By Lindsey White • August 06, 2018•Writers in Residence
During law school, the summertime experiences I had were pretty typical. A full-time summer internship at a public interest NGO, along with some writing for a brief I’d belonged to since my first year at school.
I cannot overstate enough how incredible this schedule felt after a full-calendar, academic year. To the untrained eye, this looks like a normal work schedule. To a law student, this looks like sweet, sweet freedom. Why? If you are not taking summer classes, there is nothing to be done after work.
There are no cases to read and brief. No drafts to edit. No research to be done. No clinic to keep up with. No events to organize.
And that kind of freedom, without any accompanying guilt born out of procrastination, is intoxicating on its own.
Two full days of no studying and no obligations at the end of the week, known to others as the “weekend,” is nearly unthinkable.
With this newfound time on my hands, time that did not have to be attached to any school-related productivity, I decided to dig deeper into what caring for myself might look like. Every week, my therapist asked me the same battery of questions, “What are you eating? How much are you sleeping? How often are you exercising? What else are you doing to manage your anxiety?” They were part of the program. And yet, it still hadn’t clicked in my head that I should spend my time out of her office (which was considerable) thinking about them.
I had been in therapy since February. It eventually dawned on me that I should keep these questions in mind, take some steps towards answering them, and come up with an articulable response for next week’s session.
I came to this stunningly obvious realization in mid-June. As a friendly reminder, depressed people are not typically known for their quick thinking.
Regardless of the timing, I had this newfound drive. I was going to come up with a plan - a self-made, self-care program. That’s what I could spend my free time this summer figuring out. I had enough energy to march down to the nearest stationary store. I bought a pretty new notebook to keep me motivated. All of those fresh, blank pages were full of potential, and it was going to be wonderful.
So much time had already been spent devouring self-help as a genre. I read everything I could get my hands on, and now it would pay off. I was going to take everything that had spoken to me and apply it. Streamline it all into this little notebook and thereby change my life forever. This was the moment of inspiration that would carry me forward. I had tips and tricks and strategies, some day I would teach and tell others this story and my process. It was all so exciting. After all, my kind of Type A has always worked well. It’s the reason I got into law school. It made perfect sense to me that I could apply the same approach to mental illness.
I didn’t know then what I know now - depression truly does not care that you’ve been a compulsive notetaker since middle school. Depression doesn’t care what you were yesterday, six months ago, a year ago. It’s gonna take whatever it wants and whatever you have right now.
I’m sure this comes as a shock to no one, but to this day, the notebook has about a week’s worth of habit tracking, inspirational quotes, and casual observations in it. It’s still around 90% blank. It was unearthed in a recent move and I can feel it glaring at me from my desk every so often.
I’m not writing this to discourage anyone from taking steps, even huge, miscalculated, unreasonable steps, to take better care of themselves. If you can, you should absolutely try and figure out what you can do with what you’ve got. This plan, which was one of many, didn’t work out for me. But it was the first time in a long time that I felt flashes of my old self return, and that reminder was important. It still is.
There’s no silver bullet to any of this, and often the best anyone can do is learn to manage and live with mental illness. And this is not an easy task for someone facing the kind of demands law school makes. So to try and fail, to start and stop, that still means something and it shouldn’t be tossed aside easily. Trying to keep my head above water in school absorbed almost all of me at the time. I’m proud of trying to do that while also looking for better ways to take care of myself.
Should you find yourself with spare time this summer, or a lighter semester in the fall, know that finding ways to take care of yourself aren’t limited to the most Instagrammable hashtags. You don’t have to perform ways of getting better that fall nicely in line with someone else’s motivational narrative. It’s going to be two steps forward, one step back. Occasionally more than that. And that’s perfectly okay.
My grand note-taking plan flamed out because I hated myself for not being able to completely and immediately change the way I eat, exercise, meditate, find time to be outside, and socialize every day. The ways I wanted to take care of myself became another to do list, and the need to check off those boxes became more stressful than any benefit those things could have provided on their own. At the end of the day, I did not want to admit how long change had started to look. I wanted it to be better right then, right now.
Perhaps it is the part of me that is still very Catholic, but I do firmly believe in finding lessons in all things. For me, these fits and starts in finding a better way forward are still playing out. It feels infuriatingly slow, and I’m still not always good at it. But I’m learning to value the process in a new way. So for those of you who suddenly find the time to stop and catch your breath this summer, try to lean into and enjoy the slowness. If you’ve got the energy and the time, absolutely try new things and take risks. Forgive yourself if it doesn’t pan out. Don’t panic if it doesn’t come together the way you wanted it to, especially if you thought it should happen before school picks up again. If you’ll pardon the buzzwords, choose to “be present” in the time you’ve got.
You will get better at getting better. Unfortunately, it can take some time. That hindsight truly is everything, and when you look back, you will be amazed at the mountains you moved for yourself. One day at a time.