I have not been to a Society of Legal Scholars conference for some time. I was looking forward to it. I was particularly excited to be able to go to all of the conference rather than just the half in which my paper was scheduled. I am doing 2 papers in the Legal Education section – more on those another time.
Travel to London was uneventful. I like uneventful. I got a fair bit of work done on the train in spite of the supposed quiet coach being the noisiest coach I have been in for a long time. Is it the thing where you’re told you’re not allowed to do something and therefore immediately want to do it? I got the tube out to Mile End and found the campus and even the right building very quickly. I also managed to get a ticket for the dinner at the end of day 1. I hadn’t booked because I wasn’t going to go but then the opportunity for a catch up with Richard C arose so I really wanted to go.
I had arrived in time for lunch – a rather ordinary pasta with a veggie sauce (I think there was a chicken one too) and then I headed to the first session. The first paper was great. I expected it to be. It was a paper by Marc Mason (Westminster) and Steven Vaughan (UCL) reporting on their research with LGBT+ barristers in England and Wales. Bonus points if you ‘get’ the title ‘Going to the Gay Bar, Gay Bar, Gay Bar…’ (if you do, your taste in music is as horrendous as mine!). The paper was fascinating and sort of heartbreaking and a little puzzling…. For a start the survey Marc and Steven did shows quite clearly that the Bar Standards Board statistics on sexuality at the Bar are hugely underestimating the number of LGBT+ barristers across the levels. That in itself means that there is something going on there because some are clearly happy to take part in surveys and interviews for research purposes but are not happy to declare their sexuality as part of the BSB statistics reporting. I wonder why that is. The paper’s sections on homophobia and on the performance of being out were fascinating. The data shows that homophobia is quite common but also that barristers play it down as nothing serious and no big deal. I’m really interested in this lack of advocating for themselves. Where does this come from. Is this a professional thing? Do they advocate for each other? This is fascinating and I’m not sure how we’d get to the bottom of this fully. I’ll ponder this.
I loved the notion that came up in one of the quotes about challenging or disrupting the ‘normal rule of engagements’. So men (mostly) finding it difficult to work out what exactly is going on when faced with a powerful lesbian QC, knowing something is slightly ‘off’ and not being able to work out what the rules of engagement now are. I like that. The section on performance of being out (or not) was depressing because there was lots of evidence of concealing sexuality and lying and because clearly there is a huge amount of the ‘bleached professional’ going on. Where barristers are ‘out’ they are often out in relation to their partners only – so they build their professional gay identity around having a same sex partner rather than on being gay – playing the ‘good gay’ game and performing heteronormativity albeit within a same sex relationship.
The second paper was by Ben Waters (Canterbury Christ Church) on ADR and Civil Justice. I also enjoyed this paper although it’s not really my thing and I was still reflecting on the previous one so drifted in and out.
Anyway it was a fabulous start to the conference. Next I was going to hear more legal education/legal profession stuff and listen to Nigel Duncan (City) on teaching legal ethics but over coffee I realised that I was really flagging. I decided to check into the accommodation and have a little power nap so that’s what I did. Then I headed back to the publisher exhibition area and spent a lovely half hour looking at books (sooooooooo many books, so little time to read….) and then people started filtering in from the sessions for the drinks reception. At the reception I met up with Richard C and we spent the evening talking about well being and anxiety in the legal academy and it was lovely. I left dinner when Richard did and then I went to bed early and fell asleep almost immediately. A good day and a sensible one! I have a blog post started over a year ago on conference self care and I think maybe now is a good time to look at that draft and finish it. I’ll see if I get to it today.
Here’s post number 2 for Mental Health Awareness Week. I just wanted to share some thoughts about what I find most difficult about both anxiety and depression. I’m sure there are other things that other people find more difficult and I do think these things play out differently for different people but here’s a little part of my story.
As an academic I am used to my brain working. I am used to being able to think, analyse, critique… I am used to being able to string sentences together and I am used to working with complex ideas. I’m a lawyer; language, words, text, arguments – that’s what I do. So for me the hardest thing about anxiety has been the panic that sweeps into my brain like a tidal wave of chaos. It turns my brain into a jumbled mess of negative thoughts and emotions and turns off my ability to process those. I’m generally a little chaotic and a lot emotional and I often have more than one thought or idea at a time and I am always working on lots of things at one but I can also sit down and map, sort, collate and connect, link and compare. I can deal with lots of information and I can do it quickly but when anxiety hits it feels like I forget how. It’s not that I get overwhelmed with too much emotions or information, it’s that I lose the ability to order it. Do you remember the bit in the first Harry Potter book where Harry and Ron have to catch a key with wings and they’re in a room full of keys with wings. Imagine my thoughts and feelings as those keys and imagine that I am usually a fairly competent witch flying on a broom but when anxiety hits someone increases the speed of the thoughts tenfold and makes me fly into strong crosswinds. It’s disorientating and frightening because I can’t hold on to a thought for long enough to deal with it. I can’t dismiss negative ones because they whizz past and I can’t work with productive or positive thoughts because they’re gone before I know what they are.
When depression strikes my brain goes quite fuzzy. I feel like Winnie the Pooh – a bear of very little brain, like there’s just cotton wool between my ears. It means that even thoughts I can hold on to, I can’t process properly. I can’t follow arguments or thoughts all that well. I don’t understand. As an academic that is terrifying. At my worst I have picked up my own work and haven’t been able to follow my own argument. I have had people talk to me and I have literally had no clue what they were saying. It’s like everything is presented in a language that uses the same words as English but they mean something different. Actually it’s a lot like having a conversation between sociologists, lawyers and political scientists – we often use the same terminology but mean something different. So maybe I’m not depressed, maybe I just do too much interdisciplinary work. (I am not being serious here – obviously. There is no way my depression addled brain could do interdisciplinary work and untangle the nuanced use of language. I can only do this when I’m well).
Because thinking clearly is so important to what I do and who I am, it’s the not being able to think clearly that I find the hardest about suffering from anxiety and depression. It also means that I often notice it coming because my ability to think deteriorates. That’s a good thing I suppose, it means I can try and stop it. More thoughts tomorrow maybe.