Working through your problems so you can overcome any obstacle can be a really tough mental exercise. Whenever I struggle to find the solution to a problem, I always remember what my Equity and Restitution professor at law school used to tell us: the answer is in the question. To this day, I’m still not quite sure what this means. The way I have interpreted it is that sometimes you have to really think outside the box and come up with some creative solutions to your problems. Remember that real raw intelligence is where you can always come up with a solution no matter the problem, just like Yale have said in the powerful and moving article “Transcript v Potential”. To me, this goes to the very heart of education, which is about more than merely having a good job and earning lots of money. What is the point of dedicating so much of your life to learning if you can’t use your knowledge to resolve your own problems in every day life? Don’t forget that we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing with us, just like the Bible says. Don’t worry if you don’t own a house or are struggling to get by from day to day like me. The most important thing is that you have to keep working, just like Dempsey said, so you can overcome obstacles and continue to make progress in life.
In trying to find a way forwards, you will find that you are constantly weighing up different factors. In the end, you have to do what you think is right in the circumstances. You will probably find that there isn’t a precedent to follow and you have to delve very deeply to resolve difficult issues. I have been in this situation regarding my health. I suffer from three different health issues: (i) mild schizophrenia with some bipolar; (ii) depression; and (iii) Type 2 diabetes. Over time, I’d like to open up a bit about how I have tried to manage these different conditions so I can carry on and lead a healthy and full life despite the ongoing challenges I face from these illnesses. In a nutshell, medication hasn’t worked particularly well for me. My background in law helped me to understand exactly why and find a better way forwards.
Some time after I was diagnosed with these conditions, I felt this strange sense of déjà vu, as if I had seen this situation before, but where was the question. It took me back to the Dissertation that I wrote for the Honours component of my law degree. In that research paper, I analysed the three main interests upheld by defamation law as conceptualised by the legal scholar Robert Post. It became apparent that there is tension between these concepts and they cannot be easily reconciled. While the medication I was taking for schizophrenia and depression stabilised me they caused an enormous weight gain and eventually led to type 2 diabetes. I was diagnosed with a fatty liver and was experiencing tightness in my chest. Generally speaking, I felt incredibly unwell. In the interests of my overall health, I came off medication. Overall, I feel much better but I do run the risk of recurrent psychotic episodes, which occur from time to time. My medical issues reminded me of my research. I can only manage these three conditions; they cannot not be reconciled perfectly much like the three interests protected by defamation law.
While I admit that I suffer from depression, I also remind myself that how others behave towards you can affect your mood. It’s not just you, it’s everyone else. As I have said before, it’s therefore fine to distance yourself from others who are upsetting you, even if they are family members. Be careful though. If you distance yourself from others, mental health specialists will be quick to point out that you are isolating yourself and that there is therefore something wrong with you. It’s for this reason that I challenge not only psychiatry as a field of medicine but also the law of psychiatry, where the state has a lot of control over individuals. And as my public law professor told us at law school, there is always a risk that people in a position of power may abuse the exercise of that power.
To recap, in my previous post, I explored how thinking positively can help us overcome obstacles in our lives. I’d like to reflect on this a little further. You need to be able to flip things around in your mind and put a positive spin on things. For so long, I felt that my health issues (which I will open up about over time) were restricting me in so many ways. For example, they prevented me from practicing law for reasons which will become apparent later on. I spent many years training to become a lawyer, not just at university and in legal practice, but before that, I worked very hard at school so I could have a good intellectual foundation in order to go to university. I have worked very hard all my life, in both studies and other areas such as sports and cultural activities, the latter which were more to help give me confidence with the former. I felt devastated that I could no longer work in the industry that I had chosen to work in during my professional life until retirement.
However, over time, I started to realise that the factors that were limiting me had actually set me free. Law is a wonderful profession in many respects but it can be quite repressive. After all, everything you do is governed by the law. It’s all very circular, you see. Not to mention the fact that the law society is always hanging over you, kind of like the ICloud. You don’t have much freedom. If you work at a large firm, you just shut up, do your job and be grateful that the firm employed you rather than someone else, as the market is pretty competitive and they’re very conservative places. You definitely don’t want to cross the partners or the clients of the firm for that matter. But being a partner is probably not quite what you think it will be, not that I would know from personal experience. As they say, all that glitters is not gold. During my summer clerkship with a leading New Zealand law firm, I did a rotation in the Finance department. The partner I sat with always used to say to me, we’re just like prostitutes. He’s right. The clients think they own you and can ask you all sorts of personal question about your life when really they should be focussing on the case or transaction as there’s a lot at stake and they need to take it seriously. You have to be polite and tell them what they want to know otherwise you’ll risk losing business for the firm. Indeed, discussions about my personal life were charged to the file because to me, it was work, namely maintaining a good relationship with the client. A lot of people outside the legal profession respect lawyers, but the sad truth is that most clients don’t really respect us that much. We’re just the hired gun, really.
Leaving law unleashed a much more creative side which I didn’t realise existed. It’s amazing what you can discover about yourself! My blog has given me a platform to share some of my experiences, ideas and insights into different aspects of life. And yes, I will open up about some personal issues as I’d like to be able to help others in a similar situation. I hope I’m not going about it in a trashy way. I’m not bitching about my life. But of course, there are people out there who will always have something negative to say about me. Sure, you can see a professional when you have problems, but I doubt they would understand the same way someone who has actually been there themselves does. The trouble is, no one wants to air their dirty laundry in public or ask other people for help for fear of being a burden on others, but sometimes you need to step forward and stand up for what you believe in without worrying about what other people will say.
To recap briefly, in my previous post I discussed how we can overcome obstacles in our lives by training our mind to think positively. I’d like to add a further thought. While it’s good to have the mantra of “I am determined to defeat this obstacle (or these obstacles), I refuse to let it or them overwhelm me”, it’s equally important not to blow things out of proportion and overstate the case. Going back to what the managing partner of my previous firm’s practice group always used to say to us, things are merely a matter of perception. Remember that nothing is ever quite as bad as it seems. You can actually make things seem worse than they are in trying to overcome your obstacles, because they become a much bigger deal than they actually are! Keep things in perspective. There is a lot more to you than your handicaps, even if others don’t see you that way. So don’t let them define you completely. Learn to deal with them. It can be overwhelming at times, but remember what Dempsey said. Any disabilities you may have make you who are you. You become a deeper person with much greater substance. You have more insight and don’t look at things superficially.
Learn to make your disabilities work for rather than against you. In some ways, you can even be better off with them! Like Christel, I also suffer from diabetes, except Type 2 not Type 1. I was diagnosed a couple of years ago. I had to become quite strict about what I eat, as well as lose quite a bit of weight which I had gained, if I wanted to control the condition without medication, which I still do. As a T2 diabetic, my diet is actually better than it ever was now that I’m completely sugar free. Not that I was ever much of a drinker, but I’ve completely cut out all alcohol. In a weird way, even now at the age of 37, overall I actually feel better in terms of my physical health than I did in my 20s. This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the condition as I’d succumb to the temptation to have a piece of cake or the odd glass of wine every now and then which, to be honest, I didn’t actually enjoy that much anyway. So often in life, the thought of something is much better than the reality. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to reach for a piece of chocolate.
It’s also important to go about addressing any obstacles (or perceived obstacles) in your life in a classy way, like Dempsey and Christel. Although I don’t work in the field of International Arbitration anymore, I am aware from people’s Linkedin posts that there is a pledge for equal representation for women as arbitrators. I see the issue. Historically, there was a smaller pool to draw from, because there weren’t as many females that practiced in international arbitration or in law at all for that matter. But times have changed and I wonder if such an initiative is actually necessary. I wouldn’t have signed up to it, even though I am a woman. If you work hard and build a reputation of excellence in your field, you’ll soon get noticed. Sometimes you need to just shut up and get on with the job rather than bitch about how unfair life is. Work on improving your skill set. Form relationships with people and earn their trust. Just as Dempsey says, you have to keep working. Just take me as an example. In the five years that I have been gardening, I have been warmly welcomed into garden circles, even though I was a recreational gardener and only became a business owner fairly recently. Many of the businesses in the horticultural field are tight knit family businesses that have been handed down for generations. I’m much younger than all of the other gardening business owners. I’m not a fifth generation European New Zealander and I don’t live in provincial New Zealand. Yet, these businesses all jumped on board immediately when I asked if I could be their brand ambassador. New Zealand’s leading rose and fruit tree suppliers were all delighted to supply me with stock so I could become a retailer, despite opening a very new boutique plant nursery which I run from home.
On the same token, the issue of diversity often comes up, especially as I’m in the minority in the legal profession, at least I was when I used to practice law. Obviously, I can’t help this as you don’t get to choose your skin colour, nor do I play on it to get ahead (despite what others may think). But ethnicity is normally a question on the firm’s application form and you’re expected to fill it in otherwise it might look a little strange. When it comes to the interview, they’ll soon see what you look like anyway, if they can’t tell from your name. The thing is though, you can’t just start jumping and down about diversity. It doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Remember that there is a tension between diversity and a collective entity such as a law firm which has to be unified in some way. Everyone is linked. The partners own the business jointly. Staff have to be able to co-operate and work as a team together while accommodating each other’s differences. Somehow everyone must fit in! In other words, you can be different, but not too different. This may seem unfair, but this is the reality of it and how it works in practice. My advice is to find a firm that’s a good fit, despite what you look like.
I’d like to start a series in this section called “it’s all in the mind”. I have been reflecting on how to develop this section for awhile. For a long time, I struggled to find a way forward. Ordinarily, I draft a series of posts in advance, such as the ones I wrote on running recently. I’ve decided to develop this section a little differently and let things evolve organically around this theme. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t put a lot of thought into what I’d like to explore in advance. Before I launch into my introductory post in this section, I’d like to make a few side comments regarding the blogging process.
Contrary to what some people may think, blogging isn’t senseless babble. At least, I hope my blog isn’t like that. Blogs can - and should - be educational, whatever the subject matter. They should add value by stimulating further thought and discussion about different issues. As I once said to a friend, a lot of time and effort goes into drafting each post behind the scenes. All lawyers (or former lawyers like me) should know that it’s actually harder to draft something that’s short in length. Don’t forget that all of the content of blog posts has to be original. It’s also important for me to provide a fresh and positive perspective on a range of different topics. I’m always progressing different pieces in parallel as ideas come to mind. Almost like a journalist, I work while on the road, so to speak, whether that be in my garden, out on a run or even on holiday. Ideas are always coming to me and it’s important that I jot them all down while they’re fresh in my mind.
Why is the mind important? For me, it’s my most valuable asset (over my body and bank account). I’ve always relied on it during my career as a lawyer. Even now, as a gardener, I still spend a lot of time researching, reflecting and writing about gardening. Something that has struck me over the years is how powerful our thoughts are. They affect our behaviour. They govern our actions and therefore what we achieve. They can even affect our physical and spiritual health. If we allow it, I believe that our mind can be our number one enemy. But it is possible to take control of your mind. It’s the best thing I ever did because it was the key to unburdening me at a time when I felt like I was drowning in my problems.
Despite the fact that there are so many books about the power of the mind on the market, I haven’t actually read any literature on the subject, nor have I consulted with an expert such as a psychologist. Research can be very educational and interesting. I do respect experts, at least decent ones. But I really like to reflect on things from first principles and work from there. It’s hard work but the mind needs to be exercised occasionally too!
These blog posts are based upon my own observations over time. I am not a psychologist. Nor am I a doctor, despite the fact that for some strange reason people keep asking me if I’m one, whether it be customers in my boutique nursery, people at the gym and people while I’m out running, most of the time when I haven’t even spoken to them. I guess I should be flattered, because it’s the most competitive programme to get into at uni. Incase you’re wondering, no I didn’t apply as I didn’t study the right subjects. Law was always plan A, never plan B. I never really understood Science and there’s no way I would have met the entry requirement taking Sciences and Maths as my strength was definitely on the literary side.
In this post, I’d like to focus on how, with the help of our mind, we can overcome any obstacle, even those that may seem insurmountable. I will refer to two people that I really admire who suffer from different but equally difficult conditions which they have learnt to manage successfully. Both people haven’t let those conditions stop them from getting ahead in life, which I find very inspiring.
Both of them live in Los Angeles. I don’t think this is by sheer chance. I’ve been to LA once and what struck me is that there is an air of optimism which I found really refreshing. Sure, it isn’t a perfect place, but there’s no such thing in this world. What I love about LA is that it doesn’t matter what family you were born into or what school you attended (or indeed if you even finished school). Obviously, there is certain criteria you need to meet, just like you have to be pretty smart to get into the Ivy League. It’s highly competitive. You need to be seriously talented in order to stand out and looks are very important. It might not seem fair, but that’s life. What I really like is the idea that with sheer hard work, anyone in the pool of talent can theoretically make it.
My first role model is the actor Patrick Dempsey. You might remember him in his role as McDreamy in the earlier part of the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. He is also famous for having a large organic edible garden at his property in Malibu. But did you know that Dempsey has dyslexia and got around this obstacle in his acting career by memorising all his lines? Here's what he has to say about his condition:
I think it’s made me who I am today. It’s given me perspective. You have to keep working. I have never given up.
Dempsey has such a good attitude. I just love it. What impresses me is his ability to think laterally and come up with a solution to the problem. This taught me that I needed to find a way to work around obstacles in my own life in order to make progress. It’s hard work and the work never ends like Dempsey says.
The other person I’d like to highlight as a role model is the fitness enthusiast and Type 1 diabetic Christel Oerum of Diabetes Strong, who is originally from Denmark but has settled in Los Angeles with her husband Tobias. I became aware of Christel on Instagram when a post of hers popped up on my page. What caught my eye was that Christel and her husband happen to have the exact same dog (a blenheim Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) that we had when I was a teenager. I mentioned this to her in a comment and we have been exchanging messages about dogs, diabetes and lots of other things since then. Christel was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1997, yet she hasn’t let that stop her from developing a very comprehensive diabetes portal, becoming a diabetes coach and being a prominent health and fitness ambassador despite managing a very challenging condition. Here’s what Christel has to say:
When I was diagnosed with T1D, the first thing the nurse told me was to never let it hold me back, and I took that to heart. I’ve never considered my diabetes a hindrance, but rather something that I just always have to have in mind. And although it can be annoying and sometimes very stressful to live with T1D, I’ve found that it’s given me a unique insight into how my body works and enabled me to live a very healthy life.
Christel’s reflections are spot on. Rather than going through life looking around at other people and thinking that they’re better off (they probably aren’t), we need to confront our obstacles head on. I don’t think you can ever overcome conditions like diabetes and dyslexia, but you can learn how to accommodate them and nonetheless live a very full life. As Christel points out, our handicaps can actually help us succeed in life by opening new avenues which we might not have otherwise considered.
Don’t forget that everything is a matter of perception, as the managing partner of the practice group I worked in at my previous law firm in Paris always used to say to us. Everyone’s problems seem bad to them, no matter how trivial they may appear to us.
Both Patrick and Christel are focussed on finding solutions to life's challenges. There’s no point in wondering how different life could have been but for your condition(s). As the managing partner I referred to above also wisely used to say to us, we are where we are. You can’t change the facts, so you have to just deal with the situation.
For Patrick and Christel, there’s no “poor me”. They don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves. I’ve never met them, but I doubt that they gossip about other people behind their back either, which is an unproductive use of time as well as not being a very nice thing to do. They’re determined to just get on with it and make the most of life.
It sounds harsh, but I think we all need to toughen up in order to survive in this world. Sure, life can be good at times, but it can also take you to some really dark places as I’ve discovered. Patrick and Christel’s attitude has made me take a hard look at my own outlook on life, which wasn’t particularly positive and forward-thinking. I’ve had to work very hard to change my mindset and I did it on my own. Sure, experts can be helpful but in the end, you have to do the hard work on your own. I’m sure all the lawyers in International Arbitration out there will agree with me. It took a long time, but I finally managed to sort my shit out. As Dempsey says, this work is on-going and I’ve accepted that. I’ll end it here for now and continue to explore this theme in subsequent posts. As always, any comments are welcome. I love hearing from readers, whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.