Ms. JD

Managing Health as a Law Student (Learning to Be a Successful Sickie)

Editor's Note: this essay was submitted by Melanie, in response to the 2010 Ms. JD Scholarship prompt: What's the best advice you never got?

I have a chronic illness, lupus, which was under control when I started law school.  My symptoms consist of arthritis, fatigue (beyond law school tired), and anemia.  Also, I am more susceptible to getting sick because my immune system is weaker than the average person.  Lupus is exacerbated by stress.  Law school, as we all know, can be quite stressful.  Further, law school is exhausting for anyone, let alone someone with a compromised immune system.  What was I thinking?

Looking back, I realize I could have taken certain steps from the moment I received my law school acceptance letter to address the stresses of legal education and anticipate how those stresses would impact my health.  If you have a chronic health condition and are about to start law school, these steps might be helpful to you.

1. Make a proactive plan with your health care provider before law school starts.

I remember when I met with my rheumatologist before law school, to get a regular six month check-up.  We had a typical chat about the status of my health, which was fine, but we didn’t make a plan for managing stress so I could decrease the impact of any flare-ups.  I should have asked his advice or maybe even inquired as to steps he has known other law students or legal professionals to take to adjust.  Together, we could have created a plan that might have included healthy eating and exercise targeted toward managing stress.  At the time I met with my doctor before starting law school, I probably assumed that having this conversation was unnecessary.  However, it would have been so smart to voice my concerns with my doctor before any problems or difficulties arose with my health.  Anything we would have talked about would have helped me feel more accountable to keeping up with the plan.

2. Use the right resources.

It’s okay to ask for help, support, and advice.  Just make sure you ask the right people.  The wrong people to talk to first about serious health issues are your average law school friends.  Mine tried to be helpful initially, but their responses were limited.  There wasn’t much help they could really provide anyway.  Eventually, I just felt like I was whining and imposing on them.  None of my friends in my first year could understand my health situation, and it would have been unfair to expect them to do so.

I should have reached out to the Dean of Student Affairs during orientation to discuss any health concerns I had.  The Dean of Student Affairs at my school, by the way, is awesome.  Your Dean of Student Affairs is probably awesome, too.  It's their job to be amazing resources for law school students.  Anyway, it’s unfortunate that I didn’t meet with her until January of my first year.  When she and I finally met, we discussed how to manage my illness during classes.  We talked about ways to communicate with professors, if needed.  I walked away from this conversation realizing I was not the only law student at the school who had a health condition to manage.

Somehow, I managed to meet others in law school who are dealing with chronic illnesses.  One friend has just beat cancer.  Another friend has a heart condition.  There are many more.  I cannot recall exactly how we came to know each other, but thankfully we did.  These are the people I feel okay talking to when I am exhausted or having a flare-up, and they can share the same with me.  We are an informal support group for each other.  When we have classes together, or see each other in the library, we always check in on our health.  We are open about our illnesses, and we accept the fact that we get sick and have to manage our health in particular ways.  Together, we are the sickies, and luckily, we know we are not alone.  That helps us focus on law school.

3. You manage your health condition; don’t let it manage or define you.

As you proactively manage your health condition, don’t let it define who you are.  Decide what other words you would want to use to describe yourself, beyond “the girl with <<insert your illness here>>,” and aim to be it.  Don’t discount the word “happy.”  After all, happiness is one of the best ways to combat stressful situations and chronic conditions.  Law school is stressful, and oftentimes it is an unhappy place to be.  It does not have to be that way.  Keep some perspective on where you are headed, and remember that you want to be as healthy as you can be on your pathway to your goals.  Happiness is the wind that will lift you toward those goals while managing your illness.  Remember the things you did that made you happy before law school, and don’t forget to do them.  For me, some of those things include yoga, reading magazines, and watching reality television.  If you need to, schedule your happy activities into your calendar.  With some proactive planning, resource gathering, and happiness, you can learn to manage your illness so that your law school experience can be as successful as you want it to be.

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