In the Beginning – Depression in Law School

The term clinical depression finds its way into too many conversations these days. One has a sense that something catastropic has occurred in the psychic landscape – Leonard Cohen

Everything has its beginning:  the Cosmic Bang, the French Revolution and depression in the legal profession.

There is little doubt that for many, depression begins in law school. One study of law students found they suffered from depression at the same rate as the general population before entering law school. Just two months into the school year, however, their negative symptom levels had increased dramatically.  By the spring of their first year, 32% of the same law students were depressed. By the spring of their third year, the number had risen to 40%.  Two years after graduation, 17% of the students – about twice the rate of depression experienced by the general population – were still depressed.  Such elevated levels of depression have been corroborated by later studies.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 of this country’s 150,000 law students struggle with depression at some point during their law school experience

Andy Benjamin, J.D., Ph.D., the lead researcher in the above study and others that have looked at law student and lawyer depression, wrote me last summer:

“Since the publication of our research about law student and lawyer depression, depression still runs rife for law students and practicing attorneys – nearly a third of all law students and lawyers suffer from depression.  The data to support this statement have been published since the early eighties when the studies were first conducted.  Several subsequent empirical studies have corroborated the grim findings up until 2010.  As the stress, competition, and adversarial nature of the profession have continued to take their toll, not surprisingly, the rates of depression have not changed.  Law students and lawyers remain at the greatest risk for succumbing to depression, more so for any other profession.  After nearly forty years of compelling evidence about the prevalence of the severity of depression for the legal profession of law, more meaningful systematic changes must be implemented throughout the professional acculturation process of law students and lawyers.”

It’s difficult for the legal establishment to face all of this. William M. Treanor, immediate past dean of Fordham Law School, told The New York Law Journal last year: “Depression is a very important issue that often gets swept to the side.  It’s a real concern and a problem in the legal profession. Studies indicate that it is common among law students and common among lawyers. Given that, it’s important to try to figure out ways to combat it and to let people know if they are suffering, they are not alone.”

As author Kathleen Norris wrote, “The religion of America is optimism and denial.”  We’re a nation of suck-it-uppers; a people who drive their inner pain deeper and deeper into themselves until they break. The denial of depression in the law is both institutional and individual.

In Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, Florida State University Law Professor Lawrence Krieger wrote:

“There is a wealth of which should be alarming information about the collective distress and unhappiness of our [law] students and the lawyers they become.  We appear to be practicing a sort of organizational denial because, given this information, it is remarkable that we are not openly addressing these problems among ourselves at faculty meetings, and in committees and without students in the context of courses and extracurricular programs.  The negative phenomena we ignore are visible to most of us and are confirmed by essentially unrebutted empirical evidence.”

Attorney Andrew Sparkler, a friend of then fellow Fordham law student David Nee who suffered from depression (unbeknownst to his friends) and committed suicide in his third year of law school, observed, “To admit that you are depressed [in law school], to yourself or to others . . .  , is a weakness and if you’re in a shark tank of hyper-aggressive folks around you, you’d be hesitant to expose it because why would you fess up to anyone that you have a problem?” Sparkler, his friends and the Nee family started the Dave Nee Foundation to address law student depression and suicide.

It doesn’t get much better when one graduates and enters the job market.  A John Hopkins study looked at 104 occupations to determine which ones had the highest incidence of depression.  Lawyers topped the list and were found to suffer from depression at a rate of 3.6 times that of other profession studies.  Other studies have found that about 20 percent of all lawyers struggle with depression.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 200,000 of this country’s 1 million lawyers are hurting.

Obviously, something is really rotten in Denmark.

There have been several theories bantered about as to why law students suffer from such high rates of depression: pessimistic thinking styles taught in law school (“learning to think like a lawyer”), personality types that go to law school, a breakdown in inner values and the current nasty economy and stress to find and maintain a good job.  The New York Times recently ran an article, No Longer Their Golden Ticket, – I was interviewed for this one – which spoke about the stress and uncertainty that law school students’ face:

“[The] days of [high pay and full employment] are over. As the profession lurches through the worst economic slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and the internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.”

However, there has been pushback against the theory that law school even causes much psychic damage.

In an article by University at Michigan Law Professor James Justesen White, Maiming the Cubs, he takes issue with Professor Krieger theory and argues that the law school experience does not “. . . cause permanent and irreversible change and that the ills of lawyers cannot be traced in any meaningful way to the stresses of the three years in law school.”  He concludes:

“I wonder, too, whether the anxiety and depression that we observe in some of our law students is the unavoidable consequence of the challenge of hard learning and of confronting the looming need to prepare to behave like a lawyer.  Soon after they come to law school, students must sense that however hard Contracts and Torts is, learning to be a successful practicing lawyer is harder, and that the road to success in the profession is even less clearly marked than the road to law school success.”

Sorry, I just don’t agree.

My take on law school depression

I think we must look at what makes people more vulnerable to depression before they enter law school – those 10% who already have depression or are at risk for developing it before they register for their first 1L class. For most, there is a genetic or family history of depression. Likewise, there is a history of family dysfunction: for example, alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse and/or neglect.   These folks bring those major risk factors into law school. It is my view that law school doesn’t cause depression; rather, it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for those who already have some risk for it. 

Pessimistic thinking and persistent stress , both powerful dynamics in law school, are known triggers for depression.  When these influences are mixed in with other pre-law school risk factors, law school creates a “perfect storm” for depression to happen.

We tend to mix up law student unhappiness and dissatisfaction with depression.

They’re not the same thing; not even close. Unhappiness and discontent are relatively transitory; other emotions aren’t pushed to the margins or extinguished. We are adaptable in response to our environment. We might feel stressed or exasperated by the law school grind, but everyone  bumps up and down throughout their days.  We deal with our stress and balance ourselves out either with exercise, socializing or just by having stress resilient genes.  Not so with depression.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

“We confuse depression, sadness, and grief.  But the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality—the ability to experience a full range of emotion, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief.  Depression is not an emotion itself. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.  When we feel our worst, sad, self-absorbed, and helpless, we are experiencing what people with depression experience, but they don’t recover from those moods without help.”

There is also a biochemical poverty about depression; the scarcity of neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine that wreck havoc in our brains and set the stage for depression.  As I wrote in Trial magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression, the grind isn’t just about long hours in the office or law library cubicle, but the grinding up of our nervous systems.

We have a sense that such a lifestyle can be problematic to our happiness, but we’re willing to keep marching to that beat in the hope of later rewards (e.g. money, security, partnership). Yet, I can’t help but think that we’re dimly aware, if at all, of the risk we put ourselves in for major depression.

Besides the psychological-physiological links to depression, we live in a culture that breeds melancholy.  How could this not eek its way into the law school experience?

Maybe it’s the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our times; the torpor of the imagination which fails to inspire our young people to live an engaged and spirited life in the law, or the cynicism to think that such a life is even possible that worries me. Or, by the time young people get to law school, they’re so jaded by our consumer driven culture they just want the diploma to start making the big bucks. All of this contributes to depression, to a lonely society that undermines what it means to live a decent, healthy and happy life.

In 2008 the American Bar Association launched a Mental Health Initiative to address mental health problems on law school campuses.  See the Mental Health Toolkit for Student Bar Organizations and Administrators distributed as part of this effort.  Such initiatives’ involve mental health days (e.g. check out Marquette Law School) where they had out a document from Professor Krieger called The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress , “wellness” web pages on law school websites (e.g. check out the one at Harvard Law School) and referrals to a school’s counseling center (e.g. check out Cornell Law School).

While laudable, they’re an arm’s length effort to confronting such a deeply personal and painful human experience.  Moreover, it seems like any presentation on the issue of depression in law schools is limited to first year orientation. What about the second and third year students? Studies conclude that depression rates continue to rise into the second and third year.  If that’s true, what is being done to help these students?  Another query: Just how many of the people who speak at these programs are law students or lawyers who actually had or are currently suffering from depression and disclose it?  My hunch is few, if any.

Why should that matter?  Because the students need to hear it straight-up. They need to listen to someone in the trenches of a profession they’ll soon be entering.  Without such depression experiences, a speaker is like someone trying to enlighten someone about the dangers of smoking and cancer, but has never smoked. Wouldn’t it be a more powerful, credible and informative experience for students to listen to a law student and/or a practicing lawyer, who has depression and is willing to talk about it?

Instead, students are served up programs, usually offered up by well-meaning Dean or Vice-Deans of Student Affairs and therapists from a University’s Counseling Center. There’s a lump-it-all-together approach to it all.  I was asked a few years back, when I was just beginning my advocacy work, to give a brief, 15 minute talk on depression. The school trotted out a variety of people in fifteen minute increments to talk about stress, drinking, drugging and, eventually, depression. Speaking in that big first year classroom, I was reminded of the ancient Greek amphitheaters.  Many of the Greek dramas were tragedies.  And make no doubt about it, depression is a tragedy.

I was saddened by the whole charade, the paucity of imagination and effort that went into addressing such a critical problem; the let’s pool this list of mental ills together into a small program on “mental health.”  I sensed that the students failed to see how any of this was connected to them.  The sliver of time allocated to depression couldn’t help but leave the students with the impression that the school really didn’t take the problem that seriously.

Over 130 million people suffer from depression worldwide on a planet where it is the leading cause of disability. In our country, it’s also the leading cause of disability and some 20 million people are afflicted.  It’s been characterized as an “epidemic.”  If that’s true, what does that say about the higher rates of law student and lawyer depression?  Just what adjective could one use to describe the scope of the problem?

 Addressing  Depression In Law School – Really

Here’s what can be done right now:

1. Law Schools – show the thirty minute documentary, “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.”   Copies of the film on DVD are available form the Erie County Bar Associaiton. Here’s a trailer clip of this recently finished film:

2. Have someone come in to speak to the students that are in the legal profession who has suffered from depression to reach these students.  Give it more than 15 minutes of your time and have programs for second and third year student on this critical topic.

3. Law Students – show up, watch the film and think long and hard about it.

Finally, I want to urge all of you reading this blog to write in and express your views about your law school experience, whether you’re in school now or it’s been thirty years.  There’s much to be gained by such sharing. Please write.

Further reading:

Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 YALE JOURNAL OF HEALTH POLICY & ETHICS (Summer, 2009); Susan Daicoff, Lawyer Be Thyself: An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship Between the Ethic of Care, the Feeling Decision-making Preference, and Lawyer Well-being, 16 VIRGINIA JOURNAL OF SOCIAL POLICY & LAW (2008-2009); Patrick J. Schlitz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 VANDERBILT LAW REVIEW 871 (1999) and Depression and Anxiety in Law Students: Are We Part of the Problem and Can We Be Part of the Solution?, 8 JOURNAL OF LEGAL WRITING INSTITUTE 229 (2002).

           

                                               

 

The Triumph of the Human Spirit – Folks Dealing with Depression

A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles – Christopher Reeve.

I want to tell others about all the remarkable people I’ve known who’ve struggled with depression.  While they’re not paladins that ride into medieval battle swinging swords atop snorting mares, they fight a different kind of battle.  And one no less heroic.

Many of the best people I’ve been privileged to know struggle with depression every day.  While they don’t have shiny medals pinned on their lapels, there is an unmistakable strength in them – even if they don’t see it.  I know it’s real because I see and feel it – just like when I am in a grove of giant and majestic pines during a walk in the forest that must withstand the fury of a winter’s storm in January.

A Hero Steps Forward

Take Bob Antonioni. Bob’s story appeared in Esperanza magazine’s regular column, “Everyday Heroes”.  He had a budding political career in the Massachusetts State Senate and a law practice. Despite holding such a public position, Bob took the courageous step to disclose that he suffered from clinical depression in the hope of letting others know it was okay – there wasn’t anything to be ashamed of:

“Telling his story has become another tool to chip away at stigma. Yet he remembers his trepidation when he disclosed the truth in a November 2003 interview with a local newspaper.
‘I had misgivings,’ he admits, ‘but I guess I didn’t give people enough credit. All I heard were thank yous —the complete opposite of what I expected.’ In fact, Antonioni was re-elected twice after that. He retired from public office in 2009 to have more time for himself and his family, but continues to practice law and pursue his advocacy work.”

To me, it says something wonderful about the human spirit that against such a formidable foe as depression, people keep fighting to get better. And many triumph. Just like Bob.

The Black Dog

A few weeks ago in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, there was a great piece, Ill to Power.  The article was about Winston Churchill’s life-long battle with depression written by the author of the new book, A First-rate Madness.  Here, he describes Churchill’s struggles:

“There is no doubt that he had severe periods of depression; he was open about it – calling it, following Samuel Johnson, his ‘Black Dog.’ Apparently his most severe bout of depression came in 1910, when he was, at about age 35, Home Secretary. Later in his life, he told his doctor, ‘For two or three years the light faded from the picture. I sat in the House of Commons, but black depression settled on me.’ He had thoughts of killing himself. ‘I don’t like standing near the edge of the platform when an express train is passing through’.”

Like Churchill, Abraham Lincoln struggled with major bouts of depression.  In the book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Fueled a President to Greatness, Lincoln writes about a cloud over him that every bit matches Churchill’s darkness:

“I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I feel were felt by the whole human race, there would not be one cheerful face left on earth”.

Lincoln, who many say was one of this country’s greatest heroes, apparently did not feel like one all the time.

Hard to Feel Like a Hero

Most people depression — in some fundamental sense –feel broken.  This conclusion is fueled by the depression itself – both biological (sleep, appetite, energy levels) and psychological (e.g. “Nobody really cares about me”, “I stink at my job” or “My depression will never end”).  But this brokenness isn’t just an “inside job” – crummy stuff they tell themselves about themselves.  Other people or events in a depressive’s daily orbit serve-up damaging assessments and innuendos about a depressed person’s behavior or personhood.

Others may tell them that they are letting them down at the office or not contributing enough to family responsibilities – yes, loved ones can get fed up with the depressed person’s withdrawal from the family, the inability to do chores he/she used to do and the depressed person’s sourpuss.  Or, they deny the immensity of the suffering of the depressive by minimizing it:  “Don’t worry, things will get better.  You’re just in a slump.” 

We sense that their agenda isn’t so much about helping us get better, as it is about them their needs.  Why else would we feel so much crappier and lonely after such exchanges?  It isn’t as if their needs aren’t important, but shouldn’t our mental health be at least as important?

Then there is the cultural stigma – a cloud of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding – surrounding depression.  American culture tends to see depression as a moral or personal weakness; the “just-get-over-it” rants of a society that likes simplistic answers to complicated problems.  Dr. Richard O’Connor, in his book Undoing Depression, captures some the irony of how our society sees depression as different from – or maybe not as real as — other forms of illness:

“Where’s the big national foundation leading the battle against depression?  Where is the Jerry Lewis Telethon and the Annual Run for Depression? Little black ribbons for everyone to wear?  The obvious answer is the stigma associated with the disease. Too much of the public still views depression as a weakness or character flaw, and thinks we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. 

And all the hype about new antidepressant medications has only made things worse by suggesting that recovery is simply a matter of taking a pill.  Too many people with depression take the same attitude; we are ashamed of and embarrassed by having depression.  This is the cruelest part of the disease: we blame ourselves for being weak or lacking character instead of accepting that we have an illness, instead of realizing that our self-blame is a symptom of the disease.  And feeling that way, we don’t step forward and challenge unthinking people who reinforce those negative stereotypes.  So we stay hidden away, feeling miserable and yourselves for ourselves for our own misery”.

Renaming One’s Walk through Depression as Heroic

Why can’t we re-imagine our self-image in relationship to our depression in a more positive light?  Why can’t we think of our battles with depression as, in fact, heroic?  Instead of counting all of times that depression has gotten the better of us and knocked us to our knees, how about giving ourselves credit for all of the times that we have triumphed over depression (perhaps even in the simplest ways); the times that we have risen to the occasion in spite of our melancholy and the moments that we have looked depression in the eye and said, “no more.”  Make no mistake about it that takes gumption – lots of it!  And I’ve witnessed scores of people say “that’s enough.”  While talking back to depression isn’t a panacea, it may be a healtier way for us to cope rather than succumb to it.

Viewing yourself as a hero is a constructive and healing experience for people with depression.  It doesn’t deny that we struggle with it sometimes, but it more importantly doesn’t deny the power we actually do have over it and the courage it takes to deal with it to the best of our ability each day.

In his article “The Continuing Stigma of Depression” psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg writes about the stigma for those who have recovered from depression:

“My hunch is that the disease/defect model of depression, is unwittingly contributing to the ongoing stigma of depression.  Through the lens of the disease model, the legions of the formerly depressed are a “broken” people who need lifelong assistance.  I would like to see a more revolutionary public education approach, with campaigns that emphasize the unique strengths that are required to endure depression. Even if a person is helped by drugs or therapy, grappling with a severe depression requires enormous courage.  In many ways, a person who has emerged from the grip of depression has just passed the most severe of trials in the human experience.  If we acknowledge that surviving depression requires a special toughness, we will not see formerly depressed people as a broken legion, but as a resource who can teach us all something about overcoming adversity”. 

Things to Consider

 – Maybe we fall down 30 times a day, or maybe it’s just a stumble, but we have to regain our balance and get up.  As the old Zen saying goes, “fall down seven times — get up eight.”  That, my friends, is heroic. Just remember that when you fall and get up – YOU are that hero.

– We must remember that when we are in a depression, it isn’t easy to feel like a hero — just think of Honest Abe. But the depression will pass. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t feel heroic all the time.

– We should not condemn ourselves when we are down, but pick ourselves up and remember that we are, truly, remarkable people. 

As writer Andrew Berstein once wrote:  “A hero has faced it all: he/she need not be undefeated, but he/she must be undaunted.”

 

Paying Attention to Our Depression

Depression isn’t just an illness.  It’s a messenger.

In his book, Unstuck, James Gordon, M.D., writes:

“Depression is not a disease, the end point of a pathological process.  It is a sign that our lives are out of balance, that we’re stuck.  It’s a wake-up call and the start of a journey that can help us become whole and happy, a journey that can change and transform our lives.  Healing depression and overcoming unhappiness mean dealing more effectively with stress; recovering physical and psychological balance; reclaiming parts of ourselves that we’ve ignored or suppressed: and appreciating the wholeness that has somehow slipped away from us, or that we have never really known”.

If we would but listen, we might find that our depression is trying to tell us something; important insights about our lives and the ways we live it that might be keeping us mired in a soupy gloom.

We often don’t heed our inner wisdom, but keep going full-speed ahead in the wrong direction anyway. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. observed, “Depression is a vicious circle and we keep doing these destructive patterns because “we don’t how to do anything else.”

When we think of depression only as an illness, we oversimplify its causes and remedies.  No doubt, it has profound effects on our brains and bodies.  Surely, it runs in families and likely has a genetic component. But if it were only that, a blue pill would solve the problem.  And it doesn’t.

The pain of depression may be an impetus for sufferers to live a more authentic life.  Often people who suffer from depression are living from a wounded place within themselves.  Along the way, they learned that they weren’t “good” enough or were “bad people”.  As a consequence, they learned to hide their true needs and wants and live an inauthentic life; a life that may not work, but they don’t know how to change.

In this vein, folks can come to think of depression as some sort of punishment:  a recompense of some unknown sins from an undefined past.  Or, maybe the very real wrongs they may have committed are magnified, as they are prone to be in the mind of a depressive, by the process of generalization: a known cognitive trick of depression where we take a negative incident (e.g. “I lost this case”) and turn it into “Why am I such a failure?”

Depression doesn’t just happen to anyone. Rather, it is the accumulation of a lifetime of varying degrees of psychic pain suffered during a lifetime, often starting in early childhood.  In our early years, many learned that it was dangerous to live from a space of our true selves because of a parent who was an alcoholic, abusive or in some way emotional abusive or absent.

Ellen McGrath, Ph.D., writes:

“Scientists know that traumatic experiences such as child abuse and neglect change the chemistry and even the structure of the brain.  They sensitize the stress response system so that those who are abused become overly responsive to environmental pressures.  They shape wiring patterns in the brain and reset the sensitivity level of the machinery.   Eventually, even small degrees of stress provoke an outpouring of stress hormones, and these hormones in turn act directly on multiple sites to produce the behavioral symptoms of depression. They push the brain’s fear center into overdrive, churning out negative emotions that steer the depression’s severity and add a twist of anxiety”.

Our parents, acting out of their own wounded souls, unconsciously played out their unresolved pain with us during our childhood.  They did so because of their distorted way of seeing the world; a place that they found threatening, its problems unsolvable and against them at every turn.  This hardened them and led them to fail in life’s most important vocation: the nurturance of their own children.

I recall my mom saying to me as a child, “Well, what are you going to do?”  While one could say this was the innocuous lament of a middle-aged mother of 5 kids, later in life I learned it was mom’s worldview that there weren’t really solutions to life’s fundamental problems, that we are, at our core, helpless in the face of life’s thorny challenges. 

My mom suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression for most of her life.  I now see how this passive, victimized way of seeing the world took root in my psyche as a young man.  And how hard I had to work to overcome it over the years; how I had to struggle to listen less to the inner voice and critic of my parents and incline my ears toward my true self which was always there waiting to be heard.

In Listening to Depression, psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb writes that depression is trying to tell us something: that we are on the wrong track in life.  In this sense, depression can be a teacher if we would only listen to it.

How can we come to see depression as a teacher?  Honos-Webb writes:

“Depression can be seen as a break-down in the service of offering the person an opportunity for a break-through.  In this way, depression can be a corrective feedback to a life with little reflection.  We only reflect on those things that break down in life.  For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of life.  We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working.  When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem.  If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.”

I admit that it’s hard to see depression’s value when in the thick of it, the swamp through which we slog with little relief.  But there’s much to be said for seeing depression not just as a disease, but as a messenger that our lives need to change for us to heal.

 

 

Our Struggle with Depression

 

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 clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

Years ago:  I am walking down a Manhattan street on a grey day.  I am feeling so sad; beyond somber and without any external point of reference. I looked up at the grey buildings. I suddenly have the sense that I am a building; a tower with a cracked foundation slowly falling to the pavement below.

I step into a church I don’t know.  I try to pull myself together. “Please God. I need your help.” I have to be in Court shortly. I look at my watch. My suit feels tight against my skin. I struggle to make the sadness more manageable, more contained.  I leave because I must, not because I feel any better; but because I am an adult and have to move through my day, no matter the volume of pain ringing in my ears.

The sadness from that day would end.  I would feel better.    But a pattern was developing, even then.  A pattern of how I would respond to sadness in my life, both past and present.

The Struggle to Break Free   

Some folks have given up hope that depression will ever leave them alone. They’re just hoping for more good days than bad.  When it’s a relatively good day, when life is in flow and not stuck in the muck of melancholy, there is happiness, or perhaps, relief.  The depression gods’ hurtiling thunderbolts have missed them this day. But when they’re in the thick of it, they fight their sadness.  It’s as if they’re pressing on the gas trying to escape their pain while depression has its foot on the brake.

Sadness is not Depression – though they are cousins

First, let’s be clear: sadness is not depression, but it may manifest as persistent sadness that can be a symptom of clinical depression. When I developed depression ten years ago, my sadness was accompanied by lots of crying for no particular reason.

Paradoxically, Dr. O’Connor, in his book, Undoing Depression , wrote that depression is often the absence of despondency:

“We confuse depression, sadness, and grief.  However, the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience the full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief.  It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.”

Maybe this is why we don’t see – we don’t see how we react to our own sadness because we’re stuck in the vortex of depression where everything, like the perimeter of a tornado, is thrown together.

This relationship between sadness is troublesome for a depressive.  This is so not because there is anything wrong with sadness – it’s a normal part of the human experience and gives our lives depth and pitch.  It’s the bass tone you hear when B.B. King plays the Blues. In my experience, sadness has a bittersweet quality to it. As the great novelist Herman Hesse once penned, “It was if all of the happiness, all of magic of this blissful hour had flowed together into these stirring, bittersweet tones and flown away, becoming temporary and temporary once more.”

The Brain Knows How we React to Sadness

A recent study revealed that the brain’s response to sadness can predict a relapse into depression.  Faced with sadness, the relapsing patients showed more activity in a frontal region of the brain, known as the medial prefrontal gyrus.  These responses were linked to higher rumination: the tendency to think obsessively about negative events.  Patients who didn’t relapse showed more activity in the rear part of the brain, which is responsible for processing visual information and is linked to greater feelings of self-acceptance and non-judgment of experience. 

According to Norman Farb, Ph.D., who did the study:  “For a person with a history of depression, using the frontal brain’s ability to analyze and interpret sadness may actually be an unhealthy reaction that can perpetuate the chronic cycle of depression.  These at-risk individuals might be better served by trying to accept and notice their feelings rather than explain and analyze them.”

We keep trying to find the source of our sadness like squinting to find the bucket that has fallen in the deep well.  We circumambulate the hole, peering into the darkness, but don’t see the flashlight nearby that can help.  We can’t see that our attempt to break down and explain our sadness to ourselves isn’t helping – it’s hurting us.

A New Relationship to Our Sadness

In his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer, Ph.D., writes:

“This is an opportunity to move from mental work to heart work.  Self-compassion has a distinctly nonintellectual and non-effortful feel to it. If we can find ourselves in the midst of suffering and acknowledge the depth of our struggle, the heart begins to soften automatically. We stop trying to feel better and instead discover sympathy for ourselves. We stop trying to feel better and instead discover sympathy for ourselves. We start caring for ourselves because we’re suffering.”

Don’t always try to figure out your depression. Give yourself a breather from solving it, this boulder of sorrow. Instead, see that you – yes, you – are worthy of compassion from yourself because you suffer. If you don’t know how to feel this compassion for yourself, isn’t it about time to try?

 

 

How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression

Lawyers suffer from depression at an alarming rate.  I am one of them.

I have been a litigator for more than 22 years, and I didn’t suffer depression in the beginning of my career. But I did have trouble managing the stress of my practice. 

Over time, this constant stress developed into anxiety.  I started feeling like I couldn’t control everything.  I would go to bed fearing the problems and disasters to confront me the next morning.  After years of this, the pendulum swung from states of anxiety to states of depression.  Why did this happen?  It took me a long time to understand.

Recently, scientists have been focusing on the connection between stress and anxiety and the role they play in triggering and maintaining depression.  This is something that should be of concern to all lawyers, who carry high stress loads in their law practices.

Too Much Stress Can Lead to Anxiety

“Stress” is anything in our environment that knocks our bodies out of their homeostatic balance.  Stress responses are the physiological adaptations that ultimately reestablish balance.  Most of the time, our bodies do adapt, and a state of balance is restored.  However, “if stress is chronic, repeated challenges may demand repeated bursts of vigilance,” warns Dr. Robert Sapolsky, an expert on stress-related illnesses and author of the best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases and Coping. “At some point, vigilance becomes over-generalized, leading us to conclude that we must always be on guard – even in the absence of stress.  And thus the realm of anxiety is entered,” writes Sapolsky.

About 20% of the population will experience some form of anxiety disorder at least once in their lifetime.  Studies show that law students and lawyers struggle with anxiety at twice that rate.

Anxiety and Depression

Stress went on too long in my life as a litigator.  I had, indeed, entered the realm of anxiety.  I felt like I had a coffee pot brewing 24/7 in my stomach.  I became hypervigilant; each file on my desk was like a ticking time bomb about to go off.  At some point, the anxiety made me dysfunctional, and I was unable to do as much as I had before.  I felt ashamed of this.  I denied it to myself and hid it from others, but the litigation mountain became harder and harder to climb as the anxiety persisted over a period of years.

Sapolsky writes, “If the chronic stress is insurmountable, it gives rise to helplessness. This response, like anxiety, can become generalized: A person can feel . . . at a loss, even in circumstances that [he or] she can actually master.”  Helplessness is one pillar of a depressive disorder that becomes a major issue for lawyers because we think of ourselves as invulnerable superheroes who are the helpers, not the ones in need of help.  Lawyers often don’t get help for their depression and feel ashamed if they do.     

Many lawyers do not appreciate the connection between their stress and anxiety and their risk for developing clinical depression.  But the occurrence of anxiety disorder with major depression is frequent; in fact, 60 percent of people with depression are also suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Maybe this connection helps explain studies that find such high rates of both anxiety and depression in the legal profession.

Depression “is stress that has gone on too long,” according to Dr. Richard O’Connor author of the book Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness.  Many people with depression have problems dealing with stress because they aren’t “stress resilient,” writes O’Connor.  It’s not some central character flaw or weakness, but a complex interplay bewteen genetics and one’s experiences over a lifetime.

How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years.  This wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response.  When confronted with a threat – – whether real or perceived – – this response kicks in and initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that flood into our bloodstream and propel us into action to meet a threat.  This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t fact these types of real life-or-death threats.  But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom.  Our bodies respond as if we were being chased by a hungry lion.  Accordingly, the stress response can be set in motion by mere anticipation, and when humans chronically believe that a homeostatic challenge is imminent, they develop anxiety.

Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too much fight-or-flight hormones.  Research has shown that prolonged release of too much cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (a fear processing hub deep in the brain).  Another area of the brain, the cingulate (an emotion-dampening center located near the front of the brain), in tandem with the amygdala, helps set the stage for depression.

Lawyers need to learn better ways to deal with stress and anxiety to avoid the multiple triggers that can cause or exacerbate clinical depression.  Turning and facing those things that make us stressed and anxious, and doing something about it, gives us the best protection against depression.

Judges and Depression

Loneliness is the most terrible poverty — Mother Teresa

I’ve written a lot on stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, but not about the judiciary. There has been much commentary, research and Law Journal articles about what ails law students and attorneys — but not about judges.

I guess that’s not surprising.  In my work over the past four years, I have spoken with scores of judges from all over the country.  It’s a noble, important calling in life.  But it’s also very stressful, demanding and . . . lonely.

Here’s a clip from the new documentary A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession. My good friend Judge Michael Miller talks about the loneliness of being a judge:

Isolation, Loneliness & the Judiciary

In an article for Judicature magazine, psychiatrist Isaiah Zimmerman culled through twenty years of notes he accumulated from treating state and federal judges.  Here are the voices of the judges in their own words: 

“Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning, of how isolating it would be.”

“Except for those very close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.”

“Judging is the most isolating and lonely of callings.”

“The isolation is gradual.  Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with    them as before.”

“When you become a judge, you lose your first name!”

“It was the isolation that I was not prepared for.”

“After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”

“The Chief Judge warned me: ‘You’re entering a monastery when you join this circuit.’”

“I live and work in a space capsule – alone with stacks of paper.”

“Your circle of friends certainly becomes smaller.”

“Once you get on the appellate bench, you become anonymous.”

These weren’t isolated comments or small pockets of pedestrian sadness.  Dr. Zimmerman notes that about 70% of the judges he interviewed came up with these observations on their own.

There are several things that contribute to a sense of judicial loneliness.  The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on judicial behavior both in and out of the courtroom.  Judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety and thus must be cautious and keep an appropriate distance and bearing at social and bar events. There are good reasons to have these restrictions, but if a judge isn’t careful to live a balanced life, they can help trigger a profound sense of lonesomeness.

Loneliness isn’t just emotionally painful; it’s also dangerous to your health on multiple levels.  According to an article by psychologist, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:

“Evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships are not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”

Given the pressures and isolation of the job, judges need to recognize the dangers associated with loneliness: unhappiness, discontent, health problems and perhaps . . . depression.

Judges and Depression

Judges are supposed to be problem solvers in black robes; not human beings with psychological problems of their own.

Given the position that judges occupy in our society, the stigma around disclosure to others –and perhaps getting treatment for clinical depression — is much, much greater. 

One psychiatrist I know who treats judges told me that judges request very early or very late weekday or weekend appointments.  Moreover, they ask not to be scheduled before or after another lawyer or judge and pay in cash so as not to attract attention or leave a paper trail.

For the first ten years of my career, much of my practice was spent litigating cases in state and federal courts in New York City.  One of my best friends from those days is now a judge.  When I decided to go public with my depression four years ago by writing an article for Trial magazine, my friend called me for dinner to catch up on things.  He wanted to know how I was feeling and expressed concern about my plans to go public about my depression. 

“Dan, why can’t you write the article anonymously,” the judge said.  “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” I replied. “Why should I have to write such an article anonymously? What do I have to be ashamed of?  Depression is an illness no different than diabetes or heart disease.  Would I write an article about those illnesses . . . anonymously?”

We kept in contact with dinners and phone calls over the next four years, but over time our conversations centered less on my depression and well-being and more on his.  You see, my friend the judge disclosed to me that he was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide some years before. 

I think he felt he could trust me.  Moreover, I think my disclosure gave him implicit permission to talk about his pain and struggles; a hurt only his therapist and wife knew of.  He spoke of the loneliness of his job and how he missed the collegiality of his old large firm.  But, he said that on the balance,  he’d rather be a judge and didn’t regret his change in vocation; a move from the courtroom to the chamber.  He liked his job, enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the chance to do justice.

The statistics on lawyer depression are deeply troubling.  They suffer from depression at a rate twice that (20%) of the general population.  As such, about 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.  No studies have been done on judicial depression.

There are 1,774 federal level judges in the U.S. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of judges, approximately 350 judges across America are suffering from depression. Even though there haven’t been any studies of judicial depression, why would we expect the 20% rate to be any different than that found with attorneys?

I couldn’t find any statistics on how many state judges there are in the U.S.  New York State has 1,250.  Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of these judges, approximately 250 of the Empire State’s judiciary are suffering from depression.

This isn’t sadness or burnout, but true clinical depression.  Sometimes, we confuse being down in the dumps with depression. They’re really not the same thing – not even close. Here’s how psychologist Richard O’Connor, best-selling author of the book Undoing Depression, distinguishes it:

“Everyone knows 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 clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

Nobody’s Perfect

Perfection is also an indicator for depression.  In his article Even Judges Get the Blues, Judge Robert L. Childers writes:

“Because of the weight of public expectation, judges generally feel that they should be perfect.  Not only do they feel that they should be fair, impartial, and make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but the public expects this of judges as well, as do the lawyers who practice before them.  This can create undo pressure for judges and, consciously or unconsciously, keep judges from admitting or recognizing the signs of debilitating disease.”

In an article from the ABA Journal,  Perfectionism, Psychic Batterning’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression, the piece states: “Lawyers [and judges] are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They ‘intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others’ . . . . They don’t take direction particularly well. They tend to have to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they’re told.”  In another article from the ABA Journal, it notes that when combined with depression, perfectionism makes it harder for a person to seek help.  And in the worst case scenario, leads to suicide.

Loneliness & Depression

Depression is a multifaceted illness that has several different causes – some genetic, some physical and some emotional.  In the depths of my depression, I felt very alone – like I was trapped at the bottom of a dark well. 

Many with depression isolate themselves because it’s painful to be around others.  I would hang out at Starbucks and do my work.  I didn’t want others I knew to engage me; I didn’t want others to see the pain I was desperately struggling with.

I’ve found that loneliness and depression often travel the same road.  This creates a lot of problems because the two can feed off one another.

According to psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer:

“Depression is a problem that often accompanies loneliness. In many cases, depressive symptoms such as withdrawal, anxiety, lack of motivation and sadness mimic and mask the symptoms of loneliness. In these cases, people are often treated for depression without considering the possibility that loneliness may be a contributing and sustaining factor in their condition.”

Generally, the debilitating symptoms of depression can usually be managed with antidepressant medication. But when the underlying loneliness is ignored or overlooked, the depressive-like symptoms will probably continue. Unless the reasons for loneliness and depression are separated out, it can easily turn into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where depression leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression.”

Turning It Around

While depression might not be our fault, it is our responsibility to get better.  We need to start behaving and thinking in constructive ways.  Here’s some food for thought:

  1. Get help.  You can’t handle this by yourself.  It is a problem bigger than any individual person.  The A. B.A. ‘s Commision on Lawyer Assistance Programs recently created a Judicial Assistance Initiative.  Reach out to them and they can get you pointed in the right direction.
  2. You may have to take antidepressant medication to help you.  That’s okay.  You may have a chemical imbalance that you need to address.  For many, psychotherapy alone won’t help until they quieted down their somatic complaints — e.g. fatigue from sleep problems — so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems.
  3. Whether you need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist.  A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression.  Interview a couple therapists before you settle on one.
  4. Exercise. The value of exercise is widely known: It’s simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical behavior and habit – they absolutely need to work out.  In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey devotes a chapter to the importance of exercise in alleviating depression.  Please check this book out.
  5. If you have a spiritual practice, do it.  If you don’t, think about starting one.  This could be anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass, or walking the woods.  A lot of research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression recovery.  If you believe in God or a higher power (I am Catholic), you can avail yourself of help and support from Someone who is bigger than your depression.  If you do not believe in God, maybe you believe in some other form of spirituality you can tap into.  Spiritual growth and development, in my opinion, are very important pillars of recovery. Two books from my tradition include Seeing beyond Depression by Father Jean Vanier and Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sister Kathryn James Hermes.  Also see the wonderful guest article she wrote for my website.
  6. Get educated. Read some good books on the topic. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  On this subject, I recommend Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undong Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor suggests that depression is really about stress that has gone on too long. The constant hammering away of stress hormones on the brain changes its neurochemistry.  This can and often does result in anxiety disorders and/or depression.  Also see the article I wrote for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression. It is a companion piece to an excellent article written by Andrew Benjamin called “Reclaiming Your Practice.”
  7. Build pleasure into your schedule.  Judges, like all those in the legal profession, are busy and have the “I will get to it later” mentally – especially when it comes to things that are healthy pleasures.  We have to jettison this approach to how we live our days.  We must begin to take time – now – to enjoy pleasurable things and people.  A hallmark of depression is the inability to feel happiness or joy.  We need to create the space where we can experience and savor good experiences and feelings.
  8. Practice mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath, and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of consciousness. Normally, we immediately react to our thoughts (e.g. “I am losing my mind with all of these deadlines”).  With mindfulness practice, we can begin – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them.  If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the best-selling book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.
  9. Remember to be kind to yourself. It sounds so simple. I tell this to depressed lawyers and judges all the time and they usually look puzzled.  They often admit that they have rarely, if ever, thought about it and don’t know how to be kind to themselves.  I believe that it first begins with a conscious intention – “I am not going to treat myself poorly anymore.” Such a simple refrain can help us.  Depression is often built on poor mental, emotional and physical habits. We must learn to acknowledge that we are worthy of love from ourselves and others and that part of such love involves taking better care of ourselves.
  10. Spend time outside and in nature.  We humans forget that we are part of nature and the animal kingdom.  We need fresh air and sunshine.  Even more so when the darkness of winter strikes.  If you live in a part of the country with long winters, load up on vitamin D and consider using a light box to help you.

If you or a judge you know might be suffering from loneliness and/or depression, please forward this article to them.  Here’s a list of depression’s symptoms and a self-test from the Mayo Clinic.

Hangin’ With Depression

depressed_man-2

I’ve been living with depression for the past ten years or so – longer than I’ve known a lot of people! I’ve come to think of depression as a sort of troublesome companion; one I need to keep some distance from and yet, at some other level, recognize as a voice I need to care about and even listen to.

Not Letting Depression Define Who We Are

It’s helpful sometimes to think of depression as not “me,” but an “it.”

It’s so easy to get lost in depression; to wander into a compass-less night with no way home.  During these times we just don’t experience depression, we are depression. We can’t get any traction or relief from its withering pain. It rants and never raves; it’s negative thinking on steroids.

Dr. Richard O’Connor writes:

“Most tragically, this depressive thinking is likely to be turned on yourself. You remember all the times you failed, and all the times the other guy succeeded; you literally can’t remember your successes. You probably think of yourself as different from others: weaker, damaged, shameful, and inadequate. You don’t consider that you can’t get inside another person’s skin: the confidence you envy may be just a front; the skill you wish for is just practice and hard work; the success you covet may be bought at a high price.”

During the peaks and valleys of my depression over the years, I have learned to say to myself “that’s my depression talking.”  I’ve learned to put a little space between me and this formidable foe.

But I know, deep in my bones, that this companion will travel all of life’s pathways with me – it’s here for the long haul.  While it may not define me anymore, it wields a pointy pencil and shades in various features of my character, reality and moods.  There will be days when I’m better at seeing this, at cutting through the clutter of depression as I navigate my day.  And then there are still days when it bogs me done a bit, cuts into my productivity and colors my face a deeper shade of grey.

For some, like me, it may not be a question of ultimately curing depression, but containing it; of keeping it at the periphery of my life.  When it tries to wander into the center, the wise sentinels – my psychologist, psychiatrist and chums – remind me that it’s time to refocus and employ my self-care stuff to keep depression at bay.

You are not your depression.  It may be a part of your life, but it isn’t your life.

Listening a Little More Closely

Sometimes we fight our depression too hard.  In our attempts to extricate ourselves from its pain, we sometimes chew off a limb like an animal stuck in a steel trap.  Sometimes, we need not squelch the pain of depression, but listen to it because it’s trying to tell us something.  It can be a messenger from somewhere deep inside of us, not just an illness or a psychological malady.

I’ve often thought that part of depression is a lack of love for one’s self, whatever the reason.  This pain, through years of neglect can pathologize into real illness, like depression; it can grow into a giant monster that we’re just too scared to face.  So we hide in our work, our addictions and in all the many fronts we show to the world.  We kick the can down the road, hoping that things will get better, hoping that depression will just leave us alone.

We need to incline our ears to our pain.  As the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives we fear are princes and princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants us to help.”

Somewhere in all us is that depression dragon, that part of us long neglected, abandoned and helpless.  We need our hearts to turn and love this part of ourselves that wants help from us, wants to be heard, wants to tell us that for us to heal and have a shot at happiness, we must listen – maybe as we never have before – to all that is truly in us and needs our attention.

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., in her book Listening to Depression, writes:

“We only reflect on those things that break down in our life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of your life. We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.

But if you begin to open to the possibility that there was something fundamentally wrong with your level of functioning before your depression, only then does the idea of depression as a gift begin to make sense. A breakdown can become a gift when it is in the service of increasing reflection on your life which will lead you to ask the fundamentally important questions: What is wrong with my life? What can I do to correct the problem? When you listen to your depression, you can heal your life.”

Depression feels different on different days.  Sometimes, try treating it as an “it.”  And during other times, perhaps when you’re feeling a little better, try listening to what it is trying to tell you.

The Grace of Good People

In the rough and tumble world of the law, it’s easy to become jaded; our classmates and colleagues are competitors for grades, jobs or victories. Clients can be tough and demanding; judges unyielding.  Life being what it is, things can and do go wrong despite our most valiant efforts.

Not surprisingly, lawyers are pessimistic thinkers – problem solvers extraordinaire. People come to them in some sort of trouble and want solutions.  Dr. Martin Seligman writes that the law is one of the few professions where pessimistic thinking is rewarded.  We are trained to see potential problems and pitfalls lurking around every corner and cubicle. And this skill helps us to plan, prepare and strategize — good stuff. But we often take it too far.

In an article he wrote for Lawyerswithdepression.com, Dr. Richard O’Connor states:

Because of their experience with the law, most attorneys have lost their rose-colored glasses some time ago. (Or else they never had them and chose the law as a career because it suited their personality). Attorneys know that life is hard, and doesn’t play fair. They’re trained to look for every conceivable thing that could go wrong in any scenario, and they rarely are able to leave that attitude at the office.  They see the worst in people (sometimes they see the best, but that’s rare). They tend to be strivers and individualists, not wanting to rely on others for support. They have high expectations of success, but they often find that when they’ve attained success, they have no one to play with, and have forgotten how to enjoy themselves anyway.

Pretty glum assessment, don’t you think?  It’s unlikely that we can change the difficult nature of our craft, but we can mitigate its stressful effects on our bodies and brains.

We must take time to reaffirm the goodness in our lives.  It’s just as important to recovering from depression as a hot bowl of chicken soup on a frigid day or lexapro in your lunch pail.  There are lots of books on gratitude.  To me, this is a reminder that all of us –some more than others – are ungrateful much of the time.  I am not so sure that we can be taught to be grateful.  But I do believe we can be reminded.  I believe that we all have within us a deep need to express thankfulness – we just need to open the shutters.

It’s hard –very hard—to be grateful when one is depressed. In a deep depression, it’s not only unlikely — it’s impossible. Let me be clear, this piece is not written for those in a biochemical free fall.  It’s writte for those who want to prevent relapse, remain or get healthy, or for the lawyer who is simply stressed and unhappy.

Depression can obscure our vision and prevent us from seeing the goodness in our lives – especially the kindness and decency of other people.  This may be colleagues and friends, or maybe family members. We need to identify these people and cherish their goodness.  Their lights are like homing beacons in the fog of our struggles.  Like a good laugh, they are like salves that can heal our wounds.

The humorist Garrison Keillor, in his book We Are Still Married, wrote:

To know and to serve God, of course, is why we’re here, a clear truth, that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard. But a little faith will see you through. What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. What is the last word, then? Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.

The goodness of others is grace. It’s the universe’s way of reminding us not to fret too much, that things will work out, that our important jobs are just a part of life and not all of it and that uplifting fortune cookie messages sometimes do come true.  If I could, I would stick this quote by author Anne Lamott on one of those skinny wrappers:

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it greets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

Think of the kind people you’ve had in your life from your past and today; the everyday saints who were dropped into your life for no other reason than to remind you that life can be good, that you are special and that life is worth living.

These people always leave us feeling better than when they found us.

Nobody’s Perfect

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfectionism is demoralizing — Harriet Braiker, Ph.D.

Nobody’s perfect – that’s why we have erasers.  Yet nowhere on this sweet blue orb are there more people driven to perfection than attorneys. 

It’s really not surprising, after all. We work with laws, rules and regulations: ancient tomes, incantations and idealizations about how our society expects folks to behave.  When one acts outside the proscribed rules, one’s in violation, negligent or culpable.  When this happens, people turn to a lawyer and expect him or her to get the job done – and flawlessly.

It’s easy to calm our fears with the wilted wisdom, “Well, everybody makes mistakes.”  But things can and do go terribly wrong when we make mistakes – and we can and do make them.  Things can go quickly awry despite our best efforts and work.

Lawyers are on edge because they feel if they’re not perfect, they’ll fall over the edge.  Besides the inner stress, there is the outer pressure to keep a calm and cool façade lest our clients and colleagues lose faith in us.

I’m a perfectionist to the core.  In a sense, it’s great because I take pride in my craft as a lawyer.  I love the look and feel of good work well done.  I can take it too far though – I can get so keyed up about churning out a masterpiece that I lose perspective; I lose sense of the possibly that the judge and his clerk might skip over seventy-five percent of my brilliant delineations of a statute’s historic origins, that the seventh draft of a motion isn’t always much better than the fourth and that there’s real value in not deliberating too much, but simply getting things done.

In a great piece in the A.B.A. Journal entitled, Three Deadly Ps: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis, Rebecca Nerison, Ph.D.  maps out why too many cracks at perfection can lead to procrastination and then paralysis, a veritable seizing up of our work motor:

Procrastination is an occupational hazard for lawyers. Procrastination robs lawyers of peace of mind.  It’s difficult to feel happy, healthy, and successful when you are forever putting off what needs to be done.  We procrastinate when we feel anxious about a task, when we’re bored with it, or when we’re tired.  In any event, procrastination is about avoidance.  Avoidance allows us to temporarily escape the fear, boredom, or fatigue we anticipate as we contemplate the task.  We are immediately relieved from the unpleasant feeling.  We get to feel good instead of bad.

A dilatory dodge of our work just leads to more problems down the road.  We need to take stock and see perfectionism for what it is: avoidance behaviors that rob us of energy and a sense of competency that comes from getting things done.  My psychologist, a wizard of the human psyche, once observed that it’s critically important to observe ourselves engaging in healthy behavior.  We build a sort of healthy resume of concrete things we do on a daily basis so that we can confidently say to ourselves, “I’m a person who get things done.”  Just as procrastination is a vicious circle, not procrastinating is a healthy one.

We really need to let perfection go and let our humanity seep into our daily work; a humanity that while imperfect, is full of good humor, irony and outright silliness.

When we ignore this essential truth, we press down too hard on the gas pedal and our – and our secretary’s lives – are made miserable.  Anne Lamott, author of the wonderful book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith wrote:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun. 

What would the opposite of perfect be?  Maybe just human – and that’s humbling.  When we try to be perfect, we are too locked into a view of ourselves as the center of the Universe. 

We’re not gods, but in reality vulnerable creatures. 

I wonder if God has a sense of humor. How could he not given this goofy planet.  Even Jesus knew how to party when he turned water into wine at a wedding. 

We lose perspective with depression – we forget to play.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., once observed:

Most of us have to learn to take better care of ourselves.  One way is by spending more time in play.  The perfectionist, the depressive, the person who thinks he doesn’t deserve to feel pleasure, believes that he’d better never let his guard down, always busy, always productive.  But it’s a joyless if all we care about is getting the work done.  Something as simple as playing catch with the dog for a few minutes after work connects us with a part of ourselves we can lose only too easily – the child who can laugh, who can enjoy silliness, mindless physical activity. Tomfoolery is just as much a part of life as our lamentable laments. It’s uncomplicated, mischievous good fun that puts us into contact with our ageless inner child who wants to come out and play.  He or she is there – if you just look inside. We need to open that door; we need to let some fresh air in.

William James once wrote “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.  A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” 

So kick off those Oxford and Manolo Blahnik shoes . . . and start to rumba.

 

Getting Unstuck From Depression

Two people look out the same prison doors: one sees mud and the other stars. – Frederick Langbridge.

Some of our best efforts to escape the deep mud of depression are misguided – – we step hard on the gas pedal only to find our wheels spinning deeper and deeper into the gooey, brown earth.

We keep using depressive thinking to get ourselves out of, well, depressive thinking.  We are asking the wrong questions:  “What’s wrong with me, why can’t I fix this, I suck at being a lawyer, my life is a mess.”  Surely, this is not the tow truck we need to pull us out of the swampland of depression.

Depression makes us feel like we are stuck in our lives; we can’t seem to move forward beyond our melancholic sighs.  According to psychologist Rollo May: “Depression is the inability to construct a future.”  Maybe this is so because the muck of depression is so painful and deadening that it freezes us like a deer caught in a steel trap.

Depression also handcuffs us to our past.  We mercilessly ruminate about all the ways our lives have gone wrong.  We marshal the evidence against ourselves and “guilty” is the verdict every god damn time.  What are we really “guilty” of?  Of being a human being who makes mistakes.  As newspaper columnist Jan Glidewell once wrote: “You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.”

Our real and true self is sandwiched between our negative views of the past and our inability to move forward – hence, our bogged down blues.  We have to let go of the past and lean into a vision of a more optimistic future to begin living our lives again.

We largely ignore the truth that we are not perfect – like every other person on the planet  because we likely didn’t learn it in childhood. Perhaps, as much of the research as suggested, we were the victims of parents or other caretakers who caused us as children to see ourselves  as “bad” or “the problem” instead of the out of control parent(s) who dumped their toxic thoughts and/or unhealty thoughts and emotions on our precious heads. 

Our child’s mind, which lived in a world of magical thinking, was simply unable to process these painful interactions with our parental giants who held all the power.  We could not reason that it was the caregiver(s) that was the “bad” one –  and not ourselves. This dramatically changes how we view ourselves as people and we leave childhood with a high risk of adult onset clinical depression. 

I was one of these children with a raging alcoholic father and a depressive mother.  And I developed adult onset depression.

According to psychologist Richard O’Connor, author of the book and website Undoing Depression:

“Considerable research has shown that people with depression differ from others in how we perceive the world and ourselves, how we interpret and express feelings, and how we communicate with other people, particularly loved ones and people in authority.  We think of ourselves as unable to live up to our own standards, we see the world as hostile and withholding, and we are pessimistic about things every changing.  In our relationships with others we have unrealistic expectations, are unable to communicate our needs; misinterpret disagreement as rejection, and are self-defeating in our presentation.  Finally, we are in the dark about human emotions.  We don’t know what it’s like to feel normal.  We fear the honest feelings will tear us apart or cause others to reject us.  We need to learn to live with real feelings”.

Optimism researcher, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., wrote an article, “Why are lawyers so Unhappy?” which was reprinted on Lawyerwithdepression.com.  The essence of the piece is that lawyers have a pessimistic cognitive thinking style which is groomed in law school.  I think this theory is half-right:  we are groomed to “think like a lawyer” in school, but many people who come into law school are already vulnerable to depression based on genetics and their childhood experiences.  For these people, the stress of being a law student and the combat of practicing can law can tip them over into as state of depression.

In his book Unstuck, psychiatrist James Gordon, in a subchapter entitled, “From the Swamp of Stuckness to the River of Change,” writes:

“‘This is the way things have to be,” you may tell yourself. Or you plead, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ Pride and stubbornness and, of course, fear fix you in a circle of pointless argument and hurt.  But it’s familiar and seems so justified.  Even as the pain of stuckness becomes intolerable, or life begins to pry your fingers loose, you still hold on”.

“You’re afraid that without your familiar mooring you will lose hope and, perhaps, life.  You will not let go, will not move into the current of your life, will not trust that this current will take you where you need to go.  And go you continue to live less than fully, in denial of the change that is possible and necessary.  And, as time goes on, as you persist in resisting or blocking your own movement, your depression may deepen”.

Dr. Gordon lays out his holistic approach to recovering from depression in a question and answer session on his website.

Depression gets to be a habit – a bad one.  The more we depress, the more likely we are to become depressed in the future, the more likely are to become . . . stuck.

Please understand that your depressive thoughts are just broken records that keep repeating crummy tunes about yourselves.  We become stuck because we refuse to change or we just don’t know how to do our life any other way.  We need to let go and see that we can lead  a very different and empowered life — a life without depression.

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