit her name because mental illness still carries a stigma in our culture and in the legal profession. She is not ashamed of her diagnosis: she speaks openly with friends about it and discloses it when required. She hopes that one day she will be able to speak freely without worrying that it might jeopardize her reputation or career.

This essay is part of a student-led, first-person writing project called Bridges. Learn more about the program and read other essays in the series.

Deadbolt, lock, doorknob. Deadbolt, lock, doorknob. It was my first week of law school, and I had been standing at my front door for 30 minutes testing the knob to make sure the door was locked. It was past midnight, and I’d already spent nearly an hour checking the dials on my oven, making sure nothing was touching my radiators, and pushing at my fridge door to make sure it was closed, but I couldn’t go to bed until I was sure the door was locked. Rationally, I knew that my door had been locked since the first time I flipped the deadbolt, but the voice in the back of my mind kept whispering, “What if…?” I couldn’t walk away. All I could do was repeat my movements, hoping that my mind would eventually be satisfied.

I’ve known since college that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, though for a long time I tried to turn a blind eye to it. At some point, you realize that spending 30 minutes to check the appliances in your apartment before you could walk out the door is not healthy behavior. The idea of getting help, though, scared me to death. Not because of any innate fear of psychiatric medicine or therapy, but because I feared what an official diagnosis would do to my reputation. I would lay in bed late at night and scroll through the character and fitness portions of different bar exams, wondering if acknowledging my disorder would keep me from practicing as a lawyer.

Questions like #34 on the New York State Bar Exam stoked that fear:

“Do you currently have any condition or impairment including, but not limited to, mental, emotional, psychiatric, nervous or behavioral … which in any way impairs or limits your ability to practice law?”

What would I even answer? I didn’t think OCD would impact my legal practice, but would the Bar disagree? And if I did answer yes and disclose that I saw a therapist or psychiatrist, the Committee on Character and Fitness could then request my treatment records. I had never seen a therapist for help, but I already knew that anything I said in those private sessions may have to be disclosed to my professional organization in order to decide whether I was too unstable to practice law. Being a lawyer was my dream, and the idea of jeopardizing that dream for the sake of therapy was unbearable. I felt that my career was worth so much more than my mental health, and I vowed to keep my OCD quiet for the sake of being a good law student.

As I started law school, though, my symptoms grew less manageable. I had to wake up an hour early just to give myself enough time to perform my compulsions and still be on time to class. I would spend an hour each night checking my oven, radiators, doors, and refrigerator, unable to dismiss the feeling that something terrible would happen while I was asleep. I was so afraid of intruders breaking into my apartment that I would keep myself awake until late at night. I was so convinced that my apartment would burn down if I wasn’t home that I could barely leave the house.

During orientation, the Legal Assistance Program came to the law school and gave a presentation that shook me to my core. The presenter displayed a chart showing that a significant portion of lawyers deal with mental illness and substance abuse. The next chart, though, showed that a large majority of the lawyers surveyed expressly stated that they would not seek treatment for their condition. Sitting in those auditorium chairs among nearly 200 other people I barely knew, I felt ashamed. I was part of that pie chart. The presenter on the stage kept repeating one phrase: “Don’t be a statistic.”

But I already was.

It was other law students who helped me gain the courage for treatment. While I was simmering in shame, other students were speaking openly. One of my friends mentioned that she had a therapy appointment the next day; another student mentioned on Facebook how helpful the counseling center could be; a different friend told me about experience with psychiatric medication. I started to realize that these other students whom I admired also had to manage mental health, and that doing so wasn’t shameful. Hearing people speak about therapy as a normal everyday occurrence helped me see it as a tool I could employ, instead of a frightening experience that would ruin my dreams of being a lawyer. Quietly, I made an appointment at the University’s counseling center.

From there, I began medication, went through therapy to improve my symptoms, and slowly began to realize that I, too, could share my story. I try to give back to those around me by talking more openly about mental health. Having others normalize treatment was essential for me, and I hope to also help normalize mental wellness for other students who may be feeling alone or ashamed. Although recovery and treatment is an ongoing process that has been difficult, I know that talking about such difficulties can help others realize that having a mental illness is not mutually exclusive with being a good student or a successful lawyer.

The stigma of mental illness in our culture, and, to a greater extent, our profession, is alive and well. Even I am reluctant to publish this piece with my name due to worries about career impacts. However, for other incoming, current, or former law students dealing with mental illness: You are not alone. I encourage all law students to focus on mental wellness, reach out for support when needed, and look for others who share your experiences. You’d be surprised by how many of your peers deal with similar problems. I still worry about what others might think of me once they know about my OCD, but the potential career benefits of avoiding help are never enough to justify the pain and anxiety that my untreated OCD caused me. I refuse to sacrifice my mental health for the sake of my career. In fact, I truly believe that my efforts at healing will help me be a healthier, happier, and more successful lawyer. Of all my accomplishments during law school, my recovery journey is the one I’m proudest of.

Tonight, I’ll check my door to make sure it is locked. Deadbolt, lock, doorknob. After a minute, though, I’ll be able to walk away.