“Often we see a couple who has separated or divorced and look with sadness at the ‘failure’ of their relationship. But if both people learned what they were meant to learn, then that relationship was a success. Now it may be time for physical separation so that more can be learned in other ways. That not only means learning elsewhere, from other people; it also means learning the lessons of pure love that come from having to release the form of an existing relationship.” – Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love (HarperOne 1992).
Invariably, when people learn I was an attorney at the public defender’s office, they will ask some variation of, “Was it difficult to represent guilty people?” Early in my career a woman at a party asked, “How do you sleep at night?” when I told her my profession. I was so startled by her rudeness and ignorance that I couldn’t formulate a response. (I came up with one later that I’ve never had to use because no one has been that rude again.) Truthfully, it was sometimes hard to represent the guilty. Not always and not necessarily for the reasons you may think. Nobody has ever asked how hard it was to represent the ones I believed were not guilty. Those are the ones that keep you lying awake nights, the ones that tear you up inside, leaving invisible scars that settle into your tissues.
Early in my massage training at the beginning of this year, an instructor reached over to massage my shoulders as I sat on a stool in class. “Oh, public defender shoulders!” she said. I laughed and asked what that meant. “Well, shoulders are usually about responsibility and you carried a lot of responsibility in that job.”
My shoulders slumped in agreement.
“Public defender shoulders” became my excuse and a classroom joke. When fellow students asked me to relax my shoulders, I replied, “This IS relaxed. I have public defender shoulders.”
My career as a public defender ended in 2015. The year before that I was appointed to represent a man on appeal who had been convicted of second-degree murder after returning from war and killing his best friend. My client and I spoke regularly via phone about his case and I came to be very fond of him and his family, and I also came to believe that a serious injustice had occurred in his trial. Somehow his case felt connected to my yoga journey. The weekend prior to arguing his case before the Iowa Court of Appeals, I had my first weekend of yoga teacher training.
We won in the court of appeals but the State requested, and was granted, review by the Iowa Supreme Court. While we waited for that next phase of the appeal, I sent my client information on yoga for veterans with PTSD from the Veterans Yoga Project. He began practicing yoga every day in prison. I continued with my teacher training.
In the early spring of 2015, right before my last training weekend, I traveled to northeast Iowa to argue this case before the Iowa Supreme Court and 350 members of the community. Due to a mistake by the court, a second case of mine was scheduled as well and so I argued two cases back-to-back. Normally nervous on such an occasion, particularly with such an unusually large audience (maybe a dozen or so people usually attend oral arguments when they are held in the judicial building in Des Moines), a steely calm had settled over me that week as I worked out my fears on my yoga mat. At the community reception after the argument, I was startled by the number of citizens who came up to speak to me about my cases or the law or just to say hello. When I looked around at the end of the night, both attorneys from the Attorney General’s Office and all the members of the Court were gone. I alone remained talking to the public.
The Court usually takes several months to decide a case. By early June I knew that I had to make a life-changing decision about quitting my job before the Court made its own decision about my case. Several years before I had lost a murder case as a trial attorney and the blow was emotionally crippling. A year and a half later, I transferred to the appellate office, thinking appeals would give me the emotional distance I needed to do my work without being personally devastated. By 2014 I knew the “problem” was really me. I took my cases too personally. I invested in my clients too deeply. Whether I was in the trial courtroom or rifling through pages of trial transcripts, safely ensconced in a cubicle as an appellate attorney, mattered not. I decided, win or lose my veteran-client’s case, I would quit my job at the end of the year.
In the middle of June 2015 the Iowa Public Defender Office held its annual conference in Des Moines, at which we could earn our continuing education credits, and at which I had volunteered to teach a couple free yoga classes to relieve stress and the ache of sitting in chairs all day. It was also with bittersweet feelings that I was honored as Attorney of the Year for 2015. The very next day, I lost my case. I pulled up the decision on my home computer, waiting breathlessly at 8:30 when the Court issues decisions online each Friday. My cat Louie refused to get off my chair, so I knelt in front of the computer. I remember feeling incredibly grateful that I was already on my knees because scrolling down to the words that indicated we lost would have brought me to my knees anyway. When I called my client at the prison that morning to tell him we lost, I burst into tears.
The very next day, a weight seemed to settle upon me. It was as if someone had draped a cloak over me that was weighed down by stones. I was incredibly frightened. How was I going to do everyday things, let alone put everything into place so I could resign? Not by coincidence, I’m sure, a friend had given me a free session with his healing touch practitioner and I had scheduled it for a week or so after the Court’s decision. The healing touch practitioner was able to lift that depressive weight from me, and without even knowing about the case, she said, “There is some case, some client you care deeply about. You need to know there is nothing more you could have done to change the outcome.” I burst into tears again. After the case had ended, I anonymously sent my client a book about yoga from the Prisoners Yoga Project. He knew it was from me.
Every time I’ve had bodywork in massage school this year, grief has oozed out of me as I drove home thinking about this case. This failure. The fact that my client is parted from his family for 35 ½ years. And then came Acupressure class in June of this year, a subtle modality using fingers or thumbs to press points along the meridians of the body, much like acupuncture but minus the needles. Receiving acupressure had a strange effect on me; I was waking at 4:00 AM and didn’t care about food. (I have NEVER not cared about food.) I was stressed because my car was in the shop for 3 days, only to come out with the same problem it had going in, and my home air conditioner had to be replaced. It was also the one-year anniversary of the loss of this case, and I was feeling it keenly, crying each night as I went home. Until one night I was crying on the table in class; my partner continued to quietly work on me as tears puddled in my ears. My instructors came to work on me as well, pressing points on my head and feet. I hated the vulnerability of it, the crying in front of others. My armor was failing me.
As I was lying in bed that night, I remembered something I read that day in Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love. That week I had also been adding to the misery by thinking of my romantic failures over the years. So I pulled out Williamson’s book to stop the self-flagellation and stumbled on the quote at the top of this post. This case was a loss, no doubt, but maybe it wasn’t a failure? My client has moved onto the next stage of the process with a new attorney to continue to seek justice, and I still hold out hope that he will walk outside the prison walls one day and return to his family. Yet, if that doesn’t happen, perhaps he will find a different kind of freedom through yoga, even within prison walls. I know, without question, that he made me a better person and a better lawyer, and it is because of him that my yoga journey has changed. Next month I’ll be attending training in trauma-sensitive yoga at Kripalu in Massachusetts so that I can work with others to release old traumas held within their tissues.
What about my shoulders, you ask? To that, I’ve added my stubborn and mistrustful neck, which I blogged about last time, and gluteal amnesia. Yes, you read that right. It turns out my gluteal muscles don’t fire like they’re supposed to, so other muscles are compensating. And the term for that is gluteal amnesia. I swear I didn’t make that up. When I told a classmate about my public defender shoulders AND amnesiac glutes, she quipped, “So your shoulders want to save the world but your ass just can’t be bothered?” Perhaps that will be the title of my memoir!
I was so engrossed in my neck and my ass this summer that I had completely forgotten about my shoulders until I was in Chair Massage in late June when a classmate working on me said, “Wow, you have great shoulders. So soft, hardly any knots.”
“What????” I asked, pulling my head off the face cradle, thinking I must’ve heard wrong. I didn’t. Other classmates have made the same remark since June. My public defender shoulders have melted, releasing over a decade of responsibility on the tables at massage school.
Question for reflection: What relationship has ended, or is ending, that you could view as a success instead of a failure?
©2016 Rachel Regenold