Ed. Note: This is the latest in a series of articles about motherhood in the legal profession, made in collaboration with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome RB Guard to our website. Click here if you would like to donate to MothersEsquire.
As I walked along the edge of the ocean with my feet in the cool, damp sand, I watched the ocean keep re-forming and renewing itself, and in this way it changed the environment. These morning walks are rare; I am here with my family for a few precious days each summer, a few carefully guarded vacation days but usually interrupted by the call of work.
But a few weeks ago I was far from that ocean, lying in a hospital bed at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, where I had just been admitted. No, I was not hospitalized for coronavirus, nor was I hospitalized for drinking too much or taking too many pills.
Just that I was there because of the coronavirus. And it turned out that I drank too much and took too many pills, just drank too much coffee and took too much Advil, along with triptans, the drugs prescribed for me to relieve my chronic back pain . I took the Advil to try to numb the pain in my nervous system yelling at me and I drank the coffee to try to feel numb, awake, and present again.
Internally, I felt like the coffee I had drank too much of – filled to the brim each day before it boiled over.
Like many lawyers, I am a Type A personality who has high expectations of myself and then tries to exceed them. And how many women have I been sugar and spice and all beautiful, because that’s what little girls are made of, right? I used the “goods” and the “should” as a roadmap for my life. How would a good lawyer handle it? What would a good mother say? What Would a Good Sister Do? A good friend? Wife? Daughter?
And Goods helper was supposed to answer these unanswered questions for me. You should be charging more hours; a good lawyer would. You should volunteer for this school committee. a good mother would. You should be thinner; All good women are. You should, you should. And I did, or at least tried to.
And this overfilled, burning cup of coffee became hotter and fuller and overflowed with every new good and debit.
Perhaps then it is not surprising that the pandemic got my already chronic back pain out of control. This trip to the hospital wasn’t the first for my condition; I had been to the hospital many times over the past few years, but the previous visits were all IVs and a day here and a day there. But not this time. This time I was admitted for nearly two weeks, which meant that I actually took myself off (although I might have taken a phone call or two) and even left my husband and children home without me.
But my identity has been preoccupied with it for a long time. And yet something as stigmatized and underestimated as back pain threatened to undo that identity and take everything away. In previous hospital stays, I posted pictures of myself connected to an IV in a small hospital room. My laptop stood up in front of me and said, “The pain may be hard, but I’m harder.” But then the pandemic hit.
In March and April I had managed to bill strong months despite helping my kids with online school and trying to keep their spirits up. I checked with my parents and in-laws to make sure they were safe, held a few virtual conferences, gained new customers, and dutifully signed up for virtual parent coffees offered by my daughter’s schools.
But I could feel the dark vacuum of pain sucking me in. The pain penetrated the periphery of my vision and approached me until my world looked like it was broken, like looking through broken glass. My bedroom became my constant refuge, lying in my bed with my eyes closed so my brain could try to rest, exhausted from chronic pain.
That pain wasn’t the real enemy; it was just a symptom. The way my body tells me … the way my brain forces me … to stop, to take inventory, to get perspective. The constant pressure of our profession, the urge to bill more hours, the needs and requirements of customers that are very close to my heart, 24/7, the urge to bill more hours were despite the chaos, that swirled around us, the real culprit as they were woven into my inner perfectionism and drive.
As I sat in that hospital bed detoxing myself from Advil and too much coffee, hooked up to another IV, dripping new drugs endlessly and flowing through my veins, I became clearer. The nebula began to break apart and the aura prism withdrew. I could see again, literally and figuratively, and I could especially see that I could no longer treat myself as if I were expendable, indestructible. Instead of ignoring and numbing the pain instead of saying, “Oh, I’m fine,” I had to pay attention to the pain, hear what it angrily whispered to me, and ask me to hear it.
“You are already enough,” they said, and the sharp echo of every word vibrated on every one of my nerves. “There’s nothing left for you to prove.” The lawyer in me wanted to argue in order to defend good and should. But the mother in me made an effort to listen lovingly and compassionately, the kind of caring listening I would offer to my children, husband, and friend.
“Wellness” and “mindfulness” have become trending words in the legal profession, yet like other words – diversity, inclusion, justice – they are enough tossed around as if they were said or posted on a law firm website through a related initiative. Most lawyers hardly think about the real and far-reaching consequences of what discomfort and thoughtlessness look like. Attorney wellness means attorneys who are whole people, with life and family and passions – attorneys who are connected to their friends and communities and still remembering what it means to work for justice.
Attorney wellness, to be meaningful and effective, requires breaking systems apart and putting them back together again. Lawyer Wellness encompasses efforts for diversity and inclusion, gender equality and prevention of maternity sentences, initiatives that promote healthy behavior and eliminate broken behaviors that lead to depression, substance abuse and … wait for it … chronic overload.
When I got out of the hospital bed, I was determined to leave behind the habits that rewarded and perpetuated being a poor lawyer. No more Advil (I now have the right medication) and more time to practice and dedicate to a meditation practice. Take the time to listen to my body before it hits its breaking point. Oh, and … that hurts … no more coffee.
And maybe with less coffee, I can stop feeling like that overflowing, boiling cup of coffee. Maybe instead I can be like the early morning ocean, breathing in and out, renewing and redesigning myself according to my own inner voice, and hopefully changing the world around me for the better like I do.