Mental health matters! We’re getting up close and personal about what happens when we cross the self-protective lines we set for ourselves, as well as chatting about therapy, stress, anxiety and more.
I was crying in my office again. And not for the last time. The work wouldn’t stop and I was feeling overwhelmed, but I knew I had more hours to put in. That part I was used to. Over the years I had done everything from cancelling evening plans and vacations with friends to locking myself away with my laptop during my sister’s bachelorette party – all to keep working. But these tears were for the words I had just written describing my biggest client:
“The [REDACTED] product range includes pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, precision rifles, and machine guns...”
Few people understand what I used to do as a corporate lawyer. Other than my colleagues and our clients, even other lawyers would yawn when I started to talk about bonds and yields and balance sheets. Explaining that I worked for global banks and hedge funds to non-lawyers made them politely nod and walk away or engage me in boring conversations that I wanted to avoid too.
On the rare occasions that I got to socialize and try to have sex with people, I chose not to talk about my job. It already took up most of my days and nights and nonexistent weekends. Saying I was a lawyer guaranteed that I would go home alone, so I channeled Miranda from “Sex and the City”, another corporate law career woman, and lied:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
It was *technically* true. And that’s what made me a good lawyer – manipulating words to find whatever I wanted them to say. After graduating from law school I specifically chose corporate law because I didn’t want to deal with people and their problems. Criminal law, whether as prosecutor or defender, meant taking on the messy parts of people’s lives and not getting paid very much. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt thanks to my degrees from #1 American College and Top Five American Law School, I couldn’t afford to be a good guy in a bad suit. I wanted to be a bad guy in a good one.
What did I do, exactly? Whatever my supervisors told me. As a junior lawyer in New York I didn’t get to choose which clients I worked for, but if you’re outraged by the Panama Papers or don’t understand why global firms like Amazon barely pay taxes, blame me. The bonds I helped sell allowed my clients to “minimize their tax burden” in “low-tax jurisdictions.” A few million tucked away offshore over here, more than a billion stashed away over there. Zeros didn’t matter when it was just numbers on a page.
The story behind those pages should have, but I was just doing my job. I did a handful of deals for domestic companies in America and then dozens more internationally once I moved to London. The clients and languages changed, but the bonds and currencies stayed the same. I can’t trash any of my former clients since I am still *technically* a lawyer, but looking back it was a who’s who of Dr. Evils: industrial agriculturalists, oil drillers, and arms dealers.
In boardrooms from the Midwest to the Middle East I wore my best suits to do the work that people I meet now would consider to be my worst. I wasn’t “following orders,” I was just doing my job.
It was working for the arms dealer that finally broke me. I knew that they were one of my firm’s clients, but I told myself that working for this client in particular was the one bridge I wouldn’t cross. Even lawyers were allowed to have their morals, and I told myself that I would never work for a weapons manufacturer. With every deal I did for companies extracting more from the earth or profiting exclusively from addiction, I told myself that my red line was guns.
The only problem with red lines, no matter how clear they are, is how easy it is to cross them. I didn’t even have to leave my desk to cross mine when my partner mentor, knowing I wanted to do more work for German clients, brought me the one German client I had been trying to avoid. He dropped the documents on my desk, and I realized that I still had a choice – I could still, at this point, say no.
I asked for the deadline instead.
More lawyers and bankers than you might think have their limits. One of the partners I looked up to had the same as me. But in the time it took for the files to hit my desk I had already performed made the mental contortions necessary to complete the assignment: what was the point in avoiding one client if the money from that client still paid my salary? Wouldn’t I have to leave the firm if I didn’t want to be a hypocrite? And what was the point in that when someone else would do it anyway?
I kept up the contortions when we flew into [REDACTED] airport to meet my new client at [REDACTED] offices: they weren’t just paying my salary, look at how clean the streets were. All their taxes were also paying for the police officers and street cleaners who had no idea what was happening behind the nondescript doors of their bland corporate building.
I didn’t do much work for that client, but the little that I did was enough. The weapons they produced were sold to the governments keeping me and my way of life safe, weren’t they? Yes, but they were also sold for “private use.” That meant they were sold to the civilians who used them against each other and themselves over 40,000 times in America last year.
Hidden behind the numbers were the most popular models that my clients produced: handguns light enough to be used by anyone and the never-terrorist-just-bad-guy-with-a-gun mass shooter’s favorite, the AR-15. All of them “made in Germany” with precision engineering. No one can trace any specific gun deaths back to me, but Germany is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world, and *someone’s* former client illegally exported thousands of rifles to Mexico. I ignored the messy reality of what I was really doing for as long as I could until one day I couldn’t.
I had flown into Berlin for the weekend and The Black Madonna’s b2b set with DJ Nobu at Berghain. Right there on the dance floor in front of her, on a date with a guy I had just met, I burst into tears and shut down. I had compartmentalized so many parts of myself and twisted myself in so many directions for my work that I had often wished for something bad to happen to me. High rates of substance abuse, depression and anxiety were just another part of the job I had signed up for, and I was close to earning millions of dollars a year as a law firm partner.
The head of my department told me I had to devote myself “body and soul” to my job if I wanted to succeed, but as the guy I had just met watched me cry in Berghain, I realized I couldn’t. My job wasn’t killing me, but it also wasn’t right for me. So I quit.
And, yes, I walked away from a lot of money and, yes, my grandmother cried when I told her how much, but I had to stop fucking the world.
I had to stop fucking myself.
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