You might have seen me around. For a long time I was the skinny girl, the girl in a big black coat, wrapped in layers to protect myself from the constant chill that wracked my brittle bones, endlessly accompanied by a large long black (no sugar) and a bottle of diet coke. You might have seen me in classes – I would be vociferously taking notes, trying my hardest to absorb the bombardment of information as my undernourished brain tried to cope and my memory and concentration wavered through pangs of hunger.
Alternatively, you may not have seen me. I have spent at least half of my law degree in hospital, attending classes from across the road at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, wearing a hospital wristband and racing back for medication and mealtimes. You wouldn’t have seen me munching on a sushi roll, or inhaling a brownie, or even sipping on a latte. I have never, in fact, had a latte. Once, during treatment, when I was forced to have my coffee with milk, I chose a flat white because it has the lowest proportion of milk. When I should be poring over legal cases, studying precedents and keeping abreast with new waves of legislation, I am counting calories, agonising over how much energy I am expending and trying desperately to starve myself into a smaller shape, something that takes up less space, someone that is thin enough to make up for the fact that she will never, ever be good enough.
Artwork by Ramelle Lewis
Today I look different. After years of treatment and close to 30 hospital admissions, I am healthier and no longer medically unstable. Although I am still being admitted into hospital regularly due to rapid bouts of weight loss as I struggle to balance my academic commitments with my health, I am in my final year of study and will hopefully be graduating at the end of this year. I am still told that I am slim, but I am no longer a walking skeleton, a husk of a human being that graduated, completed my LSATs and commenced law school in an extremely malnourished state, medically compromised with a low heart rate and erratic blood pressure.
During much of my treatment, I have been on an involuntary treatment order, which means that while I can express my opinions and ideas regarding my treatment, ultimately the doctors have the final say in whether or not I need to be in hospital, what I need to eat and what medications I need to be taking. I have attended countless mental health tribunal hearings, where I have had the experience of presenting a legal case in favour of my coming off the order, only to have a panel of experts look at my history and listen to the doctor and ultimately decide that I am not capable of making informed decisions regarding my health.
The reason I chose to study law is because I wanted to make a difference. My personal experience of the intersection of law and mental health led me to believe that there needs to be systemic change in order to improve the current system of legal management and representation of persons with psychosocial disabilities. The NDIS system, the biggest change to the healthcare system since Medicare, under caters for the mentally ill yet is leading to the closure of many vital mental health services for providers. This means that an already at-risk community will be left more vulnerable and less able to access the support they need on their journey to recovery and harm-minimisation. In addition to this, the Mental Health Act and the processes associated with it can be extremely disempowering for those who can function to a degree in life but when their mental health takes a turn for the worse, they are less able to look after themselves and need additional support.
Some people know about my struggles. I am fairly open about it, as I believe that an open dialogue regarding mental illness is the best way to remove the stigma and discomfort regarding a phenomenon of mental ill-health that is alarmingly prevalent. I have received a degree of support from the university, and applaud the change in university policy that allows lectures to be recorded for persons in special circumstances. I attended meditation sessions at the Student Enrichment Centre last year, which was a wonderful experience and one which I recommend to everyone if it continues into this year.
As you all know, law is an extremely demanding degree that requires every ounce of perseverance, determination and mental capacity to do even moderately well. It is an extremely competitive degree and industry, and unfortunately success often comes at the expense of health and happiness. I have learnt the hard way that driving myself into the ground in order to succeed and trying to be the best, the smartest, the kindest, the skinniest, often leads to burning out and an ultimate extinguishment of one’s attempts at achievement.
I urge each and every one of you to not put your studies and your desires into getting the best marks, the best graduate position, having the most sterling resume and participating in as many extra-curricular activities as possible at the expense of your health. You only have one body, and it has to carry you through your career. Nourish it, look after it, feed your body and your mind. Don’t be afraid to express your vulnerabilities. All of us are struggling with an internal battle. We all have negative voices in our heads that tell us that we’re not good enough. And, most importantly, never give up hope. No matter how tough the road ahead, you will get through it, and each stumble will uncover not before known reserves of strength and will teach you the resilience you need to make the best of this beautiful and broken world. Once you choose hope, anything is possible.