Anxiety is the most common mental health issue among the general population. Anxiety can range from being a protective response to a potential threat to being an overwhelming impediment that can lead to feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed. One factor that exacerbates the experience of unhelpful anxiety is being afraid to talk about it and feeling alone in the struggle. A powerful tool to fight that stigma is hearing real stories from lawyers who have felt that fear of stigma, persisted through it, and come out stronger on the other side. One such story is from Wendy Tamis Robbins.
-- Shawn Healy, Ph.D., Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers
I don’t remember living without anxiety. As a child, my first memories are of a world that was unsafe and unstable. I had my first panic attack when I was just 6 years old. As I grew, so did my fear and isolation as the anxious thoughts became more intrusive and difficult to manage.
So, I started running and hiding. I ran as fast I could toward the achievements and accomplishments that would prove I was not broken. I thought external validation would calm the storm inside of me. I sprinted to outrun the dark ruminations in my mind and the physical toll they took on my body.
And I hid. I hid my broken pieces from others with destructive perfectionism, people-pleasing, and disordered eating. And I hid them from myself with disordered drinking and over-working.
The most obvious place I hid was right in broad daylight as a lawyer. No one looked at lawyers as broken. They were superheroes and saviors. They sought truth and found justice for what was broken: broken lives, broken companies, broken vows.
At first, these self-preservation practices worked to my advantage. I was a four-sport all-star athlete with straight As and recruited to an Ivy League college.
After successfully hiding my intrusive thoughts, bouts of depression, and suicide ideation, I entered law school. There I found others hiding just like me. We showed up early to spaces that would later be too populated for us. We sat in the back of class or at the end of the row near the door. We avoided eye contact with each other and professors.
We were the first to leave class and the last to leave the bar. At the time, we didn’t understand or appreciate the support we could have provided each other. Instead, we all made an unspoken pact to hide this dirty secret and avoid each other. Because each one of us was a reminder of the unbearable anxiety brewing just below the surface.
I hit a handful of rock-bottoms before joining my first law firm. Therapy and medication were making my life manageable while still accommodating my anxiety daily. So, I kept running and pushing it away, convinced that when I reached my goal — the big law firm — I would be better.
But it was the opposite. When I hit the next rock bottom I became agoraphobic. Leaving the house, my safe place, became excruciating. I struggled to hide my condition at work, exacerbating my anxiety that much more. I could barely survive the commute on public transportation or in traffic, having several panic attacks before arriving to the office exhausted.
I panicked in meetings with clients and lunches with partners. I panicked in my office, alone with my own thoughts.
I remember as a second-year associate when the partner I worked closely with in the office next to mine committed suicide. No one discussed it openly or asked how we were doing. It was acknowledged with “God, how awful!” in the hallway, and then we walked back to our offices and kept working. The message was crystal clear.
So, I just kept running — to the next law firm, the better law firm, always looking outside of myself for a cure when it was inside of me all along. It wasn’t until I stopped running and started writing that I found my freedom and chronicled that journey in my bestselling book, “The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety.”
Now, as a speaker, coach and advocate within our industry, I’m painfully aware of the fact that I was never alone in this struggle. We, as lawyers, are riddled with anxiety, depression and addiction because external success and achievements don’t make us impervious to the highly competitive, stressful and destructive environment we have cultivated. In fact, this environment creates and exacerbates our mental health issues at an alarming rate. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, I couldn’t ask for the help I needed within my law firms, so I found it without them.
My story had a happy ending. But many do not. If we are providing support that no one dares ask for because we are not promoting help-seeking behaviors without judgment or consequences, we are failing our people.
I’ve been a lawyer for 24 years now, and I hid my mental illness for 23 of them. In 2021, I came out to my colleagues and clients not knowing what the response or reaction would be. I had found my freedom and there was no going back. I was prepared to face the consequences.
To my surprise and delight, I was met with overwhelming support and compassion. And the doors I imagined shutting started opening all around me, with people on the other side who wanted to listen and share their own stories. With every person I spoke to, either they suffered, a loved one did, or they feared for the well-being of their teams and fellow attorneys.
The last year of my journey has made it clear that people are desperate to talk about their struggles and find the support they need.
As I continue working with law firms to chip away at the stigma surrounding mental illness that is so engrained in our culture, my focus is to emphasize the need for more empathy, education and empowerment. Not just for those struggling, but for those who are not — the stakeholders and leaders who have the power and authority to make the changes we desperately need.
This topic needs to be moved from behind closed bathroom doors to the boardrooms where decisions are being made. When policies and practices are not only endorsed, but embraced and modeled from the top down, we will see a shift in this culture of silence.
Because only when we shine a light in the darkness can we ensure all of our people are supported in becoming the best versions of themselves both personally and professionally. These should not only be human values, they should be our corporate, firm and professional values.
For information on available resources and supports to the legal community, contact Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, MA (617-482-9600) or visit lclma.org.
Wendy Tamis Robbins is senior counsel at Holland & Knight in Boston, working in affordable housing syndication and social impact financing. She also works with individuals as an anxiety and wellness coach and provides programming and workshops for law firms dedicated to attorney well-being and ending the stigma surrounding mental health. This article first appeared in the March 28, 2022, issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and is part of a series from the Massachusetts Bar Association Lawyer Well-Being Committee.