For so many of us, the goal of success is what drives us to sacrifice and persist through obstacles. However, this goal of success can take on a life of its own, leading toward perfectionism, becoming our identity, and sacrificing important values in pursuit of what we imagine will make us fulfilled.
When I see an example of a successful person who seems to have no struggles, I am not impressed or inspired; I am concerned.
I am truly inspired by stories of struggle, self-care and resilience. One such inspiring story is from Payal Salsburg. I can identify with a story that involves struggle, and I am inspired by Payal’s resilience and willingness to help others.
– Shawn Healy, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers
Early this year, my friend died by suicide at the age of 30. She was a brilliant lawyer, a passionate advocate, and a deeply caring person.
We had been on a Zoom call days earlier, talking about our families and our ever-growing to-do lists. Through it all, I had no idea how much she was struggling on the inside while living her successes on the outside. Like so many high-achieving lawyers, she never spoke up.
So here I am, speaking up and putting myself “out there” so others may speak up, too.
Nine years ago, on a Tuesday afternoon in October, I found myself on the floor of my office in a full panic attack — crying, hyperventilating and experiencing muscle spasms.
Something had gone terribly wrong. My colleague helped me off the floor and dragged me to the doctor’s office. That day, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety.
I come from a culture that places great importance on achievement. Your success defines you. As does failure.
At the age of 17, I moved, by myself, from India to the United States for college. My parents put me on a flight with two suitcases, a letter from the college telling me I had a full scholarship, and $500 to make ends meet. I was told to look for someone at the airport holding a board with my name on it, and to go with that person to begin my new life 7,500 miles away from home.
At 17, I learned how to support myself with four on-campus jobs, working at minimum wage. When minimum wage increased from $4.25 to $4.50, I converted the 25 cent raise into Indian rupees and felt that I had “made it.”
I juggled work with a full course load, got involved in every club and committee I had time for, and graduated summa cum laude. Success!
What next? Move to Colorado to work on a master’s and Ph.D. in computer science. Get married. More success!
But life soon started to unravel. I dropped out of the Ph.D. program. I moved to Florida for my husband’s job, and I started law school because I didn’t know what else to do with my life.
On Sept. 15, 2008, the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and set off the global financial crisis, I started my legal career at a big law firm. Several of my first-year colleagues were laid off within days.
For the next six years, I put my head down and chugged along, working intensely while balancing married life. I had to succeed, no matter the cost.
At 34, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. At 35, my marriage ended. I lost 30 pounds in a few months. I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours each night. My work suffered. My relationships suffered. Something had to give.
That October afternoon, everything gave way at once.
Sitting on the floor of my office, I was lost. I had no identity. Nearly 20 years of pushing myself to succeed had come at the cost of my mental health and well-being.
I decided to take a year off from the practice of law to work on building myself back up. Fortunate enough to have the financial cushion to take the next year off, I relied on savings to stay afloat. I went to individual therapy; I went to group therapy. I reconnected with family and friends. I made new friends. I volunteered. I disconnected from the practice of law, which had (by then) become my only identity.
The old adage goes: If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it is yours. In early 2016, I felt ready enough to come back to work. This time, I was going to do it right.
When I interviewed with my current firm, I told them about my year off and how I was a better person and a better lawyer for having taken the break.
Six years later, I am a partner at the same firm. I’m involved in the legal community and bar associations. I spend hours each week volunteering. My identity is now defined not only by my profession but by what I do outside of it.
On Sundays, I’m the girl who preps and serves meals at a local homeless shelter. On the second Saturday of every month, I’m the girl who assembles grocery and pantry items to distribute to low-income immigrant families.
What used to be a quick six-minute walk to the office now takes 20 minutes because I stop and chat with my friends on the street.
Success today means something very different than what it did at the age of 17 or even at the age of 35. So does failure. Dropping out of the Ph.D. program did not make me a failure. Getting divorced did not make me a failure. Taking a year off from being a lawyer did not make me a failure. Having gone through the struggle and speaking up, I am better for it.
I encourage those who are struggling to seek help — whether through therapy or otherwise. If you feel like your workplace is not the right venue to raise the red flag, talk to a friend in confidence. Talk to someone, like me, who has been where you are.
Having gone through the ups and downs of dealing with my mental health and well-being, I realize that speaking up and taking a break was not a failure. In fact, it helped me become a more successful human being in all parts of my life that matter.
(Editor’s note: For information on available resources and support in the legal community, visit vjlap.org.)
Payal Salsburg is a partner at Laredo & Smith in Boston, practicing business litigation and white-collar criminal defense. She can be contacted at [email protected].