We Need Compassion More Than Ever

I am one of many lawyers who struggle with depression. I say “many” because according to the 2016  Hazelden Betty Ford/ABA study, 28 percent of attorneys report mild or higher levels of depression, which is a greater percentage than the general population.

I am also in recovery from severe alcohol use disorder, commonly known as “alcoholism” and cocaine addiction.  I talk to lawyers every week who are struggling and have not told a soul or sought help for different reasons. The two most common rationales I hear for not seeking help, are the fear of job consequences, and the belief that the person can beat back the beast using their mind and will.

It really boils down to stigma. With all the awareness advances we’ve made in the last few years, many lawyers still suffer in silence until the consequences catch up to the problem and they become a suspension or disbarment blurb in the back of the state bar journal. They felt that there was no community they could take advantage of, that would not judge or penalize them for their vulnerability. A compassionate community.

The odds are good that someone who is struggling with depression, addiction or another mental health issue, and has not reached out to anyone for help.  This may be especially true as COVID-19 changes our ability to personally interact with each other and the paradigm of what ‘personal connection’ means.

The anxiety, loneliness, and isolation of the pandemic may also exacerbate existing issues or trigger underlying mental health issues that had not previously surfaced.  People early in alcohol or addiction recovery can no longer attend in-person 12-step meetings and must switch to the physically distanced online mutual support. Those living on the street or, as part of an underserved community and struggling with severe alcohol use disorder may face potentially fatal withdrawal as liquor stores close by mandate. It may sound counter-intuitive from a recovery and sobriety standpoint, but that bottle may be the only thing keeping them from a hospital bed or a grave. This is the essence of harm reduction and the philosophy that the only prerequisite to recovery is being alive.

Of course, it’s preferable that they get into a structured form of recovery but not everyone has the privilege of knowledge, access, and a compassionate community to help them get there. The law of unintended consequences takes hold.

The pandemic has certainly impacted my mental health mindset as I enter my thirteenth year of sobriety from alcohol and cocaine while still battling major depressive episodes.  I have, on more than one occasion me awakened depressed and searching for hope, but I also have a mental health toolbox I’ve developed over the years to get me back on the beam. It includes daily access to my compassionate community, tele-counseling, and mindfulness.

I suspect, that for many, the daily anxiety and uncertainly surrounding the pandemic have made staying centered on the mental health beam a bit more challenging as it has for me.

I rolled out of bed, one morning not long ago, after a good night’s sleep.  With the exception of my artificial hip, I felt pretty good. Then I got on my Facebook and Twitter feed, reminding me of pandemic trauma and suffering on multiple levels. Suddenly, I was refreshing the John Hopkins pandemic map every hour on the hour, fixating on the changing numbers. I could feel the hope slipping away again and depression creeping in.

My mental balance shifted to chaos. I worried about my mother in her eighties with underlying health issues, living on her own in another city. If she contracts COVID-19, will she die alone?  Will she be treated as not worth saving because of her age?  I worried about my wife and her aging parents. I stressed over my two brothers and their families and my extended family as well as my friends and their families. Suddenly the weight of the entire COVID crisis felt like it was a foot pressing into my gut.

Suddenly, every sneeze, sniffle, and cough was a harbinger of infection and hammered home the reality that I am a baby boomer, on the cusp of the high-risk demographic.  How did that happen? Where did the years go?  Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was an invincible eighteen-year-old adventuring on a Trailways bus pass across the country from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, with fifty dollars to my name?  Before my eating disorder. Before my alcohol and cocaine addiction. The entirety and promise of life in front of me.

Decades after that trip, I felt the once very familiar blanket of major depression and loss of life purpose, creeping up over my toes, to my waist, on its journey to cover me completely.  A feeling that I once medicated with Jack Daniels and cocaine.  A feeling that, along with the alcohol and drugs threaded through three failed marriages, a near suicide, two trips to a psychiatric facility and an imploded legal career.

I felt alone and isolated that morning. The reality was that I was far from alone. I had a compassionate community all around me, starting with my closest, intimate connections, and mushrooming outwards.

My wife was a room away in our state-mandated, stay at home order. My mother and two brothers are only a phone call, skype or Zoom away, ready to support me.  That morning, I didn’t take advantage of that community. I bled anxiety as if I had been stabbed in the chest. Then, as if they could telepathically sense my anxiety and vulnerability, the phone vibrated. It was a call from my brother. A text came a half-hour later from my mom. My wife asked if I was ok.

I had an epiphany; all the people I worried about, were worried about me. My nuclear compassionate community kicked in. I am very privileged to have it because many do not.

Before the term “compassionate community” existed my father, the middle of three boys like me taught us about it as a family. Like me, he was the middle of three boys. He fought in the battle of Okinawa and served in Korea. He and his older brother ran an auto trim shop in Pittsburgh for over forty years.

He said, “boys, no matter where you go in life, regardless of the cards you’re dealt, pick up the phone and talk to your brother. Let each other know you are there for and love each other”.

He repeated this message to us in one form or another all of our lives.  As an illustration of how his basic framework of the family compassionate community took hold. Decades later, over a thousand miles from where we grew up, my two brothers and I live walking distance to each other. Until my dad passed away in 2018, he lived across the street from me.

A compassionate community, of course, involves more than just the nuclear family or our close friends. The legal profession is a community. We have subsets of communities within that. In the nature of the adversarial process, we are not always compassionate and supportive of each other, though that is changing with the push towards a more wellness-oriented profession.

Were, however, family in a general sense. As a macro community, we have survived common battles. The rigors of law school and the bar exam. The struggle of wearing or trying not to wear a suit comprised of our client’s pain and suffering. The irony is that those very commonalties often put us at odds with each other in the most uncivil of ways.

We are people. We have stories. We get depressed. We stress. We cry. We laugh. We grieve. We are all more than our struggle, but when we look at our peers, we are often uncomfortable acknowledging their struggle, let alone a person with a life story.

As we deal with this unprecedented health crisis, please keep in mind that this added stress and anxiety can be a trigger to underlying mental health issues and trauma. This event is trauma in its own right. Being empathetic and compassionate to each other is more important than. Ever.

If you are struggling, please remember that the Lawyers Assistance Program is not just about addiction. They are also there to help with depression and other mental health issues. Utilize the Lawyers Depression Project. It is online and open to all in the profession and law school. If you are in a 12-step group,  In the Rooms in one resource has online support meetings for that and many other mental health issues. Many 12-step groups are going online using various videoconferencing applications.  WE CONNECT Recovery Meetings is another great source.

What is a compassionate community? The Center for Compassion defines it as a community in which:

“… the needs of all the inhabitants of that community are recognized and met, the well-being of the entire community is a priority, and all people and living things are treated with respect.”

There is a lot to unpack in that definition, but the term that jumps out is well-being. The profession has certainly made progress on that front with regards to the mental health prong. We have partially rolled back decades of drinking culture and mental health stigma, but there is still much to do from Biglaw down to the solo shingle. solo

People, for the most part, want to be part of a community, especially a compassionate one. We want to belong to something greater than ourselves. We may desire the support of that community when we struggle even if we don’t specifically ask for it.  The community recognizes that a member is out of balance and reaches out without being asked.

Compassionate community is what lies in each of us.  The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another. The ability to empathize with the individual and collective struggle.

We all have that ability in us, but like resilience, it is something that we sometimes have to refine and nurture to expand beyond what we are comfortable living day-to-day. It may seem counterintuitive, but compassionate communities exist in a state of discomfort, testing barriers of empathy and compassion to keep expanding.

How do we build and nurture empathy as a skillset so that we can foster a compassionate community? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Integrate empathy-building skills as part of your wellness initiative. Sometimes we forget that we have this empathy skillset when we deal with our struggles and daily life. A firm may have an excellent pro-bono practice, and that is tremendous, but that is empathy on a lawyer-client vertical. Consider how to build it, lawyer, to lawyer laterally

2. Encourage storytelling, whether it’s at a law school level, state or local bar event, your firm retreat, or new associate orientation. Stories do more than entertain. They put forward values and information within the community. When stories engage us on an emotional/empathetic level, it is again, science-driven, that we remember the takeaways better than when lectured to. In the realm of mental health, this emotional connection is vital because it lets others know that they are not alone in their journey, and that breaks stigma. It is also data-driven science that storytelling changes the brain, tie communities together, and drive those comminutes to be more empathic to each other.

3. Don’t need the first two tools?  Here is the two ask rule. It requires nothing but uttering five words. -“How are doing today? Before the interaction terminates, let them know you are an open ear. The two-ask rule. You just became a part of a compassionate community.

There is so much more to building a compassionate community, but now you have a few tools that require few assets, little time, and offer a fantastic reward. The ability to step outside our comfort zones and let each other know we care about each other.  You can do it by phone, zoom, email, text. When the time comes when we can live our lives free of physical distancing and the stress of close physical space, maybe even a good hug if needed (respecting boundaries of course).