One of the toughest decisions a law student may face is whether to take a break from school and focus on self-care.
There may be feelings of shame, guilt, and loss. The fear that the student will never make it back. These emotions can be overwhelming. The student may not have the self-awareness needed to make this difficult decision.
Taking a break from law school does not have to be the end. It can be a new beginning. It is possible to take that break and get healthy. The student can then develop a plan and the tools for self-care, resuming studies.
Parker is a law student who took a pause and got healthy. He then developed a self-care plan and re-entered law school. Here is his condensed story. The full version is in my book, The Addicted Lawyer.
Parker graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas. Acceptance to “Teach for America” and election as Teacher of the Year on his campus for Houston ISD. He also received a full-tuition Root-Tilden-Kern scholarship from NYU Law.
Parker had struggled with substance use disorder since he was fourteen. Morning-to-night misuse of painkillers and anxiety medication was the norm. A daily ritual of staving off debilitating withdrawal symptoms. Friends and family voiced concern, but Parker assured them (and himself) that he didn’t have a problem. He says,
“I desperately hoped that going to law school would fix me.” I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was a child and had worked hard to get into a top school. Something had to change. I thought the new environment and challenge would provide that opportunity. Either way, there was no Plan B.”
Yet, nothing changed, in spite of the new environment and challenge. Parker’s addictions exploded and his hope faded. He isolated in his dorm room when he wasn’t in class. Suicidal and longing for the safety and security of his family, he withdrew from NYU Law and moved back home. Five months later, he entered a residential treatment program to begin the winding road to recovery. He says,
“Ten months after checking into treatment, six of which were spent in the grip of a brutal heroin addiction, I, along with the help of a therapist, my family, a loving church community, and a twelve-step support group, was finally able to begin building the foundation of a sustainable, long-term recovery from substance use disorder.”
Parker’s life began a gradual improvement. His relationships healed, and some long-lost self-respect returned. Years of shame began to fade. He learned how to laugh again, reveling in the pure joy of early recovery.
A job offer came. An old counselor offered him a position as the Director of Three Oaks Academy. A high school program targeting students in recovery from substance use disorder. He says,
“I was surprised and more than a bit intimidated,” he says. “At the time, I had been sober for only six months. I stepped through my fear and accepted his offer. It is a decision for which I remain indescribably grateful.”
Parker’s experience at Three Oaks was transformative on a professional and personal level. He says,
“Taking a break from law school does not have to be the end. It can be a new beginning. It is possible to take that break and get healthy. The student can then develop a plan and the tools for self-care, resuming studies. Initial treatment to ongoing recovery and academic support is important,”
Parker worked through a tremendous amount of fear. It might have been easy to justify not returning to law school. With the help of the same support network that carried him through his early days of sobriety, he realized that it was a risk worth taking. He studied hard to retake the LSAT. He applied to several excellent schools. Stanford Law accepted him. He studied hard to retake the LSAT. He applied to several excellent schools. Stanford Law admitted him.
“The contrast is from my life to today to the existence I was ‘eking out’ at NYU Law couldn’t be greater. Instead of investing all of my hope in a “geographic cure,” I’ll arrive at Stanford with a solid recovery foundation and a plan, devised by me and my therapist, of the specific ways I will maintain my physical, mental, and spiritual health while I’m in school, along with how I’ll have fun and relax.
There are twelve-step meetings on campus. I look forward to attending those and learning more about the Stanford recovery community. I’ll continue to be an advocate for school-based recovery support systems.
I hope that, moving forward, my story can help persuade more schools to provide their students with ongoing recovery support, not only in the name of saving lives but also to create stronger and healthier student bodies, ones with a diversity of life experiences, comprised of students who are well along the road to happy destiny.”
Parker’s relationships with family, friends, and his partner are stronger than ever. He is comfortable in his skin. His life has newfound direction and purpose. He is currently in his second year at Stanford Law as well as seeking a dual graduate degree in Education.
There are many possible mental health touch-points when a student faces difficult decisions about his/her future. One critical one is the law school Dean of Students office. It’s a source of help often wrapped in an aurora of fear and stigma. Will what I tell them to be confidential? How will my disclosures affect my ability to take the bar exam?”
David Jaffe is the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at the American University Washington College of Law. He co-authored the seminal law mental health study. I asked how he handles student mental health issues. He says,
“Noting that there is a far greater number of law students struggling with substance use or mental health issue than those who approach their dean of students, the first thing I do is acknowledge the student’s bravery for having come forward, let her know that she is in a safe and confidential environment.
In most instances, I respond initially to the student in an indirect way, but for a specific reason: I ask the student, “Do you want to be a lawyer?” The immediacy (or delay) in the response is almost always a table setter for the remainder of the conversation. A student who, but for the substance use or mental health issue facing her has her heart set on becoming a lawyer, will answer almost immediately in the affirmative. Conversely, a student who hesitates with the reply often has something else going on that is not related to the immediate issue (such as having started law school as a least-worst option, or owing to pressure from parents, etc.). For this latter student, a substantive conversation must be held to glean if proceeding with law school is in her best interest.
Assuming the student’s response is in the affirmative, my goal is to do everything in my power to have the student receive help without dropping out of school. In some instances, even a twenty-eight-day inpatient stay occurs without the student having to leave school.
A dean of students will have a good relationship with the student’s faculty and should be able to facilitate a temporary absence. If a course is heavy on interaction, and there is too much class time missed, the dean of students should be able to arrange for a withdrawal from the course without a complete withdrawal from the semester.
Further, even in the instance that the student chooses to (or needs to) withdraw from one or more semesters, maintaining contact with the student will send a positive signal that there is a place for her. I worked with a student who withdrew part way through one semester and took another semester of leave before returning to earn his degree. We met every couple of months off-campus to talk, during which time I was able to reassure him that we were prepared to receive him back (and provide ongoing assistance, if necessary) when he was ready.
In sum, a student who wants to earn a law degree should not be prevented from doing so due to substance use or mental health issue. If the student is committed to assistance and recovery, so too will be the law school.