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  • Dani Fontanesi

Finding My Identity Again

One thing I've been struggling with over these past six months since our "return to normalcy" began is re-finding my identity. Prior to Matt's diagnosis, my identity was largely wrapped up in my career. I was a corporate attorney working for a multibillion dollar, publicly listed company, and I had all the benefits that came along with that. I had a generous paycheck, an ocean view from my desk, and work that was challenging and rewarding. I had an exceptional boss, amazing colleagues, and a lifestyle that I loved.

(The view from our living room in Wellington, New Zealand)

(My view from the office.)

Following Matt's diagnosis I lost all of that. Of course, I would gladly trade it all for Matt's health -- and I did -- but I guess I underestimated just how challenging it would be to try to get it back. I've spent the past seven months or so tirelessly looking for work only to receive rejection after rejection (or worse, not even an acknowledgement of my application/email/etc). San Diego is an incredibly competitive market for lawyers, and particularly corporate/transactional lawyers. I've been told there are more than 1,600 lawyers in San Diego county alone, and 75% of them are self-employed. There's not enough law firm work here to accommodate the oversupply of lawyers, and firms can be incredibly choosy about who they employ. The bottom line is that no one is willing to take a risk on someone whose most recent experience is from overseas. I've met (and even made friends with) some incredibly brilliant, self-made lawyers in San Diego who have established their own firms, made a name for themselves, and are very successful in their business, but doing so requires a good network, previous clients, and years to cultivate.

In the few times that I've had the honor of receiving a rejection email from a real human being, as opposed to an automated email, the response has typically been something along the lines of, "You have an impressive resume, but we need someone with recent California experience."




Despite my ample qualifications, I still have yet to find full time employment in California. During an interview for a legal consultancy job, a highly-educated lawyer who worked at a top tier law firm for many years, asked me, "Does New Zealand have long contracts like we do in the U.S., or do they just have simple, two-page contracts like they do in Europe?"

It took everything in my being not to respond with, "Well, we don't actually have contracts in New Zealand, because we don't have paper yet. We just etch our agreements into bark and then perform a traditional Maori dance called the haka to formalize them."

I've been asked to provide samples of New Zealand contracts in general, as well as specific contracts that I've drafted. When I've explained that I don't have any samples of my work because I didn't know I'd be leaving behind my job (and house and car and all my belongings...) when I boarded the plane for my honeymoon a year and a half ago, that answer has been deemed unsatisfactory.


The conundrum I've found myself in is that I can't get a job without recent California experience, and I can't get experience in California without a job. I've even gone so far as to offer to work for free just to get the relevant experience (and to prove that I am, in fact, fully competent), but I've been told that California and federal labor laws prohibit that.

Having my career (and everything else in my life) stripped from me has left me struggling to find purpose, satisfaction, and direction in my life. I've spent a year and a half living in hospitals, medically-prescribed isolation and, now, non-medically-prescribed isolation. As Matt said in a previous post, these apartment walls don't make for great company. In fact, they are incredibly lonely. While I've been doing volunteer work with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and some other organizations (and find that incredibly rewarding), I crave a regular routine with challenging projects and major responsibilities again. I want to be valued for my brain again instead of waking up everyday to Groundhog Day.

In this search for a job, I've somehow lost a sense of my identity in the process. People ask me what I do (a painfully common question in America), and I say, "I'm a lawyer." They ask me where I work, and I say, "Well, I'm not working at the moment...", and my response immediately engenders a look of pity or confusion. Americans define and classify themselves by what they "do", and if you don't fit into one of the pre-existing categories (lawyer, teacher, doctor, stay-at-home mom, etc...), you're relegated to the "outcast" pile. You don't belong anywhere and people don't know what to make of you.

After everything we've survived in the past year and a half, I never imagined it would be so difficult to return to the land of the living. I feel incredibly grateful to have been given the gift of Matt's health, and that gratitude cannot be understated, but I'm emotionally devastated that I can't seem to return to a normal life again. I feel like I've been banished to a purgatory that I never knew existed -- a world where I can't work (not even for free), and my daily companions are the four walls of this apartment.

After re-reading this post, I worry that it sounds depressing, pessimistic and/or whiny. That's not my intention at all. I'm just expressing my honest emotional state, and I hope it's not misunderstood.

(Matt and I boarding the flight for our honeymoon)

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