Flying Solo

  • February 09, 2021

Dear Advy,

I am a sole-practitioner and I read your first column with great interest, as I have been struggling with my own mental health issues. Lockdowns, self-isolation and reducing our bubble are much more difficult for extroverts like myself who require interpersonal feedback to fuel their energies. Top that off with a recent divorce, family that’s far away, and the absence of my usual mental health supports (including social engagements and exercise classes), and you get an idea about my looming personal crisis.

You said in your last column that an employer should support their employees, but a sole practitioner's employers are each and every client, and they are not usually quite so understanding, nor is the law. I don't have a partner to assist me to take my files on a day when I need help, not to mention someone who can cover the bills and pay my employees if I am currently not being productive because I am tending to my health needs. I honestly feel like everyone is demanding something from me and nobody is prepared to help me with or even acknowledge my needs. Help! 

- Flying Solo

Dear Flying Solo,

Here is the single most important thing to remember:  You asked for help.  That takes a remarkable presence of mind when you are under the kinds of stresses you describe.   There is help available for you through your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP).  Your LAP can help you in all kinds of ways including connecting you with a peer or a professional you can bounce ideas off.

Extend that presence of mind you demonstrated in your letter a bit further, and bear with me for a moment. Your mind consists of many different elements.  You are aware of the conscious, thought-forming part of your brain and it is likely that you identify with that part of your mind.  However, your thoughts are produced by all manner of sources in your body.  Hunger, exhaustion, feelings of being under attack, and a desire to be with and among other people have origins in deeper parts of your brain, your endocrine system and scientists have even recently found evidence that the bacteria in your intestines contribute to your wants and needs from moment to moment.

The key is to think of the storm of incoming impulses to your conscious brain as a very powerful but ultimately trainable separate being.  Many ancient philosophies and modern neuroscientists have used the analogy of a rider on an elephant:  The conscious part of your brain is a rider, while the unconscious, non-rational part of your mind is like a huge elephant.  There is no question that the elephant is strong enough to be completely in charge, yet people do develop the skill to ride elephants in many parts of the world.  The key is to understand the needs of the cognitive elephant you are riding.  An animal that is well fed and watered and treated well is likely to be willing to go along with the rider’s direction.  Deprive that animal of its needs, or pretend it doesn’t have needs at all, and you are in for a rough ride.

One of the greatest tools for saddle-training a rambunctious brain is walking or similar mild exercise.  When you feel that rising angst of impending deadlines, court appearances and the like, go for a short walk.  Part of you might say you can’t afford the time to do that.  Actually, you can’t afford not to take the time to bring that rampaging unconscious brain to heel.  Even if the walk is just a few minutes, take it. 

Do consider also connecting with peers who are in a similar position to you.  The CBA as well as many law societies have outlets that will allow you to connect with other lawyers who do similar work to you.  Be deliberate about making use of those facilities.  Again, time spent connecting with others is not time subtracted from the needs of your practice.  It is adding to your cognitive finesse in that it allows you to put your own anxieties into perspective.

We hear often that the current pandemic is “unprecedented”.  It may help you to hear that humans have been dealing with crises like this for as long as there have been humans.  About a thousand years ago, Jalaluddin Rumi, a Persian poet, likened what you are going through now to being the desk manager at a hotel (okay, what would today be a desk manager at a hotel).  He wrote:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

You’re right: practicing law can feel unforgiving, but every bad feeling you have is providing you with useful information.  As long as you don’t let that feeling move in and trash the whole place, you can make very good use of the information you are receiving.  Are you feeling hopeless?  That’s probably a cue to write down three things that you are grateful for.  Are you feeling scattered?  You may well need to take a good drink of water and maybe eat something.  Are you feeling beaten down and oppressed?  You may have sore muscles or a headache from sitting at your computer for too long at a stretch. Consider taking a scientific attitude and running your own experiment with this to see what results you get. 

Be well,
- Advy

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