You’re Not Alone

It’s been a little over half a year when I decided to take a short leave of absence from work. For Mental Health Awareness month I’m bringing back this entry that I wrote, privately, to myself on Google docs.

“You’re not alone.” If you’ve ever been in a situation where someone confides in you something that they fear or are ashamed of, chances are they want to know that they are not alone. Being alone makes you feel like it is somehow your fault that you are in a situation, but if we can see it as normal and part of being human, it somehow lessens the pain that we feel.

I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve had to say that to others, and to myself. I recently took the step of asking for temporary workplace accommodations for a short-term disability related to adjustment disorder. Adjustment disorder is a group of symptoms, such as stress, feeling sad or hopeless, and physical symptoms that can occur after you go through a stressful life event. For me, it’s a bit more than just feeling stressed on an one-off instance, and a little less than post-traumatic stress, but it’s a very treatable condition. For me, getting a new job, moving to a new city, having one of my cats suddenly pass away, getting married, and then working a tough schedule over months would be stressful events for any person on their own, let alone combined in my situation. It all just got to be too much. And so now, I’m looking to rest, adjust, and get a fresher perspective on how to manage stress.

It helped that the people I met along the way all responded with compassion and shared stories of their struggle along the way. And some shared the relief and happiness that came from finally taking steps to take of themselves. If I hadn’t been so lucky, I would have felt like I was all alone. But to have people say small things like they’ve been in therapy before or that they have felt anxiety too, it was good to know that I was not the only one. I am smart. Most people are, and can understand the logic that out of millions of humans, they are probably not the first ones who have had this type of struggle. Yet it is one thing to think about the idea abstractly and quite another to hear someone you respect and trust admit to their vulnerabilities. That is not to say that you must always share parts of yourself, and indeed that is not appropriate sometimes, but for the most part, showing that you too are human means that you are ready to lend that person a helping hand.

I’m always reminded of this story from The West Wing, one of my favorite shows. In this episode, Josh Lyman, struggling clearly with PTS(D) from almost being killed, is confronted by his boss Leo McGarry who sees someone in trouble. Leo tells Josh this story to let him know that he is here for help:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?”

The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?”

The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by.

“Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.”

The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re not alone.

Advertisements

How to Be a Slightly Happier Lawyer

We often live our everyday lives in a blur. With smartphones, caffeine, news, and emails, we can move from our day-to-day existence without noticing what is around us. We often don’t take the time to look at people in the face or really to gaze into their eyes. I have seen this so often at the law firm where I work. One associate I observed glancing at his phone on the way to the bathroom, on the way down the elevator, out in the lobby, and into the street where we were headed to hunt for lunch. People avoid my eye contact as I walk through the hallways.

I used to be this way too, and still am in some ways afraid to look people in the eye. I don’t want to cause trouble or get a reaction out of someone, especially if they are unpredictable in some perceived way. One time I looked back before a flight takeoff because the flight attendant’s jumpsuit looked neat. He came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom and we ended up having a nice short exchange about my thinking his jumpsuit looked cool. Later I learned that it was his first month on the job for the airline. If I hadn’t looked at him I would have never been able to make a connection with this person; wouldn’t have been able to see his positive reaction to doing what was probably not his first job. We don’t always get bad things happening to us when we look someone in the eye.

Nor do we get something bad when we take the time to observe ourselves in the world. I have this theory that people like to make videos of their own lives because it is their own way of seeing themselves and a reflection of how they exist in the world. The act of watching yourself on a screen can be quite eye-opening, literally and figuratively speaking. You start to notice your mannerisms in sharp focus. The way you slouch when you walk, or the way you might speak with a slight lisp. Each detail becomes in sharper and sharper focus.

Some people are uncomfortable with looking at themselves on the screen. More of us still are uncomfortable of looking at ourselves in the mirror. If you haven’t done that, I suggest you try that for about a week, for five minutes a day. First it will be uncomfortable and even frightening. You might even start to cry. Staring at the mirror may produce some judgments about yourself—everything from how pale your face looks to how few abs you have to the old scars on your body. Staring at a mirror brings things into sharper focus and you literally cannot run away from your reflection. Even though you look away the mental image is who you are. You cannot run away from yourself because you carry with you these traits whether or not they are reflected back to you.

We often ignore what is right in front of our face and the space in front of our eyes. We see only what we choose to see—plenty of studies have been done in various contexts that shows that humans can miss one thing if they are focused on looking at something else. One famous study which I’m sure you can look up involves medical professionals looking at scans for signs of cancer. In the middle of a scan the experimenters placed a gorilla right in the middle of the scan. Imagine that! A gorilla was missed by most of the people who had been looking for cancer. It’s truly amazing that in one moment, we can be hyper-focused on something and see it in exquisite detail yet miss the richness of the world around us.

I would argue that lawyers are not exactly well practiced in seeing the entire field. Sure we can argue that we are good at spotting issues and planning strategy, but the practice of law inherently is about maintaining predictability and control. As my friend Samantha Faulhaber puts it—we humans like to strive for consistency in a world that is destined towards chaos. Instead of trying to place things into neat little boxes so that they can look appealing to someone else, what happens if we take the time to look up from the narrow world in which we live and to take into account the entire space as it exists?

I’m not asking you to throw down your case precedents and your memos for the sake of being wild and free. The kind of observation that I describe is more measured than most would imagine. Perhaps those who think that chaos would ensue are simply compensating for the inner suppression of energy that comes with trying to maintain the semblance of control. At any rate the powers of observation and of remembering that there is a human being involved in the interactions that you is very much underappreciated. Even in the machine learning contexts there was an engineer or data scientist that was the driving force behind the creation in the first place. There is always a human being behind the black box that you know as the law.

I love to practice understanding and respecting the natural human emotions that many of us have with this job. When I opened up with regards to my own perceived inadequacies about doing a good job as a lawyer, so many more people also started opening up to me about their own struggles as well. I’ve had people talk to me about their addictions, their stress, their anxieties, their anger, and their sense of futility about the job. And I found myself relating to each of these human emotions and understanding that they were not unique to me. Yet it was hard for me to separate myself from the situation and to truly love what was happening around me when I was in those difficult situations myself.

It was only by separating out my own sense of self-worth from the job itself did I find some pressure being let off from who I was. I watched myself getting stressed over made-up scenarios in my mind where I imagined people mad at me because I had raised a certain issue. I reminded myself that pushing a button to set off a chain of events did not mean I had to stand in the path of the dynamite or moving train. I could come along for the ride or I could simply watch as the train rumbles by. Watching and seeing how my heart would quicken at the sight of a partner’s name in my inbox or how my palms would get sweaty before meetings helped me experience the situation from a totally new perspective. Instead of being caught up in the emotions I was able to watch them like a show. That put me in a place of discovery and exploring as opposed to defending and surviving every moment in the day.

I believe that we as lawyers don’t listen to our intuition enough. Even those who don’t count themselves as intuitive people have some intuition that they don’t exercise. It does matter that we try to use the gifts that are available to us even if we don’t realize we have them for a long time. When the voice of intuition speaks the lawyer inside of us wants to ask for a justification. An analysis. Why option A would be more preferable or more correct than option B. But no analysis comes to mind for when I decided that would still read all the way through a document that I was told to skim quickly but ended up being the key document in a deposition and the subject of a serious conversation with the top GC at the company. Or when I decided to call the paralegal who had missed a conference call on a whim and ended up discovering that we still had a long way to go for an important deadline.

Another reason why we don’t use our intuition enough is that we are too impatient and ask our logical mind to interpret the resulting impact of using such a tool. This is especially the case when our intuition might turn out to be “wrong.” Say you reach out to a colleague who you sense has been struggling with a few things. You ask if he’s okay and you are rebuffed by a comment completely denying that they are struggling.  Or you decide to call a meeting on what you think is an important issue but end up having your supervisor tell you that the topic is premature. You might feel hurt in these two situations. You might question yourself and tell yourself that your intuition is something not to be trusted. You might say to yourself “never again” and swear to only act if there are clearer signs.

But this would be a mistake. Your logical mind will never be able to correctly interpret what your intuition knows. Your logical mind is constantly scanning the world looking for problems. That is it’s job and it does it quite well. Your intuition operates in a deeper space where there is no right or wrong. It simply knows when it is supposed to wake up and speak to you. There is no other way in which it can act. And so perhaps that colleague, after rebuffing you, starts to think about why you approached him in the first place. Perhaps it sets off a chain reaction of events inside himself that you do not observe. Perhaps it increases his state of awareness that he does end up seeking the help that you suggested. And that meeting initially dismissed as “premature” then becomes an opportunity to help a senior associate fill that space with more topics that have been occupying the front of her mind. Suddenly the meeting becomes an extremely productive session and she’s left with the impression that it was fortunate to have carved out this time to think about issues that she’s been avoiding for some time.

If you are quick to discount your intuition then you will miss out on these amazing moments in which the universe will reward you for acting naturally as opposed to commanding and controlling the circumstances around you. You will feel unhappy and suppressed in many ways, like having taken a wrong turn at a stoplight and not being able to go back. I’ve had a lot of people describe it as “that feeling” that they can’t quite shake. It can be a source of great unhappiness and stress, particularly for those of us who sense it quite strongly within ourselves.

So how would you turn back, so to speak, to rekindle or cultivate the sense of intuition inside you?

Begin by doing what you want. No seriously, it really is that basic—though not easy to do. You already have a natural sense of what is supposed to be the path that you were meant to take in life. We spend time in an endless loop trying to control and being disappointed or never fully satisfied at the end result. Instead imagine if you began to listen to your heart and head and giving it a chance to speak instead. What kind of conversation would you have with it? Would it say, for example, that it doesn’t appreciate all that caffeine in your body? Or maybe it isn’t about diet, but rather your inability to set boundaries that is keeping you from reaching your fullest potential and your highest calling.

If you don’t want to do what you want to do, keep in mind that’s still a conscious choice that you are making. We often feel like we are stuck in the same old job and trapped by debt or family obligations but that is an old storyline and an illusion that we want to cling onto. The truth is that we can be free and accept circumstances as they presently are while being open to the infinite possibilities that can result when you let go of what you believe to be the case and take a leap into the unknown.

It might sound abstract at first but that’s why you start small and take baby steps into what you want. For me that means waking up in the morning and taking some time for myself to meditate and practice deep breathing before I pick up my phone to check my email. If I pick up my phone the first thing it’s almost a surefire temptation to spiral into a lack of awareness about my day. I try to eat lunch at the same time every day because that is what works for me. Others may feel better doing some sort of activity in the evening instead and prefer to clear out their emails the second they wake up. Still others may be completely different from me and try doing intermittent fasting. I don’t care or have a stake in what you do as long as it is what you want to do. This is not an agenda that I am pushing on you. If you decide that you want to live a familiar life and continue to feel the emotions you want to feel, that is well within your prerogative. Isn’t it beautiful to have that choice? My point is only that you can make choices that change the timeline in which your life is on and the trajectory that it may take. Sometimes you may even make the choice to surrender completely to the present moment; in those times that I have done so I have experienced some of the most sublime and crazed coincidences in my life.

Some people are afraid to try new things. I understand this well because I was one of those people. I had in my mind when I started in the law that I would succeed, work hard, and make partner. And that loans wouldn’t bother me and that I was fine with living in debt. But somewhere along the way something shifted within me and I realized that no matter what I did, things did not seem to work out. And the more I tried to control the situation the unhappier I became; the more work seemed to bear down heavier and heavier. Finally on one rainy evening I reached my limit and soon was crying as passengers gingerly weaved their way around me on their way home.

This is why listening to yourself and what you want is so important. It might seem to defy logic—and indeed that is the point. We spend so many of our hours—more so than the non-lawyer—using our analytical and critical thinking skills. In fact I think that if left unchecked our thinking brains would pratter on endlessly with the hyper-sensitivity that comes with such legal training. But that sort of overuse of the analytical brain feels like an imbalance in my brain. It feels as if every movement of myself has to be carefully scrutinized and calculated. I watch myself and berate myself at any sign of failure. But instead if I let my intuition take hold—maybe a little at first and then a lot at the end, then that will be the start of bringing more balance back into my body.

Give it a shot. Let me know how it goes.

The Allegory of the Dirty Dishes

I love washing dishes. Ok, I lie. Sometimes I hate washing dishes. But dishes are a very tangible task that I can get through and feel like I’ve accomplished something at the end of my time. I know exactly what I need to do to get things done; I am willing to put in the time and effort to reach a different state. I give myself something called the “Clean Sink Award” whenever the dishes are done and I can see the bottom of the sink again.

Some people don’t like washing dishes. I am not one of them. To me, washing dishes has a lot to do about life.

When I start washing dishes, I am often overwhelmed by the sheer options in front of me. By options I mean thoughts like, “Do I wash this pot first” or “If I move this plate, will the entire mound come crashing down and splash water on me.” And sometimes there are so many dishes in there that I don’t even know where to start at all.

But start I do. Dishes are one of those things that even chipping away at a little, helps a lot. And I’ve found in my experience, it makes sense to tackle first what I want to do last. Another way of eating the frog, so to speak. So I dive right into washing that large cutting board that is sitting diagonally across everything, even if it means a little bit more effort. I start the hot water soaking under the mashed potato encrusted pot and move onto the big mixing bowls. I rather start tossing the small stuff into the dishwasher but I tackle that smelly tupperware first that has some rotten leftovers from who-knows-when. In this sense, I tackle the hardest things first and get a little bit more momentum every time.

If there’s a lot of dishes I don’t try to finish them all at once. Sometimes I won’t have time to do so. Sometimes I can’t because I haven’t emptied the dishwasher or our dish rack, so the clean dishes won’t have anywhere to go (I refer to this fondly in my head as the “vicious cycle”). But I try to do a little bit here and there, if it makes sense to me. So I’ll maybe wash a few things in the sink, and be content with leaving the rest of them for another time.

Just like in life, sometimes you can’t or won’t have the energy or time to tackle everything all at once.

Sometimes you gotta chip away at it, little by little.

Sometimes doing a little bit, even if you don’t get to the final end result and you have to let go of that and be happy that you did something, if not everything.

I know that I cannot ignore dirty dishes for long. Without dishes it would be hard to enjoy some of my favorite dishes or otherwise result in a lot of waste. Whenever I wash dishes I feel a sense of peace that comes from knowing that I am preparing myself for another day, for another way to enjoying myself. It is a way of taking care of myself that actually does not require that much energy at all when it comes to it. In fact it may require more mental energy to think about it, as opposed to doing it.

I like to find joy in the simple things in life, a cliche for sure. But I wonder how long of my life I have spent trying to control the things I cannot control. Trying to force instead of enjoy, letting go, surrendering. Trying to judge instead of loving. There are so many small moments in my life, pockets of opportunity, that I am starting to appreciate more and more. I love the small moments of peace that come with writing, with playing classical music, all while trying not to worry about my cats romping around the apartment. It is a different kind of peace and a true gift that I really enjoy.

On Personal Loss

Death is inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. I have given a lot of thought over the past few days as to whether I wanted to write you this letter. Then last night my husband encouraged me to write it but decide later if I wanted to send it to you, so here we are. I don’t know if there was an invitation to send this but lately life has been telling me that I should say something if I want to, if I feel the profound need to, even if I don’t know how or the reason why. So, with that in mind, let me begin.

We live in a world right now where there is so much change. In truth, humans have been evolving for millennia, but only now have we been cognizant of how fast that change is and how constant it is. Loss is something that was never discussed in my family, openly. It made all of the loss in my life that was always so sudden very traumatic in a way. On the one hand, loss is reality. The cruelest, most raw, and most real kind of reality there is. On the other hand, my family never spoke about it, so when loss occurred, to me it always seemed like there was a ghost of something unsaid, something unseen, something very much unresolved, and I love that. I love that because I think part of my resistance writing to you is part of my coming to grips with the fact that grief is real. Loss is real. I’m working my way through a grief meditation pack myself where the person guiding the track speaks about how we never really “get over” loss; rather, loss becomes part of our lives. It never really “goes away.” We might get better and more able to get through the day, but to ignore it would be to ignore who we are as people, and to ignore who we ourselves really are.

Death is hard for me because it is the death of our expectations and our old selves. Though I am a Christian, I pay attention to what other systems of belief, including atheists, say. And in Buddhist thought there is the idea that we die many times, but we also become alive many times. I’m sure I’m screwing it up, and I love that, but I think the idea to me is that we are constantly changing, morphing, evolving, and dying day by day. I know I’ll probably raise some eyebrows in what I say next, but the first thing I thought about after my cat Calcifur died was that “we were supposed to move to DC together.” That expectation, the expectation that someone special was going to be around, even if our existence for the last part of his life was tortured in a way, was something that I clung onto for a very long time. It was the expectation that I formed my own identity around. I was a person who took care of him, who loved him, who knew that part of my purpose was to be with him.

Death of someone has always involved death of my expectations, whether I realize it or not. The point is that to move past that pain, I had to release and mourn not only him, but the loss of my old self. The acknowledgement that life changes fast, and it doesn’t wait for people to catch up, but eventually, I will.

The emptiness created by loss is huge and profound. But that emptiness also brings a certain kind of opportunity, even if it can be hard to see in the present moment. The emptiness left behind from release, from loss, from death itself is a place for more love and belonging and compassion to come in. It’s a space that we can choose to move into and discover that we are not our old story, or our past.

I do not know the reason why those we love leave in the way and time that they do.

I don’t feel a need to understand it.

But what I have found so helpful to understand and to try to work towards is finding a place where that emptiness creates a space for me to be my own truer self. For me to allow myself to get to a place of healing where I can be a space for others that may come into my life, for me to love and care for. And in that sense, that emptiness, though it becomes a part of me, is not a place of darkness, but a place of acceptance and wonder and joy at what life may bring ahead.

I write this letter for you as much as myself. I understand that. I know that, and I love that. I used to end letters like these with words of advice, maybe something concrete for the person to try. I’ve since felt the need not to do that, because I am now believing that everything a person needs in already inside of them. You know what you need to do.

I wish you all the best in your journey and leave you with these thoughts. Go far beyond what you perceive to be.

What Rejection Means to Me

Rejection is not necessarily a failure. In fact, it doesn’t have to be rejection at all.

Sure the ego might want to be loved and accepted immediately, but it’s a matter of understanding that when true alignment happens, it doesn’t have to be forced. And, I believe, it is worth waiting for.

The only reason why it is a little harder to remember is that in the days when work gets stressful (and it sure has been for most parts of last week), that the alignment can’t be rushed.

I find myself having these interesting conversations with myself about the old fears popping up; the old ways of thinking and doing, but I also remind myself that I have a new way of thinking about the world.

In fact, the more I cling onto the past, the more I become like the law that I don’t want to be a part of anymore–one that relies on precedent to tell what should happen going forward. 

Photo by Brendan Church