Speaking Up About Trauma and Mental Health

The importance of “outsider” narratives


Speaking Up About Trauma and Mental Health

Throughout my career, I’ve felt like an outsider. Outwardly, I fit in okay, but inside I knew I didn’t truly belong.

In law school, I felt that I was different from my classmates. By that time in my life, I’d already experienced repeated trauma so severe that it was difficult to function, yet I still succeeded in completing my degree.

Then I became a lawyer and eagerly embraced the idea of something that didn’t have to be about me. I wasn’t good at caring about myself. But I could do the work when other people’s interests were at stake.

By focusing on work and ignoring my own needs, I managed to push forward for 15 years without taking the steps I needed to heal. All that mattered was that I was a good lawyer and it wasn’t about me.

It’s not that I ignored my suffering: I was constantly aware of the need to not let it affect me professionally. I knew I had to process my feelings and memories just enough to prevent them from getting in the way of my only objective — to be a competent and principled lawyer —but never enough to let them overwhelm me (as they would if I ever allowed it to be about me).

So the suffering continued.

My social life was sacrificed almost entirely. To have a meaningful personal life, I’d need to address my own needs, an exercise I couldn’t survive while also functioning professionally.

It wasn’t until I could handle no more that I was finally ready to seek professional assistance. After a move to a new jurisdiction where I was profoundly isolated, I could no longer disregard my own needs because my body wouldn’t allow it. I barely slept and experienced intense anxiety that physically interfered with basic tasks. Often, my hands shook so much while eating my lunch at my desk that it was difficult to get the fork to my mouth.

As a result of my decision to seek professional help, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then, after five months of medical leave in which I had the benefit of much-needed rest and mental health support, I returned to work.

I could have kept my history and diagnosis private. No one needed to know.

But I decided to speak openly regardless of the potentially career-limiting consequences. I had spent far too long feeling alone in this profession: like I was the only one who didn’t fit. Yet I know that’s not true. Traumatic experiences are tragically common in our society, as are mental health conditions. I am certainly not the only one affected.

I’m speaking up so others will know they aren’t alone. And because this is a conversation our profession needs to have. We need to take steps to ensure that those who have experienced trauma, mental illness and/or anything else that makes them feel like an “outsider” will no longer be silenced, stigmatized, stereotyped, and discriminated against. I’m embracing my outsider status, so I can show that I am so much more than a diagnosis. I have great vulnerability, but also substantial insight, resilience and strength.

This is a necessary conversation not only because many of us are suffering, but also because we, as a profession, need the benefit of as many “outsider” narratives as we can get. We have no hope of addressing the issue of mental health in the legal profession if we don’t listen carefully to those with actual lived experience. With a diversity of perspectives — including those who have survived great adversity — comes strength and wisdom we can’t afford to exclude and ignore any longer.

I’m speaking up because it’s time for the profession to stop talking about us and start listening to us.

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