By Mindy McLaggan
Interview and Transcription by Sarah Abou-Eid
Trigger Warning: This article contains frequent and detailed references to suicide, eating disorders, psychiatric hospitalisations and mental illness behaviours. Please read at your own discretion.
Sarah: Thanks for sharing your unique law school experience with us today, Mindy. Let’s start the conversation with how you ended up at Melbourne Law School.
Mindy: I’ve got a bit of a weird background. I did all of my primary and secondary schooling in America but my family is predominantly from Melbourne. We moved over to the US when I was five years old.
Around the time I was seven or eight, my parents separated and divorced. There was a very messy custody battle afterwards. Dad actually got majority custody, and Mum was no longer able to stay in the US and she had to come and settle in Melbourne. I’d spend a third of the year here in Melbourne and then two thirds of the year with Dad and my step-mother in the US, completing school and everything.
I grew up back and forth, and got it stuck in my head I wanted to be a lawyer, and that was from a very young age. When I approached the time where I had to think about colleges in America I was deadset that I wanted to go to a really good university, I wanted to go to the best university that I could for law. And I wanted to be with Mum. And she lived here in Melbourne and Melbourne Law School was right here. I moved back when I was 18 and I only applied to Melbourne University, and I managed to get in, doing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Criminology but always had my sights set on Melbourne Law School. I was looking at JD programs all over the world. But I was deadset that I wanted to be back with Mum. I was deadset the whole way through.
Sarah: Did that early experience with the courts, and the family courts in particular, shape your journey to law school?
Mindy: I kind of lie when people go “why did you want to become a lawyer?” I’ll say something like “Oh, when I was little someone told me that lawyers were really smart and made a lot of money. And that just stuck in my head, and so I wanted to be smart and make a lot of money.” But in reality, it was to do with [my parent’s divorce] and having so much interaction with this process when I was so young.
As an eight-year-old, Mum had mainly raised me. She was a stay-at-home and Dad was in the air force. We were inseparable. The whole reason I go by ‘Mindy’ is because she went by ‘Mandy’ and people thought that was cute.
[During the custody battle] I remember speaking to child psychiatrists and lawyers and people prying into how each parent treats you, how things were at home, and all this stuff. Then at the end of all of that, my mum gets taken away from me and that just felt like I was really wronged and that something really unjust had happened.
I [then] got it stuck in my head that I wanted to do family law and be an independent courtroom children’s lawyers in custody cases. I eventually abandoned that, but the draw to law remained.
Sarah: I’m aware that you identify as a person with a disability. Can you tell us about that?
Mindy: I have said this openly, but I have borderline personality disorder [BPD] and I also have [an eating disorder (ED) called] anorexia nervosa. To explain BPD a bit better, for me at least, I deal with a lot of intense anger issues, and rapid and intense mood swings. As a result of those, impulsive and harmful behaviours arise, including intense binge drinking, inappropriate spending, and at the most extreme end, suicidality and suicidal behaviour.
[My ED] is a way to deal with my BPD. Engaging in my ED behaviours helps to numb and dull down those feelings and gives direction to the impulsivity. What ends up happening though, I am either controlled by one or the other, they sort of ebb and flow. So, either I am in an intense BPD episode and I’m acting really recklessly and erratically and emotionally, or the eating disorder is taking control. Unfortunately, one way or another, they’re both going to land me in a hospital.
[Most recently] last year I was in a short-stay for one week, right in the middle of semester. I was lucky enough to be able to stay enrolled and finish the semester out, and finish my classes. Not the best marks, but I finished it. Dealing with a sudden relapse, going into hospital, coming out a couple weeks later, and then still being able to stick to it the whole way through is definitely a big improvement for me, compared to other points in my life. And I have been pretty well for a very long time now.
Sarah: That sounds like a lot to handle, especially on top of law school’s notoriously difficult workload. I’m interested to know how you deal with the expectations of law school when knowing that key components of law school – such as grades, attendance, engagement – are at times so beyond your control?
Mindy: It is really disappointing a lot of the time because I know how clever I am to have made it to this point. It is bitterly disappointing to think about what my life would be like if I didn’t have these things as a constant disruption. And thinking about how far I could go otherwise. The thing to remember is that I am still here among everyone, even doing the coursework and dealing with recovery constantly. I try to think of it as more of a positive – if I can do all this and manage all that, how proud I should be of myself.
Sarah: Where is your mind at currently, in relation to your MLS experience so far, and what is still yet to come?
Mindy: The way that I personally think about mental health conditions as a disability is somewhat different to how I might conceptualise disabilities like chronic illness or physical impairments, and that is with a stronger element of personal responsibility for the individual’s quality of life. Essentially, no one else has to experience my existence except for me. So, if there are things that I can actively do to make that more manageable, why would I continually put myself into a more miserable state? We are so lucky to live in a country where recovery resources and support are so readily accessible, although I do acknowledge my own privilege in having family assistance both personally and financially in accessing them.
So, taking that thought of personal responsibility in relation to your question about my experience now at MLS, I think back to my last psychiatric inpatient stay last year that I mentioned earlier. I was in hospital, miserable, in week 4 in semester, thinking why couldn’t I have just done more to prevent this from happening? It was after that where I became so determined to not let that happen again.
I’ve had many hospitalisations and interventions for my wellbeing, so I couldn’t say for sure why this one just clicked. But this one happened in the JD. And I said earlier, the JD was always my end goal. I’ve even got lady liberty tattooed on my ribcage – it means so much to me. It was the first time my condition had directly got in the way of doing something I really cared about. It was a moment of “I should really be doing everything I can do stop this from happening again”. Because I don’t want to live like this. This doesn’t mean I’ve recovered – old habits die hard, especially decade old ones. But, there is a lot more motivation there than there ever was. I’m hoping that what’s ‘yet to come’ for me is well beyond what I’ve achieved so far, both in my health, and in my activities and studies here at MLS.
If you or anyone you know needs mental health support, please reach out to any of the following:
- Lifeline: 131 114
- Suicide Line: 1300 651 251
- BeyondBlue: 1300 22 4636
- QLife: 1800 184 527 (LGBTQIA+ support)
- MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78