Five years ago I stepped into my first law school class. I’d been at Stanford for two years already, completing my course work for my PhD. A secret most of my law school classmates don’t know is that I only did 1/2 of the 1L curriculum in my first year. Instead of taking five core courses, I only took three. The other two courses I took the next year, still in 1L classes in my 2L year.
At the time, I felt like a failure. I felt like I couldn’t really cut it, and was taking the easy way out. But in reality, what I did wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy at all.
The previous spring I’d spent a week on the psychiatric ward at Stanford Hospital. I was terribly depressed, and found myself unable to sleep or eat as I worked really hard to complete my second year paper, a key milestone that would prove to my department that I could complete the research requirements for the PhD. I worked myself almost to death.
I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager. I was averaging an episode a year. But that day, right after my 28th birthday, I fell completely apart. I had a three-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter, and a four-year-old marriage. Everyone was suffering. So I had to leave all of it behind to take care of myself. That first night in the hospital, I had the best night of sleep I’d had in over four years.
Once I received a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder/Bipolar II Disorder, I was eligible to receive disability accommodations. It was hard to make the choice to take advantage of those accommodations. Up until that point I’d always just try to explain myself when I dropped the ball. Usually, I was such a mess that it was obvious something was wrong with me. But I was coming from a place of weakness when I explained myself after the fact. I’d never been proactive, trying to stay on top of my mental health, trying to head off episodes before they began. But I had to start doing so, and taking medication and seeing a therapist were the first steps. And I realized that cutting my course load was about preserving my life.
I struggled to figure out whether going to law school, on top of pursuing a PhD with two small children, was worth it. Part of what I was learning about myself is my tendency, through hypomania, to take on too much. When I am hypomanic, everything seems doable. Nothing is impossible. Sleep? Don’t need it. Food? Don’t need that either. Balance? Yeah right.
So my instinct was to just go, do what everyone else was doing and suffer through 1L. That’s what I’d always done.
But now I was a mother and a wife — an adult. I wasn’t in college anymore. I had to grow up. I don’t mean that growing up meant that I thought my depression and hypomania were due to immaturity. No — they were/are due to chemical imbalances. Growing up meant I became more responsible for my life. I decided that law school was what I wanted, but only on my terms. Taking a reduced load was the key difference between going to law school or not. I realized that I would not survive a full load. Even if I did survive, I would not thrive. And I wanted to thrive.
All I had to do was be honest about my limits and ask.
They said yes.
And today, after five years, this happened.
Sometimes we want things and we see the one path everyone else has taken and we think that the only way to get there is that path. But it’s not. There are other paths, some more winding, some that require a bit more work, some that take longer. But there are as many paths to what we want as our imaginations allow.
Folks in power may say “no” to the first ten paths you try, but all you need is one “yes.” We have to work to find that “yes,” and sometimes that means being completely honest with yourself and others about your unique strengths and weaknesses. There are so many reasons why I ended up here with a law degree from Stanford (including a whole lot of luck and a village full of people who love me), but I also know part of it is rooted in being completely honest and self-aware.
Find the path that works for YOU.