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Five years ago, I was having thoughts of suicide on a daily basis. Things were not good in my relationship at home. I was completely overwhelmed at work. I literally could not see any way out of my situation. And all of that made suicide feel like an actual solution. What's worse is I don't think anyone knew how far gone I was. No one knew that I was walking around on the daily, contemplating suicide. My girlfriend didn't know, my friends didn't know, my family didn't know and my colleagues didn't know. Had they known, I have no doubt they would have reached out to me. The fact that they didn't know is scary because it means I was really good at living a lie. And because no one knew I was suffering, my sense of loneliness and isolation was greatly compounded.


Why didn't I ask for help?


Because I was totally immobilized by fear. You know the fight or flight response, our evolved threat response that helps us react to danger? That surge of adrenaline that enables parents to lift wrecked vehicles off their children? There's a third component to it. We don't often hear about it but it's just as real. It's the freeze response. The fight response can help us confront a danger that we might be able to overcome. The flight response mobilizes us to escape when we realize we're outmatched. But what about those times when we're outmatched yet so overwhelmed that we can't even flee? Enter, the freeze response or the "if I don't move then you can't see me and thus can't hurt me" response.


It would probably be fair to say that five years ago I spent about eight months of my life in a semi-frozen-fighting-and-fleeing state. I was frozen in my personal relationship because I didn't feel safe at home and by "safe" I mean that I knew my relationship with my girlfriend was on the rocks. Yet, despite knowing we were unhappy, I was at a complete loss for solutions. When she would try to talk with me about things, I would literally just shut down. I was so overwhelmed and under-resourced I couldn't even talk about our problems. I would just sit there like a deer in headlights, frozen.


At work I would vacillate between fight and flight. I was fighting the cases, trials and prosecutors I needed to fight. I was fleeing everything else, especially socialization, exercise, self-care and any other non-work-related activity. Did I mention that the multiple sexual assault cases, felony assault on a police officer cases and other challenging matters I was handling seemed to be getting a TON of media coverage at the time? There was a period (i.e., a very long fucking time) when the first result produced by Googling "James Ferguson Alaska" was a scathing article about a sexual assault case I was handling. To say that I felt beset on all sides would be an understatement. I felt like I was living in the middle of a battlefield under active shelling. Munitions were exploding all around me. But that was where I had to live and work. There was nowhere else to go. So every day, I did what I had to do. I put on my helmet, kept my head down and trudged through the battlefield when it took everything I had to simply put one foot in front of the other. I felt numb and like I could die at any moment.


So why didn't I ask for help? I mean if there's anything that is the human equivalent of a "check engine" light or a dead canary in the coal mine, it ought to be recurring thoughts of suicide.


Here's a glimpse into my thoughts from that time:

"Who could possibly help me? No one can help me! Everyone has their own caseload to work. Nobody has time to help me with my shit. And HOW could anyone help me anyway? What are they going to do, take these cases to trial for me? Of course not. How is this going to end? Is this ever going to end? This is never going to end. My relationship is in shambles. Why can't I talk to my girlfriend? I'm going to lose my girlfriend. I'm going to lose my dog. I'm going to lose my house. My client is unhappy. My client is saying the meanest things to me. My client is literally saying to me that I am "digging his grave and hitting him in the head with the shovel." My client hates me. My picture is on the front of the newspaper with ugly things written about this case. All of these jurors hate me. The judge is ruling against me. I am a fucking failure. I am not good enough to do this work. I am a fraud. [self-loathing, self-loathing, I should just kill myself]"


Note, self-loathing is different from self-pity. I think self-pity still contains a shred of self-compassion in there somewhere. Perhaps self-pity seeks to elicit compassion from others. I was far beyond that. Self-loathing for me was was active warfare against myself. There was no self-compassion, only shame and contempt for myself interspersed with thoughts of self-harm. I was waging war against myself. And what's the greatest act of war? It's annihilation, total destruction, termination. The greatest act of war I could commit against myself was suicide.


How perverse is that? I was burning out but using the few shreds of energy that I had left to hate myself.


The good news (spoiler alert) is that I lived. Eventually, the troops ran out of mortars to lob, the smoke cleared and the sun came out. It primarily happened by virtue of me clearing a backlog of heinous sex assault, murder, robbery and other difficult trial cases that I'd inherited from a retiring colleague. Of course, when the smoke cleared, my girlfriend had broken up with me. I'd lost my dog. I'd lost my house. And I was literally in pain from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I was in so much pain that every physical movement hurt. Seriously, I'd never had my toes hurt for no good reason. I barely had the motivation to get out of bed. But, for the most part, the thoughts of self-harm passed. I went to therapy and that produced some powerful breakthroughs that addressed the thoughts of self-harm and shame. And, independent of therapy, I did my own self-work that has made it all better.


So what's the point of sharing all of this? I'm not sharing it for attention. I'm not sharing it for its shock value. And I'm certainly not sharing it for sympathy. I don't need any of those things. I share it because:


NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS!


AND WHEN NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT,


IT FEELS EVEN MORE SHAMEFUL TO LIVE IT.


PERSONAL STRUGGLE IS A HEALTHY RESPONSE TO PERSONAL CHALLENGES.


THAT PERIOD OF TRIALS I WENT THROUGH WAS A CRUCIBLE FOR ME.


I'M THE MOTHER OF DRAGONS!


OKAY, MAYBE I'M NO KHALEESI. BUT YOU GET MY POINT. (AND LET'S BE REAL, YOU ALL KNOW I'M JON SNOW.)


BUT SERIOUSLY, I SURVIVED AND I'M BETTER FOR IT.


But not everyone is lucky enough to make it through. I know I'm not the only one who's felt this way. I can't be the only one who's felt overwhelmed, under-resourced, ashamed for all of it and then hated myself for it. I share this because even people like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Robin Williams--people who had more money, resources and access to help than most of us--have lost this battle.


I share it specifically because there's something that we can all do, which costs no money, and requires only a brief conversation with one or two people who love us.


ESTABLISH A "HELP WORD."


Talk with two or three of your most trusted friends or family and establish a "help word." What do I mean by help word? It is a single word that you can email, say or text to these friends/family, that tells them to deploy support. It is a single word that takes the place of you having to vocalize those feelings that are trapped in your throat or crushed in your chest. It actually allows you to ask for help without having to say the word "help." Hopefully, it allows you to ask for help without feeling like a failure. And because it's a word you created with your friend, in advance of your struggle, it already means that you're going to be at least a little bit understood when you say it.


On a positive note, I think it's also fun come up with a "happy word" or phrase that you and your friend can use as a queue for celebration. A friend of mine came up with #init for a help word, as in "I'm currently in it" and uses #thefixer (a favorite Pearl Jam song) as a happy word.


Whichever words you choose, I encourage you to take action and establish a help word now. And if you're currently #init let someone know. If you don't have someone, let me know. Simply having this conversation is likely to produce connections and support. And having a person who gets you, when all you have to say is one word, and they're ready to lend an ear, a shoulder or hand, that's a powerful antidote to self-loathing. I think that's called love, or compassion, or support. Whatever it is, we could use more of it. #thefixer




It occurred to me the other day that maybe everyone is doing the best they can. And that idea has made me much more understanding of the behavior of others, especially when their behavior doesn't meet my expectations. (Because we can all agree that everyone else’s behavior should meet my expectations, right? Maybe not.) Better still, that realization has made me have more self-compassion regarding my own failures.


Here’s another way to say it. Everyone is doing the best they can given their beliefs at this moment. Or, stated a third way, perhaps we’re all operating under mistaken beliefs that we don't recognize as mistaken. Because if we were aware of our mistake, we would correct it and be freed from our limiting belief/behavior. For example, the client/defendant who appears at his sentencing hearing on Friday afternoon, and shares with the judge his insight that, "[a]lcohol has destroyed my life. It's cost me my job. It's cost me my wife. It's cost me my kids. It's been the reason for every time I've come to jail. Judge, I'm done. I'm done with the drinking. I'm done with the boozing. I'm done with the person that I become on the bottle. I'm getting too old for this . . . ." When that client gets released, time-served, on Friday afternoon and is right back in jail on Monday morning—for picking up a new assault charge over the weekend—I could easily experience some pretty misanthropic thoughts and feelings about my client’s likelihood for success. Those feelings might include disappointment, disillusionment and fear that he and his family may never escape these challenges and their resulting incarceration. Worse yet, those misanthropic thoughts and feelings might lead to the broader conclusion that the work I'm doing is futile.


But it's not futile. Because people really are doing they best they can. And any indication that they haven't learned a particular lesson yet, is not evidence that the lesson will never be learned. This has led me to add a follow-up phrase to my "everyone is doing the best they can" philosophy. And it's reserved for those times when clients return, or the times when I have to learn a lesson again. The phrase is: "not yet."


What does that mean?


It means that the client had a lesson or lessons to learn during his last interaction with the justice system, that he didn't learn. Or, if he did learn them, he didn't retain them. So now he's back and he has a new opportunity to learn the old lessons or new ones. Why does this make a client's "failure," misstep or struggle more psychologically bearable for me? Because viewing those "failures" through the lens of "lessons not yet learned" helps me view my client with compassion rather than judgment. Because just like my client, I have my own lessons to learn, that the world keeps presenting to me in various ways and I keep rejecting. Just ask my parents, my sister, my friends, my ex-girlfriends, my colleagues, my dog or opposing counsel what lessons I haven't learned. I'm sure they could give you a laundry list. I, on the other hand, might come up dry.


This reminds me of a quote by physicist Richard Feynman. "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." It's difficult for me to recognize the mistaken beliefs that give rise to my own shortcomings. I fool myself on a daily basis, thinking that I can eat just one cookie, thinking that I can get one more thing done before leaving the house and still be on time for my appointment, thinking that my struggle is somehow different from my client's. We are all fish, swimming in a sea of our own delusions, rarely able to see them for what they are—except in those rare moments when, in flight for our lives, we leap above the surface of the water and catch a glimpse of the vast ocean of our mistaken beliefs. Sometimes we're able to hold onto that perspective. And sometimes it feels like we're back in jail on a Monday morning, with a wicked hangover, mumbling “not yet.”


Everyone is doing the best they can.


Updated: Mar 6, 2018

The Mayo Clinic asks the following questions to assess one's risk of burnout.

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?

  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?

  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?

  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?

  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?

  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?

  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?

  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?

  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

  • Do you identify so strongly with work that you lack a reasonable balance between your work life and your personal life?

If you answered "yes" to any of the questions above, you may be at risk for burnout. And that leads me to ask, why do some people succeed at levels beyond imagination, while others work with constant struggle and frustration? I believe it comes down to how they manage their psychology, physiology and productivity. Think about it. If you're having trouble mastering your mind, your body and your ability to get things done, then frustration, overwhelm and struggle are the likely results. But people who master those three areas (mind, body and action) change their lives in profound ways. And it's inevitable. When you take control of your mind, body and action, you do more than just survive, you thrive.

So what are you waiting for? If you answered yes to any of the above, the sooner you take action, the sooner your life will change for the better. And I wish I had taken action sooner. Ten years ago I was a young attorney, fresh from the bar exam, ready to take on the legal world. I was leaving my clerkship and headed to the public defender agency. I'd already interned there during my second summer of law school. And I thought I knew what to expect: a community of awesome people who believe as strongly in defending the accused—and our federal and state constitutions—as they do about getting outside and enjoying the wilderness that we're so lucky to share. What I didn't expect about the never-a-dull-moment, fast-paced action of defending people, was how quickly I would develop a 24-hour-a-day sense of anxiety and overwhelm. Why? Because I always wanted more time on every single case—more time with my client, more time to review discovery, more time for investigation, more time to write motions, more time to think about it all, more time, more time, more time. And more time simply wasn't available.

Public defense is the legal world’s equivalent of the emergency room. There isn’t more time. There is only now. The work is all about triage. Even if I were to get more time to work on case A, cases B – Z would roll in the door in the meantime. And I’d want more time on those cases too. Where would all of that time come from?

Working as a public defender feels like being a plastic surgeon working in a M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit, a battlefield operating room. You're doing everything that your time and the conditions allow, but you know that if you'd had more time, you could’ve fixed that guy's face a little prettier, so maybe he'd look like Brad Pitt from Fight Club rather than Sloth from Goonies. He's alive though! You did your job. You saved his life. It just wasn’t pretty. But I digress. The point here is that I literally spent every waking hour of my first year as an attorney thinking (i.e., worrying) about clients, their cases and how I was going to get everything done.

Despite the anxiety, I was successful in my work. And I quickly moved up the ranks of increasing responsibility. But every professional gain was, unbeknownst to me, sewing the seeds of a personal crisis. I was fueling and maintaining the work machine. But I was neglecting the all-important foundation on which my work depended, namely me, the James Machine. Little by little, the neglect took its toll on me. The personal decline began imperceptibly, like the boiling of a frog. You know the saying, toss a frog into boiling water and he'll leap out. But toss a frog into tepid water and you can slowly boil him for dinner. I've never cooked a frog and I have to believe there are more humane ways of doing it. But you get the point, failing to properly fuel and maintain the James Machine led me to waking up one day completely overwhelmed and with my personal life in shambles. I'd suddenly become aware that the water was boiling.

I was both the frog and the cook.



I felt stuck. I felt frozen. I felt powerless. It was utterly debilitating. I felt like all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and keep my head down as life hurled boulders down upon me. And because I was keeping my head down, I also couldn't see any way out of my situation. My wonderful girlfriend was unhappy with our relationship and I could tell she was on the verge of breaking up with me. And when she tried to talk with me about things, I felt like a deer in headlights—I couldn't talk about anything. I was immobilized, just waiting to be plowed over by the convoy of Mack Trucks headed my way. The only solution I could think of was running away from everything, which clearly wasn't an option. So I remained frozen. I kept my head down as the boulders continued to pummel me. I felt like I had zero personal resources to do anything beyond my work. And after a six-month period of five very difficult trials and months of neglecting my personal life, my girlfriend understandably broke up with me.

And she kept our dog. (To be fair, she won our custody coin toss. But that didn't make it hurt any less.)

That's when I hit rock bottom. I mean you can take a man's heart but taking his dog too? The dam that had been keeping all of that stress, anxiety and overwhelm just below the surface—behind a fortress of rebar and concrete—that dam broke to release a tsunami-like tidal wave and flood of biblical proportions. Not to mix metaphors but--I’m going to mix metaphors. Or maybe that was a metaphor and this is a similie: it felt like I'd been dropped from an airplane to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (or perhaps the Marianas Trench) and bounced off all of the space junk, mountains, rocks and sharp coral reefs on my way down. Literally, everything in my body hurt. I seriously hurt from the top of my head all the way to the tips of my toes. It was unbelievable. I went to psychotherapy, which helped to address the emotional component of my bounce-off-every-hard-thing-till-you-reach-the-bottom-and-bounce-once-more-for-good-measure fall. But therapy was patently unhelpful in getting me to take better care of the James Machine. That is, therapy helped me deal with the temporary emotional upheaval I was experiencing. But therapy didn’t give me the keys or the accountability to positively change my life for the better. In other words, therapy was shockingly bad at inspiring me and holding me accountable to do self-care.

“What the heck is ‘self-care?’" you ask. Well, I'm a fan of this definition from Wikipedia.

“In health care, self-care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated. Some place self-care on a continuum with health care providers at the opposite end to self-care. In modern medicine, preventive medicine aligns most closely with self-care.”

In other words, if you don’t take care of yourself then you're likely to end up asking a doctor to care for you. Self-care is as simple as that. It’s preventive medicine that may not involve “medicine” at all. Instead, it might involve eating well, exercising, meditating, reflecting, etc. Self-care involves you deliberately caring for the things in your life that are under your control. And that deliberate care is self-initiated.

Need some help with initiative?

That's where coaching comes into the picture. In many areas of our lives we know the things that we should be doing to be successful but we're just not doing them. We know we should exercise, eat well, reduce stress . . . . But often those things fall by the wayside in the face of what we see as competing obligations of higher importance. For example, we cut corners on caring for our body in order to have more time to work, more time with the kids, more time for whatever. Of course, there will always be a balance that we need to strike. And different things will always move up our priority list depending on whether it’s the roof that’s leaking or a wheel that’s squeaking. For me and many others, coaching has been helpful in striking that balance more gracefully and giving attention to long-neglected self-care in order to prevent some cataclysms before they happen. In other words, coaching can help prevent burnout at work, relationship failures at home and some health crises.

Here’s how coaching got me out of the depths of the Marianas Trench and back to living a vibrant life. For me, it was all about getting external accountability that supported my best self. I can make excuses for myself all day long on why I can skip exercise for work, or excuses for why X, Y or Z didn't get done in my personal life. And I can burn the work candle at both ends, at the expense of self-care. But now I know that the James Machine will physically fail without proper fuel and maintenance. The piper is going to want his due someday. Having a coach in my corner, who helps me cultivate my best self, helps prevent me from sacrificing the James Machine on the exalted altar of Work (without diminishing the importance of a job well-done). In other words, coaching helps prevent burnout by helping keep things in perspective. I can't get away with making excuses to my coach and my clients can't make excuses to me. Well . . . I suppose we can all try to get away with excuses, but we know our coach is going to call us on our bull.


So what have I accomplished and what have my clients accomplished through coaching?

  • waking each morning with ample energy and positive energy to set the tone for the day

  • achieving diet, exercise/fitness and mobility goals

  • cutting out alcohol and soda, cutting out junk carbs, developing a regular yoga practice, developing intermittent fasting and multi-day fasting protocols for health and longevity, losing weight, lowering cholesterol, reducing fasting blood glucose, reducing high blood pressure

  • experiencing sustained energy throughout the day (no afternoon slumps that demand coffee or cookies for energy salvation)

  • achieving mindset goals

  • developing a daily meditation practice, developing a daily gratitude practice, completing a 10-day silent meditation retreat

  • being unruffled, unperturbed, undisturbed by the previously-triggering actions of others

  • communicating better at work and in personal relationships

  • having a sense of calm confidence throughout the day

  • achieving lifestyle goals

  • making clear and confident decisions about career changes

  • reigniting long-neglected passions like music and painting

  • actively creating the life one wants to live versus the one that's playing out by default.

These results are just a sample of the incredible accomplishments that clients and I continue to make on a daily basis. Self-care starts with you. But it's not limited to you. I'm ready to help you move beyond the stress, the noise and the overwhelm that's been holding you back. I'm ready to help you build the happy and thriving life you deserve. If you’re ready too. Let's get started!


P.S. Now I have my own dog. (Or a more accurate description may be that Fozzie has me.)

P.P.S. Coaching is just one of many solutions. Regardless of whether you choose to work with me, I encourage you to take action and care for yourself to avoid burnout. The Mayo Clinic recommends:

  • Manage the stressors that contribute to job burnout. Once you've identified what's fueling your feelings of job burnout, you can make a plan to address the issues.

  • Evaluate your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Perhaps you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Is job sharing an option? What about telecommuting or flexing your time? Would it help to establish a mentoring relationship? What are the options for continuing education or professional development?

  • Adjust your attitude. If you've become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well-done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.

  • Seek support. Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope with job stress and feelings of burnout. If you have access to an employee assistance program (EAP), take advantage of the available services.

  • Assess your interests, skills and passions. An honest assessment can help you decide whether you should consider an alternative job, such as one that's less demanding or one that better matches your interests or core values.

  • Get some exercise. Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It can also help you get your mind off work and focus on something else.

  • Get some sleep. Sleeps restores well-being and helps protect your health. Aim for at least 7-8 hours each night.

  • And of course there's always whisky. I'M KIDDING! (That's not a solution. But it is delicious.)