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Posts Tagged ‘vacation’

enhanced-buzz-13963-1374365048-27This one really happened – and it happened to yours truly (as opposed to the usual disguised anecdote loosely based on a factually altered tale from one or more carefully anonymized clients.)

One night, (or morning, or sometime between night and morning, since we were working an all-nighter) shortly after my arrival at Sullivan & Cromwell, a fairly senior partner at the firm took a moment to lean back in his desk chair and impart the following to little junior associate moi:

“You hang on by your fingertips, kid.” He raised his hands and bent his fingers, as if to demonstrate. “Till it starts to seem normal. Just dangle there and wonder how long you can last – or what happens if you let go.”

Apparently that was all he had to relate on the topic, as he snapped back to focus on reviewing a purchase agreement. I recall wondering if he, after (presumably) a zillion sleepless nights just like this one, felt as bleary-eyed, sweaty and slightly sick to his stomach as I did. I’ll never know the answer to that question. Maybe partners don’t need sleep – maybe that’s their secret.

I also recall wondering if this guy was exaggerating with that whole “dangling by your fingers” routine to impress me – or if he was a little bonkers. In retrospect I think he simply meant it.

Working in biglaw is a straight-forward exercise: You’re paid a lot of money to sit at a desk and work long hours. Someone provides the work, and you do it. That typically means arriving at around 10 am, working on something complicated, with a short break (maybe) for lunch, and then (maybe) for dinner, until about 10 or 11 pm, every day. You also sometimes work all night and sometimes weekends and sometimes all night on weekends.

To review: You arrive in the morning, you sit at a desk, you work until late night. Then you do it again the next day.

An additional factor is that the work is hard. Not rocket science hard, but not stuffing cotton into little bottles either. Initially, there’s a lot of “running changes,” “creating a chart,” “putting it into a table,” “checking cites,” and that sort of thing. Even that stuff can freak you out when nothing you give them is ever what they want and they keep handing you more. “Firm culture” can take getting used to, as well. A junior associate client of mine closed her office door one night, as was her habit, so she could break down and have a good cry, only to realize (through the paper thin walls) that someone else was also weeping, in the office next door. There’s nothing like feeling part of a team.

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Our initial task as client and therapist – our work during the first few sessions – resembles cartography.  I begin, like a map-maker, drawing a square or a rectangle, then sketching the outlines of landmarks visible from afar – the mountains, the sea, the rivers.  In limning a life, the prominent features are obvious – where you were born, and when, where you grew up, what you do for a living, who your parents were and what they do, your siblings, if you have any, and your relationships with them, your partner, if you have one, and your relationship with him.  I get the big stuff down, then step back, and try to make sense of it all – take “the lay of the land.”  Later, I’ll add shading and nuance, and fill in the details – tiny inlets and hillocks, copses and rills.

I conjure a map from blank parchment.  It returns the favor – conjuring a New World from my collected observations, and serving as a trusty guide.  The expanse charted in shorthand on the map permits me to “rack focus” (as they say in film-making) – alter my gaze to take a fresh perspective, observe an unaccustomed vista. The map, as it develops, assumes a shape of its own.  Disparate regions are drawn together by common threads – the length of a river’s course, a shared coastline or mountain range.  My attention drifts to objects on the edges of boundaries, features I might have missed.  The elusive “big picture” – awareness, the ultimate goal in psychotherapy – begins to coalesce.

The first step in the process comes as a question from the therapist.  The phrasing of that “first question” gets debated when therapists gather.  I trained with a colleague who invariably asked the same thing at each first session:  “So what brings you here today?”  That feels twisty and indirect to me.  I usually start with “So how are you?” or, depending on my mood, or yours, “So how’s it going?”  Sometimes there’s serious upset taking place in the here and now, that needs attending to right away.  Before I sketch the background – the mountains and the sea and the rivers – I need to know if there’s a battle occurring on that stony plain, a castle under siege, a forest caught fire.

This is an historical map.  I am mapping a quest – an epic voyage.  You are the hero. Ours will be the sort of map with crossed swords to mark battlefields and mythic beasts to guard those unexplored zones at the edges of awareness.

The first question doesn’t matter much, because your unconscious feelings function like a compass.  Wherever you start, you’ll find yourself where you need to be.

I have a good sense of direction, too.  If I sense we’re drifting off-course, I’ll lean my elbow on the tiller.

Your compass is guided by emotion, drawn to it as to a magnetic pole.  If I detect an increase in feeling, I might grow cautious, slow our pace and sniff the breeze, comb the sky for a cynosure – fear, anger, sadness, hurt.  Emotions guide our way.

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What is it about lawyers and vacations? Like the old saying about long-horn cattle and a Texas fence – they just don’t get along so good. It’s like a physical aversion.

I worked with a client recently who was planning, in utter frustration, to quit his medium-size firm in a medium-size American city. The partner was lecturing him about his billable hours, but business was dead slow so there was nothing to bill for. The lawyer found out later that all his peers were simply billing for work that hadn’t been done yet, on the theory that they’d be laid off by the time the proverbial cow-patty and the fan were joined in unison.

He couldn’t bring himself to fake his time records to that degree, so he was stomping mad, announcing in stentorian tones that this was it, he was quitting. I urged him to stick around and see if he couldn’t get laid off with everyone else, so he could at least receive unemployment. No, he insisted – he needed out now.

Well, I reasoned, then why not take some vacation, so you can cool off and kill time simultaneously?

That was unthinkable.

It turned out he hadn’t had a vacation in 8 months – and that vacation was for 3 days.

Yes. THREE DAYS. Actually five, he said, since he took the weekend, too.

He took the weekend.

His objection to taking a vacation now? He wasn’t going out like that, on a sour note. That wouldn’t be right.

So. Quitting in a huff was okay. But taking any of his accumulated vacation time when the firm was so slow there was nothing for anyone to do and everyone was faking their hours? Inconceivable.

Flash forward six weeks. He didn’t quit. Instead he managed to convince a partner to dump a bunch of work on him, and actually managed to approach the insane billable hours requirement for last month. Now he’s totally exhausted, and his fellow junior associates are complaining he’s hogging the work.

How about a vacation? I suggested.

No way. He’d just made his hours – how could he take a vacation now?

But isn’t that the whole idea? That you’ve earned some time off?

He looked at me like I’d gone mad. If he took vacation now, all the other associates would get his work and he wouldn’t be able to make his hours. Besides, if he took vacation, he’d have to work twice as hard.

Why? I asked. If you’re off for two weeks of the month, you’re only expected to work half as many hours, right?

Wrong. It doesn’t work that way. You still have to make your hours for that month, even if you take a vacation. You just have to pull double-shifts.

Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of taking a vacation?

He shrugged me off, exasperated. I didn’t get it.

In the twisted mind of a lawyer, taking a vacation is simply bad. To take a vacation when the firm is slow rubs the unthinkable in their face – that the firm is slow. When things are busy? Well, then you’re not pulling your weight, are you?

Of course, you can’t simply “take” a vacation at a law firm – you have to clear it with the partner. At my client’s firm, the standard response was: “this isn’t a good time.”

There is no good time.

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I write a lot about unconscious regression – mostly how to prevent it.

That’s because you want to learn to parent yourself – to live your life as an adult, not a child, to be awake and embrace awareness so you can take charge of the life you lead.

On the other hand, sometimes being an adult can be exhausting.

At the end of each day, you go to sleep – a regressed, unconscious state.  You cannot survive without this nightly departure from reality.  Sleep deprivation is harmful, even fatal in extreme cases.   It is necessary for your physical and mental health to disappear into your unconscious to rest and recover.

You also need to play.  Perhaps that’s what dreams are – the play of the unconscious mind.

Conscious play – what the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris termed “regression in the service of the ego” – is also critical to staying healthy in mind and body.

It’s interesting that children play at being adults.  They bang away at a little workbench, or play “house” or pretend to care for a doll.  They are practicing for the time when they will leave the regressed, dreamy state of childhood, and assume adult responsibilities.

Adults do just the opposite.  When you play as an adult, you regress back to childhood activities.  You might occupy yourself with sports, vegetate with a video game or disappear into a novel or a movie.  You might sit on the beach, look at a palm tree and think about the world.

A change of physical scenery can be restful.  It’s nice to escape from your familiar adult world and take yourself someplace new, where no reminders exist of adult responsibilities.

You might find it useful to go somewhere without walls – and with long horizons.  There’s something about seeing a great distance that sets the mind to turning over new possibilities.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote that a man who transcends the conventional thinking of his time “must be accustomed to living on mountain tops.”

It is healthy to gaze into the distance – from a mountain top, or out over the ocean – and consider what might be.  You can best re-evaluate where you are when you can see a long way ahead.

The People’s Therapist is going on a vacation.

I’ll be back in a week’s time – rested and ready to continue in interesting new directions.

But for a few days I’ll let my child take over.

He wants to build a sand castle and splash in the waves and maybe read a good book.  A little sea air and a sun tan – and possibly a margarita – might be nice.  Maybe some good food and a little dancing.

I’ll see you when I get back.

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