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You are not alone

Presented at the Iowa State Bar Association “Bridging the Gap” continuing legal education conference on May 15, 2015.

I have had my coffee this morning, I hope you have too. 

Because I am here to talk (at 8am) about depression, anxiety, panic, sadness, fear, anger, and hopelessness.

But I am also here to talk about hope, life, laughter, peace and perseverance.

I can talk about hope because I am Hope.

My name is Hope Wood, I am an attorney and this is my story.

You are the first group of attorneys to hear my story.  I hope there will be more.  I believe it can make a difference. 

Specifically in our legal community. 

I’m telling you my story because I want you to know that you are not alone.  Your feelings of anxiousness, sadness and panic – you are not alone.

Being an attorney is a tough calling.  For some reason, when we all started out as 1Ls in law school, we didn’t talk about our fears – we thought it would make us vulnerable and exposed.

Here I am four and a half years after starting law school and I’m afraid.  I am standing in front of you vulnerable and exposed.

My name is Hope Wood, and I suffer from anxiety and depression.

I stand before you with two years of legal experience.  I’m not well known by other lawyers.  I haven’t had enough cases to earn an opinion from my peers about my ability as a jurist.

Here I am, telling you that I am an attorney who suffers from depression and anxiety.

And it is because I care.  I care about you.  Each and every one of you. You are a human being.  You have accomplished great things in your life, but the cards are stacked against you. 

Lawyers have the highest rate of depression of any profession and one of the highest rates of suicide. 

I drew the depression heredity card at my birth.  My mom has depression, my grandma, my great-grandma.

There is a job where I will most certainly suffer from depression – sign me up!

Seriously though, why didn’t I avoid high stress, high conflict jobs?

It is for the same reason you didn’t – we know we can make a difference.

I am lucky that I knew I was susceptible to depression.  Most people don’t and that is what Hugh’s presentation is all about. (Iowa Lawyer Assistance Program).

I have had situational depression off and on for 15 years; it is usually a combination of something happening in my personal life and pressures of my job.

But in the summer of 2012, I got a full dose of anxiety.

The bar examination. 

Two weeks into BarBri, I found myself, on a Tuesday morning, in the middle of the floor, in the fetal position (obviously) sobbing hysterically.  It was a melt down – for sure; but I felt such loss of control and hopelessness that I knew it was more than just stress.

I made it through the next two years, June 2012 to June 2014 and there were a lot of bumps in the road.  After my “meltdown” I had found a good psychotherapist and good psychiatrist.  I was on anti-depressant medication during that time and struggled like baby lawyers do.

In August of 2014, I had a follow-up with my psychiatrist (a head doctor or shrink).  A few weeks before my appointment, I started noticing I had a hard time catching my breath and relaxing.  I would feel this sense of panic for no reason.

And at my appointment, I told the doctor, my medication is good and I wasn’t having any problems. I was in and out in 5 minutes.

Well, I lied. 

I am great with letting people know I am ok; I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

But I knew I should go back… so a few days later I called to make another appointment and I promised myself I would tell the truth.

And I did.  I told her I was starting to wake up at 3am for no reason.  Nothing on my mind but a lot of tightness in my chest.  The only way to fall back asleep was by taking a muscle relaxer I had for my back. She started me on anti-anxiety medication.  I wasn’t jazzed about it, but I needed to sleep and I didn’t want to use prescription medication for something it wasn’t prescribed.

The month went on and I was doing about 10 percent better and we were making adjustments to my medications as I went. I called it, “getting the cocktail right”. 

I felt like a failure needing all these pills to function as a normal person, but pride aside, I needed help.

I would have to leave work because I couldn’t breathe.  I’d cancel appointments stating I was sick and I really was – sick with a mental illness. Every task I needed to do for work seemed like a huge mountain to climb.  Then I would chastise myself for being ridiculous – there were attorneys who had it a lot worse than me.

The anxiety continued.  There was a wedding reception in Cedar Rapids on a Saturday afternoon in September and I could hardly breathe the whole drive there.  I didn’t want to be around people.  I put on a happy face but after a few hours I high tailed it back to the hotel.  Again that night – 3am – wide awake.  Pain on the right side of my breast bone.

I wasn’t in a very good place.  It felt like progress with my mental health was not improving fast enough. 

Someone told me that pain starts as a feather and ends with a brick.

In October 2014, I went to suicide survivor workshop.  And I will never forget the words of a beautiful and caring wife who had lost her husband.  She was a panelist and someone asked her if she was mad at her husband for taking his life.  She said that she was not mad but sad, because she couldn’t imagine how much pain he must have been in to end his life.  I could hardly help myself from inconsolable sobbing.  I knew the wife through my son’s school and she is one of the sweetest and most caring people I had ever met. And at that workshop, I learned that her husband killed himself within months of my son starting school in the fall of 2012.

She had an amazing amount of courage to be on a panel and talk about her devastating loss.  She does it to help others cope.

I am here to let you know that you are not alone.

The Monday after the September wedding reception, my uncle hung himself.  He was a lawyer.  There were no signs.  He was dealing with his pain alone and in destructive ways.  He died believing there was no way out.   

You are not alone.  It is never too late.  There is a way out.

*************************************************Please share this post with others.  1 in 4 people will deal with depression at some point in their life.  

Free online resource for mental health: National Association of Mental Illness (www.nami.org)

For Iowa law students, lawyers and spouses of lawyers: Iowa Lawyer Assistance Program (http://www.iowalap.org/index.html) - most states in the country have similar programs

Please don't call on me

Image by Thomas J. Dooley available at mobypicture.com

The following is an excerpt of Chapter 3 of Law School Mom

Hope Wood © Copyright 2014

This was one of the best t-shirts I have ever seen because all law students know what it means. If you have seen any law school movie (e.g. The Paper Chase) or talked with a law student, you are familiar with the Socratic Method. Schools still use it and it still works. One of the underlying purposes of this method is to make you think like a lawyer.

This means thinking critically and is achieved by a professor continually asking you questions based on your responses. You will hate this. If you are like me, you like to be good at things. If you aren't good at something, you will work at it until it gets easier. Even after my first year, I'm still not there. It takes practice, which includes trying and failing and trying and succeeding. You need to do both or you will not know what not to do.

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More questions than answers; the Iowa Bar Exam Diploma Privilege

Below is a copy of the comment I submitted during the public comment period for the proposed amendments to rules for licensing Iowa Lawyers, i.e. the proposed diploma privilege.

As one of the small percent of attorneys who failed my first attempt at the bar exam, I wanted to provide some feedback on the proposed change to adopt a diploma privilege for graduates of Drake and The University of Iowa law schools.

Above all, I am glad that I passed the bar, have a license to practice, and don't have to be directly impacted by this change.

I may be indirectly affected, but only time will tell.  I have a solo law practice.  What will my clients perceive if new law students don’t have to pass the bar exam?  Will clients believe that lawyers should charge less per hour if they haven't passed the highly coveted bar exam?  As someone who is self-employed with her own shingle, billable time and collecting fees are an incredible burden.  I believe clients pay attorneys a high hourly rate because of the rigorousness of our training. 

The bar exam may be arbitrary, but

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Learn from the losses

Today was my first trial for a family law case.  I have had other trial experience.  I had a criminal defense trial that was dismissed upon arrival to the courtroom and a small claims trial against a pro se litigant.  Although those required preparation, my case today was the true litigation experience.

The opposing party was represented, we had completed full blown discovery of interrogatories, request for production, request for admission and both parties had been deposed.  Subpoenas were issued, ours included a duces tecum.  I had a motion in limine prepared, exhibits marked and my examination questions written.

Before we even started trial, the judge had to consider the opposing side's motion to continue the trial.  I was prepared with the applicable civil procedure rule, a 2013 Iowa Supreme Court case that was spot on the issue, and a succinctly drafted argument for why the judge should dismiss the motion.   

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People are too busy

I find myself in a constant struggle with my priorities.  Lately, I can't even tell what is important - my clients, myself, my husband, my son, my friends, my family, my law practice, my finances, my sanity, my independence, my pride, my boundaries.  Oh My!    

I probably can't tell what is most important to me because all of these are fighting to be number one. The priorities fight for number one in many different ways.  

My client asks for a quick turnaround time.
A prospective client wants answers.  
My body is saying take a vacation.
My bank balance is saying you have to work right now.
My son wants me to do a puzzle, right now.
My brain is saying be successful or your not going to survive. 

(SIGH)

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