After working at the NC Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) for the past 5 years, I can say with confidence that most of what we see clinically is lawyers’ and judges’ responses to the serious difficulties of life and a career in law. Not that there isn’t true psychopathology, because there certainly is. But it is a teeny-tiny fraction of what we encounter in the lawyers we see and work with day-to-day.
NC LAP follows a medical model as it relates to alcoholism. We have given hundreds of CLE talks emphasizing the biological factors in the brain that contribute to the development of the disease of alcoholism as it is defined by the American Medical Association. It is a medically-researched-and-documented reality that once certain chemicals enter the brain, it will create a craving response for some people. However, that is only part of the picture. We sometimes joke in recovery that for an alcoholic, once you remove the “alcohol,” you are left with the “ic.” That is: you are left with the emotional turmoil and struggle to accept life as it comes at you. And that is most of what we see and deal with at LAP, whether a person drank over it or not. It is there where the real transformational work happens. How do we deal with life on Life’s terms (rather than our own)?
Life is messy, unruly, chaotic, and unpredictable. We all know it – we live it every day. People do not behave as they should. Our well-trained, mellow dog suddenly snaps at a neighbor’s toddler. Good children get into trouble. Spouses and teenagers spend money faster than we can make it. Loved ones get sick; they die. An aunt visits for a weekend and forgets to turn off the second floor bathroom sink faucet when going to bed, and downstairs, the first floor ceiling collapses from water damage in the middle of the night. (True story.) (All of them.)
The power of emphasizing resilience and strength, and de-pathologizing normal struggle cannot be overstated. So much of our journey (here, in life) involves learning to accept our humanness. It is not easy work. And it involves evolution of our consciousness.
As a not-uncommon example, many lawyers are angry, anxious or depressed because they are deeply unhappy in their current professional circumstance. They don’t have a practice area that suits their particular talents or personality, or their firm’s culture is not a good fit for them. Instead of accepting that fact and taking action to make a change, they mentally grit their teeth with grim determination to stay in their present circumstance. They tough it out because they think they should for various reasons. Maybe they are worried about financial insecurity even though they have substantial savings and can afford to make a move. Maybe they are striving to live up to an ideal their parents (alive or deceased) set for them about what it means to be a success. Maybe they are worried a spouse will leave if they were honest about wanting to make a change. The real work involves identifying these underlying issues, fears and motivations that are often hidden to the person struggling with anger, depression or anxiety.
While medication can be helpful for depression and anxiety, especially in the early stages of treatment and stabilization, it is not a permanent stand-alone solution to the scenarios outlined above. One can only medicate misery for so long before reaching a breaking point. While clearly depression, anxiety, and a host of other issues exist, it is rarely effective to view them as stand-alone illnesses to be treated as diseases using only a medical model. NC LAP utilizes a model of assistance based on collaboration between lawyers, their peers, and their counselors. Our role is to find and activate the lawyer’s internal resources and to teach, model and share healthy tools and coping mechanisms. For many lawyers, stoic self-reliance has been the architect of their downfall, and their learning involves asking for help and being willing to take suggestion and direction from others to do something they think will serve no useful purpose (only to discover the glorious benefit once they have taken the action). If experience has shown us anything, it is that we can learn and grow from any circumstance if we are willing.
Growth and change are at the center of the disruptions that bring people to LAP. Something that used to work is not working anymore, whether it is our drinking or our thinking. What used to work to ease the nerves or create success in our lives is no longer effective. Our usual first response is to double down and try that tried-and-true technique even harder. But here is a secret I have learned in my time in recovery: anything we do, we will eventually outgrow, no matter how good and effective it may have once been. We either leave it behind or it will boomerang on us. And when that boomerang hits, it hits us pretty hard. Lawyers usually come to LAP after the boomerang has hit us in the head…a couple of times.
Many lawyers think LAP is about not-drinking. Sometimes it is. Mostly, however, it is about transformation of consciousness. It is about learning how to stay relatively sane and reasonably happy in a pretty insane world and tough profession. It is about learning to accept life as it comes, without wearing ourselves and others out trying to make it be what we want. It is also about learning to accept ourselves and our human reactions for what they are, without denying them or over emphasizing them. It is about actively participating in our own growth and the evolution of our own consciousness.
Life – messy, chaotic, unruly life – is going to happen. There is nothing we can do about it. What we can do is practice mindful, honest awareness of our reactions and behaviors. We can become skillful at making choices that do not harm ourselves or others. We can learn to pause when agitated or doubtful. We can ask for someone’s opinion or even their help. We can stay open minded to the possibility that our way may not be the best way. We can become willing to try something different. We can learn to take responsibility for our lives and learn from what our past choices have wrought. In many ways, we are the authors of our own lives, not in terms of what happens to us, but in terms of what we do with what happens to us and what we learn from what happens to us.