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Season 1 Episode 7 – Mark Virgin

Mark Virgin is an experienced litigator and principal of Stevens Virgin, a Vancouver law firm that specializes in civil, commercial, and administrative law. Mark also  dedicates hundreds of hours annually to community service.

In this podcast, Mark talks about how anxiety fuelled his academic and professional success, until it started being debilitating. Today, Mark says, “I still have anxiety, but I now have the tools that allow me to function without the kinds of impediments that were being created by my anxiety previously.”

John Bateman (JB): My next guest is Mark Virgin. Mark, it’s great to have you here. Thank you. I’m starting out all interviews on #OurAnxietyStories with the basic question, ‘What’s your anxiety story?’

Mark Virgin (MV): Okay. Well it’s been a lifelong journey contending with anxiety. When I was a kid my mother always referred me to me as a a worrywart, which was something that I think I inherited probably from her. And it ended up becoming something that I function at a pretty high level with. That I was very, in some respects, proud of: of the fact that I would drive myself forward, propel myself, if you will, particularly early in my professional life by ensuring that I worried about the details at practice. Law and lawyers are very, very much a group that are competitive and you don’t like to admit any failing. And of course, having a vulnerability like anxiety is not something that you’re going to be quick to disclose and instead start to gird yourself and believe that this is something that is helping you in terms of your performance in the workplace.  

MV: And I had done that for a very long time until one point it started to become critical and I had to acknowledge the fact that this was something that I was not managing well. And it turned out in my areas of practice, one of which dealing with injury cases, I work a lot with psychiatrists and I approached one of them that I had a very good working relationship with. I brought up the fact that I was contending with this issue and, uh, and that I needed help. And that’s what led me to actually pursue CBT therapy. And the rest is history: I finally had to acknowledge just how much anxiety was controlling my life. So that’s the short version.  

JB: Yeah. So you said you were aware of something when you were younger, of being a worrywart like you say. And I was, of course, given that moniker from time to time. How did it manifest then compared to how it manifested once you kind of got your career rolling because you have a very intensive career? Obviously law is an intense career, and you’re very active in a lot of other aspects of your life as well. What kind of symptoms were you experiencing when you realized that your anxiety had gone too far?  

MV: I found that I was getting episodes where I became housebound. I just could not contend with going to the workplace. And by this point in time when it opened, materialize at a truly crippling level, I had built up a practice of 30 people and the wood, it really was overwhelming. I, I probably heard from others today. I was scenario building in my mind. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t leave. The house was really debilitating. Um, something that I was highly effective at concealing from others that the doctor knows that I couldn’t go into work on some occasions was a major red flag and I didn’t want to, um, I didn’t want to continue on that way. But what was I think most distracting for me, John, was that I had been a very long time since I had actually felt what I would describe as a joyful experience, like a half the happiness levels. That was joy. That to me was actually pretty sad to recognize in myself even though I had every reason externally to be happy. I had achieved every mark of success in most people’s eyes, but I didn’t have joy.  

JB: Yeah. That’s one of the very common things that people mistake: success does not make you immune from anxiety. 

MV: Precisely. It was one of the things that I have to say in the end game. When I finished, we would call it ‘graduated’ from CBT – I actually felt joy again! It was so overwhelming. I mean, I truly wept with joy because I had finally gotten that sense of happiness back. And it was profound in terms of the impact for me.  

JB: Yeah. And that’s certainly, in my experience, part of the frustration is looking around and you know, your kids are there, your wife is there, your house is there – and you’re not feeling joy. For me, that’s a very frightening feeling.  

MV: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. And I’m very careful to ensure that I tell people it’s not that I don’t have anxiety anymore, I still have anxiety, but I now have the tools that allow me to function without the kinds of impediments that were being created by my anxiety previously.  

JB: One thing I’m wondering about, with your opening up in your advocacy and letting people know that you have this condition. Did you kind of come clean with your partners and the people that you work with or work for?  

MV: I did. It’s become something that I truly believe is important to share with my peers. I also have a number of friends who are judges, and you are probably well aware of one of our Supreme Court justices has come forward and spoken openly about the fact that he suffered from depression and anxiety. And I think that people who are leaders in the community are doing a disservice if they don’t acknowledge and let others know that they too are sufferers of anxiety and mental illness. It’s not a sign of weakness, particularly once disclosed and you’re able to go and obtain the right help and access resources.

MV: I think that when you open up about the fact that you have experienced issues, people respect that. I’m actually remarkably pleased with the reception that I’ve gotten when I’ve gone out and shared with others. It was quite telling when we did the launch of the MindShift CBT app earlier this year and I went on stage and, and told a brief snippet of my story about having had anxiety as counsel and how it was something that lawyers are so hesitant to share and that I had had years of not having particular joy that I now experienced and had actually an individual from a very well known national law firm come up to me at the event.  

MV: And they shared with me that they too had had this type of experience. Others speak of it in the profession a few of us have made it our objective to make sure that more of these stories are told. I even had a group together at a conference on Thursday of last week. We know there’s such a tremendous problem with mental health issues being concealed in our profession for the very reason that you described, there’s this focus on having this strong veneer of being impervious to anything including mental health issues. I think it’s an imperative that we’d go through an education process with members of the bar and help them understand that it’s okay to admit that you’ve been suffering with mental health issues and to it’s okay to go and find out how to get help. It’s a game changer in terms of my performance in my work by acknowledging that I had it and I’m going at a rocket pace now compared to how I was before.  

JB: Yeah. You coming forward with your message and the way you advocate is really important and I really appreciate you being a part of our event today. It’s been incredibly insightful and very helpful Mark. Thanks very much.  

MV: Well, thank you so much, John, for doing such an awesome job today in doing all the interviews. 

JB: No problem! Have a great day.