Lawyers With Depression: Crawling Towards Hope

The lack of hope is one of the most powerful features of clinical depression.

Why this is so is a complicated question to answer.  For lawyers struggling with depression, perhaps even more so.

A lot of people, including lawyers themselves, find it hard to understand why such powerful professionals, superheroes and heroines in blue suits, would be afflicted with depression in the first place.

Yet, the numbers don’t lie.

Studies show that lawyers have twice the rate of depression of the general population.  When put in context, that means 240,000 of this country’s 1.2 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.

Why, some think, would lawyers, armed with intelligence, perceived wealth (whether true or not) and a take-no-prisoners fighters’ edge succumb to such a dire condition?  

The Answer: Because depression simply doesn’t work that way.

The truth is that smarts might not matter much; wealth, while helpful to provide resources otherwise not available, does not guarantee recovery. And adversarial toughness? This trait might be more of a cause of depression than a shield because many lawyers’ believe that the remedy is to just “suck it up” or think their way out of their pain.  But these strategies don’t work.  They simply fall on depression’s deaf ears.

Because most folks don’t expect lawyers to suffer from depression, they tend to search for different explanations for a lawyer’s downcast affect.  They often believe they’re suffering from “the blues”; or, worse yet, a failure of will to push themselves out of it.  One survey found that over forty-percent of Americans see depression as a failure of such will.  One can only imagine how much higher that figure would be for lawyers who people feel should be able to fight themselves out of just about anything.

Depression Isn’t the Blues

It’s normal to feel the blues: a bittersweet type of sadness that colors our lives from time to time. Blues music is popular given the universal nature of this experience.  But while sadness and the blues are inevitable parts of life, clinical depression is not.  The most significant difference between sadness and depression is that someone that’s sad goes about their daily business without much trouble.  Depression, however, involves significant impairment in one’s ability to carry out daily task at work and home. Other differences between the blues and depression include the length of time the sadness endures and whether or not there are other symptoms associated with depression, which are tagging along with the perpetual sadness.

Dr. Richard O’Connor, in his deeply insightful book Undoing Depression, captures some of the difference between the two:

Everyone has had a taste of what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.

 “Why Don’t You Take a Vacation?”

When I was diagnosed with major depression over twelve years ago, I needed to take some time off from my hectic job to allow the antidepressants my psychiatrist had prescribed to take effect.  I called a meeting to tell my three partners about my diagnosis and need to take a break.  Until such time, they hadn’t known I was suffering from depression.  Yes, my production was down and I closed my office door a lot more often.  Maybe a little tired or burnt out, but what lawyer didn’t sometimes feel that way?

After hearing me lay it all out on the table, one of my law partners at that time said, “What the hell do you have to be depressed about? You’re the managing partner of a successful firm with a beautiful family.  Why the hell don’t you just go on vacation?”  The subtext on his stinging judgment and solution to my situation was that if only I were more “grateful” for the good things in my life, including my success in the law, I wouldn’t be feeling so “depressed”.

Little did he know how grateful I was for all the good things that life had bestowed on me.  But no matter how many times I knelt on my church’s pews thanking God for my blessings or made a list of things to feel happy about, the specter of depression just wouldn’t leave me.  It was my constant companion.

Like most people who have never gone through major depression, my partner simply had no reference point for what I was going through.  He thought of depression as sadness: a series of bad days that would benefit from an all-inclusive vacation to Jamaica sipping Margaritas by the pool.

However, I was depressed even on vacations.  The sun and surf weren’t pleasurable; they were painful. They reminded me of what I had lost: the ability to enjoy life, to appreciate the beauty of nature and the capacity to connect with my family who I loved so dearly.

The response of my partner, I was to find, was typical.  It made me feel more hopeless and alone.  I felt that apart from my psychologist and psychiatrist, few could understand.  When really in the dirty trough of depression, I would think, “Nobody really understands.”  I was adrift in a sea of melancholy with little hope of reaching dry land.  Andrew Solomon, author of the best-selling book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression writes:

“When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better.”

In the beginning of my illness, I didn’t recover from depression so much as survive it.  I found myself crawling towards what hope I had left in me.  At that point, the only thing that seemed to keep me going was the deep love for my wife and precious daughter.

That was it. 

This beacon of love kept me trudging through depression, hoping that the heavy cloud of melancholy would someday dissipate so that that I could walk in the sun again.

While the antidepressants I was put on were no panacea, they became an important part of the solution for me.  They didn’t obliterate the depression, but they kept me stable and prevented me from falling into the basement where I couldn’t function.

But medication wasn’t enough.  And it isn’t for most depression suffers.

I needed to start thinking about how to live a better life and treat myself differently.  My psychologist once called depression “crooked thinking”.  I tended to catatrophize everything by more often seeing problems as unsolvable and conflicts a matter of life and death.  When I lost a case, I would take it personally, I was a bad lawyer, and even a worse, a person who didn’t measure up. A loser. I didn’t realize that I was punishing myself.  I didn’t realize that this was a choice and I could stop.

I began to feel like I didn’t have to go on this way anymore.  I came to believe that problems could be solved and that outcomes weren’t always in my control.

I began to hope.

Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2014

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Lawyers With Depression: Crawling Towards Hope

    1. There’s a lot of approaches. For many, it might not be so much an question of “overcoming” depression as containing it. Many, many people (you probably already know this) in my experience suffer from chronic depression – it goes away for a while, but comes throughout their lifetime. Many of these folks are what I describe as “depression veterans”. They have suffer a while, been in therapy off and on and been on medication, but still struggle a lot with this illness. There are lots of things you can do. Are you aware of the University at Michigan Depression Center? They have a fantastic website with a depression toolbox you can use. Also, if you think it might help, I will be running a webinar next month for how lawyers can get things done when depressed. You can register on my website’s homepage. All my best, Dan

  1. I hate the assumption that lawyers get depressed because of the job’s hectic, “work around the clock” lifestyle. There are lawyers who go through long periods where the phone doesn’t ring, where they have a blank calendar, where they haven’t generated much business and feel like there’s no real way to start, where the clients they do have won’t pay. Depression from this is as bad or worse than depression from lawyers who feel overwhelmed by their workload. I’d like to see something addressing this.

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