What I’ve learned about how anxiety affects me

I recently remembered the moment I began to experience one of my first instances of crippling anxiety. It was the very first day of law school in 2011. I walked into the building, where many (younger) students had already paired up with new friends. At 26, I technically fit the description of a “mature student”: I had been out of school for four years, and I felt decades older than most of them.

Now, forgive me if I sound overly judgmental, but I noticed almost right away that most law students share similar characteristics. Many are children of well to do families, and several have lawyers or judges as parents or grandparents. Many of them entered law school because that’s simply what you do in their family – you grow up to become a lawyer. There are a few of us, sure, who entered as ‘one-offs’: first generation Canadians, bright people who came from nothing but worked their asses off to represent the homeless and the abused, or older students who came to law school to try to better their lives.

And then there was me. Me from the broken family. I was the first to graduate in my family from university. I was the first to even graduate high school. My parents didn’t understand what an English degree was, or a Bachelor’s degree, and I was never once encouraged to even attend university. I singlehandedly decided to go to university, and I only did it to get away from home – not because I had some pressing desire to pursue post-secondary education.

I don’t mean to categorize law students, but I noticed a pattern. Most seemed to have exceptionally close and supportive families. Law school came easy to them because they had so much love and support around. Some of them had financial support AND emotional support. Many of them were those impeccably dressed, well to do kids who, through no fault of their own, made me feel unkempt and lesser than.

Law school made me feel lesser than. I knew I didn’t belong there the moment I entered the law school that first day. The place felt foreign – like a bad infection creeping under my skin. The ancient photographs on the walls. The business suits. This place was the furthest thing from home.

I remember my first day so vividly. I walked in and instantly regretted my choice in clothing. Most students were in business suits or were dressed much more formally than I. Everyone seemed to belong in a Gap advertisement.

I stood in the corner pretending I was fascinated by the class photos on the wall. I didn’t approach a soul – I was riddled with anxiety – and no one approached me.

I tried to participate in the ‘opening week’ festivities, including a pub crawl. Some students talked to me, but most had already formed friendships at that point. I left alone halfway through the night, sobbing to my boyfriend over the phone like some 14-year-old who didn’t get invited to the party.

Since then, those feelings have never left. Once during a “mixer” I stupidly agreed to go to, I was told by a member of the “Articling and Placement Committee” that I needed to stop wandering around and talk to people. It was at an art gallery. With wine. And hors d’ouerves. I couldn’t have felt more out of my element. (As an aside, I later met one of my best friends at that event, so I’m eternally grateful I went).

The next summer, I worked at a law firm. One day, at a professional development meeting, I stood in the bathroom downstairs on my phone, frantically texting my best friend about how awful I felt being there. “I don’t belong here” was the narrative I heard over and over again in my head. “I’ll never belong here”.

I used to think my anxiety arose after I had my daughter. I know now that it didn’t. I was directly related to that first day of law school where I realized how vastly different I was. With very little to no social support. No one in my corner. My off-label clothing. Trying to hide who I was and where I came from. Trying to hide the sketchy apartment building I lived in downtown.

I felt like the little girl who used to lie about where she lived so no one would have to see that I lived in that run-down apartment building.

I felt so ashamed. And angry that I even had to feel ashamed.

My best friend recently reminded me that I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel confident. She confessed she missed that part of me but knew it was in there.

It is in there. The last time I felt confident and competent was the day before I started law school. When I was completing a completely impractical English degree that set my soul on fire. I was writing. I had great things to contribute. I was smart. I was at the top of my class. I was confident as hell.

Somehow at age 18 when I enrolled in undergrad and chose English as my major, I had a better sense of who I really was than I did when I enrolled in law school at 26. Sure, an English degree is probably the least practical degree of all, but it was something I was passionate about and I pursued that avenue. And I was thriving. Later, when I took a break from law school thinking it wasn’t for me, I was actually being true to myself again. (Only I soon had a baby, mistakenly thinking that motherhood would make me happy instead).

Law school reminded me that I am VERY bottom of the barrel. Not only did I struggle socially, but I struggled academically as well. And I continue to struggle at work. The two law students who work with me are exactly those typical law school types: brilliant, beautiful, effortlessly smart. They’ll go on to have amazing careers in the courtroom.

It wasn’t until yesterday my counsellor and I came to the conclusion. I didn’t mean to talk about work, but it was on my mind. These students and their brilliance brought that same anxiety to the forefront all over again. They retain everything, whereas I often forget my own phone password. And then, I heard for the first time how anxiety affects our ability to retain information. It’s a result of your mind racing from one thought to the next. It’s called anxiety induced learning impairment, and it explains everything: why I’m always frazzled, and most importantly – why I can’t remember the simplest detail, let alone an entire Act, orders, regulations, applications……….

I feel paralyzed on a daily basis as a lawyer to be. I find myself reverting back to that girl who used to hide in the bathroom on her cell phone or pretend she lived somewhere else.

But for now, I’m going to try things out. I’ll never stop writing because it sparks my passion, and I’m going to stop thinking about this being the “end of my working career”. I can always switch careers – just not today. I don’t have to be a lawyer for the rest of my life.

And maybe I won’t be. Maybe I’ll be a writer someday.

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