A Lesson Learned

Addiction to work can be as insidious and destructive as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Ironically, our society (this profession in particular) tends to hail dedication to one’s job as the ultimate virtue. But that dedication almost cost me my marriage and mental health. My substance of choice was not booze, marijuana or cocaine – it was work.

As the child of immigrants, I grew up with a strong Protestant work ethic. It was nothing unusual to see my father constantly at work – even on Christmas day he would spend a few hours in his study getting caught up on paperwork. My childhood memories of activities shared by the whole family are few and far between. My parents had few, if any, hobbies – even my father’s working with his tools was to make improvements to the house, not for his own enjoyment.

To a large degree, I inherited the same approach to work. Early on, I decided to have a glorious career in law and nothing was going to get in my way of reaching that goal. And if a particular interest did not further me along the road to law school, I would not pursue that interest. Team sports? Whatever for? How would that help me get into law school?

Shortly after being called to the Bar, I landed the job of my dreams. I was in Court continually; I loved the fast pace and the thrill of it all. But a funny thing started to happen – I began to take on more and more files, more than I could handle, all for the challenge, the prestige, and, I admit, the money. Not that the money got me anywhere – I was too tired and stressed out to enjoy the fruits of my labour and spend weekends (when not working) rallying my strength to go back at it on Monday morning.

I also didn’t realize how much my sense of self-worth became bound up in my work. If a judge ruled against me, I took it as a personal insult (also as proof of that particular judge’s complete lack of intelligence). I craved recognition from my employer – after all, wasn’t I doing an excellent job? Wasn’t I an asset to the firm? But my employer, being rather reticent, was not forthcoming with that kind of encouragement. So I took on more and more files, not recognizing that I was working so hard for all the wrong reasons.

Worst of all, my marriage suffered.

My spouse and I spent no time together, shared virtually no activities and I began to see my spouse as a hindrance. If only I didn’t have to go home so early and spend time with my spouse! We were drifting seriously apart and I simply buried myself in my work to avoid dealing with my marriage (“Honey, I can’t talk about this now, I have a 4-day trial starting tomorrow.”).

After several years of spiraling downward, I hit bottom – and bounced (I had yet to hit rock bottom). My employer and I had a serious disagreement and I almost lost my job. This was devastating to me. I began to realize that because I had put everything into my work, I would have nothing if I lost my job. However, even that epiphany didn’t cause a major change in my approach to work. I simply addressed the specific problem identified by my employer (earning a compliment in the process), but I still refused to see the bigger issue: that my work had taken over my life completely, and that I was fast burning out. I sought counselling with Interlock, but it never occurred to me to call the LAP; after all, I wasn’t an addict!

So, I threw myself into my work with greater abandon, taking on more and putting more and more into individual files. When my employer offered me a plum file, I was flattered and joyfully accepted this as a sign of the firm’s confidence in me. I took on one more major file, still striving for even more recognition from my employer. By this point, I was so obsessed by work that I was practically working around the clock, taking refuge in my office on Sundays to avoid my spouse’s accusing looks and comments.

Finally my “bounce” lost steam and I did hit rock bottom. My spouse left me, telling me that my behaviour was no longer tolerable, that our marriage was meaningless. A measure of my addiction was that, during the moment when my spouse was literally walking out the door, my only thought was “I don’t need this – I have a trial tomorrow”.

Then reality sunk in.

I had thrown away what could have been a wonderful marriage, a wonderful life, all because of … a job. I finally had to admit that I needed help. I called Interlock again and was able to meet with my counsellor immediately. With that counsellor’s guidance, I was able to convince my spouse to give me one last chance, and to take counselling with me. My spouse sought anger management counselling as well. In addition, we amassed a significant library of recommended self-help books.

Something more had to change, though. I had to get off that treadmill, find less stressful and less consuming work. I was seriously concerned that, although my spouse and I were reconciling and in fact, building a new marriage, some of the external factors had to be altered or we’d be sunk. I was realizing that there was a lot of truth to the saying “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. I couldn’t take the heat anymore, even though much of it was self inflicted. But I dreaded more change; I didn’t want to make the effort to seek out more amenable work. And wouldn’t it be admitting defeat , wouldn’t I be a failure if I changed jobs? Wasn’t I taking the coward’s way out? Maybe my job wasn’t so bad after all.

I am pretty much an atheist, but I still think Someone was looking out for me. Around that time, I received an offer from a lawyer who resided in a small town and needed an associate. My spouse and I leapt onto this opportunity as though onto a life raft. I couldn’t care less that I would be taking a cut in pay. This was the chance I needed – to get a life beyond work.

That was two years ago, and I cannot believe the difference. My work is such a small part of my life now. I have taken up so many other interests (gardening, music lessons, choral singing, working out at the gym, hiking, skiing, craft work). My 2-hour round-trip commute is now a 5 minute drive or a 10 minute walk. On winter Friday mornings, I don’t go into the office – I go skiing. On summer Fridays, I don’t go into the office at all – the office is closed. I actually have friends now, people who are not lawyers. Best of all, my marriage is far richer and rewarding than it ever was before. My spouse and I are better partners, friends and lovers. I am finally beginning to allot my work to a more appropriate place in my life.

But there are times when I feel myself backsliding.

When I am at the office beyond the closing time more than once or twice a week, I take a long, hard look at myself and try to discover what is so important that it’s keeping me from the other equally important aspects of my life. Is this piece of work really so important? Am I avoiding dealing with something else?

For I have realized that “work” wasn’t the problem, it was the symptom. I am as much addicted to work as other people are to substances. Burying myself in my work allowed me to avoid the larger issues and problems in my life, issues that I am still grappling with: my sense of self-worth, my need for approval from others, my fear of change and risk. So long as I allowed by commitment to my work take over, I didn’t have to deal with these things.

I have also come to realize that, in so many ways, entering this profession can be tantamount to vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. So often, the life of a lawyer means obedience to this culture of workaholism, which results in spiritual chastity and emotional poverty. This is a life that I am no longer prepared to live, even though I must fight almost daily against the seduction of the power and prestige inherent in this profession. The LAP and the connections I am making with others through the LAP are extremely helpful in supporting me to continue to improve my life.

I never called LAP during this crisis. If I knew then what I know now, I would have. As much as my counsellors were sympathetic and helpful, they have not experienced the overwhelming pressure lawyers face, the immense obligations we are under. Peer support would have been most welcome during this terrible process.

Regrets? Not many. I miss Starbucks (the nearest is 3 hours away). At times I wonder about lost career opportunities; at times I feel the pinch of a lower income. But I know that I have gained far more than I have lost.

For those of you who see yourselves in my story (and I know you are out there – I have spoken with many of you), I urge you to do something before it is too late. Pick up the phone and call the LAP. Most importantly, take the risk – live on the edge. Facing these problems, with the help of Interlock, has certainly made a difference in my life: my entire outlook has changed. I try to live life now, not by the idea that my job and the law are the most important things, nay the only things, but according to these words (attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson):

To have lived well, laughed often and loved much;
To have gained the respect of intelligent persons, and the love of children;
To have filled a niche and accomplished a task;
To have left the world a bit better;
To have appreciated earth’s beauty and not failed to express it;
To have looked for the best in others and to have given the best of yourself;
That is achievement.