This post can also be titled “Through The Fire Part 3” because the journey continues. If you have not read Part 1 and 2, get them here! Through The Fire and From Breakdown to Breakthrough -Through The Fire Part 2
It has been exactly one year since the panic attack that exposed my deep-seethed battle against fear and anxiety. Before that incident, I did not recognize that I had a problem with fear. I thought I was just a person that was prone to worry. I started therapy three months after that attack and have been able to identify the root of my fear and anxiety. When I reflect back, I recognize that the fear in my heart was amplified in law school. Every day for three years, I lived daily with the fear of failing out of school and facing the humiliation of public failure. Everyone knew I was in law school. If I did not pass or graduate, they would know why. It never occurred to me that my sensitivities and law school were a bad match. I just did my best to power through.
My professors and fellow classmates did much to reiterate the fear I had regarding failure. There was constant talk about who failed and why. We analyzed and reanalyzed all the ways to answer a question wrong and thus fail a final exam or bar essay. All of those discussions made it abundantly clear to me that failing as a law student or a lawyer would be the worst thing in the world. I bought the narrative – hook, line and sinker. I do not know if law school graduation or passing the bar was supposed to magically heal the fear that had been instilled in my heart for over three years but, they did not. I graduated with a paralyzing fear of failure and a conviction that being a lawyer was more important than being human. To fail as a lawyer was to fail as a human being.
I practiced law for eleven years driven by the fear that was instilled in me in law school. I thought it was normal. But when my anxiety attack showed me that this was not a sustainable way of life, I ultimately decided that there was something wrong with me.
Maybe I was just crazy. Everyone else that practiced law seemed to be perfectly fine carrying the load of other people’s personal, legal and life-altering issues. Maybe I was just doing this legal career thing wrong. I am surrounded by colleagues, including family members, who are thriving in the practice of law. The fact that I buckled under the pressure felt to me like a personal failure on my own part.
This Friday, February 7th, 2020 – for the first time in over a year, I found out that I was not crazy. I was sitting in a CLE (continuing legal education for lawyers) and for the first time in over sixteen years, another lawyer confirmed what I was feeling. Her summation of what law school did to us was right on the money. (Paraphrasing her points) Law school broke me down without building me up and then released me into a career filled with people who are also broken and are conditioned to medicate their brokenness through substance abuse (alcohol and drugs) which usually worsens conditions such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. The speaker spoke of lawyers who felt like they were “phonies” who would eventually be exposed as terrible lawyers. Their thoughts were so consuming that most of the lawyers in her stories died by suicide.
A light bulb went off in my head. I have spent years being overwhelmed by the unrelenting imposter syndrome that has plagued me since my first C grade in law school. In my own eyes, I was a terrible lawyer and it was only a matter of time before everyone would find out. Had I continued down the path my thoughts wanted to lead me, there is no telling if I could have ended up becoming one of those “who would rather be a dead lawyer than a living human,” (quote from the speaker). I had an immediate flashback to the first moment of my panic attack; the prevailing thought was “I rather just die than feel like this.” Thankfully, I had enough emotional stability to recognize that thought as wholly illogical and unworthy of further investment. I had too much to live for. I could not let one moment of terror steal my life from me.
But sitting in the CLE, having a stranger recount my own thoughts to me was jaw-dropping and deeply affirming. I was not crazy for feeling the weight of this profession for the twelve years I practiced. I was not crazy for deciding that getting away from private practice was the best thing for my emotional, physical and even financial health. I was not crazy for recognizing that had I continued to practice law in the same way, I would have ended up on a dangerous path towards a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I was not crazy.
It is possible to enter into the career you have always dreamed about only to realize that you do not want it. It is possible to have a title that other people respected but it did not bring any significance or joy to you. It is possible to be surrounded by people who were doing the same work as you but seem to enjoy it in a way that you have never experienced. And there is nothing wrong with that. It does not make you a failure or an anomaly or a crazy person. I am not crazy for finding my purpose, my joy and my peace outside of the practice of law. And I am done beating myself up from stepping away from it. God has more for me to do than to wake up every day with dread in my belly at having to take on the mental load of clients whose lives hang in the balance of my representation. I wholeheartedly relinquish the burden to be the savior of others. Jesus already died for them. I choose to rest.
I am thankful for the new path in my career that allows me to work, consult, earn and not take on any stress of anybody’s livelihood. I am grateful for the gift of writing, teaching and speaking to women. I am grateful for the family that I still have time to love and cherish and nurture because I did not allow the enemy to kill me with fear or stress. I am thankful for my new beginning. And I am not crazy for starting over.
(The CLE I referred to was hosted by the High Point Bar and Nixon Law Offices. When I get the speaker’s name, I will include her details. She did a phenomenal job on the mental health portion of the day).