This week’s RealMental post

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 listand maybe more and different things to my handle.


23 thoughts on “This week’s RealMental post

  1. Pingback: Success and happiness are two different things | RealMental

  2. amy

    you sound like yr on the right path lovely woman! You are keenly insightful and full of talent…taking care of you and listening to yr self is the best…you are on the verge of somethin big- I can feel it

  3. sara

    Thank you so much for saying all this.

    And – unfortunately, somehow I still think that on my part there was moral weakness. How’d you get over that?

    I wish I could take time off for med adjustments…I feel like a total failure if I do though…so I just suck for a while.

    And I don’t think my job is any less crazy making. But not as hostile, most days…

  4. standing still

    Replace the words “Super Lawyer” with “Super Advocate for Public Education” and “litigation” with “possibily running for school board” and we are the same person. I vividly remember when I realized that “normal” people get tired in the evening. It. Had. Never. Happened. To. Me. Before. Depakote.

  5. Sara

    “…or your kids hate you because you were never home…”

    Or more likely they — and your wife — and, oh yeah, your secretary — grow to hate you because when you are around you’re always picking on them, relentlessly, hopelessly unable to leave all that adversarial shit and one-upmanship in the conference room or courtroom.

    You know, I was supposed to become a lawyer, and I worked for many over the course of many years. But I stopped wanting to be one myself while still very young because while I had become acquainted with lots of very “successful” ones, I knew almost no happy ones.

    Ever read Opinionista? She went through a similar revelation from a different perspective. I haven’t read her in awhile, but you might enjoy her archives written surreptitiously when she was an associate at a gigantic law firm in NYC.

  6. Anali

    This is a wonderful post! The lawyer thing really does mess with our minds and emotions. I guess we have all these expectations of what people want us to be, but then we may realize that that’s not who we are or who we want to be. I don’t know if I’m making any sense. Anyway, I really like what you’ve said here.

  7. Janet

    It’s tough when everything you went to school for and planned for turns out to be something that isn’t healthy for you; but you are one smart cookie and I have NO DOUBT that you will find something that is healthy for you…and makes you happy at the same time 🙂

  8. Biggie's Mom

    “…I am finally coming to realize that litigation as a practice is mostly insane.”

    Truer words never spoken, and I think I have an idea for the next post on my new blog (linking back to you, of course!). I think lawyers as a whole are also generally risk-averse navel-gazers, so we are especially prone to fantasizing “what if…” and then becoming temporarily or permanently dissatisfied with our jobs. The jobs we chose. The jobs that most of our lawyer friends probably asked, “Are you sure you really want to do this?” (Or more bluntly put, “SAVE YOURSELF!!”)

    Such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, and kudos to you for putting it out there for all of us.

  9. savia

    Interesting…I recently came to the same conclusion and walked away from my master’s degree program. It was making me crazy and miserable and the only reason I was doing it was for the validation – to feel smart, to have those letters behind my name. But it wasn’t going to get me anywhere in life and it certainly wasn’t making me happy. So, I walked away and now, I’m just focusing on me.

    Yay for both of us!

  10. Emilija

    What the world considers success does not make most people happy, I have think. Everyone has to find their own pathway. It sounds like you have a pretty good idea of what you need, that is great!

  11. Emily

    I’m sharing this with my Hubbers, who is currently at a sort of crossroads in life and can make a lot of choices and do a lot of exploring.

  12. Mrs. G.

    Sounds like you’re at a crossroads. And you have so many talents to pursue. What good is a job if it, literally, makes you sick. I am excited to see where all of these changes take you.

  13. mike golch

    I could have sworn I left a comment on this one Oh well my lose,due to the “can’t remember stuff” I don’t know what I said now.Maybe it was something stupid.

  14. Just Me

    You wrote what I’ve been trying to write for some time. I was a lot slower than you and I did an incredible amount of grieving, but I’ve come to think that my lesson of 2006 was that I truly cannot live a normal life. I’m not going to appear normal to others. I’m not going to work in a regular job. I don’t get to work in the arena I most want to work in. I have to monitor myself because if I feel overwhelmed I tend to turn to anxiety and caffeine to make myself manic enough to continue.

    My lesson of 2007 was that even having accepted that I needed to accept that the changes might be much bigger than anticipated. I had to have horrible, painful conversations about whether I could do my job. I had moved to an easier arena and yet I still struggled.

    I’ve had a better lesson for 2008 so far: It can get better. I just finished a month of work with productivity over the requirements and I only worked on my time once. I can do multiple treatments together. And my new job will open up even more ways for me to succeed, hopefully.

  15. cathy

    This is incredibly profound and inspiring. I had a few things to say earlier, but now that I’ve read all of the other comments, I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts.

    There’s something important in there about acknowledging a successful career but seeing its true costs on the whole of your life.

    So many people work hard and chase success. A successful career is worth A LOT, and many people never get near that. But, for some of us, being successful in a field takes too much of the other parts of us.

    Also, FWIW, I’m very excited about how you’re approaching your writing projects.

    Maybe everything that helped you be a successful litigator will allow you to stay business-like and focused for the business part of freelance writing.

  16. Beverly

    This is my first visit to you blog. From what I have read, you put your thoughts on paper very well. I have all these wonderful words in my mind, but when I start to write them, they come out all jumbled. My brain goes too fast for my fingers. You describe all your feelings, desires, and thoughts perfectly. I hope that writing will begin to bring you the happiness that litigation does, and maybe it will allow ‘your flame’ to stay lit longer… having time to do all the other things that you enjoy, like walks, photography, etc. you will have more reserve.
    Sorry to ramble on and on, and we’ve only just met. This blogging seems to get you closer to others quicker….


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