What ‘Panic’ Can Teach You

In support of the well-being of lawyers across the professional spectrum—from students in the classroom to attorneys in all walks of legal life—we have launched a Mental Health Impact Blog Series, in partnership with alumnus Jim Warner ’92. Comprising deeply personal essays by community members who have struggled with mental health issues, the series provides restorative insights and resources to fellow lawyers in need.

The Mental Health Impact Blog Series coincides with a Law School-wide initiative, which will include lectures and workshops to support and promote mental well-being. To get involved in the activities or to write a guest post, contact jim.warner.uk@gmail.com.


By Elizabeth Martin ’92

Back then, in that lecture hall, sitting for my third-year Administrative Law exam, I could not imagine the work I would be doing today: leading strategy and innovation for a multi-billion dollar business and the largest health care company in the world. In fact, at that moment, I could not imagine much of anything other than the wreckage of my future playing out in live action in my imagination. My heart was racing. My ears were ringing, drowning out every cogent thought I had ever had. That’s the power of panic—in seconds it is able to reduce your otherwise bright future into a movie of the worst imaginable things: “you will fail this exam, you will not graduate, you will crater on the bar exam, and then, you will embarrass yourself, shame your family, and never be able to make a living! Oh, and still owe thousands of dollars to the federal government for the privilege.” 

So it was written. A promising career, tanked before it even started, felled (or so I thought) by a panic attack in my third year of law school.

It was my first panic attack but certainly not my last. The well-crafted façade of calm and confidence meticulously crafted over many years of tamping down anything other than what I had perceived was acceptable (stuffing emotions, curbing daily fears and insecurities, squelching vulnerability) simply disintegrated in the face of an exam question that I did not know the answer to. Until then, powering through by sheer will and a little (or rather, a lot) of alcohol had simply done the trick. No more, however. Those coping mechanisms simply stopped functioning as this new and terrifying territory presented itself.

Yet on the outer edges of that morning, there were hints of hope. Although out of reach for months, if not years, I was able to glean aspects of hope through the compassionate professor whose exam I had just failed and the therapist whom BC connected me to within walking distance of campus. It only took one action on my part; an action at once seemingly impossible and wholly necessary all at the same time. I had to ask for help. Yet this single act of desperation-turned-hope made all the difference and, eventually, led to certain wisdom. 


“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

As it turns out, when panic strode into the room that day he brought a mirror in tow. At first glance, the image I saw seemed compromised and diminished—a failed law student, an uncompleted exam, a shattered sense of self, a future replete with anxiety and littered with failed opportunities. In time, and through help, I came to see that image differently, and compassionately—an Elizabeth more authentic and true than the one who had arrived to sit for her exam that day. In the end, it turns out that panic was not the problem, but rather my own inability to recognize it (and her) for the gifts that they were. 

“Panic,” from the Greek word panikos, is an allegory whose origins date back to ancient Greece. Immortalized through the figure of Pan, that half-man, half-goat deity whose mother recoiled upon seeing him for the first time in his purest form, Pan—and the “panic” that ensues—reminds us of that fear that can sometimes arise when we are forced to confront aspects of ourselves that we (or others we care about) would prefer not to see. 

Externalized expressions of our interior landscape as humans, the myths of ancient Greece are stories crafted to help the ancients make sense of their emotions and behaviors. As effective now as they were then, these ancient stories can help us “normalize,” and in fact de-stigmatize, that which we would otherwise find shocking or new. For example, although a “panic attack” was a surprise for me, the Greek myth of Pan tells us it has been a normal part of the human condition since the beginning of time. Appearing in our lives both as a challenge and opportunity, it is as natural and inevitable as humans themselves, and will touch everyone when the time is right or the situation is ripe: namely, when we need to be reminded of who we really are rather than who we think we ought to be. Pan enters the room when it is time to confront those parts of ourselves we would rather not see. 

The Elizabeth I was unable to confront that day was someone three years into law school and several thousand dollars in debt who did not want to practice law. In that moment—in the administering of my professional future via an Administrative Law exam—the “right answers” were outside my reach. Although I thought I knew what I was doing, my body recoiled at the prospect as aspects of my true self started to emerge: “You will go no further.  You cannot go further. You are not bound for the law.” A reality unfathomable to me at the time and one of great personal and financial consequence, panic seemed a fitting reaction. Only later would I come to realize that while legal training had been the right path, the role the training typically implied, e.g., a practicing lawyer, was completely wrong for me. In the end, panic was not the issue, only the messenger. My path would have to be atypical in nature.


I wish I could say that that knowledge is what I walked out of the exam with that day. It was not. I was not yet ready to hear what panic had to say. Instead, I clamped down tighter, white knuckling it as I trudged forward into a life of expectations far removed from my own. I graduated, passed the bar, and even practiced law for a few years. During these years, panic remained a constant companion, ever-patient and welcoming of others—depression, alcoholism, anxiety—until I was ready to receive his message. Eventually, however, I got there, coming to recognize that panic had always had my best interests at heart, reflecting all along a future where legal training and the practice of law could be mutually exclusive along a long and winding road bending toward a new beginning rather than an end.

Despite my worst fears at the time, my crashing and burning on an administrative law exam my third year of law school had absolutely no bearing on my professional career; none whatsoever. In fact, today I swim effortlessly in and out of the administrative waters of our national health care system. I understand the questions and I know answers because I finally know the person answering them. She is confident. She is capable. She is a lawyer and she is a leader. Mostly, she is grateful. 

On occasion, panic will swing by for a visit. But she is now able to greet him more as a friend than foe, and has even learned to speak his language, welcoming his presence more with curiosity than fear or self-recrimination. She also recognizes that he is an old soul; one who has accompanied countless others across lifetimes—a presence more familiar than foreign and certainly nothing to be ashamed of, hidden from, or recoiled from. In fact, his line of sight is often clearer than her own and she has come to trust in the adjustments, (sometimes slight, sometimes significant) that his arrival signals, ever pointing to a right and better destination.


SERVICES AND RESOURCES

This blog series is meant to shine a light on the often hidden epidemic of mental health struggles felt by so many in the legal profession and beyond, and to share personal stories and insights into recovery. It is not meant to provide professional advice or counseling. If you are struggling, below is a list of resources you may find helpful. If you are in crisis and this is an emergency, please call 911.

For a list of services offered to students, faculty and staff through the University and the Law School, visit https://www.bc.edu/content/bc-web/schools/law/sites/students/community/health-and-wellness.html

Individual counseling and psychotherapy consultations are available at BC Law (Alumni House, Room 112). Call 617-552-3310 and ask for an appointment with the Newton Campus clinician. Law students may also meet with any of the clinicians at University Counseling Services main campus location at Gasson Hall Suite 001 (140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467). Students can schedule an appointment at the main campus location by calling 617-552-3310 or visiting Gasson Hall Suite 001. Interactive campus map

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL) (31 Milk Street, Suite 810, Boston, MA; (617) 482-9600; helpline: (800) 525-0210; https://www.lclma.org/) is a confidential counseling and referral resource for lawyers and current law students. LCL offers help for alcohol and drug abuse, stress, depression, work, family, marital issues, mental health and other personal issues.

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