California Lawyers Association

The Elephant in the Room

By Greg Dorst JD, CADC II
Consultant to The Other Bar

Greg Dorst

With all that has gone on in 2020, it is time that we take a fresh look at how we are feeling about the changes in our world and how we have responded to loss and uncertainty. All of us feel the stress and anxiety of loss, change and uncertainty and many of us need help to readjust, adapt or reset. The size and scope of what we are collectively feeling is big and it feels different than anything we have previously experienced. 

As an addiction and well-being professional, I help people move toward a more physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy lifestyle. Now, more than ever, I am contacted by attorneys, judges and law students who have a diminished zest for life as a result of having to cope with significant loss and change in their professional and personal lives. They can’t seem to pull themselves out of negative thinking, often using alcohol, food and sleep in ways that are unhealthy just to get through the day. 

It is great that these brave professionals are reaching out for help – something that most of them have never done before. Many of these legal professionals have tried to implement change on their own using techniques that are available on the internet or through self-help books and articles. With honest resolve, each made some progress and then slipped back into old behaviors. Most are aware that there are really great strategies for attorney well-being and healthy living at our fingertips through organizations like the California Lawyers Association (CLA) and local bar associations. 

On these critical issues of attorney health and well-being, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being produced a comprehensive report in August of 2017. As a result of this research and the publication of the report, strategies for attorneys to improve the functionality of body and mind are becoming mainstream in the legal community. All of this is in an attempt to raise awareness in the legal profession concerning physical, intellectual, social, emotional, financial, occupational, environmental and spiritual health. Resources are offered through these publications and organizations which target healthy eating, anxiety and stress relief, meditation and yoga classes along with tips for reducing alcohol consumption during these stressful times. These strategies are scientifically proven to improve anyone’s well-being. 

There is no lack of access to excellent information concerning holistic health strategies in today’s world. There is lots of theory available on health and well-being research and methods yet there is notably very little practice. We know what to do but we can’t seem to do it. Moreover, as I work day to day with attorneys who are facing increased alcohol consumption and drug usage, along with a seeming inability to accomplish the things that they have to do, I am convinced that in many cases there is an “elephant in the room” and we have to recognize it before we can move forward with a well-being plan. The complex emotion or “elephant in the room” that is getting in the way of practicing tried and true methods of improving lawyer health and well-being is grief.

Most everyone associates grief with death. However, there is a broader view that encompasses not only death but the loss of something like a relationship, a job, a sacred trust, financial security, a routine, freedom, community and health security. What we have come to believe to be “our life” has been demolished, lost, taken away, restricted or changed with no certainty that anything will ever be the same again. People feel this way about their work, their families and relationships, their communities and even their country. 

Grief is a complex emotion that cannot be avoided or ignored. Physical symptoms might include fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains and insomnia. Emotional symptoms pinball from fear to anger to disbelief and include feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious or spiritual beliefs. There is a deep sense, underlying everything, that something is wrong. A timely article entitled “Coping With Grief and Loss” by Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., provides ways to identify losses that are personal to you and the physical and emotional feelings that accompany such losses. Moreover, it describes a path forward with incremental steps designed to allow for healing in these difficult moments of loss and change. As with any good article, including this one, it must be recognized that there are times when mental health professionals are necessary and advisable. If you are suffering and/or feeling suicidal, contact 24-hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 or text 838255.

With grief, below the surface there is a kind of depression, suffering and aloneness. It will keep us from moving forward on our well-being journey until it is recognized and addressed. Grief is natural; ways of working through loss or the feelings of loss are different than all of the attorney well-being strategies that we talk about day in and day out. The language used in working through grief is much different; it is the language of sharing and describing emotions on the road to acceptance. In the recovery field, there is a saying, “First things first.” Grief work must come first as it is the prerequisite to the change that we would like to see in other areas of our lives. Grief deals with deep causative feelings, beliefs and emotions. The first step is to identify what you are grieving and then recognize that healing through your grief is a journey of accepting current circumstances. Note that this is much different than embarking on a series of changes that will affect well-being. 

As we work through our grief toward acceptance of our current circumstances brought on by emotional, social and financial loss, we can actually see the value of well-being strategies and access them. Before, these strategies were beyond our grasp. Being at peace through acceptance of our current circumstances will help each of us to move forward with new, healthy choices. Just in time for the new year, 2021.

I can be reached at gdorst2@gmail.com for confidential help or comments and suggestions. 

Advocati Sani

Greg Dorst JD, CADC II

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