I have never been particularly excited to begin a new year of school. My mom, to my chagrin, keeps a photo of one of my first days of school on the family fridge. Clad in a breathtakingly dated wind-breaker, with a full sized backpack dwarfing my elementary school frame I lean against a tree at the bus stop. Flanked by my too-young for school sister who smiles from ear to ear my mom snapped the photo. I think that photo was both for me and my mom. I got a visual reminder that my family was always going to be there for me; my mom got a picture she could use to embarrass me with, and a memento of her favorite and only son.
I was reminded of this photo as email after email bombarded my inbox explaining the new COVID procedures for the in-class semester. Any excitement for my final year in school was dampened considerably. The Law School’s Instagram post which showed what the law school looks like now, a labyrinth of blue painter’s tape and signage, showed just how much the precautionary measures had sapped the building of its warmth. The Law School is, to be frank, depressing in its current arrangement.
In that regard, it fits well with the general mood of this entire strange year. The CDC recently reported that the mental health of Americans has generally deteriorated rapidly during this pandemic, with younger people, African Americans, and Latinos showing the worst degradation.
It’s easy to see why this has happened. This recent pandemic has up-ended our society, and shown all of us just how fragile our social support systems are. COVID has forced us to wear facemasks out in public, to be ever vigilant about what we touch and generally avoid people. Sprinkle in uncertain job prospects, worrying about your own living situation in addition to your family’s and suddenly life is utterly overwhelming.
Life might not be overwhelming all at once. It might build like a fire, slowly over time until it feels so out of control that you have no choice but to do something drastic and permanent to end the flames. Maybe it starts simply, with seeing another person at the grocery store without a mask, wiping their face and touching all the produce. That is a bit of kindling. You get to the checkout line and the cashier has their mask on but pulled below their nose rendering it useless. That is a bit of kindling. You touch the pin pad, the cart, and the bags that have been touched by unseen others as you leave the store. That is all a bit of kindling. You open your car, load your groceries, and touch the inside the car to start it. You realize that whatever was in the store, whatever was resting on your groceries is now inside your car. That is a bit of kindling. Then you go home and unpack and wash your hands afterward to keep the germs at bay. And then realize you had forgotten something. And you have to repeat this process again.
At some point through this summer the little pieces of kindling, the small anxieties, the little “sads” have built up. It reaches a combustion point, and now your brain is burning. Add in the bigger stressors of life and suddenly your brain is made of napalm, every conscious moment a moment of intense, overwhelming smoke and fire.
The worst part is that this fire is intelligent. It convinces you that somehow you are the only person whose head is on fire. What a nasty little creature this fire is, spewing brazen lies like that. Of course, you are not alone. This is a global pandemic. It has infected every moment of our lives since March. And even if your fire isn’t directly fueled by COVID, that doesn’t make it any less of a liar.
The trials and tribulations that we all go through, that affect us, are not more or less valid based on some sort of absolute scale. Simply put, a fire is still a fire no matter what caused it. If your brain feels like it is on fire it does not matter what caused it. Read that last sentence again. Your brain feels like it is on fire, do not minimize your own predicament by thinking about how others are also on fire.
Rather, if you find yourself feeling as though your brain is on fire, then you must do something that is very simple, and potentially very difficult: Ask for help. This can be hard to do, especially in a profession which is based almost entirely on pushing one’s self to the limit, but it also extremely important. Life is hard. It is far harder to do alone.
As a Marquette Law student I know that the staff and faculty, and the friends I have made here, are a sort of extended family. They are always going to make time to listen and understand what is going on. And because the legal community is so small, I know that the State Bar, and other organizations can also be relied upon. This year, I am not showing up on the first day wearing a wind-breaker, my sister is a state away and so is my mom, but I know I am not alone.
List of Resources:
For Marquette Law Students:
Marquette Counseling Center https://www.marquette.edu/counseling/ 414-288-7172
For UW-Madison Law Students:
University Health Services https://www.uhs.wisc.edu/mental-health/ 608-265-5600 (option 9)
For Wisconsin Bar Members (including law students):
Lawyers Assistance Program https://www.wisbar.org/forMembers/WisLAP/Pages/Lawyer-Assistance-Program.aspx 800-543-2625
For general mental health support:
NAMI-Wisconsin https://namiwisconsin.org/resources/crisis-info/ 800-950-6264