Ahoy, friends! We just returned from the TCDLA President’s Retreat and had a great time. The 7-day cruise took us to Mexico, the Grand Caymans, and Jamaica. It was a good opportunity for rest and relaxation, combined with high-quality CLE presentations, fellowship, and friendship. And we had a nice turnout—more than 60 TCDLA members and their families joined us on the Liberty of the Seas out of Galveston. Members spent time together on a beautiful beach in Jamaica and at a delicious steak dinner aboard ship. It was fun to spend time with people purely on a social basis and get to know family members. Our own Mark Thiessen received ship-wide attention by winning a highly coveted award! If you see him, ask him about it!
We were on the cruise on Valentine’s Day—which meant people all over the ship were celebrating their love for and commitment to their partners. Hearts were affixed to cabin doors, flowers were abundant, and, of course we know, those three special words—“I love you”—were shared between couples. All of these things—being on a cruise, enjoying time with friends and family, and having an amazing partner to share my life with—made me feel very grateful for the blessings in my life.
As I reflected on that, I thought about friends and colleagues who might be struggling right now. I thought about those who are dealing with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other addiction issues that are keeping them from fully enjoying their lives. And so, while I could spend this entire article talking about the cruise, I want to talk about how to help those suffering with these issues and how to ensure that we all are taking care of ourselves while doing this incredibly stressful work.
We all know that lawyers are at high risk for experiencing substance abuse and other mental health issues. Studies show that lawyers are 5 times more likely to struggle with these issues than other people, and that 18–20% of lawyers abuse drugs. Why are these numbers so high? The American Bar Association issued a statement to try to answer that question: “Because many lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload, the tendency to ‘escape’ from daily problems through the use of drugs and alcohol is prevalent in the legal community.” This makes sense, especially in light of another statistic about our community, that the average lawyer works 60–80 hours a week.
Just as these issues affect lawyers with all sorts of practices, TCDLA has seen some of our members struggle with depression and mental health issues, and some have had these issues completely ruin their lives. Given what we know about the statistics and seeing our friends hurting, the questions remain. How can we best help our friends who find themselves trapped in these situations? And how can we individually ask for help when we need it? Both of these questions are tough.
No one wants to approach a friend or colleague and tell them that you are worried about them, that you see danger signs, and that you want to help. Sometimes being that honest is scary. It could damage a friendship and cause the person you care about to withdraw.
And let’s face it—lawyers will not easily admit they need help. We thrive on and succeed on our ability to have everything in our control. We need to be in control and we need to convey to everyone else that we have it all figured out. Understandably, if someone sees a crack in that armor, that feels like failure. We will do anything to keep that from happening.
Similarly, that constraint, that is really ego-based because it’s premised on perceptions that aren’t necessarily true, is what keeps us from asking for help. This inner dialogue that we have it all worked out and that we can handle whatever situation we are in, is our enemy. We can see what is happening to our lives. We withdraw, we become less social, we deal with it in silence because we listen to that voice. Even when things get really bad—when we miss work obligations, have family problems, or financial issues—we tell ourselves that we’ve got this! We can turn it around. Even if things are bad now, we are smart enough to solve the problem without help. The ABA had it exactly right. We are over-achievers. In a lot of ways, our brains are our own worst enemies in getting help.
All of us know that each of these issues from depression to substance abuse represents a mental illness or disease. Yet it still carries such a stigma that we seem not able to accept that. To us, it still feels like a weakness, or a choice, or a failure. There are abundant resources available at our fingertips, and if you don’t know about the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program of the State Bar, please find them online. It is a strictly confidential service to attorneys who struggle with any mental health or substance abuse issue. The staff at TLAP know how hard it is for attorneys to fight against the admission that we are suffering, and they will us break down those barriers to save our own lives.
I wanted to share these thoughts with you—especially after a wonderful vacation. I do not want our members and friends to miss out on opportunities to enjoy their lives, to laugh, to be healthy and happy. I know that those of you out there who are suffering are doing so alone—many of you missing out on loving relationships, maybe some of you have become so isolated that you don’t share many “I love you’s” on Valentines—or any other day. All of you deserve to be happy.
Let’s incorporate another three words into our conversations this spring. Say “Are you ok?” if you see a colleague who’s hurting, even if it is just a suspicion. Don’t turn away and leave it for someone else to say. Those of you who are hurting—for once, don’t listen to that inner voice that wants you to believe you have everything in control. Turn off that over-achieving brain. Say three words you might not ever say to a client or in a courtroom. You may only have to say these three words once to save your life: I need help.