A Lawyer’s Tough Tale: Depression at a BigLaw Firm

This a guest blog by a lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, and his difficult journey with bipolar depression and his BigLaw firm.  

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Podcast Interview With Mary Cregan, Author of “The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery”

Dan:

I’m Dan Lukasik. Today’s guest is Mary Cregan, author of the book The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery. Mary received her PhD from Columbia University and is a lecturer in English literature at Barnard College in New York City, where she lives with her husband and son. Welcome to the show, Mary.

Mary:

Thank you, Dan.

Dan: Mary, where does the title of the book come from?

Mary:

The title is the origin of the story, really. I have a scar from a suicide attempt I made in the very intense depressive episode that followed the death of my first child. That was when I was first diagnosed with major depression. The story that I tell in the book goes back to that scar which, of course, is with me always and is a kind of memory on my body of that experience. Because of the scar I try to return to that time to tell the story of my depression and the larger history of depression.

Real Men Cry: Men & Depression

“A lazy part of us is like a tumbleweed. It doesn’t move on its own. Sometimes it takes a lot of depression to get tumbleweeds moving.”  – Robert Bly, Morning Poems

Growing up the son of a WWII vet, my dad’s parenting style could best be described as minimalist: punishment at his leisure as alcoholics are prone to do; hard, physical labor built character; and praise came from athletic accomplishments like football which prized hitting.

Crying? Only once as a young child. Dad’s reaction? “I’ll give you something to really cry about if you don’t knock it off. Only girls cry!” Looking at him through the eyes of a child, the message was clear: Crying (or any display of sadness) was never to be done again if I wanted his approval (In essence, his love which never came).  As I grew older, he added this maxim: Pain, physical or emotional, was to be endured, if not conquered.

The Elephant in the Room at Law Firms? Lawyer Depression

I was 40 years old when depression first struck.

I was a trial lawyer and managing partner at my firm. From the outside, I was successful: a high-paying career, interesting work, a great family, and lots of friends.

From the inside, however, something was terribly wrong.

There was a deep sadness that wouldn’t go away. Before this time, I had gone to therapists for stress-related issues. Therapy always worked. After a few months talking things through, I always felt better and stopped going.

But this time, it was different. Things didn’t get better.

Bottoms Up: My Drunk Dad, My Depression

My dad was an alcoholic.

He died at age 56 from too much drinking. Almost 40 years ago.

I was 19 at the time, a sophomore at a local state college. I lived upstairs from my Polish grandma who, was a big woman with arms as strong as an elephant’s trunk.

One morning, my Aunt Clara, who, with her husband Eddie (who was genuinely cross-eyed), lived with grandma downstairs, came up to tell me, “Your father died today.”

I had never heard my dad called “father.” It sounded formal, like, “The President of the United States died today.”

My dad had been ill for months. The year he died, 1981, Hospice wasn’t around. Most people, as sick as my dad with cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, met their end in the hospital.

Too Much Depression, Too Little Sleep: 3 Things You Can Do to Get a Better Night’s Slumber

The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

When first diagnosed with depression, my sleep became fragmented in a way I had never experienced before.

Before this time, I, like most frenzied lawyers, had periods of restless sleep tinged by stress and anxiety. But my sleep would return to normal after a lengthy trial or round of contentious depositions.

But this was different.

Lots of Depression, Little Sleep

I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep through the night. I went to bed early, exhausted from trying to make it through another day with depression. Trouble sleeping is a symptom of major depression.  Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., a psychiatrist, writes:

The body is bone-weary; there is no will; nothing is that is not an effort, and nothing at all seems worth it. Sleep is fragmented, elusive, or all-consuming. Like an unstable, gas, an irritable exhaustion seeps into every crevice of thought and action.”

The Suicide of a Law Student Hits Home

When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.’ – Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide”

A second-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, Matthew Benedict, died by suicide earlier this week by leaping from the Liberty Building he had been clerking at according to the Buffalo News. Another account of Matt’s life and suicide was reported in The New York Law Journal.

Matt’s funeral is tomorrow. By all account’s he was a tremendous, loving, talented, bright young man.Matt was kind-hearted, passionate and driven.

Slogging Through the Swamp of Lawyer Depression With Dr. James Hollis

Here is my fascinating interview with Dr. James Hollis, psychoanalyst and author of several best-selling books including “Swampland of the Soul” and “What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.”

Dan:  What is depression?

Jim:   I think first of all we have to differentiate between depressions because it‘s a blanket term which is used to describe many different experiences, different contexts and different internalized experiences of people.  First of all, there is the kind of depression that is driven by biological sources and it is still a mystery as to how that works.  We know it affects a certain number of people in profound ways.   Second, there is reactive depression which is the experience of a person who has suffered loss and as we invest energy in a relationship or a situation and for whatever reason, that other is taken away from us, that energy that was attached to him will invert as depression.  Reactive depression is actually normal.

You Can Recover From Depression

I am 57 years old. I am a lawyer. And I struggle with depression.

I was diagnosed when I turned forty.  I didn’t know what was happening to me. But I knew something was wrong. I was crying quite a bit.  My sleep became disrupted. It became difficult to concentrate.  I felt no joy in my life.

Ultimately, my family doctor diagnosed me with major depression and provided me with the help I needed. I started going to therapy and was put on anti-depressants. This saved my life.

Since being diagnosed all those years ago, I have learned to live with depression as have many of the 20 million people who are living with this illness right now in this country.

Tackling Depression in the Workplace

I recently interviewed a friend and former co-worker who lost a career and a 13-year job due, in large part, to a bout of severe depression and anxiety that was not being managed well by her behavioral health specialist. This friend has depression in her family and had been through several depressive episodes in her life, but had come out of each of them with a combination of medication, support from friends, therapy, and self-exploration. In her 30+ years of working, she had never before lost a job because of her mental health issues.

Prior to this episode, she had been widely praised at her company for over a decade, and most of the time had received praise, bonuses, and regular raises. Her social security reports showed a steady upward trend in her compensation over the years that she had been in the workforce, the way it was supposed to. She felt she had done well professionally.

But then, things got hard. She had just left an abusive relationship, and the combination of trauma and her genetic predisposition to depression had sent her into a spiral of sometimes-suicidal depression, for which she sought professional help.

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