The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Paying Your Dues

When an identity becomes too expensive.

I was a lawyer long before I was ever diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was my identity: Terri L. Cheney, Esq., attorney to the stars. I didn't realize back then that an identity can also be a stranglehold, a noose around your neck that never stops tightening no matter how hard you try to get free.

The last several years, the bill for my California State Bar dues has arrived in my mailbox in early December. In fact, with eerie accuracy, it has always arrived on my birthday. I put the envelope in a conspicuous place on my dining room table, then I promptly proceed to ignore it until the day before it's due. Not that I don't think about it in the interim; I think about it a lot. I wonder why the hell I'm forking out almost six hundred dollars each year to stay active in a profession I never, ever plan to practice in again. Six hundred dollars is an awful lot of money. What exactly is it I'm buying?

I could go on inactive status and pay a fraction of that amount. Or I could drop the Intellectual Property and Litigation sections I belong to, and reduce the bill significantly. But I don't. I cling—to what? To a memory of when I was actually practicing law and made enough money to feel safe and secure? To the little frisson of pleasure I feel when I introduce myself as a lawyer to someone who hasn't been taking me seriously? These are pleasant things, to be sure, but they're not worth six hundred bucks.

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Everyone I talk to about this supports my decision to stay active. "You never know when you'll need it," they say. Even my mother, the paragon of frugality, thinks that it's money well spent. But what they don't understand, and what I know in my bones, is that I'll never be a real lawyer again. I can't take the stress of the constant deadlines, the infighting, the office politics, the relentless demands on my brain. I might as well stand in a lightning storm with silverware strapped to my body: It would kill me just as surely.

Besides, I don't know how to think like a lawyer anymore. I've lost that paranoid edge. I don't know how to compete with sharks—my sharkskin suits have long since been bundled off to the Salvation Army. And frankly, I don't want to relearn those skills. It's taken me over a decade to forget how to be rapacious.  

Years of living with a mental illness have made me soft. Softness is not always such a bad thing. I have empathy now for those who are struggling; I don't automatically want to squash them underfoot, and I don't sneer at their weakness. I've lost my litigator's heart. 

I know that the law is as dangerous to me as a shot of cobra venom. And yet I play at being a lawyer. My business cards still say "Esquire." I frequently mention the fact in interviews. I just agreed to write an article for California Lawyer magazine. Who am I kidding? Only myself. 

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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