The View From Here

Not Done Yet, Looking Back

by Eve Oldenkamp, OCDLA President

From the Apr-May 2015 issue of The Oregon Defense Attorney.

Colleagues, I am rounding the last corner in my journey as OCDLA president. While I enjoy the position, I look forward to sliding back into the role of regular Board member following the Annual Conference in June.

I enjoy my time with the Board. The work is rewarding, and the sense of camaraderie and kinship revived me many times. It is a volunteer opportunity you should all contemplate seriously (see “Bored —Run for a Board Seat” on page 10). Even if the Board seems too formal, we have many committees with which you can get involved. You see passion and dedication to criminal and juvenile defense representation from all corners of our great state. Well worth the effort to get involved.

As I contemplated what to write I was stymied. So, I glanced back – “if you don’t know where you are, go back to the beginning.” Turns out, my last two “views” were angsty. It reminded me how thoroughly exhausting our work can be. Not physically, obviously. But this exhaustion set the tone of my past posts. I am no longer there. In what I write, I hope you can see why that tone existed and why it now wanes.

More oft than I care to accept, I have entered and left the office in the dim light of dawn and dusk. As the curtain falls upon one of those days I feel catatonic, as if I’ve been hibernating. A strange sensation envelopes me as I realize an entire day in the outside world has spun by without my observation. It is a rather empty sensation. So I pause. Try to counter the emptiness. I remember that the work I did in the shadows is profound for those whose lives hang in the balance. I observe it to be essential, the contribution spinning into the web of governance that prevents our society from toppling to chaos or tyranny. And my logic, sitting at the big old dusty desk of my prefrontal cortex, pulls off her glasses, tiredly wipes her eyes and nods contemplatively in agreement. It is, it just is.

This exhaustion – whether you deem it emotional, psychological, mental or other – is very real. Sometimes it rides longer than an evening, a week, a month. At times it is suffocating. Our profession is not heralded by others as the work of champions. But it is. It is peered upon by most with disdain, characterized as freakish, morbid, even unfeeling. But feel we do. Empathize we must. Our effectiveness as advocates demands it. It is our clients’ flags we pick up from the mud, the dirt, the blood of their lives’ battles and carry forth. We see and hear and feel the collateral damage from the desperate acts of broken humans.

We must be cautious with our passion and our dedication lest the collateral damage becomes our lives and relationships. The parade of horribles that we see and attempt to resolve wears one down over time. Our empathy causes us to suffer from this melancholy gloom. It can drain us and suck us dry.

I want to share some insight I gained recently. I hope it shows you how to maintain sanity, preserve yourself and remain in and improve your “game.” The passion that inspires you and drives you, the battle cry that sings in your heart, your soul and your mind must not consume you. You must put it away, let it rest on a regular basis. Recognize what sustains you and make it part of your routine.
It is too easy to overwork in our profession. The adversarial system created by the founding fathers demands it at times. But the actions that will feed your heart and your soul, keep you human, are not extra hours at the office. It is a riverside stroll watching brilliant autumn leaves fall while holding the hand of your love; it is the play session in the driveway, watching your son make his first basket; it is the laughter and teasing as you try to go roller skating together for the first time in decades, or watching your daughter make it up and around the ring; it is the anticipation of “date night” where you get to watch again the strange way your husband seems to cook like Chef from the Muppets; it is the smell of the bubble bath your wife uses on the evenings you go out to dinner and see a local band; it is all of these things that must be protected. And by so doing you make yourself stronger, better at what you do, because the joy and pleasure you preserve makes it easier for your spirit to shoulder the melancholy nature of our work.

You see, I notice that when I do not routinely engage in quality time with my husband, my mother, my father or my siblings, I begin feeling drained, unappreciated, and taken advantage of. In those times, as my husband notes, I am more prone to petulance. This petulance infects my arguments. Thus, my work both creates and falls upon deaf ears. I lose my effectiveness and harm my client’s chances. I settle into an existence that is rather like that of a two-year-old child. I know what I want and I want it now.

Unlike the child, though, I do know how to balance my needs with my clients’ needs, and when I do it is better for all of us. When I get to watch my stepdaughter laugh with delight at her father’s strange observations about men, it makes turning off my computer easier. I am not perfect at this, and I haven’t been doing it for long enough. Recently, though, I began to realize I was becoming toxic. I needed to change the alchemy of my life.

This need for change came upon me as I spent a lot of time with my mother in the hospital and at cardiologists’ offices. My mother is 70 years old and lives four blocks from me. It was a sharp slap when I realized one morning that this was both the greatest amount of time and most frequent contact I’d had with her in months. I’d lost track. I was too intense. Oh sure, I’d stop by, or call her quickly, but those were just moments, not time. Since then I’ve learned recipes from her that I love (and written them down, she does them off the cuff), watched her laugh at movies she’s never seen, and began to learn to crotchet again. Sunday nights are phone call nights. I talk to my brother in Alaska, my father in Tillamook, my sisters – one in Vale, one in Garibaldi – each Sunday catching up with one of these family members.

I am not perfect. I falter at these “routines” at times. When I miss these opportunities to connect, I experience a sense of emptiness more profound than when I bookend a day with darkness. It’s the sense that the moment held something essential and valuable and that in my distraction, suddenly, like a breath of wind, the moment is gone.

So feed yourself – the other part of yourself, not just your passion for defense work. Honor the part of you that makes you so good at what you do – honor that empathy, humanity, love and caring. Create the moments that revive you. Repeat. This will preserve you both personally and professionally. Plus, those memories will warm you in the autumn years.

With deepest regard, respect and admiration,
Eve (El Presidente Muerte)