A New Year to Kick the Depression habit

 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.  And to make an end is to make a beginning – T.S. Eliot

With the New Year comes new choices; we can choose to leave behind ways of being in the world that cause and maintain our depression and embrace healthier and saner approaches to our days.  Or we can simply do nothing.

Why do lawyers with depression keep repeating behaviors that prevent them from feeling good about themselves? Why do they relentlessly drive, isolate and unmercifully think of themselves as the biggest piece of crap this side of the Mississippi? 

In his revised and updated book Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You, Dr. Richard O’Connor offers this insight:  “People persist in self-destructive behavior because they don’t know how to do anything else. I’m convinced that the major reason why people with depression stay depressed despite therapy, medication, and support from loved ones is that we are simply unable to imagine an alternative.  We know how to ‘do’ depression.  We are experts at it.”

Lawyers can’t envision healthier alternatives because depression shuts down their capacity to creatively imagine themselves productively engaged in the world.  We simply have no reference point for that.  So we stay in our offices with the doors closed looking out the window as the birds fly by and one season changes into another.

Our brains love habits — even when they stink and hurt us.  It’s a more predictable way to go through life because we don’t have to rethink everything and change.  We become used to depressive habits as we cruise through life on auto-pilot.  Many lawyers with depression usually view their jobs as the sole source of their depression; surviving “it” becomes the focus of their lives.  They use depression habits at their jobs that might work for awhile, but at a very high cost to their physical and emotional well-being.  These aren’t stupid people; they just can’t imagine doing their jobs any differently.  As educatior Parker Palmer once wrote about his depression, “It wasn’t so much that I was in the darkness as I became the darkness.”

Dr. O’Connor writes:

 “We depressives become shaped by our disease as well; the skills that we develop with depression in a vain effort to save ourselves pain – skills like swallowing our anger, isolating ourselves, putting others first, being over-responsible – prevent our recovery.  We have to give up the depressed habits that keep us down and make us vulnerable to relapse.”

Deepak Chopra wrote: “A habit is a frozen interpretation from the past that is applied to the present.”  I think that’s why depression can have such a deadening sensation associated with it.  In a sense, depression warps our perceptions about events happening in real time and pulls us under the frozen river of our past.  People and events happening in real time trigger old interpretations of how life works.  Since most people with depression come from dysfunctional or abusive childhoods, a current conflict with others becomes a ride back to their traumatic past.

For me, this distortion has often revolved around anger.  I not alone on this one; how we handle anger is a big issue for most lawyers. As lawyer and psychologist Andy Benjamin wrote and studies have concluded, there is a strong connection between hostility and depression.  Anger seems to be situational, while hostility is an overarching and aggressive approach to life.  Anger that is repeatedly stuffed or inappropriately expressed becomes hostility.  Many lawyers don’t want to be assholes, but feel they have to do so to survive in the shark tank of the law.  Most lawyers I’ve known feel deeply conflicted about this and if they’ve had problems with depression, it just compounds it all.

In my childhood home, my alcoholic father had a volcanic temper – you knew to scram when you saw lava cresting at the rim.  I learned that anger was painful, “bad” and always unjustified.  As such, I used to avoid conflict and stuff my own anger because it was dangerous.  Instead, I became a people pleaser.  I developed exquisite antennae to read clients, colleagues, opposing counsel and judges’ reactions for any signs of aggression, anger or conflict.   I molded my behavior to their behavior rather than living out of a core of my own reality.  This distortion gave others too much power and myself too little.  It is, as psychologist James Hollis once wrote, an emotional conclusion in which we tell ourselves “the world is big and I am small.”  Most depressives think this way and feel overpowered by the events of their world and lapse into a state of helplessness.

As we enter a new year, let’s start leaving some depressive habits behind and embrace some new ones.  This will take work on your part.  No one is going to save you from your depression.  While you are not to blame for your depression, you are responsible for getting better.  Dr. O’Connor writes:

“Overcoming depression requires a new set of skills from us.  But now we are recognizing happiness is a skill, willpower is a skill, health is a skill, successful relationships require skills, emotional intelligence is a skill.  We know this because practice not only leads to improvement but also to changes in the brain.  This is a much more empowering and adaptive way of understanding life than assuming that these qualities are doled out form birth in fixed quantities and that there’s nothing we can do to change our fate.  The skills required to undo depression will permeate your entire life, and if you keep practicing, you can go far beyond mere recovery.”

Happy New Year!

10 Ways to Deal with Depression

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A lawyer with depression used to call me once a month.  He would tell me about the emotional problems in his life.  Many times, he cried.  This went on for a year.  I listened each time for about a hour and then the conversation would routinely end with, “catch you later.”  Yet, nothing changed for him.  At some point I said, “Bob, what are you willing to do to change your life?”  He seemed surprised by the question.  He never called back.  Perhaps a good starting place for you to think about healing, is what old behaviors are you willing to change or what new behaviors are you willing to try to help you get better?

In her book, Listening to Depression:  How Understanding Your Pain Can Heal Your Life , psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb, views depression not just as an “illness”, but as a wakeup call; a signal that we have been traveling down paths in our lives that have been unhealthy.  She encourages us not to see depression as just a disease, but as an opportunity to change our lives.  There is something in us, if we would only listen, that is telling us that we are killing ourselves. 

We often don’t listen.  So that voice turns up the volume until we get sick with anxiety and depression – or heart disease, hypertension and cancer. 

As lawyers, we are experts at looking at problems from an analytical angle.  When we turn that powerful lens on ourselves, seeking to “solve” our depression, it just doesn’t work.  That’s because much of our distorted thoughts and strategies that got us into trouble with depression, can’t get us out. 

After we have been diagnosed with depression, we can evade responsibility for our own recovery.   Some time ago, I was in a great deal of pain.  I told my therapist that my depression wasn’t going away despite my sincere efforts.   I felt punished by my depression.   He gently told me, “Dan, you haven’t done anything wrong.  You’re doing it to yourself.” 

This was a turning point for me in dealing with my depression.  When I stopped letting depression victimize me, I began to take responsibility for getting better and started behaving and thinking in more constructive ways.  That being said, what constructive steps can lawyers take to deal with their depression? 

1.   Get help

You can’t handle this by yourself.  It’s not your fault.  It is a problem bigger than any individual person.  There are Lawyer Assistance Programs in most states that can get you started in the right direction, provide resources and help you with referrals.  Click here to search by state for a program nearest you.  While this advice sounds self-evident, believe me, it is not.  Recent statistics reveal that eighty percent of Americans don’t get any help for their depression.

2.   Maybe you have to take medication

That’s okay.  You may have a chemical imbalance which you need to address.  For many, psychotherapy won’t help until they quiet down there somatic complaints (e.g. extreme fatigue, sleep problems) so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems. However, “one size doesn’t fit all.”  Medication can – and is – over proscribed.  I also have a problem with family physician diagnosing depression and recommending antidepressants.  Eighty percent of the scripts for antidepressants in this country are written by such doctors.  Better idea:  go to be evaluated by a well-regarded psychiatrist who specializes in mental health and doesn’t also treat stomach upset, fungus on the feet and the flu.  For a fair and balanced review of the pros and cons of medication, check out HELPGUIDE.org, a not-for-profit organization.

3.   Negative Thinking

Whether you will need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist.  You really can’t do this effectively with friends or family alone.  A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression.  It teaches us that a large part of depression is made up of cognitive distortions.  One example is the all-or-nothing thinking approach.  Lawyers often think to themselves that they’re either “winners” or “losers” in the law. This is a distortion because the reality is that most lawyers both win and lose in their careers. Check out this excellent website article for a list of other cognitive distortions.  I recommend interviewing a couple of therapists before you settle on one.

4.   Exercise

The value of exercise is widely known:  It’s is simply good for everybody.  For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical choice.  In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. John Ratey devotes a whole chapter to the importance of exercise in treating depression.  Please check this book out.  Also check out this short article from the Mayo Clinic about how exercise can help with the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

5.   Spirituality

If you have a spiritual practice, do it.  If you don’t, think about starting one. This could include anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass or just taking a walk in the woods.  A lot of research suggests that people who do have a spiritual practice do better with depression.  If you believe in God or a higher power, 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, is an important pillar of recovery.

6.   Join a support group 

I started a lawyer support group in my community and it has been going strong for two years.  Such groups can be invaluable in helping you to see that you are not alone and that others share in the very same struggle.  Contact a Lawyers Assistance Program in your state.  If you don’t feel comfortable being in a support group made up of lawyers, there are plenty of other routes to go.  Check out the website run by The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.  They run depression support groups meetings in all fifty states.

7.   Get educated

Read some good books on the topic of depression.  As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  I recommend you read Dr. Richard O’Connor’s, Undoing Perpetual Stress:  The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness.  Dr. O’Connor opines 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 clinical depression.  I list a number of other great books on my website at Lawyers With Depression.  The site also offers guest articles, news, podcasts and helpful links for lawyers.

8.   Build pleasure into your schedule 

As busy lawyers, we have the “I will get to it later” mentality – especially when it comes to things that are healthy for us.   We have to jettison that approach.  We must begin to take time – NOW – to enjoy pleasurable things.  A hallmark of depression is the failure to feel happiness or joy.  We need to create the space where we experience and savor such feelings. 

 9.   Restructure your law practice

Nobody likes changes.  Lord knows, I don’t.  Yet this pointer falls into the category of “what are you willing to do?”  Maybe you will have to leave your job.  Is this stressful?  Yes.  Is it the end of the world?  No.  Maybe you will have to change careers.  I have spoken to many lawyers who haven’t been particularly happy with being a lawyer since day one.  But they kept doing it because they didn’t know what else to do, the legal profession paid a good buck, they didn’t want to seem like a failure, they were in debt, etc.  I am not trying to minimize these very real concerns.  However, your good health (as I learned the hard way) has got to reestablish itself as a top priority in your life.  I changed the nature and variety of my practice and am the better for it.  I do less litigation.  As a consequence, I have less stress which has been long known to be a powerful trigger for depression.  It can be done.

10.   Practice mindfulness in your daily life

A lot of attention has been focused on the use of mindfulness lately as a way to help depression.  In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of our consciousness.   We habitually react to our thoughts (e.g. “I will never get this brief done”).  In mindfulness meditation, we learn – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them.  If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the compelling book, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day. Check out this article written for my website by one of the book’s authors.

In closing, I often tell lawyers to remember to be kind to themselves.  When I say this they usually look puzzled – like many a judge who has listened to my oral arguments. They’ve 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 upon poor mental/emotional and physical habits.  Our inner pain can bring us to the point where we have had enough.  It begins to dawn on us that we are worthy of love from ourselves and others and that part of such love involves taking care of ourselves.  I hope these suggestions help you on your path.

 

Where does the Rat Race Lead Us To?

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Lawyers are very busy people.  They multi-task like a short order cook flipping pancakes in a busy diner.  First or second gear is simply not an option.

Speed becomes a large problem for the depressed lawyer.  The murky bog of depression short circuits a lawyer’s capacity to move, think and act quickly; everything takes longer and is incredibly more difficult to accomplish. We see our work getting away from us, but are pinned down in a foxhole.  Depression is spraying bullets at us as we feel them whizzing by our heads.  So we stay stuck in this foxhole, unable to gain traction to meet our daily demands.

I think there’s a couple different ways to look at the lack of productivity in our work; whether it’s due to depression or not.  Since you’re reading this blog, your difficulty in pumping out the paperwork is likely due, at least in part, to depression.  It may also be that you just don’t like your job, the type of law you practice or are even dream of quitting the profession.  What the precise cause or causes are need to be sorted out with a good therapist and wise friends. 

For example, is the work slow down due to a neurochemical mix-up in your brain affecting your ability to concentrate?  Or, is it a general malaise which suggests that you’re just burnt out and tired of all the bullshit?  They’re really different animals.

Depression treatment, because it involves a real impairment in our ability to function as lawyers, must involve care which tries to return us to some normal or pre-depression levels of functioning.  I like to imagine it as the ascent of a diving bell to the ocean’s surface. 

Burnout, on the other hand, has been defined by experts as situational exhaustion and helplessness that’s usually specific to our job or burdensome task.  We’re asked to do work that’s beyond our capacity to get it done.  It’s not defined as a psychiatric “illness” per se like depression and usually demands a different kind of healing approach.

But what if we aren’t “technically” depressed, at least not in a clinical sense, or burned out?  What if the real spur in our saddle is that we’re just unhappy in our lives as lawyers?  We may find ourselves yearning for a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness in our daily lives, but it all seems so illusive.  As a result, we keep doing what we already know how to do:  put the old nose to the grindstone, try to just survive the blowtorch-like stress and drama and, hopefully, find some semblance of happiness. 

Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., a Harvard professor and author of the book “Happier,” says that how we go about searching for happiness is an important part of finding it.  He identifies four archetypes – or patterns of behaviors and attitudes – with which we pursue happiness.  One of the patterns he identifies is the “Rat Race Archetype.”  This pattern of behaviors and attitudes “. . .sacrifices present enjoyment in order to be happy in the future.”  

As applied to law students, lawyers and judges, we do well in law school to get that well paying job that requires an eighty-hour work week.  We’re supposed to be happy because that’s why we sacrificed so much of our time and energy to get to where we are or want to be.  But more often, we find that “the sense of fulfillment disappears, though the drudgery remains,” says Ben-Shehar.

Paradoxically, outsiders may regard the rat-racer as a paragon of success.  “Others may even see him/her as a role model for younger children, suggests Ben-Shehar:

“’See, if you work hard, you can be successful like [Bob] too.’” But Bob actually pities these children, but cannot imagine what alternatives there are to the rat race.  He does not even know what to tell his children:  Not to work hard in school?  Not to get good grades?  Not to get a good job?  Is being successful synonymous with being miserable?  Being a hard worker is not the same as being a rat racer; there are supremely happy people who work long hours and dedicate themselves to their schoolwork or to their profession.  What differentiates rat racers is their inability to enjoy what they are doing – and their persistent belief that once they reach a certain destination, they will be happy.”

There’s no easy remedy to counter the rat race archetype in the legal profession. Yet, I feel that offering some insight into the problem can lead us to think differently about our predicament.  After all, insight is one of the major goals of all psychotherapy.  Such insight may even result in our making small or large changes in how we structure our daily law practice.  We need to reassess the motivation that is running our lives; the “why” of what we do and not so much the “what.”  Lawyers complain about what they have to put up with:  the demanding clients, impatient judges, opposing counsel who (we swear!) has it in for us or the Himalayan-like stack of papers on our desk.  Yet, we don’t often ask ourselves where this “putting up with” approach is leading to.

Our society rewards doers, especially in the legal profession. 

“We learn to focus on the next goal,” say Ben-Shahar, “rather than our present experience and chase the ever-elusive future our entire lives.  We are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself but for the successful completion of a journey.  Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys. Once we have arrived at our destination, once we attain our goal, we mistake the relief that we feel for happiness.  The weightier the burden we carried on our journey, the more powerful and pleasant is our experience of relief.  When we mistake these moments of relief for happiness, we reinforce the illusion that simply reaching goals will make us happy.  While there is value in relief – it is a pleasant experience and it is real – it should not be mistaken for happiness.”

If our legal life is a series of moments of relief, we will not experience much happiness.  I had to learn this one the hard way.  I needed to reassess: why was I doing what I was doing?  When I was honest with myself, I found that I saw completing my work as, primarily, a source of relief.  I had become a very good lawyer, but much of my motivation was spurred on by this motivation; of flopping onto the sofa at the end of the day and thinking, “Thank God that’s over.”

Happiness, in some sense, seemed unrealistic to me before. I now believe that thinking of happiness as unrealistic is a small box view in a big box world of possibilities.  We can change our motivation from one of chasing cheese to one of seeing that life happens in the present moment and not some future success.  Our life is really a series of moments, isn’t it?  And if we bet the house on the American anthem of “no pain, no gain” to obtain some future level of success, we may find that we end up not where we really, truly want to be.

The Need for Community

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My psychologist said something remarkable months ago:  “You’re a real loner Dan.”  I really never thought about myself that way – and I’m 48 years old!  But after reflecting on it awhile, I found what he’d said to be profoundly true.  It didn’t mean that I didn’t have people in my life that I love and who love me.  I have the best wife, a beautiful daughter and great friends.  Yet, I often didn’t see just often I isolated myself by choosing solitary activities.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  It’s a question of balance.  For me, the scales are tipping in the direction of reaching out and enjoying the fruits that only happen when really sharing with others.

And it’s not just lawyers that feel lonely.  In a recent edition of the national publication for judges, Judicature, it was estimated that 70% of judges feel lonely.  While there haven’t been any depression studies on judges, as there have been for law students and lawyers, one can only imagine their high depression levels.

I know that when I went through the worst of my depression, it was a very lonely experience.  Not because people didn’t try to be there for me and help.  Rather, it was because depression short circuits something in our brains that makes us essentially human: our capacity to engage with and feel connected to people.  I’ve often said that being a lawyer can be a lonely job and believe that most lawyers, at least in their private thoughts, feel this way.  When this loneliness in our jobs is compounded by the isolation we feel during a depression, it has a crushing effect.  Oxygen disappears from the room only to be replaced by the vapor of melancholy.  It feels like there is no escape and we are pounded into submission; a submission that on one level makes no sense because we are still carrying on with our lives – but just barely. 

Lately, I’ve felt the desire to end my isolation.  I have begun to recognize that what is most important in life, really, is family, friendship and community.  It may sound trite and simplistic to offer this up, but such a simple truth has long eluded me in my life.   My best friend, my wife, has seen me reach out to her more and it has only deepened our marriage.  How many of us who have dealt with depression don’t reach out to the most precious person that we live with everyday?  For some of you, it may not be your spouse.  It could be anyone that you feel close to.  If you don’t have someone like this in your life, it’s critical to develop one because a hour of therapy per week and a trip to the psychiatrist once a month simply is not enough support, love and encouragement to recover from and stay out of depression.

Think hard about your life.  How much time do you spend with friends that you really connect with?  What is your relationship life with your spouse and children?  As lawyers, we often think and say, “Time is money.”  However, the span of our lives is short and none of us is guaranteed even another day on this earth.  If you are spending all of your time at the office and neglecting your need to connect with others, the cost is simply too high.

Stress, Depression and Our Bodies

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Working as a lawyer and struggling with clinical depression is tough.  I know, because I deal with both every day.  In a peculiar sense, it’s really like having two full-time jobs that absorb all of our time.  As we know, the daily demands and stress of our jobs as lawyers are often unremitting:  Deadlines to meet, phone calls to return, and that motion to argue in Court the next morning.  We often feel that others who aren’t lawyers really don’t understand us and our work because they haven’t walked in our shoes.

The “job” of being depressed seems to parallel my experience as a lawyer.  A common experience of feeling depressed is feeling alone and isolated.  When people who care about us reach out to help, there are times we push them away out of a sense of bitterness, thinking:  “You really don’t know what it’s like to be a lawyer”.

Yet, there may come a time when we might want to begin seeing depression and our vocation as lawyers a little differently.  Not as two jobs, but really one.  The one job is to find a way to take care of ourselves.  Mother Teresa once said that what God expects of humanity is that we be “a loving presence to one another.”  Taking that further, I would suggest what God equally expects is for us to be a loving presence to ourselves.

In any law firm, the barometric pressure of stress rises and falls frequently. Consequently, we often find it difficult to be a “loving presence” to ourselves:  to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and nurture a support structure of good friends.  The gale-force winds of stress, burnout and depression can begin blowing and disconnect us even from this basic agenda.  Yet, if we are to regain our health in the midst of chronic stress, burnout and depression, we must return to these basic concerns because these maladies afflict our minds and our bodies.  Our physical state -our precious bodies- gets hammered by the unremitting punishment which they dish out.  I have often described my depression to friends as “wet cement running through my veins.” 

The biochemical imbalance that is so often a part of depression affects every part of our physical makeup: our eating, our weight, our energy level, and our ability to sleep.  How can we realistically hope to “feel better,” to regain the healthy ground that depression has knocked us off, if we don’t offer a loving presence to our tired and afflicted bodies left unbalanced, weakened and fatigued in depression’s wake?

Being a loving presence to our bodies is like being a loving parent.  We need to pause – and to have a support structure of people who remind us to pause – to ask ourselves what is good for our bodies.  My family doctor once told me that our bodies are like giant tape recorders that remember everything we have done to them.  Too little sleep, too much stress, not enough exercise tells our body that we simply don’t care and/or don’t have the time for it.  This pattern can have catastrophic consequences when depression hits because the body that we need to help us is not fully able to be our ally.  Because it has been ignored, it is of little help to fight depression and actually participates in it.  Anti-depressant medication can be a way, especially in the beginning, to begin to soothe our bodies, to calm our minds enough, so that we can begin thinking of how we are going to rebuild that loving relationship with our bodies.

One of my favorite parts of the Bible comes from the Old Testament, the Twenty Third Psalm.  To me, it speaks about the journey: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”  All humans must make this journey.  We must all “walk through the valley” of a life which is certain to have its victories and times of happiness, but also its stunning defeats and times of deep sorrow.  The shape of those victories and defeats take a particular form for lawyers.  Even more so for lawyers who struggle with depression.  The valley can feel more like a deep trench with no way out.  Our bodies can feel buried in this trench with no light or air able to penetrate depression’s paralyzing weight.  Yet, there are steps each of us can take to begin our climb out of this hole.  In my experience, our bodies are like the ladders propped against the trench of depression.  The great Psalm tenderly says to us that we are not alone; God is there with us in the deepest darkness.  Yet, I would also suggest that our bodies are there for us also, waiting to assist us in our journey towards wholeness.

The Ladder of Success

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Many lawyers are consumed with the goal of becoming successful.  Often, traditional success means money, status and power.  According to veteran lawyer George W. Kaufman, author of the book, The Lawyers’ Guide to Balancing Life and Work, “For too many lawyers, the goal of success becomes the primary driver.  But surveys of working lawyers tell us that a great many of them are unhappy even when their planned goals are realized . . .”  This view was echoed by therapist, Alden Cass in an article on burnout in New York Magazine titled, Can’t Get No Satisfaction.  Cass, who treats Wall Street lawyers in New York City, says, “I can’t tell you how many people come into my office and ask, “How come I have this money and I can’t find happiness?”

Most lawyers are never taught about the problems and pitfalls of pursuing success without also combining it with the pursuit of meaning and purpose.  My parent’s only imperatives were that I go to college, get a good job and “be happy.”  I worked long hours, endured constant stress and moved up my old firm’s pecking order.  But somewhere along the way, I realized that something was terribly wrong with my life.  I wasn’t just unhappy; I was full of sorrow.  The great mythologist, professor and author, Joseph Campbell captured the irony of our common struggle for success: “You climb the ladder of success and when you get to the top you find it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” 

I fell off that ladder and into a well of depression.

I was never taught how to navigate the waters of difficult emotions.  When I looked around at my fellow lawyers, they all seemed so together — like a show room car that never got dented and was always polished.

Through my depression, I learned a lot about the darkness.  That it isn’t exactly an illness, but part of the human journey for all of us.  Educator and author, Parker Palmer, who went through and struggled with depression, wrote:

“Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.  When I was young, there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had ever known.  As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure.  I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race”.  Listen to a great podcast where Parker is interviewed for a show called, The Soul of Depression.

So much of the literature out there about success focuses on “work-life” balance.  The formula in many of these tomes is the same:  set limits, exercise and make time for family.  All of these are well and good, but seem to so often fail us.  There’s simply not enough gravity in them to keep us in orbit.  What’s lacking is a basic  truth:  Life is made up of struggles and losses and how we deal with them.  Such struggles can reach a crisis pitch in which we enter a sort of darkness.

In his book, Dark Night of the Soul:  A Guide to Finding Your Way through Life’s Ordeals, psychologist, Thomas Moore says: 

“A dark night may not feel like depression.  In a long illness or a troubled marriage you may be anxious, but not depressed.  On the other hand, a clinical depression might well qualify as a dark night.  Whatever you call it, the experience involves you as a person, someone with a history, a temperament, memories, emotions, and ideas.  Depression is a label and a syndrome, while the dark night is a meaningful event.  Depression is a psychological sickness; a dark night is a spiritual trial.

Many people think that the point of life is to solve their problems and be happy.  But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of the problems.  Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life.  That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life.  They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having.  A dark night may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to the living.  It pares life down to its essentials and helps you to get a new start”.

And maybe that’s what we all need – a new start.  To wake up to a new vision about what success really means to us and how we need to act in our lives as lawyers to meet that meaning.

I remember the words of Mother Teresa on the topic of success.  It’s worth mentioning that a book published in 2007, Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta,  says that Mother Teresa felt deep sorrow, despair and one could argue “depression” for the last fifty years of her life.  Yet, in the most profound sense –whether you are religious or not — wasn’t she a success?  She once said, “We are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful.”   In other words, we can’t control the outcomes.  But, we can live a life that is directed by our spirits.  And THAT is a life of success.

The Dead Zone Of Depression

There is a zone in a depressed person’s life where nothing seems to happen — except the pain of the absence of everything. 

Such anguish is so overwhelming that every other concern is squashed in its wake.  Our capacity for willful actions seems to be gone; we can’t “figure it out.”  We are stuck.

I have learned a lot about the zone over the years and how to handle it.  It’s really like surfing a giant wave.  To handle these waves, you study them and prepare yourself for when the next big one rolls in.

When I feel I’m entering a Dead Zone, I start a deliberate and kind conversation with myself that is practiced and rehearsed.  I don’t let the toxic voice of depression drown me out.  It’s important to empower ourselves in whatever ways we can during these times because depression will lead you to falsely conclude that you’re helpless to lift your dark mood.  This conclusion is one of the central tenets of depression; one of its main “themes”.  We need to create – and we can – different and healthier themes for our lives.

Start with a three by five index card.  Use it to create your own deliberate and kind script of themes for yourself that day.  Here’s is an example of what I had written on one of my cards:

— This depression isn’t forever, it will pass.

— I have handled it in the past, I will handle it now.

— Get out of my head – don’t sit around and ruminate.

I usually write a new card out every morning.  When depression is absent (and there are long periods of time when it is), the theme of the card might be more celebratory or grateful:

— I appreciate all of the goodness in my life.

— Thank you God for all of the wonderful people you’ve put in my life.

— I am happy that I am not experiencing depression today.

Try this for awhile and see if it helps you. Don’t wait until you are in the zone of depression to construct the cards because your thinking during such times will be distorted.  Doing this is a healthy and self-empowering step that you can take today.

When Is My Depression Going to End?

I find writing about depression for lawyers a delicate balancing act.  On one hand, I don’t want to pull any punches about just how awful depression is or how adversely it can affect your life and career.  On the other hand, I want to offer hope and encouragement to those who are in the trenches and deal with it every day.  I will try to do both today.

I have been encouraged by some to write only “positive” articles about dealing with depression. But I just can’t do that. To not deal with the more troubling aspects of depression seems to me a form of denial.  The other day, I was at my local bookstore checking out the Self-Help section for any new titles on depression.  Some of the titles seemed like they were being pitched by used car salesmen:  “Overcome Your Depression in 30 Days!”  This doesn’t help the conversation about depression because it sets up ludicrous expectations in the minds of those who suffer from it and their loved ones about the speed of recovery.  For many with depression, they’re in it for the long haul.

One of the hardest parts about dealing with depression on a daily basis is its seemingly unpredictable nature:  When is it going to start again and how long will it last?

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the best-selling book, Prozac Nation, gets it right when she wrote:

“That’s the thing about depression.  A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight.  But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.  The fog is like a cage without a key”.

Many, many lawyers go into a mode of survival waiting for a depression to end.  To me, the degree to which such a depression can create catastrophe in our lives as lawyers seems driven by the episode’s severity:  is it a tropical depression or a full blown hurricane?

If it a low to medium grade depression, tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”) are very helpful.  With CBT, we work in therapy to replace destructive, depressing, negative self-talk with positive, healthy and realistic self-talk.  The efficacy of this approach has been studied and documented using PET scans of the human brain.  Such scans show that an area in the frontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) is hyperactive in depressives before CBT and then calmed down after successful CBT treatment.  This same area of the brain is activated when people do self-referencing [relating external events, particularly negative ones, to the self] and depressives do too much of this.  They spin around in a cycle of negative thoughts and try to use the cerebral cortex to snap out of their depression.  With CBT, they learn to decrease their self-reference to the things that are negative.  It’s a form of rehabilitation of the cortex where depressives learn to turn the volume down.

This is a critical skill for lawyers to develop.  According to psychologist, Martin Seligman, author of the best-selling book, “Authentic Happiness,”  lawyers are pessimists.  They develop thinking habits which see problems as permanent and intractable.  They also feel an overdeveloped sense of ownership or responsibility for such problems.  Optimists, on the contrary, see problems as temporary, solveable and not necessarily their “fault”.  The important point here is that optimism is a skill that can be developed and practiced. Read Seligman’s chapter, “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?”

If it is a deeper depressive episode, more like a trough of despair, CBT won’t work very well.  During such an episode, there is the sense that it’s never going to end.  Yet, this is the distorted voice of depression talking because for the majority of people with depression, IT DOES END.  The trick is to learn how best to weather the storm.

I find that when I am in a deeper depression, I need to go outside my mind and get into my body.  Consistently, the things that helped me the most were the following:

1.   It’s virtually impossible to feel depressed while exercising and even for a good period of time thereafter.  The problem, as most of us know, is getting to the gym or the park.  Behavioral prompts can help.  Always have your gym gear in your car.  Also, be realistic.  Remember that it takes at least 21 days to form a habit.  So, those first 21 days won’t be the easiest ones.  Tell your family and friends about the importance of exercise to you and have them support and remind you about this on a daily basis.

2.   Cut off any unnecessary negative input in your life during these times.  Don’t listen to any sad music, watch violent T.V. shows or read somber books.  This isn’t a forever type of deal.  Think of it more as a “timeout”.  Some people stop reading the newspaper during an episode as well.  Also, the time you’re not doing these activities gives you the time that you’ll need to exercise.

3.   See a massage therapist.  Touch has a powerful effect on the human body and is known to cause the release of endorphins (the feel-good chemicals).  It doesn’t involve any thinking on your part.  For busy lawyers, it’s a time to relax and receive something positive for the day.

Remember to be kind to yourself today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Weight of Advice

Each of us is a Dear Abby to the world. We dish out advice and opinions whether asked for or not; me included! Much of this is harmless; some necessary and kind. Then there’s the stuff we dole out without knowing what the hell we’re talking about. Where we should tread carefully, we plod along.

For better or for worse, there’s tremendous power in words. When we are vulnerable – as we are during a depression – the critical or misguided words of others take on the ring of gospel. Some may blame us for our depression in a ploy to get us to snap out of it. In one poll, 54% of Americans said that they thought of depression as a “moral weakness”.

Years ago, when I first told my four law partners that I was diagnosed with depression and would need to take time off, they sat there stunned. After a moment of awkward silence, one partner said, “What in the world do you have to be depressed about? You’ve got a great job, wife, family and friends. What do you need, a vacation?” This is an all too common response. His school of thought would argue that it was a lack of gratefulness that was at the root of my distress. Carried to its logical (or illogical) conclusion, we have control over our depressed state and if we only try harder by thinking positive thoughts, it will all go away.

In the book, Unholy Ghosts: Writers on Depression, author Susanna Kaysen says:

“The Failure of Will theory is popular with people who are not depressed. Get out and take your mind off yourself, they say. You’re too self-absorbed. This is just about the stupidest thing you can say to a depressed person, and it is said every day to depressed people all over this country. And if it isn’t that, it’s, Shut up and take your Prozac. These attitudes are contradictory. Conquer Your Depression and Everything Can Be Fixed by the Miracle of Science presuppose opposite explanations of the problem. One blames character, the other neurotransmitters. They are often thrown at the sufferer in sequence: Get out and do something, and if that doesn’t work, take pills. Sometimes they’re used simultaneously: You won’t take those pills because you don’t WANT to do anything about your depression, i.e. Failure of Will.”

These observations capture some of the angst – and yes, anger – of depressives. When I was struggling with other’s judgments about my depression, I thought, “What do I have to do to be worthy of their mercy?” In retrospect, it wasn’t a question of worthiness, but ignorance. Some people (friends, family and business associates) will never be able to overcome the inertia of their own ignorance. They’re not bad people. It’s just the way life is. And we have to learn to be okay with that. But then there are others. These precious souls – and there don’t have to be lots of them – who have our back. They truly want to understand and help. Mother Teresa was once asked by a hard-boiled reporter what God expects of humanity. I think the reporter expected some stock answer. Mother Teresa, in all her gracious dignity, said that all God really wants from us to be is a “loving presence” to one another. There are those in our lives who want to be that presence to us. Give them the chance to be that light.

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