Last week, a friend and I had a long conversation at work. We have very high stress jobs. He and I have spent quite a bit of time lately having conversations in an attempt to make the days a bit more pleasant. He tells me about his two little girls and his wife—all of whom he adores—and I talk about my family. We also discuss the world and all of the wonders of space, time, mysteries of the world.
In any event, we jokingly began to discuss how we could work together to have me declared disabled. The idea being that he would support my claim that I had a nervous breakdown and was unable to continue in my job. It was all in fun. You know those kinds of conversations…..he talked about how he could support me in saying that I had a case/client which put me over the edge. I made up a scenario as to how I would act to make it look as though I was losing my ability to function in my job.
He claimed he would just take a 10% cut of the “generous” disability payments which I would no doubt receive on disability. Anyone who knows anything about disability will know the craziness of that.
Bad taste, I know. In our office the “humor” has a tendency to get a bit macabre. Sometimes it is the only way to deal with the hopeless, sad, and frustrating stories we see every day. Public defense work is not for sissies.
Later in the week, I had a dream. In the dream, the scenario we joked about became real. I truly was pushed over the edge by my work. In the dream, all of the feelings of futility, frustration, injustice, and sadness took over. I felt them. My dream included some of the very difficult recent cases that I am struggling with…..the 13 year old sex offender with multiple victims, the 14 year-old runaway girl who ended up with a registered sex offender, the 17 and 14 year-od brothers who reported to school officials that their mother was using drugs, resulting in all of the children being removed from their home; the 16 year-old “mastermind” of a robbery of his drug dealer. In my dream it was all just too much. I couldn’t do it any more.
In the morning, I woke up and went back to work. All of the feelings from the dream were still with me. As well as a new sense of self awareness.
I had no idea how much all of this was weighing on me.
We tend to just put one foot in front of the other. Wake up each day, go to work, appear in court, talk to the next kid/client, read more reports, handle phone calls from psychologists, social workers, attorneys, parents. Another day. Go home. Spend a little time with the family. Go to bed. Wake up. Do it all over again.
It has been 20 years that I have been doing this job. Most of the time, I represented kids only half time. I also did divorces, custody cases, commitment cases, guardianship and child support. None of those are times that a client is happy to have a lawyer in their life. It is very emotional. There are difficult decisions. Their relationships are topsy-turvy, with friends and relatives choosing sides. And I am often telling them things that they don’t want to hear.
For all of these years, I have been on a tightrope. I have managed to balance it all with generally a positive demeanor, good skill, adequate organization, and minimal cynicism.
And I had no idea of the toll it has been taking on me until a joking conversation brought out all of the feelings in a dream. I have been doing my job and not recognizing how it has been making me feel.
It made mve realize that I am truly near the end of being able to continue to do this work. It is getting more and more difficult each year. Every month, many days.
My employment has an early retirement option. I never seriously considered that I would be interested in it. I have another year and a half before I will qualify.
It has caught up with me, after all. I don’t think that this is just a passing feeling this time.
After these last several days, I have begun to count down the days until I can qualify for the early retirement option.
I have no idea what I will do after that. But I am open to suggestions-the crazier the better!