Missing The Point

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I recently read a tragic article about a young man at New York University who jumped to his death at the school’s library the other day.  One of the school’s spokesman said, “It’s a very competitive school that stresses people out. This sort of stuff happens at places like this”.  Sort of like a variation of “shit happens,” don’t you think?  I think this misses the point.

Some months ago, I wrote a blog article called, “The Death of a Law Student.” A brilliant young man – I’m sure much like the man who killed himself this past week – from Fordham Law School, David Nee, killed himself shortly before graduation.  While there may be no concrete answers to these tragedies, I feel that there are lessons to be learned.

First, when reporting these stories, there is usually no mention of the victim’s psychological history.  Neither is there in most news accounts of the 30,000 people who kill themselves every year in this country. 

That’s okay, because everyone has a right, as does their surviving family, to privacy.  Yet, I am sure if we were to know the whole story about these victims, we’d find that the majority of them had been suffering from depression for some time.  It wasn’t just “stress” or a “competitive academic environment” or a job loss which caused these deaths.  Perhaps, it was the latest in a series of emotional struggles; inner battles which that person fought valiantly but ultimately lost.

Second, I think these suicides underscore just how painful depression really is. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison (click here to read an interview with her), author of the recent and definitive book, Night Falls Fast, captures this sense of pain:

“Depression paralyzes all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, and deadened state.  It is barren, fatiguing, and agitated condition:  one without hope or capacity.  All bearings are lost; all things dark and drained of feeling.  The slippage into futility is first gradual, then utter. Thought, which is pervasively affected by depression as mood, is morbid and confused.  The body is bone-weary; there is no will; nothing that is not an effort, and nothing that 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.”

It is so painful, in fact, that some sufferers would prefer death to the ongoing agony of dealing with depression for the rest of their lives.  They often conclude that the noonday demon will be with them forever because of their inner battle and many failures to overcome or contain it which have been going on for some time.  Seeing no progress or hope on the horizon, people take their lives.  They experience a sort of “combat fatigue.”  They just can’t get out of their foxholes.  It feels like a dead end.

It’s very difficult for suicidal people to think about anything but the pain they’re in.  It is hard for them to connect to the very real pain – emotional devastation really – that loved ones would feel were they to take their life.  It’s as if they’ve become unmoored from all those who care about them and can only hear the siren of depression’s screaming wail.

I have been encouraged by others who have never experienced depression not to blog about the “grim topic” of suicide.  To me, that’s like saying let’s not talk about cigarette smoking and cancer. Untreated depression – like smoking packs of cigarettes everyday- can and often does lead to death.

In a real sense, I don’t give a damn what others think.  I want to reach those people out there who are suffering with depression and need someone, for Christ’s sake, to tell them that they understand and they’re not crazy to feel this way – even when it comes to having suicidal thoughts.

People who have suicidal thoughts should seek help right away.  Click here for immediate help, a toll free number and additional resources. There were plenty of times during my deepest depressions that I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore.  And there was no hiding place; nowhere that I could go to escape the clutches of depression. It covered me like a wet wool jacket as I stumbled through my days.  I always reached out for help and it saved me.

I think that people who experience depression are very brave people.  They must cope with something very painful.  Often, they don’t feel supported. Often, even when they are really supported, they don’t think so because their depression tells them otherwise.  It’s the voice of depression giving them the old screw job every which way they turn. 

Had we broken arms or legs, it would be so simple.  Loved ones would respond – maybe with flowers and chocolates and a puffing up of our favorite pillow – with love and care.

Sometime ago, I was trying to tell my mother and older sister about my depression.  They weren’t terribly moved and I got angry.  I said, “Maybe, if my head were falling off and I was spouting blood, you would believe me then.  You would give me a damn ounce of compassion.”  Looking back on it, I really don’t think they were being selfish bastards.  I think that they just didn’t know.  They didn’t have any frame of reference for what depression is or just how painful it can get.

This really doesn’t make it any easier for the depressed person.  They feel misunderstood at a time when they feel broken.  They’re reaching out to people beyond their therapist and psychiatrists and hoping to find friendly souls to assuage some of their anguish.  “Surely, people will understand me and care about this,” they often think.  But others are often frightened and minimize the problem:  “Just get the hell over it” they preach from the pulpit.  All the while, we stand there, crying inside and feel all alone in a veritable wasteland. 

A few times, in the worst of times, I even thought that maybe if I really did kill myself, then others would take my pain seriously.  But what a supreme tragedy such an act would be; it doesn’t solve anything and would only leaves a cosmic trail of pain in its wake forever.  I am so grateful that I never acted on any of these impulses.

We all want so much to connect at a time when depression has disconnected us.  We feel ourselves falling with no parachute.  Yesterday, I give a presentation to thirty undergraduate students on the topic of depression.  After my talk, I fielded many questions.  One young woman asked, “what do you think helped you most in getting over your depression?”  First, I said that I hadn’t gotten over it; I would have it – in some form- probably for the rest of my life.  I told her that it was contained and manageable, not cured.  I also said: “Probably, what helped me the most was time.” My depression and who I am has changed over time.  It didn’t kill me.  I survived and continue to work at it like a miner digging for coal.  I have learned creative and effective ways to cope with it.  It doesn’t rule my days – most of the time.

After hearing my answer, she exclaimed, “How brave you are.”  I responded: “I really don’t feel brave at all.  What I do feel is determined”.  I feel determined to fight my depression in all of its manifestations.  I feel determined to not let it define me and my life.

It is such determination, over time, that helps us recover from depression.  It gives us hope because we can actually witness ourselves not giving into our melancholy.   We don’t need to keep being victimized by it.  Sure, there will be days when it might get the better of us.  But, as the old Zen saying goes, “fall down seven times, get up eight.”  Keep getting up.

Suicide: The Death of a Law Student

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I am Chair of the Committee to Assist Lawyers With Depression in Erie County.  Our committee is producing a documentary about depression in the legal profession.  It will be made available to Bar Associations, legal organizations and law schools around the country later this fall.  As part of this project, I headed off to New York City last week to interview some remarkable people.  One of them was Andrew Sparkler.

Andrew is a lawyer in Manhattan who graduated from Fordham Law School four years ago.  During his first year, he met a remarkable young man named David Nee.  David is shown in the photograph above sitting between two of his law school friends.

David went to one of the finest preparatory schools in the country, Princeton University and then to Fordham.  In my interview, Andrew told me that David was happy-go-lucky, the life of the party and always sought to make others feel comfortable.  He was brilliant, often not having to study for exams and still getting good, if not great, grades.  Something, however, changed during his Third Year of law school – at least in his friends eyes.   David would disappear for weeks on end.  When friends called him, he didn’t phone back.  When he finally showed up, he always had some sort of plausible excuse.

Shortly after law school graduation, while studying for the Bar exam, David Nee died by suicide.  In a note which he left, he said that he had been struggling with depression since he was fourteen years old.  This poor soul, I thought.  On the outside, he seemed so happy and carefree; on the inside, stuck in the dark world of depression.

Andrew Sparkler, his friends and family were devastated by David’s death.  Why didn’t they know he was depressed?  They decided to remember David by forming the David Dawes Nee II Foundation, a not for profit created to educate law students about depression and suicide.  What a noble effort that deserves our praise and support.

Dave (not his real name) is in his late fifties and had battled depression most of his life.  One day, he was driving his usual route to work.  As the car sped by him, all he could feel was the pain of his existence. He suddenly got off the Niagara Falls exit.  Once there, he parked his car.  He got out, took off his shoes, socks and watch.  He was methodical.  He was a good lawyer after all.  He thought of his wife and what his death would do to her.  He called his best friend who got him into a psychiatrist that afternoon where he was immediately put on antidepressants and went into counseling.

In her best-selling book, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison states:

“Suicide is a particularly awful way to die:  the mental suffering leading up to it is usually prolonged, intense, and unpalliated.  There is no morphine equivalent to ease the acute pain, and death not uncommonly is violent and grisly.”

Jamison, who also suffers from depression, notes that there is a suicide every 17 minutes in this country.  Identifying suicide as an often preventable medial and social problem, Jamison focus attention on those under 40 (suicides by those who are older often have different motivations or causes according to her book).  Citing research that suicide is most common in individuals with mental illness (diagnosed or not), particularly depression, she clearly describes the role of hormones and neurotransmitters as well as potential therapies.  Click here to hear an interview with Dr. Jamison on the Charlie Rose show.

Given that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate twice that of the national average and that the number one cause of death of middle aged lawyers is suicide, I believe that the legal profession must face this issue.  It isn’t as if lawyer suicide is a sometime sort of thing.  It happens a lot.  Even one is too many.

The point here is not to be depressing by addressing suicide.  The point is to speak up about just how dangerous depression is.  It just isn’t just a mental illness; it’s also a killer.

A recent news article reported that 27 million American are on antidepressants – a staggering figure.  Given the strong connection between depression and suicide, how can we avoid a frank discussion on this topic?

For more information, support and resources, check out the American Association of Suicidology.

I welcome everyone’s comments on this important topic.

Coming Out of Our Caves: Male Depression

Guys have lots of trouble coming to terms with depression. All the more so if you’re a lawyer. Lawyers aren’t supposed to have problems; we’re supposed to fix them. Most male lawyers I know would rather drop dead than admit that they have problem with depression. I guess the exception to this observation is when the wheels have fallen off for them. Then – and only then – do they recognize (hopefully) that they are suffering from depression and the toll that it is taking on their lives. The consequences for failing to recognize this basic fact can be serious (loss of productivity at work, sleep problems, etc.) or fatal (middle aged lawyers commit suicide at twice the rate of the national average).

Psychologist, Terrance Real, the author of the book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, makes the observation that we don’t think of men as depressed. This is so because what we are really thinking about is “overt” depression and more women show signs of that – weeping, a willingness to discuss painful feelings, etc. Men suffer from “covert” depression that expresses itself in addiction, isolation, workaholism, isolation and increased irritability.

“Men are just as feelingful, just as relational, just as connected, just as dependent, just as needy, as women are. Men have been coerced since childhood to forego these relational qualities and skills and squeeze their sense of membership and self-esteem through performance. Girls are taught to filter their sense of self-worth through connection to others, and boys are taught to filter their sense of self-worth through performance. That’s a vulnerable foundation for one’s self-worth” notes Real in an interview.

The excellent website, Men Get Depression, says there are three distinctive signs of male depression:

Pain
Depression may show up as physical signs like constant headaches, stomach problems, or pain that doesn’t seem to be from other causes or that doesn’t respond to normal treatments.

Risk Taking
Sometimes, depressed men will start taking risks like dangerous sports, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, and casual sex.

Anger
Anger can show itself in different ways like road rage, having a short temper, being easily upset by criticism, and even violence.

So often, the first symptom that male lawyers notice that they are slipping is in the performance department. One of the symptoms of clinical depression is difficulty concentrating. This leads to problems in getting work out the door. We may try to hide that our work is slipping – ask for extensions, take much longer to do tasks that were simple and routine in the past. If the problem doesn’t go away, some will seek out help – usually through their family doctor (who distribute 80% of the prescriptions in this country for antidepressant medications). Some will go the extra step of seeing a therapist that they can talk with about their problems.

My therapist used to liken my depression to a caveman camping out in his cave. It took a lot to coax me out of there. Men need to come out of their caves into the light of day where the colors are brighter, others live who can help us and where we can finally feel the sun of being worthy without having to perform twenty-four seven in our legal careers.

Suicide

This is my first blog entry. I am the creator of the website Lawyers with Depression. I created it two years ago. I have been a lawyer for over twenty years and have suffered from depression for the past seven. I created the site to create a virtual home for lawyers all across America who struggle with depression. I went looking for such a home on my computer two years ago and couldn’t find one – – so I built one.

Since it was launched, I have heard from thousands of lawyers, judges and law students about their battles with depression. It is my hope that this blog will be a good supplement to the website. It will offer frequent commentary, thoughts, observations and insights about working as a lawyer and dealing with depression.

The launch of this blog starts on a very sad note indeed.I was interviewed for a piece in The National Law Journal which appeared today.

Reports of Suicides Point to Job Stress – The National Law Journal

The interview concerned the rash of lawyer suicides. I have known or spoken to many lawyers who have either thought about suicide or attempted it. Unfortunately, there are attorneys in my own community who took their lives when the pain got too deep.

One of them was a dashing man who taught me trial technique years ago. He was a pillar of our legal community and a person of integrity. After a string of stressful events, he slit his wrists in a bathtub. Why people commit suicide is a complicated question.

For an excellent discussion of the issue, the best book I have ever read is Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by psychiatrist, Kay Redfield Jamison. What makes the book so compelling is Dr. Jamison’s own bipolar illness and past suicidal ideation.

As I said in the interview with The Journal, stress due to layoffs may explain a few of the recent deaths. But such stress is, most likely, only the most recent incident in a long line of stressful incidents for these poor people.

Stress, as I will discuss in future blogs, plays a major role in the creation of depression.

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