Friday, June 02, 2006

Secondary Effects

Getting a divorce and a reasonable settlement is hard, especially if you were abused for 8 years by your husband, are an immigrant waiting for your greencard, have been out of the workforce for over 10 years, are psychologically traumatized to the degree that you believe your husband has cursed you and made you possessed by an evil spirit, your case is in front of a judge who, every time you appear before him, says that he doesn't want to hear about the abuse or the effects of the abuse or how they have affected your ability to find work, strongly recommends that you should give up your greencard dreams and go back to your home country and live with your mother, and appears to feel more sympathetic to your husband than to you despite the fact that you have 8 years of "domestic" incident reports, and your husband is a shady, manipulative, controlling liar who has dealt only in cash his whole life and left no paper trail indicating the extent or location of any of the assets you believe he has hidden away.

That's what I learned at court today. Amazingly, my client left the hearing in good spirits, grateful for the small amount of progress we were able to make. The fact that she is able to function, let alone hold down a part-time job, despite the incredible stress she has been under since she was forced to flee her home blows me away each and every time I see her.

I talked about the hearing at therapy today, because just as in the last hearing, I was really stressed by the time it ended. We spent a good deal of time talking about the emotional toll that working with people who have been traumatized can have on the people, such as social workers and lawyers, assisting them. I'm resistant to that idea. Resistant to admitting that I might feel hurt in some way by simply hearing the stories of my clients. They are the ones who have actually suffered. To feel as if I am suffering - to any degree- through working with them is disturbing. It seems selfish and weak.

On the other hand, I know I'm emotionally affected by my clients. How could you be human and not be? It affects me to walk into the courtroom with my client at my side, feeling how nervous she is and gauging her level of fear. Gauging whether she will be able to hold it together for one more appearance. It also affects me to get cold looks from her husband, and to picture in my head her husband pointing a gun in our direction. It affects me to work with my two young girls who are seeking asylum. They are abused and depressed and for their physical safety they need to leave their home soon. They are torn up about having to leave, even though their parents failed on all counts to give them any semblance of love. Even if they get asylum, they will be all alone in this country. I feel like I would be devastated if they didn't get asylum. It's an impossibility in my mind because they have to get asylum.

I don't know if that type of emotional effect is different from what I was talking about before, feeling like dealing with someone else's pain is too much for you. I guess I feel like someone else's pain should never be too much for me, because that pain is not mine, and so neither is the suffering that goes with it. If my clients can deal with the pain they are going through, then it seems the least I can do is to not fall to pieces after just hearing about their pain.

Then there's also the issue of guilt, or if not outright guilt, then sobering awareness. Last weekend, as I strolled around Central Park, ate brunch, went to the movies, and generally acted like New York was my own personal playground, I brought myself up short a few times wondering about what my girls were doing. When they go home they sit in their room. They are not allowed outside, and any time they go out into the rest of the house they are verbally or physically abused. Their parents do not give them food. They are treated like they are worth nothing. They get through the afternoons by sleeping or listening to music, which works to de-stress them because it blocks out the sound of their parents telling them that they are worthless or threatening to harm them when they get back to their own country.

It's awful. But it's not too much for me. Thinking about them just made me want to work as hard as I possibly could for them. Today at court, however, it almost felt like dealing with the whole contested divorce she-said, he-said nightmare was too much. I really don't know why that is. Maybe it's because I have more hope with my asylum clients? More hope in the case, and the law, and in my clients. They are young girls and giving them a second chance could not only change their lives, but the lives of others that they interact with. But, I could say the same for my contested divorce client... Maybe I just don't like family law. (I really, really, really don't. Even though it's very important for lawyers to assist clients such as mine, and I respect lawyers who do it full time a great deal).

I'm not sure exactly how, but I'm quite sure that super powers would be helpful to solving both of my cases. Oh, the things I could do with telekinetic powers. Or superstrength, magic bracelets, a lasso, and an invisible jet.


Ally Bean said...

Keep up the good work-- difficult as it may be.

wordnerd said...

I don't think that we (as lawyers) should have to be so tough Buttercup. I mean, yes, our lives are lived in relative comfort and we have SO many things that we take for granted. But I think that the secondary effects that this type of work (especially family law and your asylum stuff) can have on your mental health are very real and shouldn't be dismissed because you have more everday freedoms and comforts than your clients.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that we should go on a pity parade. We chose this profession and the trade-offs (on a personal level anyway) can be quite satisfying. I do however think that we (again, as a profession) need to collectively recognize that there are reasons why suicide, depression, gambling and domestic problems rate SO high in our lives....and that reason is that the practice of Law (albeit rewarding, fun and challenging) can be a tough gig....on ALL levels.

I sit on the Board of one of the Canadian Bar Association committees called the Lawyer's Professional Assistance Commitee....we have recently re-launched an EAP-type of program in my province (that existed years ago, but was not known or used)...and our numbers are up 400% since last year....

We're good at solving other people's problems...but we need to start getting better at recognizing our own (even if they seem inconsequential compared to our clients) and realize that we can't help others unless we stay healthy and help one another out.

Buttercup said...

Ally Bean, Thank you.

Wordnerd, I hear what you are sayingm, but it still seems as if evne talking about the effect it's having on me takes the focus away from where it should be, on my clients and the difficulties they are facing. And it is hard to think about this weekend, for example. I'm planning to get a facial and relax. My clients are sitting alone in their rooms. It's difficult to separate all of those things out, especially when my clients are children, and thus have not done anything to put themselves into the position they are in...

I agree with your main point, and I'm just continuing to think out loud herea about these issues.

What is EAP?

wordnerd said...

EAP = Employee Assistance Program....which doesn't technically describe the program that I'm involved with as it is not open to any 'employees' per se but to any member of the CDN Bar Association.

Buttercup, I might have come off harsh..but I REALLY do understand what you are saying and I do feel much the same way.. I was pretty much just trying to give a counterbalance to your post....something else to think about (you probably figured out that I am also a HUGE bleeding heart)...and I think that at the end of the day the fact that these things bother you is indeed why many people (like myself) dig you so much. You subscribe to the notion that the world is bigger than you, me, NY, Canada, etc...and that where we live and what we do is part hard work....but overwhelmingly luck...luck that we were born who we were in the place that we were. So many people in the world seem to have been born with a shorter stick.

I guess all we can do is continue to be aware and let that guide us in the way we live, the choices we make, how we spend our own money and the causes we choose to throw ourselves into. I do think you are making the world a better place Buttercup and that's one of the reasons I like reading about your adventures so much.

I hope you and Raj have a wonderful weekend. Tonight MD and I are hosting a few members of the local Bar in an anti-lobster-supper supper...(i.e. we are too cheap to pay the premium golf club price that is required so we bought our own lobster, our own steaks and our own beer and we're eating on our patio....I bet our party will be MUCH FUNNER)

Take Care

Tracy said...

Somehow I suspect that you are a hero to your clients.

Keep up the good work.

And have a good weekend with the Raj-ster!