This week’s guest blogger is a former SRL who today, four years on, works in the justice system. She looks back at her difficult and distressing experience as a SRL with all the wisdom of hindsight. She appraises the impact on her as a parent, as a friend, and on her work.
Her message to other SRLs is that you are not alone. What is more, many, many SRLs (and our still growing database of SRL stories attest to this) find that the experience of trying to represent themselves is crazy-making, placing stress on many parts of their lives. Her advice to others is to remember who you really are – indeed, who you were when you began this journey – and to get back there as quickly as you can.
I was once in your shoes. I understand the trauma you’ve experienced; indeed, what you may still be going through! Overkill? Well, let me just say that anyone who has experienced the family law system as a SRL would approve of such an exaggeration.
Let me explain. I was a self-represented litigant. I wasn’t looking for a new adventure and I certainly wasn’t looking to enlarge my understanding of family law. I confess that when I am sitting alone quietly at night I still sometimes see process servers lurking in the dark ready to catch me off guard. I’ll find myself imagining I am arguing my case before a judge and then snap out of it. I shudder at the thought of actually reliving those days – I have tried to move on and put it all behind me. Nonetheless, for your sake – and to help others understand better – here I shall bear my SRL soul.
WARNING!! The consequences of reading this blog as a SRL may be empowering! It may sustain you through current circumstances. You may actually believe again that you are sane. You may stand taller, sleep better and feel emotionally justified, recharged and ready to forge ahead.
Because guess what? You are not alone. There are many of us out there – this is what I want you to appreciate. Whether you are walking this road because you need a court ruling, or simply got dragged down it by the other side, you are brighter, braver and stronger than you think!
I don’t know if there is a trauma closely comparable to that of the SRL experience. The pain of a marriage breakup can be overwhelming in and of itself. Throw in people tracking you day and night to serve you with papers, filling out endless forms, standing up and defending yourself, alone, before a judge, the endless effort to find answers, understand the how to’s, timelines and rules….oh my!
No one quite understands the isolation that comes with being a SRL. It’s like taking a university course – except with no classmates and no teacher. You have to seek, read and study in order to know even the basics (that’s why lawyers go to school for so many years.) It’s a new culture to which you’ve never been exposed and you don’t even speak the language.
The other option would be to hire a lawyer – but this requires a spare couple of thousand dollars. Many of you started your journey with a captain at the helm but attorney fees shipwrecked you along the way. So the decision was made – either your time or your money. For me, my separation came with suddenly living below the poverty line but my income was too high to be eligible for Legal Aid. Go figure…
When I see photos of myself during that time, I look sad and depressed – not at all where I’m at today. My kids would agree. I believe miserable was the word they used to describe me then. Ouch.
I had never experienced being at the end of my rope before. There is no better way to describe the desperation I felt going through the process. Representing myself was a never-ending undertaking which required far too much of my time and attention. There wasn’t much of me left over for my family, work, social life and possibly a day of rest? I felt exposed, unsure and lonely. I am sure that at some point I was clinically depressed.
I would do Google searches all night long looking for answers. Really my questions were: didn’t anyone care? Don’t “they” know I have rights? What about my children? Won’t someone please just help me? I’ve never gone through anything in my life where I’d sunk to such a low, ready to beg for a little help. I cried to release the frustration.
Friends and family tried to be supportive. They got tired of hearing the same story over and over again. I was tired of it! They thought it should have been over long ago. Lots of people told me that so and so got this in court, or had had this or that happen in their case, but their stories – all second and third-hand and sometimes straight off Judge Judy! – didn’t come close to my reality in the family law system.
The bottom line is that end-of-marriage negotiations are always a matter of give and take. Here the other party did the taking and finally, in order to end the madness, I did the giving. It wasn’t right what I had to give up and I wouldn’t say that I had access to justice as a SRL but I decided for my own good and that of my children – suck it up buttercup. It’s a matter of priorities – my sanity, health and well-being was suffering, and you can’t put a price tag on that.
Fast-forward four years, and I’ll admit that I have no regrets ending it when I did. What I lost materially, I gained back ten-fold in peace of mind. If I had only known then what I know now – that all that battling would amount to nothing, that when the other side will not negotiate reasonably the only way to escape is to end it – I wouldn’t have bothered.
To those of you still battling, and still struggling through the system – the horrible experience of being a SRL will eventually end. And when it does, move on and don’t look back.
– A Former SRL