The Bona Fides

I had known about the Lawyer Assistance Program for at least 15 years before I reached out. At the law firm where I worked, one of the partners—who happened to be my direct mentor—was a LAP volunteer. He had actually been a PALS volunteer back when LAP was set up a little differently with two distinct programs (PALS, for folks with substance abuse issues, including alcoholism; and FRIENDS, for folks struggling with mental health issues).

I remember being very curious about and intrigued by LAP for several reasons. One was that this mentor of mine was someone who I really looked up to, who I thought had a brilliant legal mind, who was well respected in the legal community, and who often shared stories about how much better life had become for him when he stopped drinking and began working the 12 Steps. And another reason I was intrigued by LAP was that, at that time, the LAP monthly luncheons were held in the building that housed our law firm. And once a month, this mentor of mine would bring back from his LAP luncheon a big bakery box containing the leftover, sinfully-delicious, layered sheet cake that the Cardinal Club had made for the LAP luncheon dessert, and he’d place it in our law firm kitchen for us to devour.

The last reason I was curious about and intrigued by LAP was that I knew (in my heart, in my gut) that I had mental health issues.

I knew this, on some level, back in 8th grad, when my voice cracked on one note in a stage performance, and I reacted by sobbing for weeks out of humiliation and shame, being embarrassed to be around people, and never singing on stage again. And this perfectionism and catastrophic thinking and shame showed up over and over again in high school, college, law school, and in my legal career.

And as the stakes got higher—when I had clients who depended on me and cases that I could lose—the feelings only got stronger, and my fear of failure only got greater. And, what at first seemed incongruous but now makes a lot of sense, is that the further along I got in my legal career and the more accomplished I became, the more I felt like an imposter and the more often I became paralyzed with fear of failure, and the worse my mental health got.

When I say my mental health got worse, I don’t mean that I couldn’t get out of bed, or that I neglected cases, or that I reached out to substances. But I had terrible insomnia, I ruminated about things, I felt very irritable and put upon by everyone, I had out-of-the-blue panic attacks, and I felt like I hated my life. It was taking more and more effort to just keep things looking good on the outside.

And I remember, shortly before I reached out to LAP, having thoughts that seemed kind of unhealthy, like if I was taking a left turn in front of traffic that was coming toward me I would fantasize about what would happen if I turned too late. Or when I opened my bedroom window at night, I would think about the fact that I could jump out of it.

But, at the same time, I was getting inducted into this legal society or that legal society and serving on the board of this legal group or that legal group.

So I was keeping it all together, so to speak, and I hesitated about reaching out to LAP because I didn’t think I maybe had the bona fides.

I wasn’t drinking, using drugs, or neglecting clients. I had never had a complaint filed against me. I had never been in any kind trouble with the Bar.

I was just anxious, but I thought maybe that’s just because I’m a neurotic New Yorker. And I have shame, but I thought maybe that’s just because I’m Catholic.

But something moved me to reach out to LAP. I met with Nicki Ellington and felt so understood and so hopeful that I was in the right place.

And I remember my first weekly LAP meeting in Raleigh when I walked in and a lawyer I knew greeted me with open arms and said enthusiastically, “We’ve got you, too, now?”
He put me right at ease. With the help of an amazing mentor from the Raleigh LAP group, I worked the 12 Steps and found tools and people to help me live a healthier life, to help me find work-life balance, to help me build emotional resilience, and to help me find acceptance, contentment, gratitude, and even, sometimes, joy in a life that, before LAP, seemed so scary, dangerous, and exhausting to me.

If I hadn’t reached out to LAP when I did, I don’t know how I would be handling things now. Because the circumstances in my life have, in many respects, gotten pretty dramatically bad over the last few years. I’m not even talking about the pandemic. That, in itself, is a huge challenge for an anxious person like me. On top of the pandemic, both of my elderly parents had medical problems, especially my dad who had dementia and who passed away recently. He was very hard to live with growing up, and his moods were very unpredictable with lots of bursts of anger—that behavior carried on even into his time in an assisted living facility. My mom recently underwent surgery, is having complications, and I am her primary caregiver.

But I’m navigating these difficult circumstances and riding out my strong feelings pretty well most days. I attribute that largely to the friends I have in LAP who listen to me, who give me such wise advice and counsel, who help me get out of my head and into the present moment, and who help me give a little grace to myself and my mom (and dad, when he was alive).

And I am thankful every day for the people in LAP and the fact that LAP exists as such a great resource to North Carolina attorneys.

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