Mrs YFG: Anxiety and working in law

and helicopters

Mr YFG did a post a while ago about depression and working in finance. I thought I would tell my own story, of living with anxiety and doing my job.

As Mr YFG has already said, I’m a corporate lawyer in the City of London. I do lawyer-y things like living on caffeine, working overnight and at weekends and sometimes sleep at my desk. I rarely see Mr YFG before 8pm on a good day and on a bad day I crawl home well after midnight.

I do this for two reasons: first, money and, second, to help others. My job is about advising in difficult scenarios, solving problems and completing complex tasks. My clients rely on me to help them and I find it very rewarding to be able to provide the answer.

Unfortunately I don’t have answers for myself and I have a very poor handle on my own problems, including my own anxiety surrounding my job.

What is anxiety?

We could do a whole article on this, but I ain’t going to do that. I was diagnosed with an anxiety and panic disorder around 5 years ago, but in retrospect I’ve had the symptoms since childhood. I’m going to talk about anxiety in the way that it manifests for me, rather than generalise.

Some people think anxiety is a form of worrying, but it’s not that simple. When I am mentally healthy I worry about things actually going on in my life and my friends’ lives – illness, job loss etc.

Anxious me generally worries about those things as well as things that will never happen or are incredibly unlikely. Your anxious brain literally tells you stories of what woe might befall you next. It makes life pretty difficult as some of the stories are terrifying.

Let me give you an example. I’m standing at a train station.

Regular me: I’ll stand where I know the doors open and a reasonable step away from the edge cause that’s sensible.

Anxious me: I have to stand far enough away from the edge because it’s windy today and the next gust of wind might blow me onto the tracks and I’ll be killed and what if I survive and am stuck in my paralysed body but I can’t go too far back because I might miss getting on the packed train and if I miss it then I will be late for work and someone could be watching and I risk losing my job…..

You can see how things escalate from a simple decision. Many people with severe anxiety find it very difficult to make decisions, because any alternative choice ends in disaster in their brain.

Anxiety and my job

Unfortunately, I’m in an industry which encourages and almost idolises anxious people. Lawyers are paid worriers. We are paid to worry about what could possibly happen in the future (even if unlikely) and to guard against that now.

If an email comes in I look for clues to confirm what (if anything) I’ve done wrong to deserve this email. Either it could be new work coming in, questions or mark-ups of my work (in my mind, criticism of my work or identifying mistakes I’ve made). Some emails make my heart drop out of my stomach. Once something comes in, it gets scanned and I rack my brains to try and work out where I’ve slipped up and where the risk is.

Simple tasks like document storage are difficult if you’re convinced your filing cabinet is going to spontaneously combust at any moment.

Sending an e-mail is awfully complex when you can’t reassure yourself enough that the e-mail address is correct (and the consequences of sending it to the wrong person are catastrophic for you). On a bad day I can sit for half an hour with my finger over the send button, actually paralysed with fear. You can imagine what this does for my productivity and my mental wellbeing.

Leaving the office becomes less possible when you can’t leave your desk for fear of what might go wrong overnight, and even if I do I’m unable to sleep. On the off chance I get some rest I dream about the world falling around my ears and wake up in floods of panic.

Productive (natural) worrying and reasonable forward-planning are completely different to unhealthy anxiety. Anxiety can absorb and be all-consuming, and it’s important to learn the difference and how it feels for you.

Mental illness is a chronic illness just like any other – you may relapse now and again, and you need to act to avoid exacerbating or triggering it. If you had a bad back you wouldn’t sign up for gymnastics. I manage my illness (mostly successfully) to avoid relapse, but it has happened.

What happens if you relapse?

I have had to take time off work on three separate occasions when my mental health has hit rock bottom.

A mental break, for me, is terrifying. There’s no one thing that triggers it, I generally just get more and more unwell and start slipping over time until I crack.

The first time it happened I lost my memory. I could not remember my password for my work computer and I broke down. I had not slept or eaten in three days and was unable to remember getting to work. I was sent to a psychiatrist and left the building and didn’t go back for three months. Those three months were a dark period of my life and I have little memory of them as I was medicated heavily. At the worst of my illness, I hallucinated that I was being followed by a helicopter (thanks Mr YFG for the cover photo) and I destroyed electronic devices I owned as I thought they were listening. I could not leave the house and pulled out my own hair and eyelashes in a nervous fit. I was unable to sleep without antipsychotic medication and sedatives – I was severely unwell.

That was about 5 years ago and I’ve had two more breaks since then. I’ve been medicated since.

I fluctuate between bad and good days. On a good day, I am my regular self, my true self. On a bad day, I can end up sobbing in bed, unable to get up and shower or do simple tasks like making a cup of tea. I will be unable to talk to Mr YFG or leave the house until I’ve dragged myself out of my episode.

So how do you cope?

Not going to lie, it’s difficult. Being in an environment which is pretty much the worst place to be for anxiety (possibly second to emergency services like paramedics!) makes it harder.

Shit happens

As a lawyer, you are taught that mistakes are the worst thing you can do. People pay The Firm money for you to provide a stellar service, and cocking up is just not acceptable. Once you’re in practice for a few years you learn that everyone makes mistakes and there is virtually nothing that can’t be fixed, even the most monumental shitstorms can be resolved.

Therapy (years of it) has helped me try and overcome my fears about making mistakes at work, but I still have to challenge myself every day. I do not deal well with making mistakes (or more commonly the impression or thought that I may have made one).

What has helped is, among other things, trying to register things in a detached way. Rather than “I have found a mistake in my work, I’m an idiot I should be ashamed of myself” it’s “someone has marked up a mistake in my work.” – by stating the actual facts of the situation I.e. what has actually happened you can somewhat calm yourself. It is anxious me who carried on the thread of thought into the abyss.

And thoughts are just that: they pop up in your mind and they aren’t necessarily facts. Just because I’ve thought of a problem does not make that problem materialise. Thoughts are literally figments of your imagination and you can choose to act on them or to acknowledge and then ignore them. Learning this over time has been powerful for me.

Gratitude

Mr YFG has already posted about this, but gratitude is a powerful thing. Not that I’m ungrateful for anything, I just rarely take time out to specifically appreciate good things. For example:

  • I’m employed
  • In healthy and able-bodied
  • I’m in a happy stable relationship
  • I own my own home
  • My job pays very well. It allows me to save and live comfortably
  • I have some degree of flexibility in my hours (I stay late so I might come in a bit later the next day- granted I work until 10-11pm at night and come in half an hour later)
  • I can work from home once a week and have decent amounts of holiday days stored up.
  • The Firm offers taxis home late at night, free meals when working late and a whole raft of specialist support.

In return, I give my blood, sweat and tears, but I am grateful to be in the position I am in. When I am anxious and down and convinced I am worthless I remind myself of what I have and I get a little warm feeling in my stomach.

A support network

Mr YFG is instrumental in keeping me on the path of sanity. Part of his job is to talk me down and to help me through the tough times. Not just the 20-hour shifts and the physical toll, but the panic attacks, the sobbing in the corner over the day’s events.

I don’t need my friends to monitor me, I just need them to understand if I have to go off the radar and they need to leave me be. Being respectful and accepting of someone’s illness and their limitations is essential (even if you don’t understand it). I’m lucky I have friends who are like that.

Saving money

One of my anxiety’s favourite stories is the one where I lose my job and have no money and lose my home and Mr YFG.

Saving money not only allows a financial buffer but also a mental one. I know I will be able to leave my job at some point for one where I can maybe improve the odds of being mentally healthy. Having that flexibility and the FI goal helps me align what I want out of my life and focus my efforts.

How do you cope?

I’m always interested to hear how others cope with stressful periods in their life or with illness. I hope that by sharing my own story others may notice their own habits or may feel able to share their own.

25 thoughts on “Mrs YFG: Anxiety and working in law

  1. Very detailed and well written article Mrs YFG! You hit the nail on the head with saving money – this is the best thing an anxious worrier can do ?

    Although not as bad as you had it, I’ll share my anxiety story too.

    For me, I’ve always been a worrier. I used to think it was my super power as I’d always go over things in my head 100 times, not just for worrying but for good scenarios too. This has helped me in lots of ways as because I think about things so much, I normally don’t overlook things which ‘normal’ people might miss, but it’s also brings with it that horrible anxious feeling when you are dreading something and can’t stop thinking about it!

    My partner would always jest with me and call me a worrier, I’d have to go over the schedule dozens of times before we were due to catch a flight or book a holiday. All of this was fine to an extent, until I started working at a toxic start up company.

    I worked alongside the CTO and CEO and was heading up their mobile division. The problem was, they expected you to work 12 hour days and responded with passive aggressiveness and hostile behaviour if you didn’t. A whole load of shit things happened that I won’t bore everyone with, but long story short – I ended up not taking any holiday for a whole year and working 12 hour days for the whole time.

    This effected me massively, I thought I was just a ‘worrier’, but I found out after this job that I actually had anxiety. After 6 months, I was in a perpetual state of worry and even when I KNEW that there was actually nothing to worry about, I still had the horrible sickening worry feeling, it was constantly there. My health deteriated because of it, my relationship suffered from constantly being in a snappy mood, it sucked.

    I realised that no matter how close I was to my shares vesting, I had to leave. So I did, basically 2 months before 25% of my shares vested for quite a hefty pay out (thanks to FI for making money not matter as much). I now have been working at a much more relaxed bigger corporation for almost a year. I have 30 days holiday, flexitime, and get to work from home two days per week! My constant anxious feeling has lessened now, but I’m still much worse than I was before I moved to that horrible company. I’m thinking that I’ve actually been permenantly damaged by that experience. It’s made me realize, that sometimes your health is more important and that sometimes it’s so bad that the damage is irreversible, so be careful!

    Hopefully, given time, the perpetual anxiety will lessen to nothingness…Hopefully.

    Lots of love,

    Ninja

    1. Hi Ninja, thank you so much for sharing your story. I agree with you that your environment, particularly your work environment, matters so much to the quality of your mental wellbeing. I love my job most of the time and so I work hard (with professional help) to minimise the triggers and stay working in it. There may come a time where I have to step away but hopefully not before I reach FI! I am glad you found your happy medium. Mrs YFG

  2. I have enjoyed reading your blog since it started, but I’ve not commented before- I thought I might have something helpful to add here.

    As a fellow lawyer (and husband of a lawyer) who both thought ‘fuck this’ and went in house a couple of years ago before either of us reached 2 years pqe – I wonder whether you have considered making the move in house?

    I can only speak from personal experience, but it has certainly improved my mental health and I’ve never looked back. You might have a more pleasant time of it, whilst still keeping the limited positives you get from your current role.

    Granted we both earn less p/a then we’d be making in private practice and consequently are further from ‘FIRE’ (but when you work out the hourly rate, I’m not sure there’s much in it really). The key thing is we’re both so much happier. I don’t get the dreaded dimanche on a Sunday. The job is more varied. My colleagues/clients are actually nice people. I rarely work longer than 9 – 6. Consequently work feels like something I do in the middle of the day. I hardly ever look at emails between logging off in the evening and rocking up in the morning. Holidays are actual holidays etc.

    Clearly the above it a bit of a rosy picture, but it certainly suits me much better. Happy to discuss further if you’d like.

    1. Thanks Tommo and hello to a fellow lawyer! I have definitely considered the move a few times, I actually worked in house before I moved to my current firm and I did enjoy it. What keeps me from moving is my comfort zone – I like my office, my clients and my colleagues even though working life is tough. I’m settled and I try to avoid big shocks to the system for the reasons above. I am trying to work hard on improving my mental health so I am stable regardless of where I work – I’m sure that if I made the move I would soon find new things to be worried and anxious about, and so moving doesn’t solve the problem (although it will probably reduce the hours)! The aim is to get myself as close to FI as possible using my current salary and then if the right role comes up make a move. It’s definitely something I am considering and thank you for your candour. May I ask- What made you dislike the job in private practice? Mrs YFG

      1. Fair enough. Yes, you always take yourself with you. I’ve taken my general dissatisfaction with my lot and my ability to find anything boring after the first couple of times I’ve done it (so I’m on the second in-house position already, and I’m not planning on working at anything for as long as a traditional ‘career’). But the fact that I’ve left a lot of anxieties (in the non-medical sense) behind, and my mood/outlook on life has greatly improved suggests to me that significant factors in my poor mental state previously were tied to the job in private practice.

        But to state a few specific key reasons for leaving:

        I hated the hours culture of private practice. I couldn’t see the carrot ahead- the senior associates were being beasted and strung along with promises of partnership, and the ones who made it weren’t exactly rewarded with feet up and long lunches – if anything they were working harder than ever. Plus I figured, I’d hopefully have FIRE’d by then so done the time without the pay-off.

        Perhaps I was unlucky and worked for overly pedantic partners, but everything needed to be checked and amended before I could send things out. As an 80% solution guy (perhaps not common in lawyers), that drove me spare.

        Also not being in charge of my own deadlines – sitting on a call where the partner would say ‘I’m sure we can get that to you [tonight/tomorrow first thing/2 hrs time]” when you knew that would just mean you’d be there until late for what was an arbitrary deadline. I’m now free to under-promise and over-deliver!

        Thankfully all of those things are a distant memory now – and the ‘black dog’ for now (touch wood).

        1. Thanks Tommo- I must say the second and third reasons you give really hit home with me. What I hate more than anything (and which pokes the anxious bear) is delivery of work product being outside of my control. I will have done the work, the partner needs to check it but the partner sits on it for days and I have to chase, whilst being harassed by someone else to meet a fictitious deadline. The fact that the hard work is done but I can’t deliver it definitely frustrates me! I would love to be in control of my own work and that is what appeals to me about in house or smaller practices. I guess I am just reluctant to make the jump right now- we will see whether I change my tune! Thanks for your comments and for following our page! Mrs YFG

          1. You’re welcome – I’m a bit of an in-house evangelist – thank you both for writing such engaging content!

            Happy to share further experiences via email down the line – or indeed at one of these London meetups (not that I can make the next one) if at some point you are considering a move.

  3. I was going to add that it sounds like the demands of the workplace eg irregular sleep patterns may not be helping.

    As well as gratitude approaches (including journaling accomplishments each day), I’ve found positive self-talk and meditation to be useful in getting out of a rut/spiral of negative thinking.

    I also think some of this stuff is meant to be hard, but having experienced it once or twice- you can develop, if not quite an immunity, then a certain resilience. Regular self-reviews on learnings etc have helped me there.

    1. Thanks greencat66 this is all true- a lot of what I’ve learned through the years builds resilience and I’m certainly in a better place for it. The working patterns being irregular/long definitely doesn’t help- I find this just adds an extra physical exhaustion on top which can bring me down. But luckily I work at such a pace I don’t notice the days go by and I am so absorbed in my work it’s nice. Boredom has an equally negative effect on me too! Meditation is something I’ve also tried and found difficult to get it to work- kudos to you if you can do it successfully! Mrs YFG

  4. Hi, the clue’s in the name, more worrier than warrior, the transition is still a work in progress. We live in exceptionally anxious times, so it is hard to avoid, but as you say there are things we can do to manage the problem. Long term this is the main point of FI for me, most imagined horrors can be solved with money, so if I know I’ll always have enough, that’s the best calmer. Getting out of toxic corporate culture is huge, taking out the commute even better, I started in-house in my industry by chance and was lucky enough to never have to change that. When I met my counterparts on courses, from what I could see, even if they made more money, their pain was double for it, (having to take sh*t off the external clients as well as their bosses) so I can’t see in what sense that could be worth it.

    I agree with all you wrote and would add that as well as going over a threshold of stress can do irreversible damage, (as a previous commenter noted) another neglected aspect is that you have only a finite amount of energy over your lifetime. This is really often not appreciated when you’re still young, in the same way that you feel immortal generally then, so burning the candle at both ends has an inescapable cost. Could you not find a way to work differently so as to have less pain/time invested for the same or more intellectual/social stimulation?

    Being from a vaguely medical background, I understand the risks better than most and use CBD oil now. Though derived from hemp, there’s no ‘happy’ active ingredient by law (as the trade-off for being legal in the UK) so it doesn’t affect concentration while calming me down when I feel anxiety building. I vary the dose according to circumstances and after a few months haven’t noticed any side-effects. I could well only be thinking it’s better due to the placebo effect, but hey if that makes me feel better with no downside, it’s still the result I wanted.

    1. Thanks FIWarrior- and I’ve seen that CBD oil around, never been something that has appealed to me yet! I could move laterally, but the idea of starting afresh and the anxiety that goes with it isn’t appealing for me at the moment. If I do move I want it to be because I like the sound of the other job rather than want to escape what’s behind me. Changing my job won’t change me as a person, but it’s something I’m always thinking of – whether the job I’m doing now is the right one for me. You sound much more detached from your job or you might even enjoy it! Mrs YFG

  5. I do not doubt for a second how exciting, stimulating and rewarding your role is, it is fantastic when you can do a job that you really and truly can immerse yourself into. It’s also amazing how resilient the human body and mind can be (when you are young!). I know, although in a completely different industry, the creative element of mine sometimes would keep me focussed for 16 hours a day, day after day for weeks at a time.

    But listen carefully young lady, you can’t do this forever! Sooner or later your body and mind will be screaming Stop. Twentysomethings still think themselves to be immortal. Listen for those warning signs and act on them. And do as your other half does and bung some dosh away, at least then you will have the choice to do or not to do as you please which can make all the difference. Have the power to say ‘FU’ to the firm.

    I have had two periods when overwork incapacitated me mentally. As a jaded 50-year-old, I still enjoy periods of focus but the rest times have to be much longer. I have also learnt to say no, which my younger self had a bit of a problem with.

    1. Thanks Beatthesystem, I agree with your sentiment, that’s why I am well on the path to FI with my husband, and should hit that number within 3-4 years. I know I can’t sustain my job forever or even for another decade, and that has spurred me on to save 70% of my salary every month. As you say it’s rewarding but I can’t keep going at this pace – but again keeping my level of salary keeps me on the FI track. Saying no is something I work on but is difficult in my role to do. I hope that once I’m FI I can look back at this period in my life and appreciate what I did but also know I got out at the right time. Mrs YFG

  6. I have had lengthy spells of working long hours in the office. For what it’s worth one rule I stuck to come Hell or High Water was no work on Saturday afternoons or evenings. Almost biblical, eh?

    I have also had one lengthy spell of working long hours outdoors, with moderate physical exertion. My Lord it’s easier. At least when under thirty-five.

    The enemy, I found, was not hard work, nor physical danger, it was a shitty boss. I made sure I never had a second one.

    1. Thanks dearieme. I try to avoid weekend working where possible, and agree that the work is never the problem it’s often the boss/management that is the problem! I am just trying to wait out the next few years to FI and try and enjoy my remaining work. I will take a leaf out of your book and try and block out Sundays entirely! Mrs YFG

  7. Mr YFG here. Thank you all for the comments. You’ve all said things I say to Mrs YFG on a regular basis – she usually ignores me – maybe the wisdom of the crowd will help! 🙂

  8. Hi Mrs YFG, Your resolve is admirable but I have to ask: Why don’t you leave? I mean as soon as possible, regardless of FI. I know you love your job most of the time but it feels like your long-term health could be at risk. Perhaps you’ve covered this somewhere else on the blog?

    Also, have you ever read The People’s Therapist? A survivor of US Big law and now a psychotherapist who specialises in reaching lawyers. I’m not a lawyer but was absolutely rapt/shocked by his posts on the carnage wreaked by top US firms. Here’s a sample:

    https://thepeoplestherapist.com/2011/04/13/not-worth-it/

    1. Hi TA, a lot of people ask this. The answer is simply that moving job will not cure my mental illness. The illness will be with me regardless of my work, my hours or reaching FI. In fact for someone with anxiety moving job and starting from the bottom is completely disarming and can trigger them. I enjoy my job and work very hard to manage my illness. I feel people shouldn’t be put off from a career they love because it will be tough- I get the treatment and monitoring I need and otherwise I get on with it. I totally agree that people get destroyed in the legal industry and no doubt I would if I was there another decade. I have four years to go before I hit FI and I figure that my current salary and being in my comfort zone will keep me on a steady path to that target. I will check out his website though, thank you!! Mrs YFG

  9. I salute you Mrs YFG. Especially for being so open about a pressing topic that I think we still find very difficult to talk about in the UK. Also enjoying the double-act that’s emerging on this blog. Refreshing to have the twin-track perspective.

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