When Carlos and I describe what we do, we often compare our litigation practice to working in an emergency room.
We never know what the day will bring, what fires we’ll have to put out.
But we do know that whatever comes our way needs to be resolved immediately. Whether it’s dealing with the aftermath of a Homeland Security raid, protecting a client’s trade secrets after an executive jumps ship to work for a competitor, or ensuring a whistleblower is out of harm’s way after she accuses her employer of committing a crime.
And while I’ve always agreed with the emergency room comparison, I’ve never stopped to think about how working in such a high-stakes environment affects me psychologically, emotionally and physically until I read this article: I Was One of the Top Doctors in My Field. I Was Also an Opioid Addict.
The Pitfalls of Perfection
The article is about an Atlanta anesthesiologist who had always been a proud perfectionist. You know the type: She mastered square roots at age 2. Two years later, she learned how to play the violin. By 19, she had already graduated college, enrolled in medical school and met her first husband.
Everything in this woman’s life seemed perfect. Except it wasn’t.
Sure, she had administered anesthesia to presidents and generals and was the most-requested anesthesiologist at her hospital. And yes, she had beautiful children, a sprawling six-bedroom home and a host of family vacation photos from trips around the country.
But the constant pressure to perform — and to perform perfectly — was wearing on her. When her husband confessed he was using opioids recreationally, she decided to give them a try.
After she took her first hit, she said the pressure, stress and anxiety just disappeared.
“All of a sudden, everything was OK,” she said in the article.
When I read that, something in me shifted.
The Freedom of Letting Go
While I’m not an anesthesiologist, I know what it’s like to work in an environment where there is no room for mistakes.
Until I read this article though, I didn’t realize that the always-on-call nature of my practice was wearing on me. I dismissed the growing pressure I felt in my heart and mind as “just stress.”
It wasn’t having to protect innocent people from ending up in an ICE detention camp or ensuring a whistleblower and her family are safe from physical retaliation that was causing the tension, I told myself. It was just a side effect of juggling a busy and full life.
To be fair, the signs that I was experiencing more than “just stress” were painfully obvious. I had stopped attending yoga classes and hadn’t meditated in ages, two dead giveaways that I am in a bad headspace. I had had a mini meltdown at work (fortunately, my clients weren’t in the room). And I had started numbing myself with anti-anxiety pills, which weren’t even working (see aforementioned mini meltdown.)
As I reflected on the doctor’s story and my own experiences, I could see where she was coming from. She wasn’t addicted to opioids, I guessed, she was addicted to the sensation of finally letting go of all that she was holding on to. Of not caring, even for a few minutes, about the constant pressure to be perfect.
What’s Our Shelf Life?
A few weeks later, I attended a retreat in Colorado. During one of the activities, I was partnered with a woman who worked in an ER. I told her about the article and asked how she and other doctors cope with the stress.
We don’t, she said.
Most ER doctors have a shelf life of about 15 years, she told me. At that point, the stress starts to build up and many doctors either quit or turn to drugs or some other medicator to cope, she said.
That conversation provided further insight into why the opioid article resonated with me.
This is my 17th year of practice. I’m getting to that point where I wonder how much longer I can sustain the daily stress of running my own business and putting out fires left and right. The doctor at the conference described her life in the ER as “a pressure cooker.”
I completely get it.
I’m not ready to give up my job or run away and become a bartender at a Mediterranean resort (as tempting as that sounds). But my pressure cooker is overflowing, and I need to let out some steam.
Letting Go of Perfectionism
Like the doctor in the article, I’ve spent most of my life as a perfectionist. No, I didn’t start playing violin at age 4, but I did manage to completely change careers, get into law school and have my first baby all within the span of one summer.
While I was giving birth to my son, I took advantage of the time in between contractions to study for the bar.
I’m also a bit of a control freak. I tend to think that I have to do everything myself and be everything to everyone. This summer, as I was preparing for the trip of a lifetime, my legal assistant left and I found myself doing her job — plus the work of a paralegal and an office manager — on top of my current casework. Oh, and running a business, too.
I’m afraid that if I don’t do everything myself, it won’t get done right.
But the constant quest for perfection has a price. It’s not sustainable.
If I want to extend my shelf life as a lawyer and business owner, I have to find a way to let go. I have to embrace that I am only human and only capable of doing so much in a day, a week, a month. I have to learn how to rely on people to help me do everything that needs to be done.
Shortly after I spoke to the doctor, I broke down again.
The tears came out of nowhere. I was still at the retreat. We were in a van, coming back from an activity. There were maybe a dozen other people in the car, and I just fell apart.
Fortunately, I was sitting next to one of the retreat’s facilitators. He asked what was wrong and I just started word-vomiting all over him about life, stress and the embarrassment of breaking out in tears in a van full of strangers.
He was a total doll. He asked the rest of the group if they minded me sobbing during our drive. He asked if anyone could relate to what I was going through. Everyone raised their hands.
And I thought, screw it. I’m gonna let this breakdown run its course. And it did. And when it was over, I realized that giving myself permission to cry uncontrollably and unexplainably in front of a group of strangers meant I could give myself permission to be imperfect now and then.
If I can’t answer the 200 emails that appear in my inbox on a daily basis, that’s okay. If I need to order pizza — instead of making my kids dinner — because I worked a 13-hour day, that’s also okay. If the people I hire to help me run my business make a mistake or two as they’re learning the ropes, that’s okay, too.
For me, that breakdown was a breakthrough. It was the moment of release that the anesthesiologist got from the opioids. It was letting out the steam from the pressure cooker that the ER doctor at the retreat had described.
And let me tell you, it felt good. The sense of release that follows when you let go of all the high standards you’ve held yourself to for so long is one of the best feelings in the world.
Because now, no matter what comes your way, you are so much better able to handle it if your hands are wide open, rather than gripping tightly to all your baggage.
Now, I have to work on keeping my hands free of said baggage. One of the ways I plan to do that is to set more boundaries. For starters, I’m going to put my phone away at night, rather than keeping it on my nightstand.
I’m also building more time for me into my schedule. For me and Carlos, this is our second marriage. We made a pact when we got married that we wouldn’t let real life distract us from our love for each other. Every Wednesday is our “date night.” We hire a babysitter and either go out to dinner and a movie or just sneak away to the back porch to enjoy a few hours by ourselves over a glass of wine. It’s been a critical way of keeping our lines of communication open and our relationship strong.
I also reserve some time on Friday for self care. This could be anything from a massage to a teeth cleaning. The key is to make sure I’m taking care of myself — and all of myself — on a regular basis. It’s so easy to put these activities on hold for a time when it seems “more convenient.” But let’s be real: Life is rarely convenient.
Do Carlos and I occasionally miss a date night? Of course. Do deadlines and client calls sometimes force me to skip a Friday yoga class? Sure. But I know that by making regular time in my schedule to take care of myself, I’m letting out some of the steam that builds up in the pressure cooker of my life.