Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers: Echoes of past intruding into law school

Issue December 2015 By Dr. Jeff Fortgang

Q: Coming from a blue-collar family in a small Southern town, I have some pride in having managed to find my way to a good college near home, and now to entering a prestigious Boston-area law school. Although I'm doing OK academically, it's been a bumpy road emotionally. I have been getting panicky at unexpected times and places, always kind of on guard and jumpy (not new for me, but more intense). I've also been losing sleep because of a lot from nightmares related to some bad memories that also pop into my head during the day, even in class. The most disconcerting thing was a few occasions when I was sitting in my apartment and suddenly it was a couple of hours later than I thought and I couldn't account for the time that passed. I know that some of this may be related to the fact that I was abused by one of my teachers as a kid, but I don't see why it should be bothering me more now, and I don't know whom to talk to or what to do about it - not really that close with anyone.

A: You are describing some of the key symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

That does not mean for sure that this is the problem - you'd need a thorough clinical assessment - but since you report a history of abuse, it's a distinct possibility. People with PTSD are often subject to intrusive and disturbing memories (which can feel like re-living rather than just remembering), including in the form of nightmares, and to dissociation (various forms of the experience of being mentally removed from oneself, one of which is "losing time"). Such individuals typically avoid thoughts or stimuli that remind them of the trauma, and may also avoid close relationships and assume a stance of "hyper-vigilance."

Avoidance and dissociation are in fact effective measures for self-protection during a period when someone is in danger or subject to trauma, whether through something like sexual or physical abuse or experiences such as witnessing horrific events. But these automatic maneuvers can also create problems when, months or years later, the danger has passed but the trauma continues to feel very present. In your case, the fact that you have moved far from the physical location of the abuse may have somehow allowed some of the related feelings and fears to emerge.

Certainly, it is an appropriate time for you to get some professional help, and if you come for a clinical evaluation at LCL we will assist you in finding appropriate resources. Psychotherapy with a mental health clinician trained and experienced in trauma is a place to start. It will probably not be brief treatment, but it will be good for you to have someone to talk to and with whom you can build trust. Nowadays, there are several different kinds of therapeutic techniques that have evolved for PTSD; we can review those with you as part of the referral process, and can also discuss the potential role of medications of various sorts (especially the ones without addictive potential) that, while not curative, can reduce the intensity of post-
traumatic symptoms.

PTSD is also something to take into account in planning your career as a lawyer. You may (or may not) find that certain kinds of work (e.g., involving direct contact with distressing family or criminal circumstances) tend to trigger trauma-based reactions. On the other hand, work that is related to such matters, but a bit further removed from direct exposure may feel meaningful. Whatever choices you make, it is helpful to remain cognizant of the psychological context of your career choices. As you gradually move toward both symptom reduction and a level of healing from your abusive experiences, you can find your own best ways to find greater professional and personal fulfillment.

Dr. Jeff Fortgang is a licensed psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor on staff at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts, where he and his colleagues provide confidential consultation to lawyers and law students, and offer presentations on subjects related to the lives of lawyers. Q&A questions are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking LCL's assistance.