I normally post only at RealMental and just put up a notice here, but this is sort of a crystallization of the things I’ve been working on the last two months, so I wanted to share it directly here, as well.
Success and happiness are two different things
As my handle states, I’m a lawyer. Even worse, I’m a litigator– I go to court a lot, file lawsuits, get high on the charge of arguing my case before a judge or a jury. I handle a blend of straightforward and more complex cases, and it’s the complicated ones that I really love. It’s how I get to show my smarts, prove my abilities, and feel recognized, acknowledged for my talents. I aspire to be a well-known, scary smart litigator on the cover of SuperLawyers and reported in the Top Verdicts and Settlements report every year. I want to be queen of my corner of the legal world.
Actually, that’s not true. Or more accurately, I should say that this whole paragraph should have been written in the past tense, except for the “I’m a lawyer” part. And maybe not even that. Because I am realizing that the way I chose my online handle, BipolarLawyerCook, has more meaning in the order of the words than I could have thought.
See, Bipolar comes first. It’s taken me a while to realize this, despite the fact that I type my online handle nearly every day. Let me repeat that. Bipolar comes first. It doesn’t mean that I walk around with a big scarlet B attached to my coat. What it does mean is that I need to take my bipolar into consideration when I am making decisions about what will keep me healthy, and therefore happy. If I ignore my hard-acquired self-knowledge about my triggers, my mental knee-jerk habits, if I fail to avoid people, places, and situations that back me into a corner where I curl up into a little ball, and just give up, then all I am is bipolar, and worse, a crazy bipolar. If I remember, and adapt, then there is plenty of room for any other descriptors I want to tag on after bipolar– so long as the terms can all coexist with bipolar, and take turns as need be.
When I was first diagnosed, eons ago in 2005, I was relieved– finally, an explanation, and one that did not implicate some moral weakness on my part. I started taking my meds, went religiously to therapy, worked on my triggers, was a model patient. But not really– because I made the mistake of believing that I would now be able to do all the things I’d wanted to, but couldn’t. Despite knowing better, I assumed that the meds and the therapy would cure me, and that I could do whatever I set my now-stable mind to.
Not so– the meds control, don’t cure. If I overtax myself, then all my crazy predispositions come roaring back. But more importantly, and fortunately without quite the same variety of mental ups and downs, I am finally coming to realize that litigation as a practice is mostly insane. Whether or not you’re officially crazy, the pace, the hours, the adversarial climate and lack of civility are all enough to drive the sanest person nuts. And I’m realizing that it does drive everyone crazy, eventually. Maybe you become a screamer, or a drunk, or you cheat on your spouse, or your kids hate you because you were never home, or your colleagues and opponents will never give you a break because you never give them one– there are a thousand different ways to fail as a person, if not so obviously as a litigator.
I recently took some time off, since I needed to switch mood stabilizers, was exhausted and depressed, and was therefore on the brink of messing something up again at work. The time off has been a revelation in more than one way. First, I’ve had even more ideas to write, and took the leap to start pitching ideas for freelance assignments. Second, I realized that the charge that I get from the ritualized combat of litigation comes with a price, and that I was ignoring the law of mental gravity: what comes up must come down. Add to that the slow dawning acceptance that my energy reserves are shallow, and I’ve come to accept that my flame burns bright, but burns out quickly. I need to find work that is more sustainable, less full press– and to do that, I need to give up my Queen Litigator dreams. This became less difficult when I had my third realization, while lunching with a coworker, who was stressed beyond belief. I didn’t want to go back– and not just to that office. Worries about the future aside, I was happy.
I was sharing this with my therapist, and she asked me who I was proving myself to with my SuperLawyer fantasy. When I realized that I was trying to get approval from those who will never give it, it because so much easier to step to the side, and understand that my dreams of worldly success would not make me happy, even if I had the mental resources to achieve them. I also realized that setting aside the fantasy isn’t failure, no matter what other litigators might think.
Having realized this, it becomes easier to think about walking away from the practice of litigation, or to at least think in a more clear-eyed manner about what will make me happy, and how I can best sustain that happiness. In compiling my list of things that make me happy, I’ve come up with: cooking, taking pictures, going for walks, going for walks and taking pictures, being with friends, writing for writing’s sake, having quiet time to myself, blogging for sharing’s sake, having quiet time with my husband, reading everything in sight, learning new things, and helping other people learn new things. I’m looking forward to adding more things to that list— and maybe more and different things to my handle.