Anxiety, Law + Me (It’s Not Just You)

Anxiety, Law + Me

I have an anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) if you want to get technical.

Did I get GAD because I went to law school? Or became a lawyer?

Nope.

But I will tell you that the legal field and the cultural perceptions surrounding it certainly exacerbated my underlying anxiety disorder.

Wanna know something crazy?

While I was a 1L, I sensed that my anxiety levels were not normal. I actually scheduled multiple sessions with a campus therapist to discuss my anxiety, but she dismissed it as “a reasonable amount of stress based on the circumstances.”

The “circumstances” being the apparently well-known hell that is law school.

But as someone who had always prided herself on her test-taking abilities, I was suddenly panicking during exams. Drawing complete blanks. Barely able to remember the basics of whichever class I was in.

And don’t even get me started on my inability to breathe when I got called on in class.

My defense mechanism was to get a laugh from my peers. Tension relieved. Plus the prof would usually be annoyed enough to call on someone else. Great success!

But honestly, I was ashamed that I couldn’t just answer the damn question.

I felt like I’d lost my academic edge.

I thought that maybe I was burning out by going straight from college to law school.

I decided that I just wasn’t able to cut it like the other law students and, quite frankly, gave up on myself.

Yup. That would be depression setting in. But it would go undiagnosed by my therapist due to the soul-sucking reputation of law school.

I might have fared better with a psychiatrist, but I took what I could get with my university-mandated insurance plan. And so I trudged through the next two years of law school in a “functional” cloud of anxiety and depression.

It didn’t end once I started practicing law.

During my second year as a commercial lending associate, I had to attend a particularly difficult closing (read: I brought an office dude with me to be my “body guard”). It was not pretty, and I came back to the office a hot frazzled mess. The managing partner came in, closed the door and asked me if I had ever had a panic attack.

I said I hadn’t because obviously people who had panic attacks were incapable of getting out of bed in the morning. I was doing that and closing millions of dollars worth of loans every week.

He then described what his panic attacks were like. Before he could finish his full account I was like, “Omigod! That’s how I feel ALL. DAY. EVERY. DAY.” I began rattling off my symptoms:

Heart pounding. In my face.

Throat closing.

Tongue tingling.

Head throbbing — like it’s about to explode.

Face flushing.

Palms sweating.

Mind blanking.

Wanting to cry, but too tense to let go.

The littlest thing — or even nothing — could trigger that chain reaction. My autonomic nervous system had been overloaded for so many years that it couldn’t calm down in even the calmest of circumstances.

Like watching TV on the couch at home. (I wish I were kidding.)

I told my boss that I had seen several psychologists and none of them had identified any underlying issues. Just “normal” stress considering the circumstances.

“Did you say the words ‘panic attack’?” he asked. “Say ‘panic attack’. They’ll listen.”

And he was right.

I’ve been successfully treated with SSRIs for the past five years (and counting).

I tried being off medication once when transitioning from one brand to another. Not bueno. I’m officially no longer allowed to be unmedicated.

Like EVER.

And I’ve got no problem with that. Because when I’m medicated, I feel human. That’s it. Not supercharged, enhanced or buzzed. Not foggy, groggy or dazed.

I feel like myself.

My only regret in all this is not listening to my intuition back in law school when I felt my anxiety was not normal. I know what stress feels like. And I know what an uncontrollable amount of anxiety feels like. They are nowhere near the same.

I can only imagine how my life may have unfolded differently if I had gotten my GAD diagnosis and treatment in law school.

Maybe I would have had the courage to drop out because I wouldn’t have confused my dislike for the legal profession with a lack of academic prowess.

Perhaps I would have thrown myself into law school even more. Set loftier goals after realizing that I hadn’t lost my test-taking superpowers. That GAD had been my kryptonite.

We’ll never know.

But I like to think I would have ended up where I am now.

The path may have been wildly different, but eventually I’d figure out who I am and where I belong.

I’m sharing all this as a reminder to you to trust your gut. Your intuition. Your conscience.

Whatever you call that little voice that often has not-so-little things to say.

And for some of you, I share this so you know you’re not alone. And that your days (and angst-ridden, sleepless nights) can be so much better. Don’t let time, money or perceived stigma prevent you from feeling human.

You can’t afford to waste more time feeling out of control. What amount of money wouldn’t you pay to get your sense of well-being restored?

And who cares what other people think? They’re not in your shoes.

If “other people” were to trade places with you (even on a good day), I assure you they’d do anything to feel like themselves again.

And so should you.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this. As a 1L with a long history of generalized anxiety and panic attacks, it was refreshing to see this. I know my current treatment is not working very well (there comes a point almost every day where my throat feels like it is closing and every muscle in my body is tense!). It is good to know people people who have started practicing law have endured this too, not because I’m a sadist and want other people to go through anxiety, but because it wards off intrusive thoughts that maybe law is a bad idea for “people like me.” <– But it is not and I rationally know this.

    • Oh man, Christina! Throat closing is my #1 symptom that crops up when my treatment isn’t up to snuff. Now, I don’t know if you’d be up for this, but…I’ve found acupuncture to be *very* helpful in lowering my anxiety symptoms when my meds just aren’t quite getting me to where I need to be. I know it may seem a bit weird and some insurance won’t pay for it, but it’s worth a few treatments if you’re open to it. Feel free to email me if you want more info on my love of acu 😉

  2. Hi Annie,
    It has been a year since the last post on this, but I stumbled on it while doing a google search and I have to ask. First my situation, my husband has been an attorney for two years now and he is starting to become so stressed he isn’t himself anymore. He has had three major panic attacks that I know of (chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, feeling out of control etc.) and I suspect other issues he isn’t telling me about occuring more frequently. After the last panic attack this weekend I asked him to PLEASE see a doctor, but he keeps saying he isn’t ready to talk to someone about it and doesn’t want me to bring it up anymore. Do you have any suggestions on how to help him (indirectly) or how to talk to him about this? Thanks

  3. Thank you! Your story is my story. I’m not alone. I’ve always had an “anxious personality” and that exploded into anxiety in IL. I managed to get through law school. Now practicing, it’s a daily struggle to stay calm try to leave work at the office (some days are more successful than others). Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. not really sure how someone who has terrible anxiety gets a job in the first place. i went to law school, i (sorry, my keyboard is broken, can’t capitalize letters), i did very well, was in the top 5% of my class, was an editor on law review, and i was a disaster in all of my interviews, so i never got a job. imagine 130k of student loan debt, and you never even got to start your legal career? it’s probably for the best other than the financial ruin as my anxiety would have prevented me from doing what high level lawyers do. i can barely speak when i’m in a stressful situation, i forget everything. if you catch me off guard i wouldn’t be even able to state my name, or give simple directions to someone on the street. career killer anxiety.

  5. Hi Annie. I was searching for anxiety and legal profession when I got across your post. I’m a 35 year old lawyer myself from India…been practicing now for almost 10 years. For these last 15 years or so, I’ve tried to learn about anxiety and panic as much as I could from reading online. And went on to see psychiatrists and psychologists armed with that knowledge, only to find that I knew almost as much as they do as experts (if not more)! SSRIs never worked for me, almost always increasing my anxiety, and the only other this the Pscychs had was benzodiazepines (and for how long can I stay on them; not forever). Its weird that being a lawyer, there is a perception that we are hotshot tough Suits, above anxiety issues!

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