Lo♥︎ing legal life: tackling the culture of addiction

This week systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss addiction in the legal profession.

Legal life and the culture of addiction

Legal life embraces a culture of addiction. From workaholism to alcoholism, drug addiction to high achieving addiction, the profession seems attractive to those who display addictive behaviour.

For some, their addiction is managed by way of a balancing act. They dilute their addictive tendencies by spreading them across the board: a bit of overeating here, a little over-indulgence in drinking there; a good measure of over-work, a smattering of excessive shopping, and many other activities kept within the bounds of “normal” unless someone cares enough to connect the dots.

For others, their addictive behaviour will be manifest but considered acceptable, even commendable, in a world where working long hours, consistently performing under pressure, taking alcohol with clients and having seemingly insatiable ambition are lionized as badges of success.

As a result, many labour under the burden of addiction without others realising it, and without realising it themselves.

What causes addiction?

Zita Tulyahikayo

Child psychiatrist Dan Siegel suggests that addiction often has its roots in adversity, stress, and physical, mental or emotional abuse in the environment you were raised in as a child, which can interfere with the healthy development of the brains circuitry. Addiction is created by an environment of stress, which inhibits the ability to regulate stress. This can lead to distorted levels of the brain’s endorphins, and can also result in fewer brain receptors of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for the messages of incentive and reward, while endorphins help sooth physical and emotional pain.

In the absence of a well-developed dopamine system, people are far more likely to reach for stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine, or drugs like cocaine, in order to provide incentives. Addicts seek these external stimuli to alleviate their unregulated stress. However, any relief is at best momentary.

So as much as we would all like to just give up our addiction as and when we like, it is not quite so simple. There is no magic pill to cure addiction. The cure is acceptance, compassion and self-reflection; in the presence of this mindset it is possible to rewire the brain. When the energy that goes into maintaining addiction is redirected towards a healthy, confident, relaxed mindset, we see a tremendous improvement in the individual’s performance, and life experience as genuine passion is ignited.

The line between addiction and passion

There are many in the legal profession who do extraordinary things for their employers, their clients and their country. They drive themselves hard, bill seemingly impossible hours and appear to do everything so much brighter and better than their peers. They sacrifice themselves in order to make great contributions to our world.

But how can we draw a line between behaviour which is motivated by unhealthy addiction and activity that is driven by healthy passion?

James Pereira QC

Addiction connotes an element of dependency and a lack of free-will which in turn undermines well-being. At the root of addiction is a sense of shame: a feeling that we are not enough, and inadequate as we are. Shame is also what prevents many addicts from seeking help. Those driven by addiction tend to make excuses, or lie to themselves and others, to disguise their behaviour. They find comfort in the company of others who display similar traits.

A recent study carried out by the American Bar Association is reported to have found that one in five lawyers suffers from an addiction to alcohol, and related issues of depression and anxiety. Figures reported for the UK are similar. The legal profession is a comfortable place for addicts.

By contrast, passion is rooted in positive, liberating and life-affirming emotions, which promote freedom and individual self-fulfilment. Activities motivated by passion are open and proud to be scrutinised, even if they are unconventional or seemingly unpopular.

The need for compassion

Lest we forget the only difference between the alcoholic at the wine bar and the alcoholic sleeping rough is location. We all need compassion and support. Ironically the modern world frequently lacks compassion for the very things that require compassion to resolve them. True compassion begins with compassion to self, understanding that you are just like everybody else and that sometimes you too will need help in life. Asking for help is a sign of great courage and strength; both are highly commendable qualities we all need to lionize them more.

Last Call

Law is a stressful profession heaving with high achievers prone to stress, insecurity, self-doubt and a deep fear that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Addiction is a quick fix. In the last 10 years there has been great improvement in addressing the problem of addiction in the legal profession. Greater transparency and openness can only go further to support those in need.

The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at zita@lifetherapywithzita.com and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.

The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.