Contributing Author: Susan Broderick, Program Director, NDAA
May 3–7, 2021 marked “Well-Being Week in Law”, during which organizations across the legal profession to participated in activities to promote health and happiness across the legal profession.
This relatively recent focus on wellness and well-being in the law has been primarily due to a groundbreaking report issued a few years ago by the American Bar Association and Hazelden Treatment Center. This report finally addressed an issue that had been ignored for years — the negative impact that stress had on the physical and emotional well-being of lawyers. In particular, the study found that approximately 33% of those surveyed had a problem with alcohol.
The report did not surprise me at all (and in fact I thought the 33% was a bit low!) For many years I was a “work hard/play hard” prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office and I did both pretty well, until the “playing” started to take its toll. Long hours, lack of sleep, unhealthy meals and too much alcohol were taking their toll. Especially the drinking.
In July of 2001 I was able to garner the courage to walk into a room full of strangers and admit I had a problem with alcohol. What seemed like the worst day of my life has in hindsight proven to be the turning point of my life. Over the past 20 years, I have had the good fortune to learn about well-being in a very different arena — church basements.
At first it was centered on not taking a drink, one day at a time. But as I remained sober, I recognized that I not only had a drinking problem, but I had a thinking problem. I was hard-wired for negativity and was geared for battle every day. I also seemed to be very concerned about helping others, but often neglected myself.
Through the creation go the Well-Being Task Force, NDAA is working to make well-being a priority in the field of prosecution. Given the unique stressors that prosecutors face, both inside and outside of the courtroom, it is critical that we recognize just how important it is to take care of ourselves as well. Over the past several months we have published blogs and held webinars on topics that prioritize wellness and self-care.
To raise awareness about “Well-Being Week”, I had planned to publish something on this blog the week of May 3. Unfortunately, life had other plans. Over the past several months, my mother has been suffering from complications from a botched surgical procedure and it’s been a harrowing experience. That week, I received a call from the doctor that my mother was being rushed to the Emergency Room, where she ended up being admitted to ICU.
I was able to race to the hospital and be by her side until about 11 pm. When I finally got in my car to drive home, I realized that I had not finished the piece about “Well-being Week.” My first thought was that I would go straight to my computer when I got home.
As I drove the 20 miles on the freeway, I slowly realized that my stress level was off the charts. I have been living out of a suitcase here in NY for the past several months so that I can be here for my Mom, while juggling work and other family obligations. The rollercoaster medical ride we were on (where hospice had been raised numerous times) was really taking a toll. That night, it finally dawned on me that if I was going to focus on well-being, it better be my own. Recognizing that burning the midnight oil to finish a blog was NOT taking care of myself, I made the decision to get some rest when I got home and put the blog on hold.
I felt better the next morning and soon realized that if I was going to “talk the talk” I needed to “walk the walk”. As we are instructed by flight attendants on airplanes, we must put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we try to help others. I am of absolutely no use to my mother, my family, or my colleagues if I am burning the candle at both ends. And I am no use to myself.
I also realized that raising awareness about taking care of ourselves should not be relegated to one week of the year. It is something that must be a daily practice. It does not have to involve major changes in routine — some simple measures such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and gratitude — but these small measures can have a profound impact on our health.
So, if you missed Well-Being week, join the club. But realize that every day you can make a decision to do something good for yourself. Whether it is going for a walk, eating a healthy meal, or just taking a few moments to breathe deeply and savor the moment, small steps can make a big difference. Prioritizing your own wellness is not selfish, it is the most important thing we can do on a daily basis.
*Report: Krill PR, Johnson R, Albert L. The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. J Addict Med. 2016 Jan;10(1):46–52. pmid:26825268
Susan Broderick is a Program Director with the National District Attorneys Association, where she is also the staff liaison for the Well-being Task Force.