Sanity and creativity – an embarrassing personal reflection (by Emily Scott)

Emily Scott is in her final year of a combined Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Sydney. She is currently completing a clerkship at a top-tier law firm, and works for the mental health organisation Batyr, where she shares her experiences of mental health with school and university students.

Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

I come from a creative family. My grandfather owned a music shop, my mother is a painter, and my brother is a professional jazz pianist. I, however, was energetic and competitive, and enjoyed the tangible achievements that come with sporting and academic endeavours. At the age of 12, I developed a serious knee injury rendering me unable to play sport for two years. Instead, I kept myself occupied with creative pursuits, picking up the saxophone and drums, joining the local speech and drama group, and I began sketching. The freedom and joy that these activities brought me was something I hadn’t experienced before.

As I moved through high school and my knee recovered, I became focused again on sport and going well academically. Spending my time at water polo practice and studying seemed more productive than jamming on the drums or acting out Wilbur the pig from Charlotte’s Web (the role at I played at the “peak” of my acting career). It seemed to have paid off – in Year 12 I represented Australia at the U18 World Water Polo Championships and graduated Dux of my Year – but I had dropped Visual Arts, Music and Drama years earlier, the subjects that had brought me true joy, because they didn’t fit my criteria for success.

During the early years of studying law at university, I started to develop immense anxiety around assignments and exams. I was obsessed with time management, trying to plan every second of the day to be as productive as possible. I couldn’t chill out and the perfectionism around assignments became debilitating. I had never struggled at high school and wasn’t good at discussing my feelings with others, so I didn’t reach out for help early enough. During an exam period, I experienced several panic attacks and became immobilized even looking at a textbook. I couldn’t complete my exams that semester. The next year saw me first dip into depression and I then begin the tiresome process of recovery and getting myself back.

The first two times I saw a psychologist I didn’t speak. I couldn’t find the words to say. I just sat there looking at my feet. She told me to go away and try to express what I was feeling another way. So I went home and started drawing. What started off as scribbles and colours became a series of cartoons. I remember one cartoon was a series about falling down a well. I was at the bottom of the well in the dark and I was trying to climb up the side to reach the light. Yet I kept falling back down. The higher up the side of the well I climbed, the greater and more painful the fall was. It became easier just to stay at the bottom of the well. These drawings and cartoons helped spark the conversation that would eventually allow me to overcome my anxiety.

My realisation of how important staying creative is for my mental wellbeing came about in a somewhat embarrassing and unexpected manner. I was up to date on my usual suspects of political and legal TV drama (House of Cards, Suits, The Newsroom, etc.) and I stumbled across an episode of Glee. Five days and a ridiculous-I-don’t-want-to-know number of episodes later, I was sitting in my room with a post-TV-binge hangover contemplating the meaning of life. Why had I become so obsessed with a poorly scripted show, with terrible acting and painful dancing, where high school students annoyingly break out into song every 5 minutes? While one answer was that Darren Criss (aka Blaine) may be the most beautiful human on the planet, the real reason was that Glee had touched on my yearning to be creative. The ability of these students to enter the choir room and escape the worries and stresses of school through music and dance, was just the escape that I was craving (saying that sentence I think now classifies me as a ‘gleek’… yikes).
I now know that in order to retain my sanity while studying, I need to retain a creative outlet. Whether it’s smashing out some Red Hot Chilli Peppers on my drum kit, finding a place to sketch my surroundings, going dancing or engaging in creative writing, they all allow me to escape from the left side of my brain and feel free and relaxed.

I think that every person has a desire for play and creativity. It’s not about how good of a painter or musician you are, it’s about experiencing the freedom of using your imagination and being spontaneous. Being creative ignites the soul. It’s therapeutic. It helps us slow down. We don’t often get these experiences with the structure, competitiveness and conformity of legal studies.

Not only does remaining creative help us remain sane, I think that it helps us be better law students and lawyers by helping us think more laterally. Nurturing one’s creativity encourages innovative ways of thinking and creative forms of intelligence, and these are increasingly becoming requirements for success in today’s world of complex problems.

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