Working as a lawyer and struggling with clinical depression is tough. I know, because I deal with both every day. In a peculiar sense, it’s really like having two full-time jobs that absorb all of our time. As we know, the daily demands and stress of our jobs as lawyers are often unremitting: Deadlines to meet, phone calls to return, and that motion to argue in Court the next morning. We often feel that others who aren’t lawyers really don’t understand us and our work because they haven’t walked in our shoes.
The “job” of being depressed seems to parallel my experience as a lawyer. A common experience of feeling depressed is feeling alone and isolated. When people who care about us reach out to help, there are times we push them away out of a sense of bitterness, thinking: “You really don’t know what it’s like to be a lawyer”.
Yet, there may come a time when we might want to begin seeing depression and our vocation as lawyers a little differently. Not as two jobs, but really one. The one job is to find a way to take care of ourselves. Mother Teresa once said that what God expects of humanity is that we be “a loving presence to one another.” Taking that further, I would suggest what God equally expects is for us to be a loving presence to ourselves.
In any law firm, the barometric pressure of stress rises and falls frequently. Consequently, we often find it difficult to be a “loving presence” to ourselves: to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and nurture a support structure of good friends. The gale-force winds of stress, burnout and depression can begin blowing and disconnect us even from this basic agenda. Yet, if we are to regain our health in the midst of chronic stress, burnout and depression, we must return to these basic concerns because these maladies afflict our minds and our bodies. Our physical state -our precious bodies- gets hammered by the unremitting punishment which they dish out. I have often described my depression to friends as “wet cement running through my veins.”
The biochemical imbalance that is so often a part of depression affects every part of our physical makeup: our eating, our weight, our energy level, and our ability to sleep. How can we realistically hope to “feel better,” to regain the healthy ground that depression has knocked us off, if we don’t offer a loving presence to our tired and afflicted bodies left unbalanced, weakened and fatigued in depression’s wake?
Being a loving presence to our bodies is like being a loving parent. We need to pause – and to have a support structure of people who remind us to pause – to ask ourselves what is good for our bodies. My family doctor once told me that our bodies are like giant tape recorders that remember everything we have done to them. Too little sleep, too much stress, not enough exercise tells our body that we simply don’t care and/or don’t have the time for it. This pattern can have catastrophic consequences when depression hits because the body that we need to help us is not fully able to be our ally. Because it has been ignored, it is of little help to fight depression and actually participates in it. Anti-depressant medication can be a way, especially in the beginning, to begin to soothe our bodies, to calm our minds enough, so that we can begin thinking of how we are going to rebuild that loving relationship with our bodies.
One of my favorite parts of the Bible comes from the Old Testament, the Twenty Third Psalm. To me, it speaks about the journey: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” All humans must make this journey. We must all “walk through the valley” of a life which is certain to have its victories and times of happiness, but also its stunning defeats and times of deep sorrow. The shape of those victories and defeats take a particular form for lawyers. Even more so for lawyers who struggle with depression. The valley can feel more like a deep trench with no way out. Our bodies can feel buried in this trench with no light or air able to penetrate depression’s paralyzing weight. Yet, there are steps each of us can take to begin our climb out of this hole. In my experience, our bodies are like the ladders propped against the trench of depression. The great Psalm tenderly says to us that we are not alone; God is there with us in the deepest darkness. Yet, I would also suggest that our bodies are there for us also, waiting to assist us in our journey towards wholeness.