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Recognizing Denial

We all struggle with denial. Denial is part of being human. It affects everything we do, the way we think, what we believe, and how we perceive our world. Denial is our ego’s way of dealing with realities that are painful or unpleasant. Denial shades our memories, prejudices our perception and manipulates our future. We all have to deal with the unpleasantness of every day life. Individuals who cope successfully with people, places or circumstances that do not live up to their expectations are those individuals who accept people, places or circumstances as they are without judgment or criticism. Somehow these individuals have learned to live with unpleasant people, places or circumstances without letting the unpleasantness affect how that individual feels about himself or herself. Those individuals who do not cope successfully with life’s disappointments live in a world of denial; denial that anything is wrong, denial that life can be painful, denial that anything can be done to make life easier. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to medicate the pain they feel when they cannot accept their circumstances.

Lawyers have a higher addiction rate than the general population. I have often pondered whether the pressures of the profession force us to medicate ourselves to the point of numbness or whether the personality that is attracted to the life of a paid advocate is somehow more prone to the disease. One thing is clear: addiction magnifies the effects of denial many times over. When cases do not turn out as we wanted, how many of us blame the judge, the other lawyer, the other parties, a lying witness, our clients, or just bad luck? Then there is always that bandit in the night that wakes us up whispering,  boy, you blew that one, didn’t you? That is denial, denial that the judicial system really works, and denial that our client got exactly what they deserved from a judicial system that generally gets it right. Our denial deludes us into believing our own bovine scatology. When reality hits, we can’t (or won’t) believe it and start looking for something or someone to blame (unfortunately many of us blame ourselves first). Welcome to the wonderful world of denial! The mantra of those in denial is I can’t believe this is happening to me (or the short form, I can’t believe this).

We all have had our share of clients that want to blame their disappointments on the judicial system, or in the final analysis, upon us. They are in denial as well by refusing to believe that they got what they deserve under the circumstances. On occasion, we set up our clients and ourselves for big disappointment because we cannot accurately predict what will happen in a particular case. With good intentions we pump our clients up with hope and false expectations as to the outcome of their case. We only give short mention to the downside when we know, or should know, the client rarely listens to the downside. Then it happens: we do our best, we get a good result for our client under the circumstances, and the client is outraged because they wanted something else. Who is the target of the client’s anger rising from denial? The lawyer, of course. Denial raises its ugly head again. The client cannot accept the results, because they wanted something else.

Spawned from denial, the State Bar is deluged with frivolous grievances lodged against lawyers because a client did not get what they thought they should get from their foray into the judicial system. Laden with denial, the client cannot admit to themselves that perhaps the reason they did not get what they wanted was because (1) they did not tell their lawyer what the lawyer needed to know, (2) their case was not as good as their bridge club friend’s case, or (3) the judicial system is simply not a substitute for a winning lottery ticket. Through their denial the client is quick to blame the one person who was working his or her utmost for a lost cause, the lawyer.

We all know that our careers can feel more like a wicked pressure cooker than the euphoric dream of glory in the hallowed profession we choose to pursue. One of the many causes of frustration and anxiety for those in our ranks is the difference between the idealistic notions we had entering law school to make a difference for the good of our society and the stark realities of the business of making a living as a lawyer. The satisfaction of doing a good job can quickly turn sour when a client in denial refuses to pay our fee because the client wanted something else.  Add addiction to this mix and the combination is a recipe for disaster.

Denial is the number one problem in dealing with people with the disease of addiction. As mentioned, lawyers have a higher addiction rate than the general population, and addicted lawyers and those closest to them seemingly raise the art of denial to new levels. They do not admit to themselves that they have a problem. Their families do not admit that their addicted lawyer has a problem. Partners do not want to admit that they have a friend or confidante who has a problem. No one wants the public to know that there is a lawyer out there that is a potential risk to his or her clients or partners. Denial, denial, denial. The walls of denial are tall and thick.  Denial is not willful.  It is a form of internal self-deception.  What we may fail to see is that behind the denial, the addicted lawyer is subconsciously screaming for help because he or she is acting and behaving in ways that are totally inappropriate. The lawyer is crying for help in the only way he or she knows how without admitting to the obvious problem. Unfortunately, in the finest Southern tradition, no one wants to talk about the elephant in the living room. If we don’t talk about it, denial hopes it will let itself out the back door.

We probably know of a fellow lawyer who has  “dropped off the radar screen” because of his or her addiction. Our reaction, through our own denial, is to ignore the problem and hope that somehow it will solve itself. Perhaps some of you who take the time to read this article know that you have a problem with alcohol or drugs but do not want to deal with the troubles you find yourself in. You know that your life is spiraling out of control, but denial either rationalizes the effects of the addiction or comes up with dozens of excuses why recovery will have to wait until tomorrow.

No one wants to be an alcoholic or addict. We did not go to law school with that goal in mind. The disease-infected defense of denial says tomorrow a miracle will happen, self-respect will return and self-loathing will disappear. Unfortunately that is the rainbow fantasy of denial. We do not want to think about how much we drank or used last night when we swore we wouldn’t. We do not want to think about all of the things we said that we shouldn’t have. We do not want to think about all of the bad decisions we made when we were drunk or high or in withdrawal. We do not want to think of all of the money we spent to chase the magic dragon. We do not want to think about the fact that our lives did not turn out the way we wanted. This is all denial.

Denial is defined as repeating behavior over and over again expecting different results. We put impairing and mood altering substances in our body with every intention of not getting impaired.  The alcoholic or addict only wanted the euphoric effect of the first drink or dose. For the addicted individual, if one is good, ten has to be better, even though all of the rational evidence is to the contrary. This is denial that is out of control. Denial has overcome all of our higher intellect and we are subject to emotions run riot. How many times have we said to ourselves, I knew better or I wish I hadn’t done that? We have repeated the same mistakes with the best of intentions because our denial has deluded us into believing that the result will be different. We take cases we know we can’t win, simply because our denial convinces us that we will achieve a miraculous result. We drink when we don’t want to because denial deludes us into thinking that we won’t get into trouble this time. We make excuses for the consequences of addiction and cover up malpractice with the vow that we won’t do it again. We pray the familiar prayer: “Lord, if you will just get me out of this I will never do it again.”

Denial convinces the addicted lawyer that recovery is worse than the disease.  Denial makes us think that with the right alignment of stars and financial breaks our lives can be put back together while practicing self-restraint.  Denial creates the fairy tale fantasy that everything will be all right when the self-inflicted disasters stop. We deny to ourselves that we are the cause of the hurricane we find ourselves in. We cannot see the problem when we will not admit it exists.

If we find ourselves unable to stop drinking or using mood altering substances, denial tells us that we can cure ourselves without help. If we know of an attorney or family member that is missing appointments or deadlines or is emotionally destroying his family and loved ones because he is impaired, denial tells us to mind our own business, not to rock the boat.  This is when denial becomes destructive and can become lethal. At this point lives are on the line and denial can kill. I have seen lawyers die because they could never admit they had a problem and their denial convinced them that the problems would be solved “tomorrow”. The only way out of this dilemma is to ask for help.

The good news is that the North Carolina State Bar offers such help on a confidential basis through the Lawyer Assistance Program, a program offered through fellow lawyers and designed to help those who will not help themselves. The door to recovery is at everyone’s fingertips simply by making a telephone call. The effect of denial is that often it is the addicted lawyer that is the last to know that they have a life (and career) threatening disease. When the Lawyer Assistance Program offers help, we are on the side of the suffering lawyer.  It is the voice of denial that convinces the impaired lawyer that we are not, that we are interfering in his/her life, that we are trying to ruin career, marriage, reputation. If such thoughts cross your mind when you think of us, perhaps you need our help. It is un-controvertible evidence of denial.

Through my experience I have seen lives, careers and licenses saved by someone (clients, family, friends, judges, courthouse staff) willing to break through the chains of denial and ask for help from the Lawyer Assistance Program. I have never regretted leading a fellow lawyer to recovery. If you know of someone that needs our help, please call. Do not deny that person the opportunity to recover. They will probably not do it for themselves.

Finally, do not despair! Denial is a part of life and we are all human.  While our humanness brings denial, our humanness also allows us to do together what we cannot do alone.

– by Gray Robinson

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addictions:  FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems. This article first appeared in the LAP column in the Campbell Law Observer, Volume 20, Number 8



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