By Prianka Misra • May 15, 2020•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Law School
This month, I chose to write about my own experiences dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its related consequences as a first-year law student.
“We’re just worried about you dhana (sweetheart),” my mom said, her mouth contorting in a deep frown. “You’re all alone out there. What if you get sick? Who will take care of you? Who will take you to the hospital if something happens?”
I reassured my parents, who were Facetiming me from Northern California, that I was self-isolating. I most likely would not get sick, and I should just wait it out, I told them. Still, my mother’s questions revisited me, especially when I read articles in the New York Times recounting the tragic stories of coronavirus victims young and old.
My parents were in the Bay Area, the first region to direct individuals to shelter in place. I wasn’t confident my parents could transport me home if I got sick, as this would pose a significant risk to their own health. I also did not have any close contacts in Southern California who could take me to a hospital. My roommate was isolating elsewhere, and I had not heard from her in weeks. “If I died in my apartment,” I seriously wondered, “would anyone even know?”
Although the law school faculty made the wise and compassionate decision to evaluate students on a mandatory pass-fail basis for the spring semester, I was not prepared to move out of my apartment while classes were carrying on full speed ahead (albeit virtually). I certainly did not feel that I would be able to focus on law school, retain my work ethic, or maintain productivity while living at home. The last time I studied intensely at home was in high school; I imagined attempting to spend my evenings studying assumption of risk or the dormant commerce clause while Indian soap operas blared in the other room. I decided against this option, telling myself that going home would lull whatever was left of my focus and motivation into a state of complacency.
Besides the virus, there were other concerns vying for my mental space - Zoom lectures, virtual oral arguments, and take-home final exams were just around the corner, and I yielded to those concerns over any fears I had about my health. Foolishly and stubbornly, I held on to whatever semblance of normal life that I could grasp, which meant staying on campus for the remainder of the semester.
I grappled with the consequences of my decision. For the next two months, until I had completed the semester, I did not interact with anyone face-to-face, besides the short exchanges I had when picking up food from a takeout counter or a drive-through window.
I struggled with this new lifestyle mentally and emotionally. Many of the tools I used to stay sane at the beginning of law school – like relocating to a different study spot, studying with friends in the library, taking a break to drive somewhere for food or a quick shopping break, going to the gym, or going to the beach – were entirely off-limits. Basic errands like grocery shopping took extra time because they involved waiting in long lines to enter the store, setting up a station in my apartment to sanitize my items and anything they touched, and discarding all packaging. Zoom made virtual classes possible, but not ideal. My classmates and I had to work hard to stay engaged in virtual classes, some of which lasted two hours, and I found myself hurriedly messaging my friends during lectures to catch bits and pieces of material that I had not heard or understood the first time around.
Around a month into self-isolating, my loneliness hit me like a truck. I suddenly found it extremely difficult to stay motivated. Tasks that would normally take me a few hours would take an entire day because of my apathy, my inability to focus, and my cabin fever from being confined to my small apartment. After an entire week where I doubted anything I was doing, I decided to change my approach. Rather than throwing myself at my work, and feeling guilty when I failed to be productive, I took steps to make myself feel mentally and emotionally stable. I purchased a whiteboard and made daily to-do lists on it that had no more than five action items. I took long walks across campus and used dancing, yoga, and other free workout videos to distract myself. I began calling my parents at least once a day, often more.
In hindsight, my decision to stay on campus for the rest of the semester was a symptom of the imposter syndrome that I felt in law school. I was stubbornly trying to measure myself against pre-pandemic standards, and by putting this extra pressure on myself, I was sacrificing my mental health. I had been telling myself that going home to my parents was a sign that I couldn’t handle things on my own in general, a giveaway that I wasn’t independent or strong enough for law school. Nobody told me to make this decision – and nobody applauded me for making it. Rather than telling myself that it was okay to seek out a comfortable environment or the emotional support of being around my family, I wrongly convinced myself that I needed to take the more difficult route, just to prove to myself that I could get through a mentally taxing situation.
If I had any advice for 1Ls taking on what will inevitably be a challenging law school experience, it would be to take active steps to prioritize your mental health above your imposter syndrome. Understand that performative suffering or stressing is not an indication that you care more about your work. For example, if your classes are remote in the upcoming fall semester, and you have the option to stay home with your family, utilize that option. Seek out the comfort of your home, the support of your family and friends, and the compassion of your peers and professors if any of these things will make you feel more at ease. In a pandemic, your support systems will set you up for more success than any preconceived notion of “what it takes” to succeed in law school. Balancing the blind, dogged determination that got you here in the first place, with self-care and self-advocacy, may just be exactly what you need to thrive.