Editor’s note: This post is part of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program’s Stories of Recovery blog series. TLAP offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance use or mental health issues. Call or text TLAP at 1-800-343-8527 (TLAP) and find more information at tlaphelps.org.
One beautiful spring morning, I was preparing to leave my house for my corporate Big Law job. I remember the warm morning sun through my kitchen window and my dog basking contentedly in the rays. Birds were chirping and the air was crisp, clean. All of these signs were harbingers of better times ahead after what had been a long, languishing winter. I wanted to stay there a bit longer and soak up some of the peace of the moment. But it was time to go, I’d regret being late to work more than I would enjoy lingering in this moment.
In contrast to the picturesque spring morning, my mirror reflected makeup smears under my eyes from crying the night before and dark circles from lack of rest. I felt crushed inside and dreaded the day ahead. For months, I had barely been able to string one day to the next.
I was juggling multiple personal crises. I was a newly minted lawyer in my first year of Big Law. As someone who already struggled with perfectionism and performance anxiety, the transition into practice was a huge challenge. My job brought my husband and I to a new city where I had few friends and no family to lean on for support. As if that was not enough, I was also in the middle of managing my own ugly divorce from said husband at the ripe age of 26. One Sunday afternoon, after more than five years together, he revealed to me that he had been unfaithful during most of my 3L year and the entire summer I’d spent studying for the bar exam. His confession completely blindsided me. While I was busy focusing on kickstarting my legal career, I was oblivious to what was going on inside my own home.
Couples therapy seemed like it was helping, until I found more evidence of cheating on his phone, and I decided enough was enough. I couldn’t live like this. I never would have guessed that my first court appearance as a lawyer would be in my own divorce case. The stench of failure was overwhelming, and its stains permeated everywhere, like a filter over the world. It ruined everything, even this beautiful morning.
Most days, I tried to focus on breathing and getting through one minute at a time, one work assignment at a time, waiting until it was an acceptable hour to go home. At home I could hide for a few hours, relieved from the burden of putting on a face for the outside world. With my husband out of the house, I was really and truly alone, which made me feel depressed. On multiple occasions, to numb the loneliness, I would buy a case of beer after work and drink until I got sick. In my darkest moments, I had to reach out to my husband for support as a last resort because I knew I couldn’t be trusted to be left alone. I was ashamed of myself for having to do that.
On this particularly pleasant morning, the promise of spring and renewal felt nice for a moment. As I climbed into my car to drive to work, however, the pendulum quickly swung the other direction, as it often did. Suddenly, all of that brightness and levity stood in direct contrast to how despicable I felt. It was a spotlight on my misery. I could handle the imposter syndrome, the loneliness of a new city, lack of confidence in my work product, stress here and there, but not all at once. Not every day, for months on end. The weight of what felt like constant failure was more than I could bear.
What was wrong with me? Every contract I drafted came back with heavy redlines, my relationship failed in spectacular fashion, I felt alone every moment of every day, and all I wanted was to isolate myself, make the constant reminders of my insufficiency go away. I only felt okay when I could hide. Life had dealt me a great hand, how did I manage to bungle things so badly? I felt like I didn’t deserve my potential, like it should have gone to someone else who would have done more with it.
Tears began to roll down my face on the highway. This particular stretch of road did not have concrete dividers between the westbound and eastbound lanes. I thought about how easy it would be, how simple a maneuver, to just tilt the wheel 20 degrees and drift into the oncoming traffic. The thought was so clear that I could almost feel my hands doing it.
My fingers twitched with anticipation. The intrusive thought was like a reassuring voice of reason. You’re in control, you can make it all stop, it said. Don’t suffer like this, you have options. I drove on with this thought for about one mile.
Eventually, luckily, I snapped out of it. I wiped my eyes, shifted into the far-right lane, and took the nearest exit. I took the service road the rest of the way to work. At work, one of the partners asked if I had a black eye. Confused, I laughed it off. Later, in the bathroom I realized that the combination of dark circles under my eyes and smeared makeup from the morning gave the impression that I’d spent a late night at the Fight Club. In a way, I had.
That afternoon, I called a therapist. That call for help felt like another failure. I didn’t really care anymore, if she could help me, it would be worth it. We had our first session the following week. I cried most of the hour and had to go home afterward on account of puffy eyes and a red, swollen face. But God did it feel good to be heard, to have someone in my corner, listening to me.
Over time, I opened up to my therapist as we started to build trust with one another. I told her more and more about my life—the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. She never flinched and took every bit of negativity I threw at her in stride. “Those are really harsh words to use with yourself,” she’d say. “You wouldn’t allow anyone to talk to your friends like that. In fact, you’d be furious if someone did. But here you are, doing it to yourself all day, every day.” She was right, I was my own worst enemy. One session at a time, she helped me change the way I talk to myself, to acknowledge my thoughts and reframe them.
Most importantly, she taught me about a concept so simple that I couldn’t believe it required a lesson: self-compassion. To be self-compassionate is to talk to yourself the same way you would talk to a beloved friend. Being self-compassionate is to accept yourself at your most vulnerable and to meet that version of yourself with kindness and encouragement. It’s recognizing how far you’ve come and giving yourself credit for the strength that it’s taken to get you there.
As the months passed, my grip on my own mental health strengthened. I began to draw boundaries for myself. I let myself say “no” to people and circumstances that were beyond the threshold of what I could handle. I eased up on myself for the first time in my perfectionist, ambitious life. I decided I would no longer measure my worth by my resume. I started to do something nice for myself every day. The relief was palpable. People live like this?
Eventually, I gave myself permission to leave my Big Law job. Fearful of the black mark on my resume that leaving my job after one year would cause, I decided it was the best thing for me. My colleagues and partners were surprisingly supportive, they could tell I was going through something hard and every single one of them wished me well.
I decided it was time to move to a city where I’d always wanted to live. I will always remember my last session with the therapist that had helped to save my life. We both cried, and she told me she was proud of how far I’d come and that I deserve to be happy. In my new city, I found a new job at a new firm. I also found a new therapist, who I visit regularly to this day.
Years later, I am still practicing self-compassion, vulnerability, and authenticity, especially in my role as a lawyer. Lawyers sometimes view vulnerability as a weakness. I disagree, it takes confidence and strength to be vulnerable. It’s not a concession. Vulnerability is a bridge and authenticity is an invitation, a permission slip for others to be themselves. You never know who is in desperate need of a kind word or a human connection. When I needed it, I found it through therapy. My life has never looked brighter, and I’m so grateful that I am still here to experience it.
If you feel like the weight of your life is crushing and question whether your shoulders are broad enough to carry it all, I hope this piece can help you in some way. You are not alone. You have supporters on the sidelines cheering you on, whether you see them or not. I am one of them.