This time of year brings me back to some of the most meaningful milestones in my professional career. The last Wednesday and Friday of each July inevitably brings me back to sitting for the New York State Bar Examination. It also brings me back to the intense pride that I felt graduating from law school and the fear and trepidation that I felt in joining thousands of other law school graduates in spending 2 days trying to remember everything that I learned in law school and then pouring it all out in a way that would demonstrate to the bar examiner scoring my exam that I was indeed worthy of joining the brotherhood and sisterhood of attorneys.
However, it is also a time when I am most susceptible to grief. Notwithstanding my love for the work that I do, as well as my professional accomplishments, I inevitably find myself mourning for the path that I thought that my legal career would take all those many years ago. I thought that I had carefully planned my legal career; a few years as a prosecutor in New York County; a few years with a top-notch law firm; and a judgeship in state or federal court. You know what is said about even the best-laid plans; things can and will happen that may change the direction of your journey or create totally new and unimagined destinations. The latter has been my path. My grief at the loss of these dreams sometimes paralyzes me. Other times, it make me feel grateful that I still have an opportunity to “flex” my legal muscles and utilize the skills that I acquired in law school and during my career as a prosecutor to really make a difference in people’s lives.
I was 36 years old when I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. While I was relieved to finally be able to have some understanding of the moods that had so characterized my adolescent and young adult life, I was devastated and angry that some cruel twist of fate had so interrupted my life. Notwithstanding the relatively positive prognosis that was provided to me by my psychiatrist and therapists, life as I knew it would be drastically changed. Yet I was indeed more fortunate than most. I had a professional degree and license, I had a job, I had insurance that would cover my treatment, and I had strong family connections. Most of all, I had a son who in my darkest hours, gave and continues to give me reasons to fight on. But I still spent many days in tears and sleepless nights worrying about what direction my career would now take.
It’s hard to be grateful and circumspect when you feel that you have not lived up to what you and others have grown to expect from you. I spent most of those early days filled with rage and sorrow. I kept asking “why me” and never got to “why not me.” But in the midst of this turmoil, a very dear friend who I had previously worked with in my community called me. It’s ironic because it was the only incoming call that I had answered that week. What I heard simply was that I was valued and needed. She offered me a job providing legal assistance to landlords and tenants. Here, my skills as an adversary were not needed. My charge was to mediate disputes and help the parties resolve their disputes without the costs and disruptions that often defines litigation in Housing Court.
I enjoyed helping people seek win/win solutions. Most importantly, I learned that my skill set could be of value in venues other than a courtroom. I guess that is when I first learned it was ok to grieve my losses but it was not ok to waste my skills and talents.
The work that I currently do gives me an opportunity to do many of the things that I love to do. I love training and teaching; I love mentoring and helping new generations unlock their potential; I love working with peers with histories of involvement with the criminal justice system; and most of all I love being present to witness the transformation of entrenched systems that need “witnesses” to identify new and innovative ways to think about the criminal justice and behavioral justice systems.
I share this piece of my life in the hope that policy makers, providers, and other stakeholders learn to appreciate and understand the losses that many individuals have sustained due to illness. We are not defined by these illnesses nor are we blank slates who have no reference points for the things that make us happy and feel fulfilled. A purpose-driven life is the only one that most of us want to lead. And yes, help us talk about our losses and listen to the rage without a need to placate us.
Years ago it made little difference to me whether bi-polar disorder was caused by chemical imbalances. What did and continues to make a difference in my life is having a safe space to talk about what I am experiencing and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways my illness may impact my ability to concentrate or my inability to “feel OK in my skin”. Most importantly, it is really feeling that that people who I interact with on a daily basis share my optimism that “this too shall pass” with kindness, encouragement, and patience. It is also being reassured that everyone has challenges that they must confront and fight to overcome. I am just like everyone else…