Megan Grandinetti, Esq., a lawyer, yoga teacher, and coach, offers her suggestions on how to effectively cope with burnout. Read the News
Will Meyerhofer, JD LCSW, is an author and a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU School of Law and The Hunter College School of Social Work. Following law school, he worked as an associate at the BigLaw firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City before becoming a therapist. He is also the creator of the website and blog The Peoples’ Therapist. I spoke with Will about what depression is, how it forms and why so many lawyers are afflicted by it.
Dan: As someone who has suffered from depression and treats people for depression, what is depression and how does it develop?
Will: When Freud was asked why he went into neurology, and medicine, the career which developed, for him, into psychoanalysis, he said he was inspired by Charles Darwin’s astonishing breakthrough with the theory of evolution. Freud was an admirer of Darwin. That’s relevant, because evolution, I believe, plays an important role in depression. Depression is an evolutionary adaptation of humankind gone wrong.
It’s a bit like Sickle Cell Anemia, which is actually an adaptation in our blood intended to prevent Malaria. Unfortunately, that adaptation can also go too far and result in a harmful blood disorder.
Human beings have an enormously long childhood – the period of dependency following birth. That is chiefly due to our single most important adaptation – large brains, which at full size, would never fit through the birth canal. So we are born with a partially developed brain, about a third of its full size. As a result, our brains require a strikingly long period following birth– at least compared to most other higher species – to develop and mature. During that time, we’re utterly helpless. Many species are born, brush themselves off, and a couple of hours or days later, they are up and running around – just think of horses birthing foals. That’s not true for people. Humans take 10-14 years before they’re in any shape to take care of themselves. Our brains don’t even reach their full size until we’re about 6 years old.
Dan: What does this long period of childhood have to do with depression?
Will: We humans experience a very long period in our lives in which we demand and require enormous amounts of care in order to survive. Otherwise, we’d die. Little children comprehend that situation on a cellular level. If you walk away from a little child – make it clear that you are planning to abandon him for any length of time – that little child is going to absolutely flip; he is going to scream so loudly it will peel the paint off the walls. That’s because he knows he could die if he is abandoned. A child will always experience solitude as abandonment. To put it bluntly – the role of a human child is to please. It’s more intense for humans than for other life forms, because we require a lot more care and for a much longer period of time. Reptiles lay eggs and disappear. They might even feed on their own young and not think much of it. But mammals need care – milk from the mother. And of all the mammals, humans need the most care – years and years of it. So humans spend many years learning to please. We grow up with this directive to please – and blame ourselves if we fail at that task. It gets coded into our brains and becomes a trained behavior, an instinct. Keep in mind, the threat of death is real. Historically, as a species, humans display high rates of infanticide. This phenomenon exists in many species. Birds often cull their young and throw hatchlings out of the nest if there is insufficient food. But with humans, because we require so much care in our early years, if things are bad, it would not be uncommon to take a child who is disfavored – perhaps an illegitimate or disabled or otherwise undesirable child – and leave it out in the woods to die or simply abandon it as a street urchin. It is incumbent upon every human child to please so he can receive care and survive.
Ok, so how does this apply to depression? Under stress, humans regress – they fall back instinctively into old, unconscious behaviors acquired during childhood. In our case, that means falling back into the childhood pattern of locating the fault within – feeling that you’ve failed to please and that if you’re not pleasing, you are going to die. So, when you are under stress and things aren’t going well for you, you blame yourself – it must be your fault. Instead of acting like an adult, and getting angry and thinking – I’m not being treated well, I have a right to get angry and advocate for myself, or take care of myself, if no one else is going to do it – instead of that healthy, adult functioning, it’s the old regression, to “I’ve failed. It’s my fault. I’ll die because I’ve failed to please.”
An adult – unlike a child – does not have to experience solitude as abandonment. You can say I am an adult. I am independent. I can take care of myself. Not only that, I can choose an environment that’s healthy for me and I can reassure myself. I can self-sooth, I can self-parent. I can say to myself, hey you are a good person, come on. You choose who you are going to be each day. You are proud of who you are. You make that determination. You make that judgment whether you are worthy of being valued and receiving care each day. And you can tell yourself, Hey cheer up, you are going to get through this. You’re going to surround yourself with people who value you because that’s what you deserve and you are going to take care of yourself. And you can feel angry if you’re not receiving the care you deserve. That – in a nutshell – is how you address depression. You snap out of the regression to behaving like a dependent child and become an adult, a parent for your own child.
Dan: What signs do you look for to diagnose depression?
Will: There are two major indicators for depression that give it away each and every time.
First, I see an absence of appropriate anger. A child does not get angry when the parent fails to provide him with suitable care – the child sees himself as helpless. You can’t get angry at someone if you need them desperately, the way a child needs a parent. It’s not where the hell are you, I need a feeding, my diaper needs to be changed. Instead, the child’s in absolute panic and thinking I’m bad, I’m bad, I’ve failed here, I have failed to please – now they’ll leave me to die. That is the first characteristic of depression – absence of appropriate anger. If I ask a depressed client “Are you angry right now?” I’ll always hear the same answer. It will always be some variation of “I’m only angry at myself.” The rest of that statement would be “. . . because I’ve failed to please and can’t survive on my own.”
The Second indicator of depression is a dismantling of a person’s self-esteem apparatus. There’s no sense of pride in yourself or a sense of value in who you are and what you do. You think I failed, I hate being me. A depressed person will insist, over and over again – “I’m only angry at myself. I don’t like who I am.” That’s because the depressed person’s fantasy is to escape into someone else – someone who will please, and therefore be worthy of care – and survival.
Dan: The absence of appropriate anger and a dismantled self-esteem. I think those are two things that people on the street and even lawyers would associate with lawyers. We expect them to be tough and strong. We expect them to have high self-esteem and take pride in what they do. In your experience, why is the exact opposite true for lawyers struggling with depression?
Will: At a law firm, you are reduced to a child-like helplessness. You have no right to speak your mind, to self-advocate – to stand up to authority. Instead, you go helpless, and try to please. Any anger, if it is acknowledged to any degree, is tightly bottled. You can’t show it. The environment at law firms is uptight, rigid and extremely constrained. You can’t say to the partner – “Oh, for heaven sake, it’s Friday – why are you bothering me with this?” You say – “Yes, sir. I’ll do it right away.” If the partner – who is clearly exploiting you to make money – announces you are going to be working all weekend, you say “Absolutely, no problem.” You do not put up any kind of a fight. Lawyers, especially young lawyers, imagine themselves as helpless as young children in the law firm environment – utterly dependent on the partners, utterly incapable of advocating for themselves, or providing themselves with the care they need on their own. They permit themselves to be abused in an extremely toxic, exploitative environment – they often don’t even seem to realize they’re being abused. They’re too busy attempting to please their abusers.
Dan: Will, you treat a lot of lawyers with depression. Is depression in some way different for lawyers? Are there different causes for their depression?
Will: If I were to design an environment specifically to create depression, I would design a law firm. The reason is that lawyers are pleasers. A lawyer tends to be the kid with the best grades in the class – a generalist whose primary skill is getting good grades – pleasing teachers. If you are really good at math, you become a mathematician or a scientist. If you are particularly skilled on the violin, you become a musician. But if you get an “A” in everything, then your only skill set is getting good grades – and to monetize that skill set, you wind up heading to law school. That’s pretty much how I did it. I got into Harvard and then went on to NYU Law. I wasn’t spectacular at any one thing – I was a generalist. I was also the teacher’s pet. I was an excellent student – but what is an excellent student? It’s someone who gives the teachers what they want. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, they dropped out of Harvard, they weren’t good students – because they – and others like them – were geniuses, and entrepreneurs, not good students. Lots of geniuses drop out of college – it’s a common feature they share. They’re not pleasers. Einstein struggled to complete the academic rigamarole required to get a teaching post – he was too busy re-inventing physics.
Lawyers tend to be good students. A genius or an entrepreneur – an individualist – says I’m going to do it my own way and the hell with you. Screw Harvard. I don’t need it. This is in contrast to lawyer, the pleaser – the type of person who says I’m going to compete viciously with my peers and get straight A’s at Harvard and then go to a top law school and compete some more to get more straight A’s and then get a job at a top law firm and keep on competing. What happens to a pleaser when you get to these top firms? You do what you are told. And you compete. That’s a very typical lawyer behavior – you are essentially pleasing partners who are replacements for your parents and teachers, what therapists call the idealized parent object, the primary object – the person you’re programmed to please. And you are killing off your peers – the other children who compete for parental attention and care.
Dan: Big firms then have collections of pleasers and demanding partners. What does that do to the psyche of a lawyer?
Will: A law firm takes all these pleasers, herds all these kids who have always gotten A’s, and concentrates them in one giant feeding lot. So you have an entire law firm stocked with pleasers, and no one to please! There are no more teachers. The partners are the closest thing to a parent-object, and they’re overgrown pleasers themselves. It ends up with everyone competing with everyone else and everyone feeling like they’re failing. Throwing people under the bus is not a management technique except in a law firm. Anyone who’s ever worked in big law firms will tell you that folks get thrown under the bus every day at those places. It’s the antithesis of good management. That’s because they’re all competing – no one is stepping back and getting pleased, and saying – hey, you’re doing a terrific job! Good management is a requirement for happiness at a workplace. Everyone seems to realize that but lawyers. Employees need to feel supported, appreciated and motivated. They’ll do better work if they believe they’re good at what they do. Employees need to feel like they want to come in everyday because they like their workplace. Every time you walk in, you need to feel like Yeah, I know everybody here, my boss knows me, he respects me, he thanks me for my work. A good manager understands this – it isn’t rocket science. A fundamental management principle is that a review process needs to be supportive. There should be about 90% praise, and the constructive suggestions should be just that – constructive and suggestions. You don’t get anything remotely resembling that in a law firm because everyone is busy instinctively competing with each other like little baby animals trying to kill off the other baby animals as though they might die if someone else succeeds. Management technique, at a big law firm, amounts to throwing someone else under a bus, and thinking you feel better afterwards – like, somehow you’re now in a safer position. It’s madness.
Dan: Please tell us about your two books.
Will: My first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, actually started out as notes for young therapists. I was doing training for volunteer counselors at a hospital and I kept repeating the same things over and over to them, explaining anxiety and depression. So I started with these notes and realized there was a book there that I could use with my clients. That’s one way to look at therapy – as educating your clients – training them, really, to be therapists themselves, to the extent that they gain an understanding of emotions and how they work.
The first part of the book is about gaining awareness and understanding how anxiety and depression work. The second part tackles applying that knowledge to your life as you live it.
It’s interesting, how I came up with the title. I wrote this phrase, somewhere around the middle of the book – “Life is a brief opportunity for joy.” It was a literary agent, later on, who read the book and spotted it and said, that’s your title Will. It seemed to sum up the entire book. Let’s face it: We are all heading to the same place – oblivion – a hole in the ground. It’s a brief trip and it goes by quickly. Our mission is to be joyous. Life is a gift – it really is.
Many many lawyers make themselves incredibly unhappy. I think sometimes it’s as if they’re determined to make themselves miserable. And depression is, at its heart, a self- punitive behavior. You are doing this to yourself. You are beating yourself up. You are being a bad parent to your inner child, by abandoning him to panic and attack himself for failing to please.
Dan: So when someone struggles with depression as an adult, they’re basically repeating the maladaptive patterns they learned in childhood – – but this time they’re doing it to themselves.
Will: Pretty much. You’re not pleasing others, so you blame yourself for that failure. You place the fault within and dismantle your self-esteem. That’s what I did. Instead of saying to myself maybe I don’t belong here, I kidded myself I did belong there. The truth is, I never belonged in the legal profession. I went because of the money and to try to please my mother in some misguided way. I was a writer and a young therapist, at heart. I would have become a therapist if my parents had done a better job handling my coming out as a gay man. I would have gone into mental health right away because I was fascinated by it. But my parents hated that I was gay and sent me to a psychiatrist to be “cured.” That scared me away from mental health, and in the end, I wanted to make my parents happy and provide them all the money and the status to compensate for being gay. I didn’t even understand what law was. I just went into it blindly thinking well, okay, status and money.
Dan: Now, tell us about the second book and why you wrote it?
Will: Well, the second book has a silly title, Way Worse than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning. I have a literary agent friend who always seems to come up with my titles and she came up with this one, too. We were kidding over coffee and I said, well basically if you’re not smart enough to get into medical school, you have two choices. You can aim a little lower and go to dental school or you can become a lawyer. Weirdly enough, I’ve had people write me who read the book and said,“You know, I went into dentistry and I am glad I did.” Or, “I went law and damn I should have gone into dentistry.”
So that was the idea – you should have been a dentist. There are people who bash dentists and talk about their high rate of suicide or depression. In actuality, I think that’s a myth. The dentists I know are fascinated by it and doing a lot of good for people. I have a bunch of dentist friends.
But anyway, I came up with this silly title and the book was based on a bunch of columns I wrote for Above the Law, along with additional materials that were either too personal or too honest or too long or too – something – to get included in the originally published columns. Every time I wrote a column, I thought of more I wanted to say and I realized I was starting to exorcise my own demons from that very traumatic experience of trying to be a lawyer years before. I dedicated the book to the partners of Sullivan and Cromwell, just for a laugh. The back photo, if you really look at it, is my firm’s facebook photo from my very first day at Sullivan. They took my photo in a suit and tie – I was terrified, but trying to look confident and successful.
Dan: Give us just a few thoughts or ideas about how lawyers can recover from depression.
Will: First of all: Remember who you are. I had a friend at the firm, years ago, a brilliant guy. He went to Yale Law School and then onto Sullivan and Cromwell. I remember him looking at me one day as if he were saying the most forbidden thing he could ever admit: “Will I just don’t think I’m very good at this.” And I remember thinking, God, that’s how I feel. This guy was so accomplished and I thought, My God, they have really torn him down. He has forgotten who he is. I told him “Look at your record. You were a Yale undergrad and then Yale Law” and on and on; top of his class in everything and I said “How did they do this to you?”
How do you remember who you are? There are a couple of things that can help to snap you out of depressive thinking.
One, remember that you are not always right, but you are not always wrong either. It might not be your fault when things don’t go right at work. Depressed people tend to put the entire fault on themselves. Everything is their fault, they failed and they feel they have no right to anger. I always tell my clients “Look, you have the right to have anger, even if you’re just angry that it’s raining outside. Get angry about something.” It’s about dignity. The inherent dignity of being an adult and possessing a right to your own opinion, a right to your anger.
A child doesn’t really get angry. He gets scared and terrified. But an adult can say, hey, maybe this isn’t the right environment for me. I remember someone at Sullivan & Cromwell, at some point, very sadistically telling me, “Maybe you’re not cut out for this place.” At the time I was desperate. I went to my office and wept because I had to be cut out for it. I had to succeed. Then I realized maybe I am not cut out for this. And I remember laughing and then I thought Oh my God, there is a way out. I don’t have to please. I can please myself. I can remember who I actually am.
I pose this question all the time to my lawyer clients: Who are you really, inside? They say “Well, come to think of it, I was an English major, I loved reading, I loved computer games and I always wanted to go bicycling,” or whatever. It starts to come back and they remember who they are: “You know, I love to bake cupcakes and I love to go hiking. I’m mad about punk music from the 70’s.” Whatever floats their boat – their very individual, quirky, personal boat. And then a person starts to come back to who they really are, to their true self. That’s the beginning of the end of depression – simply remembering who you are, giving yourself the dignity to be you – not trying to care for yourself by pleasing others, but doing it directly – by caring for yourself, in the way you need to be cared for, the way the child inside you – who celebrates life and drinks deep of joy – needs to be cared for. That’s how you beat depression.
Lawyer Megan Zavieh writes, “My purpose is to encourage attorneys to stop buying into the “Superman complex” — the idea that nothing is going to hurt you — and consider the ramifications of not taking care of yourself.” Read her Blog
Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions, your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system. – Sam Keen
Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face. Before he said a word, before I asked him how his practice had been going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down. As we spoke over coffee, he asked if I thought he was suffering from the “Big D” – depression.
As we spoke, he asked if I thought he was suffering from the “Big D” – Depression.
“No, I don’t think so, Tom. You seem pretty burn-out, though,” I said.
According to an ABA Journal article, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.
This is one of the conclusions contained in a recent report on the future of the legal profession prepared by The New York Bar Association.
“Consumers have become more suspicious of institutions,” the report says, and clients are less willing to take their lawyer’s advice at face value and more willing to sue when they are unhappy. Technology is also changing client demands.
“Electronic communication has fueled a culture in which clients want more legal information, answers on the spot, and lawyers who can interpret, rather than simply provide, information,” the report says.The result is more specialization and an emphasis on ability to deliver higher quality services at a lower cost and in less time.”
This was certainly true in Tom’s case. There were no limits to the demands put on him – by both others and himself – to be better, cheaper, and run faster. As if he were a machine. He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.
Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule. It’s also fueled by a common personality trait found in many lawyers: perfectionism.
Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. writes:
“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: ‘If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.’ Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.”
“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”
Out of Sync With Core Values
Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”
My friend Tom is in this boat. He works for an insurance defense firm. He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person. The culture of his firm, however, tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials. He hates to do this but doesn’t know what else to do. He has a family to support after all. He feels stuck at his job.
He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like.
There are, however, telltale signs.
Burnout’s 10 Milestones
- Over-commitment (always in motion)
- Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
- Idealistic standards
- Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
- Lack of help and assistance
- Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
- Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
- Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
- Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
- Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no
Similarities Between Depression and Burnout
While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.
Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.
- Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
- The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt, and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.
Differences Between Depression and Burnout
Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is, therefore, more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.
- Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
- When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
- Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.
A Strategy for Avoiding Burnout
It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:
- Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
- Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
- Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
- Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
- Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
- Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
- Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
- Consider changing jobs. Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
- Consider changing careers. Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision. It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.
Further reading —
The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder
The Reflective Counselor: Daily Meditations for Lawyers by F. Gregory Coffey and Maureen C. Kessler
Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine
Lawyer Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – ABA Journal
Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work
Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2016
Lawyer and author of the new book, “The Anxious Lawyer: An Eight-week Guide to a Happier, Saner Law Practice Using Mindfulness,” Jenna Cho writes that lawyers tell themselves three big lies: that they aren’t good enough, that more is better and that they must sacrifice themselves and their well-being for others. Read her Blog
As a solo attorney, you have a unique set of challenges that may not exist for an attorney who works as an employee of a law firm or for someone who works for any type of corporation or business. Because you are responsible for operating your own law firm, you are under a unique set of pressures that might well cause you to work more hours than you want (or should). Check out these great solutions to coping. Read the Blog
From Above the Law, lawyer blogger Jenna Cho writes, “When you decided to go to law school, was it your aspiration to hate your job, hate your life, and live in misery? Of course not. Which begs the question: why are so many lawyers unhappy?” Read the Blog
About a year ago Dan invited me to submit a guest article for his website. I felt honored and immediately accepted. The invitation coincided with the twentieth anniversary of my depression diagnosis, and I’d been reflecting on my experience with depression over the past two decades. It seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to offer others the benefit of my hard-earned wisdom and experience.
But that didn’t happen, at least not the way I originally intended. When I sat down to write, the words didn’t flow. As a former teacher who’s taught communication courses at three major universities, and as a practicing attorney who prides himself on his ability to write quickly and well, this experience was unusual and disconcerting. When my students would tell me they were having trouble writing a paper or preparing a speech, I told them it was most likely because they didn’t understand the subject matter well enough. I came to realize that was a big part of my difficulty too. That and being guilty of not practicing what I wanted to preach.
I remember clearly the day I first went to see a psychiatrist. For several months I’d felt overwhelmed at work. As an associate in a successful litigation-oriented law firm, I considered myself fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a number of complex, high-exposure cases. I appreciated the confidence the partners had in my ability, and I wanted to prove I was worthy of their trust. I also wanted to demonstrate to my clients that I was more than capable of assuming primary responsibility for their cases and obtaining the best possible results for them.
At the same time, my marriage was deteriorating. My spouse and I met and married in graduate school. When I grew dissatisfied with my work in academia, she suggested law school. I’m from a family of lawyers, and we both saw this as a good career option for me and a positive move for our relationship. But while the law school years were mostly happy ones, things changed when
I entered private practice. The hours were long and my schedule was less predictable that what we’d become accustomed to. We spent less time together and our relationship became even more strained. Work and home life grew increasingly stressful, and I reached the point where I knew self-help was not enough. That’s when I called a psychiatrist I’d worked with on a few cases and had gotten to know fairly well.
Looking back, my story must have sounded familiar and rather mundane to the psychiatrist – an ambitious young lawyer working hard to establish himself and provide for his family who felt he could handle an ever-increasing level of stress, until he couldn’t. We talked for about twenty minutes that day before he walked over to a cabinet in his office, opened the door and tossed me a sample box of medication. He told me I was suffering from depression, and that I should take the antidepressant he gave me and come back in a week.
I felt oddly elated when I left the psychiatrist’s office. I had not only a clear diagnosis but a simple way to treat my depression – take a pill! I took my first dose that day after lunch. At the time I thought the medication would solve most, if not all, of my problems. It did help, but not as much as I’d hoped. And there were side effects. I tried other antidepressants and found optimizing the benefit-to-side-effects ratio was tricky. Starting, stopping and changing medications was frustrating for me and for my spouse, who was not depressed and didn’t seem to understand or sympathize with my struggle.
During this time I read a lot about depression, and fortunately one of the books I found early on was Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Depression. To me, it is still the best single book written about depression for a lay audience. Dr. O’Connor’s academic training, his years of working with clients and his own personal experience with depression have given him a depth of knowledge and understanding that rings true to those of us who seek to identify and replace our “skills of depression” with healthier and more adaptive alternatives. It’s the first book on depression I recommend to friends and colleagues, and it’s one I find myself returning to from time to time for inspiration and guidance.
I would like to tell you that as the result of therapy, medication and self-help I beat depression and have lived happily ever after. But anyone who’s struggled with the “Black Dog” knows that’s not how things usually go with depression. As Dr. O’Connor noted in a recent article for this website, “[t]he ugly fact is that depression is very likely to reoccur. If you had one episode of major depression, chances are 50:50 that you’ll have another; if you have three episodes, it’s 10:1 you’ll have more.”
No one suffering from depression wants to hear those statistics. We all want an easy solution, whether it comes in the form of a pill, or a few sessions with a therapist, or just enduring the depression until it simply goes away on its own. And for some that approach works. I know one professional colleague who years ago had a single episode of major depression precipitated by marital discord and divorce. He sought professional help and took medication for a period of time until he regained his emotional equilibrium. To the best of my knowledge, he has remained depression-free ever since. But in my experience, and in the experience of many people I’ve spoken with over the years, my colleague is unfortunately atypical.
We’ve known for a long time that lawyers suffer from depression at a far greater rate than the population as a whole. A recent CNN article reiterated the now-familiar finding that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. The same article reported data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that lawyers have the fourth highest rate of suicide among professions, trailing only dentists, pharmacists and physicians.
In an adversarial profession where there are “character and fitness” requirements for licensing and acknowledging depression may be seen as a career-threatening sign of weakness, barriers to treatment and recovery can seem insurmountable.
While the reasons lawyers are particularly vulnerable to depression are varied and not fully understood, it is clear that from a mental health perspective law is a high-risk profession. It is also becoming clearer that the risk of becoming clinically depressed increases the day a student starts law school. A study by Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington estimated that thirty two percent of law students suffered from depression during their first year in school. That figure rose to forty percent by the time the students graduated. For this reason early education for law students about this “peril of the path” is essential. In his post titled “In the Beginning: Depression in Law School,” Dan shares this excerpt from correspondence he received from Dr. Benjamin:
“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.”
Few of us, if any, who practice law and who’ve been directly or indirectly affected by depression would take issue with Dr. Benjamin’s conclusion. We’ve made progress in terms of improved awareness, education and professional attitudes toward depression, thanks in large part to lawyers like Dan Lukasik and clinicians like Richard O’Connor who’ve had the courage to share their own experiences with depression. But the legal community has a long way to go, and for the most part depressed lawyers must fend for themselves with little or no support from their professional peers.
So, returning to my theme, what have I learned in the past twenty plus years about living and practicing law with depression? Many things, but perhaps the most important is that depression is persistent and change is hard. As Dr. O’Connor has explained so well, we get good at “doing depression” and our patterns of depressive behavior tend to be self-perpetuating. “Depression is highly treatable,” he wrote in a recent guest blog, “but if you want a lasting recovery you have to change your life.” And how do we effect meaningful, lasting change in our lives? According to Dr. James Hollis – author, therapist and student of Carl Jung – we need to cultivate the skills of insight, courage and endurance.
“To develop insight we must begin to see the causes of our depression and the ways in which we perpetuate it through our patterns of thinking, behaving and relating to others. Therapy, self-help literature and self-reflection may all play a role in this process. And while insight is essential to effecting positive change, it is not sufficient. We must act on our insight, and to do that we need both the courage to step out of our comfortable but dysfunctional patterns and the endurance to stay our course once we find it.”
One of the most valuable insights one can have about depression is that insight isn’t enough. I used to think it was. When I was diagnosed with depression and began to learn about it, I tacitly assumed that as I gained insight into my condition my life would quickly and magically change for the better. It didn’t. I’ve learned that many other people have made the same assumption without being aware of it. It would be wonderful if having insight into our depression turned off the symptoms the way flipping a switch turns off an electric light. But experience teaches us that our depression switches will flip back on unless we take appropriate and persistent action.
No sensible person would choose to have depression. I didn’t. But since we are not given any real choice in the matter we must learn to accept and live with it in the best ways we can manage. I like to think I’m a stronger, more resilient, and perhaps even “better” person because of my experiences with depression. It hasn’t always been easy, or fun, but there is satisfaction to be found in accepting the ongoing challenge and continuing to rise to it.
Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke offered the best and most succinct advice when he wrote:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.
By William B. Putman, Esq.
Bill is a 1991 graduate, with honors, from the University of Arkansas School of Law and a partner at Taylor Law Partners in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The current issue of the ABA Journal reports, “It’s not something you’d intuitively think, particularly when you think of litigators,” Wisnik says. “But it makes sense. Many lawyers spend a lot of time by themselves—reading, writing, thinking—compared to other jobs where the majority of the work is interacting. Introverts make good lawyers, especially for clients who want a thoughtful answer.” Read the Story
One description of depression is that it is like the shapeless sagging of a rubber band that has been kept tight and taunt for too long. When feelings have been strong, stressed, unprocessed, or held captive over a period of time, we just stop feeling altogether. Persons and events no longer have the power to enliven us; we operate on a low level cruise control. Usually we keep functioning, but there is no positive or creative affect toward persons and things, and even less toward ourselves. We basically stop living our only life.
Many lawyers operate at this level, without even knowing that it is a kind of death. They have learned to take it as normative and unchangeable. Life is no longer enjoyable, and almost everything becomes another excuse to be upset, angry, aggressive, afraid or defensive. We all know many people who live at this level.
But I would also like to describe another common source of depression that is less often addressed: basic meaninglessness. Religion, philosophy, and culture are supposed to address that foundational need. But when religion or spirituality is largely in the head, mostly fear based, or merely moralistic, there is a huge vacuum in most people. The soul and the spirit are not fed at this level. I am afraid that it is the most common form of religion we now have in the West. Such people, often very smart, have no beginning, middle or end to their life story, unless they totally create it for themselves like some kind of Nietzschean “ubermensch”. This is inherently too big a task for one autonomous individual.
The “Is that all there is?” feeling overcomes most people in our culture somewhere in their mid to late forties, if they are at all typical. If you are riding a fast track of upward mobility, external success, and lots of control, you might be able to put it off for another decade. But it is hardly worth it, because then the patterns of avoidance, depression, splitting off, a basic non-intimacy with one’s deepest life, are so entrenched, that it is very hard to emotionally and intellectually change without a lot of grace – – and a lot of “grit your teeth” and try to bear it. We are largely unteachable at that point.
The grace, of course, will always be available, but often we have lost the recognition of it, the desire for it, the trust in it, and the ability to cooperate with it. We do not even know there is such a thing as grace (Acts 19:3), and it is indeed an “it” instead of a Presence, a power and a possibility. In fact, for an ego that has been in overdrive for forty years, the reception of grace will actually feel like a defeat, a humiliation, and a failure. If “I” have been doing it all along, any “we” experience of union and cooperation with Another will actually feel like a loss of control and a loss of self-importance. It will be like switching from an eager breast stroke to a back float, and still having to assume that I can still get there. That would be hard for any successful lawyer, and actually for any of us.
At this point, one’s overdeveloped faculties (rational mind, willpower and Yankee can do!) will have to give way to those that were left underdeveloped for the sake of what we call in men’s work “building our tower”. What do I mean by those “underdeveloped faculties”? Well, first of all, I should state that they are not just underdeveloped; they are actively rejected and denied as values at all. I think that is why religion tended to speak at this process as “conversion”. Because if it is authentic, it is a rather complete reversal (“convertere” in Latin) of previously held virtues and values. Probably also why authentic religious conversion is rather rare.
Okay, here goes. This is what changes. Things like admitted powerlessness begin to be admired over claims to power, unknowing over knowing, living without resolution over demanding closure, giving instead of taking, waiting instead of performing, listening instead of talking, letting go instead of collecting and hoarding, empathy with instead of domination over. The more traditional words that were used for these values were three: “Faith”, “hope”, and “charity”. What St. Paul says, “are the only things that last” (1 Corinthians 13:13). I am sure he is right. But, mind you, these are virtues that are only learned by many trials and many errors by the second half of life, at best. In the first half, they actually do not make sense. The trouble is that many lawyers in our secular world are not moving to the second half of life. They are becoming elderly but they are not elders.
At first you will not know where to turn, especially if you have a good mind, and you are used to explaining everything and determining your own direction. You have no practice at this different set of virtues. To be honest, only God can lead at this point. You had best give up, because all of your previous tools are useless and even counter- productive. This is exactly why Bill Wilson made the first necessary step of Alcoholics Anonymous the absolute admission of “powerlessness”. This is about as counter intuitive as you can get, or even seemingly non-rational (not irrational!).
So what am I proposing that you do? Really, not that much. I am first of all trusting in your ability to hear some of what I just tried to say. If you have persisted in reading this far, you are hearing me at some non-resistant level. We call this the “contemplative mind”, where you turn off the need to be right or wrong, agree or disagree, and just let something work on you at whatever level of truth there is. (Everything Belongs, Crossroad Press, 1999). The Eastern religions would call it non-dual thinking.
Secondly, I would encourage you not to try too hard, no self-assertion because that will only deepen your addiction to your own way of doing life. You will try to “convert” yourself by yourself, which is actually a oxymoron. If you try to be heroic and superior, you will only get more of the same, but now disguised with a religious or moral sugarcoating. Please trust me on this one, all great spirituality is about letting go. YOU cannot do it. IT is done unto you.” (Luke 1:38 and 28:43). You are always the allowing. Someone else is winning at this point, and you are getting your first lesson in creative losing.
Thirdly, I would like you to forgive yourself for your life’s mistakes. God never leads by guilt or by shaming people. Take that as an absolute. God always leads the soul by loving it at ever deeper levels, and if you want to be led, you absolutely must allow such unearned love. Like all grace, it will feel like losing, not gaining, surrendering not taking, trusting not achieving, allowing instead of “making the case.” Like all authentic conversion it will feel like dying (See John 12:24 or Old Adams’ Return, Crossroad, 2005), but it will really be living. Fully, for the first time. God does not love you if you change; God loves you so that you can change. God is not the rewarder and the punisher. God is the energy itself; more of a verb than a noun, according to the great mystics.
This is one case you are not going to be able to win. In fact, I am convinced that the Gospel of Jesus really is the hope of the world precisely because it totally levels the human playing field. Now we win by losing, and if we are honest, we all have lost, failed, and been untrue at some levels (Romans 5:12). That humiliating recognition is the hole in the soul that allows God to get in – – and ourselves to get out – – of ourselves. Don’t miss such an entrance or exit. It is the Big One.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest in New Mexico Province and author of several books including Hope Against Darkness and From Wild Men to Wise Men: Reflections on Male Spirituality. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.