Blog from a Chicago trial lawyer about what he’s learned in his life in courtroom. Read the Blog.
What Being a Lawyer is Really Like
No April Joke: 20 Things You Should Know About Suicide
According to the blog Beyond Blue, more suicides occur in the month of April than any other month. Read the Blog.
The Suicide of a Lawyer with Depression — Ken’s Story
This is a guest blog by Cincinnati, Ohio attorney Tabitha M. Hochscheid, Esq., a partner at the law firm of Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC. In this moving tribute, she writes about her law partner and dear friend Ken Jameson who committed suicide in May of 2011 after a battle with depression.
How well do we know those with whom we spend our work days with? Is it possible to practice with someone and be there friend for years yet, not truly know that they are suffering from the depths of depression? Being around other attorneys can give us the camaraderie and support we need to grow and build our practice. But, often times, people keep their emotional health a secret and suffer from depression in silence. By the time their colleagues realize what is going on, it can be too late to do anything about it. My partner and friend Ken Jameson was one of the people. This is his story.
Ken Jameson was, by outward appearances, successful, well liked, a loving husband and father, a friend to everyone and a dependable partner. In fact, Ken was perhaps the epitome of the well liked, client centered and dedicated lawyer many of us envision when we think of how lawyers should behave. On the inside, however, Ken was struggling with the depression which eventually took his life.
I first met Ken in the summer of 2007 for breakfast to discuss my interest in joining Cohen, Todd, Kite and Stanford, LLC. Ken was so easy to talk to and we instantly bonded because he too had left a small firm to find a place to grow and build his practice at Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC. After I joined the firm in January 2008, Ken was always available to help and support me and we grew into friends, as well as, colleagues.
Like so many attorneys, Ken built a practice by creating a network of referrals, by giving his clients personal service and building long term relationships. He was an attorney who facilitated resolutions and provided estate plans for people of all income levels. Ken enjoyed his work. After joining the firm himself in 2006, his practice thrived. He became a trusted member of the firm and was on the management committee. Ken shared is life outside of the office with his wife and best friend of 35 years, Betsy, and three adult children of whom he was most proud.
Ken was a universally well liked person. He conducted himself professionally in such a way that he never seemed to have conflicts with others. Ken cared about his firm family, he always checked in on people if they were sick or if he knew you were under stress. He was active member in his Church. Ken took care of his physical health by walking 5 miles a day, attending Pilates classes twice a week and maintaining a healthy diet. By all outward appearances, Ken had success in his work, a happy home life and seemed content.
However, Ken had underlying mental health issues. Like many attorneys he had trouble sleeping well. Sleep is something that eludes most attorneys from time to time, but his type of sleep loss was chronic. He would fall asleep and wake up in just a few hours and not be able to go back to sleep. As long as I knew Ken, he had this issue. He tried relaxation techniques to help him sleep better, he read books about stress management and attempted to delegate work to others. Ultimately, Ken was a self confessed perfectionist and as such, had an inner critic who told him he had to be at work all the time.
Most lawyers struggle with the challenges of building a law practice, client demands and finding out how to have precious downtime. Ken was doing all the right things, but he still wasn’t able to sleep. In March of this year, he took time out of the office due to exhaustion. He went to see his family doctor and was prescribed something for sleep. He tried to come back to the office part time within a few weeks but was unable to sustain a schedule. Ken represented to those of us at work that he was exhausted and initially did not tell others what was really going on.
In late April, he left the office again. This time it was lack of sleep and a pinched a nerve in his back. With this new medical issue, his depression worsened. He spent sometime in the hospital to adjust to new medications and was scheduled for back surgery. At this point, Ken began expressing worry about the office and felt as if he was letting the firm down. Finally, Ken had back surgery for the pinched nerve in the middle of May. After the surgery, Ken seemed to be doing better; everyone thought his return to the office was imminent.
Ken never returned to the office. On Sunday, May 22, 2011, I received a call from our office manager. She informed me that Ken’s depression had worsened and that he had taken his own life that morning. As the next few days unfolded, details began to surface. Ken underwent surgery on his back and in the days following the procedure, had checked in with people at the office and had seemed like his old self. Ken also visited his mother and called his best friend. All the while, Ken meticulously planned how to take his own life.
No one can answer the question of what was going through his head or why he was in such despair that he took his life. The next five days were difficult at the office. People were in a state of shock and disbelief. His office door has remained open since Monday, May 23, 2011. A memorial was held the Saturday following his death and it was standing room only. Ken clearly touched the lives of thousands and his life was remembered in eulogies by his friends, his sister and his wife. It was touching to see so many people who loved him, but the confusion as to what occurred actually increased for many.
Do you ever really know the people we practice law with? Everyone at the office felt they had a personal relationship with Ken. But, did anyone of us really know what was happening. It is easy now to look back and see the signs of Ken’s illness (sleep deprivation, self criticism, feeling of letting others down, a search for answers and inability to allow others to help) and to wonder what if anything could have changed the outcome. Time, however, does not give us this luxury and these questions will never be answered. The best that can be done is to acknowledge that Ken’s illness, depression, can be deadly.
It seems that our profession gives little in return for years of hard labor. Learning a way to balance the demands of the business of being a lawyer with the need for downtime is essential to one’s mental and physical health. Ken’s depression is an all too real downside of the practice of law. His suicide is a tragedy to his family, our law firm and to the legal community. He was one of the “good” guys and the profession needs more people like him.
For those of us left behind we struggle for understanding and to carry on in spite of the sadness we each feel. Inevitably when speaking with others we are confronted with the questions of why? Most people will ask the normal questions – were there money problems, did he have marital problems or health issues. The answer to these questions is no and then people just cannot fathom why Ken chose to end his life. I know in my heart that, as the minister said during his memorial, that Ken felt he was “fixing” the situation. Ken was a fixer and this was his only choice left.
I’ll always miss Ken Jameson. The courage and commitment he showed to his clients, his family and those of us in business with him is something I admire. However, his suffering in silence has left me and his other colleagues with regrets as to what we could have done to help. In the end, however, Ken could not give himself permission to be less than perfect and eventually, felt those in his life were better off without him. It is truly a sad ending to a beautiful life that could have been prevented. My hope in sharing Ken’s story is that there will be greater recognition of depression and the despair that can accompany and that it will help someone struggling with these issues. As for Ken, I hope he has found the peace that life did not provide.
Editors note — If you or someone you know suffers from depression and may have thought about suicide, visit the website of the national organization The American Association of Suicidology which contains great information, resources and how to get help. Lawyers can also contact Lawyer Assistance Programs in their legal community. To locate a program near you, visit the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs website.
Spreading the News About the Blog
I need your help. The American Bar Association is asking people to vote for their favorite blogs by October 1, 2010. They will then publish the results in a “Top 100” edition of the magazine. I want to continue to educate law students, lawyers and judges. What can you do to be part of that effort?
You can go to this ABA web link and vote for my blog. You will need to cut and paste the URL of my blog to fill out the vote and here it is: http://lawyerswithdepression.wordpress.com. My hope is that those reading the ABA results will find help, comfort and support both on my blog and my website. I have heard from hundreds of people from around the country and worldwide. If you have found that blog helpful, please help to support it. If you know someone else that can help with the vote, please forward it onto them.
I am hard at work on another blog and should have it posted in the next for days.
The Storm Rolls In
There are many myths and misconceptions about clinical depression. One of the most tiresome is that depression is just being down in the dumps – in my experience, it’s more like being down in the abyss. Or, that depression is just everyday sadness. Who doesn’t get sad, after all, in today’s crazy world?
But depression isn’t normal sadness – not by a long shot. Everyday sadness – which is part of the human experience for everyone bar none — is usually a reaction to some sort of loss whether in real-time (you just lost your job) or in your mind (you have a sad memory). After some period of time, our ability to adapt kicks in and our emotional world levels off; we regain a sense of emotional balance and are ready to face life challenges.
In contrast, clinical depression is persistent sadness (according to experts, something that last two weeks or more – see a list of other symptoms from the DSM- IV as laid by clicking the link above). This sadness does not go away. We do not adapt. We do not return to an emotional balance without some sort of treatment — whether it’s therapy, medication, life style changes (e.g. a committed exercise regimen) or some combination of all three.
Many folks with depression may also have an absence of the normal range of emotion – particularly the ability to experience joy. There is a flat affect – an emotionally deadening; tears are replaced by simply torment. Our emotional range, if you will, our palette of colorful emotions, is reduced to variations of grey or black. Purples, greens and yellows are simply unable to bloom in depression’s arid soil.
The predominant feeling that all depression sufferers endure, if you could call it a feeling, is unadulterated pain; a sense of darkness that sets up residence in the core of our humanity like a burned out sun that has lost its sense of heat and light.
Some people recover from depression and go into complete remission. For many that fall into this group, their depression is contained by medication, therapy, life style changes and/or some combination of all of these. Depression does not return, thank God.
Others – in my experience many – do not per se recover. They have periods of recovery and episodes of relapse. Or, their depression goes from being Major depression (a truly crippling condition where daily functioning is all but impossible) to Dysthymia (a milder, but more chronic form of depression). The biggest difference between the two is that Dysthymia does not usually incapacitate someone and thoughts of suicide are absent.
Stress can trigger the mercenaries of depression to return during a relapse and assault our mind’s garrisons – – a big problems if you’re a lawyer. Too much stress, too many triggers and a lawyer who had been doing pretty well finds herself or himself falling into the basement of despair. This underscores the importance of learning about the patterns of depression in our lives so as to head it off at the pass.
It’s as if each person’s depression (while sharing some common features – hence the DSM IV) has its own personality, like the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. We must learn read the habits of our depressions because we will then be able to recognize the signs of the trouble brewing inside our heads.
Like a storm seen in the distance from the shore, those who’ve been through a depression can sense the barometric pressure dropping and see the threatening clouds approaching. We may not tell others of this sense of foreboding because we don’t want to concern others, feel that they wouldn’t understand or conclude that they can’t do anything to help anyway.
Other signs begin to appear as the storm moves closer to shore: we don’t have the energy to return calls at the office (our voicemail box becomes digital chunks of impatient clients or opposing counsel calling back for the third time), a fragmentation of our ability to think and concentrate and a strong desire to isolate ourselves and wait – for God knows how long – for the storm to pass.
Just as storms form because of a combination of climatic condition, so too does depression.
For law students, their personality types (often neurotic, perfectionist and overachieving), run head on into the pessimistic thinking style they learn in law school – the buzz saw of learning to “think like a lawyer.” This pessimistic style, finds trouble everywhere it looks. It may make us good lawyers, but often unhappy – and depressed – human beings.
For practicing lawyers, the qualities they took into and learned from law school meet head on with the extraordinary demands of a modern law practice. We’ve come to name those who grew up and fought in World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Perhaps today’s lawyers might be thought of as “The Driven Generation.” Law has become less of a profession and more of a business.
For a lawyer who has goes through a relapse of depression, it’s often befuddling to them why they’re they are going through all this shit again. But regardless of the reason, there you are in the thick of it; the vaporous stink of depression has fallen on you like used up coffee grounds. It seems, most assuredly, unfair. Yet, there it is.
Here are some thoughts about preventing relapse and how to keep you feeling well:
- Learn about how your depression expresses itself. When you start to experience the early warning signs of a depression, talk about with a professional. Read 5 Depression Relapse Triggers to Watch For which should give you some further signs to watch for.
- Watch your thoughts. In myself, I can see a shift from a relatively optimistic outlook to a pessimistic one. I am quicker to judge others and assume the worst about them and their behavior – as well as myself. When not in this space, I am likely to be more forgiving and – I am sure my wife would agree – easier to hang out with! Read, Therapy Better Than Antidepressants at Heading Off New Bout Triggered by Sadness.
- People who relapse are often people who stop taking their medication. They do so because they’ve been taking it for awhile, feel better and decide they just don’t want to take it anymore. This can often have disastrous consequences: a return of depression or even suicide. Beware of this and carefully plan out with a professional how to taper off medication if that’s where you would like to go. Read, What is Depression Relapse and Can It Happen to Me?
Missing The Point
I recently read a tragic article about a young man at New York University who jumped to his death at the school’s library the other day. One of the school’s spokesman said, “It’s a very competitive school that stresses people out. This sort of stuff happens at places like this”. Sort of like a variation of “shit happens,” don’t you think? I think this misses the point.
Some months ago, I wrote a blog article called, “The Death of a Law Student.” A brilliant young man – I’m sure much like the man who killed himself this past week – from Fordham Law School, David Nee, killed himself shortly before graduation. While there may be no concrete answers to these tragedies, I feel that there are lessons to be learned.
First, when reporting these stories, there is usually no mention of the victim’s psychological history. Neither is there in most news accounts of the 30,000 people who kill themselves every year in this country.
That’s okay, because everyone has a right, as does their surviving family, to privacy. Yet, I am sure if we were to know the whole story about these victims, we’d find that the majority of them had been suffering from depression for some time. It wasn’t just “stress” or a “competitive academic environment” or a job loss which caused these deaths. Perhaps, it was the latest in a series of emotional struggles; inner battles which that person fought valiantly but ultimately lost.
Second, I think these suicides underscore just how painful depression really is. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison (click here to read an interview with her), author of the recent and definitive book, Night Falls Fast, captures this sense of pain:
“Depression paralyzes all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, and deadened state. It is barren, fatiguing, and agitated condition: one without hope or capacity. All bearings are lost; all things dark and drained of feeling. The slippage into futility is first gradual, then utter. Thought, which is pervasively affected by depression as mood, is morbid and confused. The body is bone-weary; there is no will; nothing that is not an effort, and nothing that at all seems worth it. Sleep is fragmented, elusive, or all-consuming. Like an unstable gas, an irritable exhaustion seeps into every crevice of thought and action.”
It is so painful, in fact, that some sufferers would prefer death to the ongoing agony of dealing with depression for the rest of their lives. They often conclude that the noonday demon will be with them forever because of their inner battle and many failures to overcome or contain it which have been going on for some time. Seeing no progress or hope on the horizon, people take their lives. They experience a sort of “combat fatigue.” They just can’t get out of their foxholes. It feels like a dead end.
It’s very difficult for suicidal people to think about anything but the pain they’re in. It is hard for them to connect to the very real pain – emotional devastation really – that loved ones would feel were they to take their life. It’s as if they’ve become unmoored from all those who care about them and can only hear the siren of depression’s screaming wail.
I have been encouraged by others who have never experienced depression not to blog about the “grim topic” of suicide. To me, that’s like saying let’s not talk about cigarette smoking and cancer. Untreated depression – like smoking packs of cigarettes everyday- can and often does lead to death.
In a real sense, I don’t give a damn what others think. I want to reach those people out there who are suffering with depression and need someone, for Christ’s sake, to tell them that they understand and they’re not crazy to feel this way – even when it comes to having suicidal thoughts.
People who have suicidal thoughts should seek help right away. Click here for immediate help, a toll free number and additional resources. There were plenty of times during my deepest depressions that I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. And there was no hiding place; nowhere that I could go to escape the clutches of depression. It covered me like a wet wool jacket as I stumbled through my days. I always reached out for help and it saved me.
I think that people who experience depression are very brave people. They must cope with something very painful. Often, they don’t feel supported. Often, even when they are really supported, they don’t think so because their depression tells them otherwise. It’s the voice of depression giving them the old screw job every which way they turn.
Had we broken arms or legs, it would be so simple. Loved ones would respond – maybe with flowers and chocolates and a puffing up of our favorite pillow – with love and care.
Sometime ago, I was trying to tell my mother and older sister about my depression. They weren’t terribly moved and I got angry. I said, “Maybe, if my head were falling off and I was spouting blood, you would believe me then. You would give me a damn ounce of compassion.” Looking back on it, I really don’t think they were being selfish bastards. I think that they just didn’t know. They didn’t have any frame of reference for what depression is or just how painful it can get.
This really doesn’t make it any easier for the depressed person. They feel misunderstood at a time when they feel broken. They’re reaching out to people beyond their therapist and psychiatrists and hoping to find friendly souls to assuage some of their anguish. “Surely, people will understand me and care about this,” they often think. But others are often frightened and minimize the problem: “Just get the hell over it” they preach from the pulpit. All the while, we stand there, crying inside and feel all alone in a veritable wasteland.
A few times, in the worst of times, I even thought that maybe if I really did kill myself, then others would take my pain seriously. But what a supreme tragedy such an act would be; it doesn’t solve anything and would only leaves a cosmic trail of pain in its wake forever. I am so grateful that I never acted on any of these impulses.
We all want so much to connect at a time when depression has disconnected us. We feel ourselves falling with no parachute. Yesterday, I give a presentation to thirty undergraduate students on the topic of depression. After my talk, I fielded many questions. One young woman asked, “what do you think helped you most in getting over your depression?” First, I said that I hadn’t gotten over it; I would have it – in some form- probably for the rest of my life. I told her that it was contained and manageable, not cured. I also said: “Probably, what helped me the most was time.” My depression and who I am has changed over time. It didn’t kill me. I survived and continue to work at it like a miner digging for coal. I have learned creative and effective ways to cope with it. It doesn’t rule my days – most of the time.
After hearing my answer, she exclaimed, “How brave you are.” I responded: “I really don’t feel brave at all. What I do feel is determined”. I feel determined to fight my depression in all of its manifestations. I feel determined to not let it define me and my life.
It is such determination, over time, that helps us recover from depression. It gives us hope because we can actually witness ourselves not giving into our melancholy. We don’t need to keep being victimized by it. Sure, there will be days when it might get the better of us. But, as the old Zen saying goes, “fall down seven times, get up eight.” Keep getting up.
Law and the Human Condition
Many people who went to law school didn’t have a burning passion to be a lawyer. They did so because they didn’t know what else to do with their undergraduate degrees. Some went on to find and embrace their calling as lawyers, some did not. Some have left the profession. Most have not.
Those who haven’t left, but think of doing so – sometimes daily – are legion. Forbes Magazine reported that a full 38 percent of attorneys say they somewhat regret their career choice. Additionally, Harvard Law School counselors estimate that 20% to 30% of active attorneys are considering another career.
I recently bumped into the Valedictorian of my law school class. She told me she had chucked her law career awhile ago, went back to school and was now an elementary school teacher. She had gone from power suit blues to L.L. Bean greens. When I told other lawyer pals about this, they weren’t shocked – they envied her.
Recently, I had lunch with a contract lawyer at the Oyster Bar in New York City. He had come from a long line of lawyers and judges in his family who encouraged him to go to law school. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he worked seven years at a large Manhattan firm. As we slurped our Clam Chowder, he told me that he didn’t know one person that was happy being a lawyer. That if they could get out, they would. Now it may be that misery loves company, but let’s be honest: there are a lot of unhappy folks out there. Lawyers walk the halls of justice and corridors of power – or maybe just look out of a Starbucks window – and wonder why they just can’t turn things around and just feel happy.
I don’t think job dissatisfaction is unique to lawyers; it’s the daily fare for most Americans. A recent MSNBC article read: “Americans hate their jobs more than ever in the past 20 years with fewer than half saying they are satisfied.” People, deep down, feel broken and vulnerable, but just have to keep going in order to survive in this tough economic climate.
My friend and psychologist, Richard O’Connor, in his book, Undoing Perpetual Stress, captures the daily plight of the average American struggling to make to make it:
“Here is where I leave trying to explain physiology [how stress and depression affect the brain] and turn to something I know about – life as it’s lived in the USA. I get to hear all about it from my patients, a wonderful cross-section – aging Yankees, rising Yuppies, farm and factory workers, teens and seniors. Most people are living with, I think, a fear of fear. There is a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are living our lives, but a reluctance to look closely at that. We know deeply that we’re in serious trouble, but we live our daily lives as if everything is fine, whistling past the graveyard. We try to purchase inner peace, knowing perfectly well that’s impossible, but not seeing an alternative. Or we tell ourselves that someone will figure out what’s wrong someday, and until then we’ll just have to wait. Or we’ll simply live our lives later. Or we may believe for a while in the latest fad – a political leader, a spiritual leader, a self-help guru. We try to follow what the fad tells us, but it usually doesn’t do much for our troubles, so we give up and try to forget again.”
I give a lot of speeches across the country to groups of lawyers about stress, anxiety and depression. It’s always interesting how many contact me later and say that while they aren’t depressed per se, life isn’t going very well. There have been plenty of times I’ve considered – or it’s been suggested to me – that I consider changing the name of my website from https://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/ to something like www.lawyersdealingwithalotofshit.com. No, it’s not a real website so don’t click on it. The point is that lawyers are stuck not only dealing with the high decibel life as a lawyer, but also the everyday crap that all Americans must try to handle everyday.
Dr. O’Connor helps us to understand the breadth of the problem for the average American:
“Then there are those without a diagnosis: I can’t estimate the number who feel their lives are out of control because they can’t lose weight, they can’t stop procrastinating, they can’t get out of debt, they can’t speak up for themselves – “soft addictions,” bad habits that make them feel miserable and ashamed. They are still others who are like the living dead – numb to their own existence, busy working, buying, doing – feeling vaguely empty but compelled to continue, too busy even to sit and look at their lives. Their depression has grown on them so insidiously that it feels normal; they believe life stinks, and there’s nothing they can do about it. And finally there are the rest of us, who still have to find confidence, connection, love, who have to raise children without guidance in a crazy world, often watch our parents lose their minds if they live long enough, and wonder about the meaning and importance of our lives. Even those of us supposedly without emotional problems, there is still the nagging fear that we’re faking it, just making it up as we go along, and praying we don’t stumble.”
This quote isn’t meant to bum anyone out – okay maybe it’s a tad bit melancholic. However, I would argue, not morose. I think it’s a true picture of the dilemma that most people deal with everyday as they cross at the traffic light pounding out on their Blackberry’s, yell into the old cell phone above the din of traffic noise or wonder ten times a day where they’re going to find the energy to deal with it all.
What makes lawyers different from the average Joe (and Jane)?
I would argue that there are a couple of things. First, the adversarial nature of the profession: unless you are into slugging it out everyday (unfortunately, I’ve had opponents who thrive on this), the law will wear you down physically and emotionally. Second, it is a career that is made up – maybe to a degree that few others are – of the mentality that you’re either a “winner” or a “loser.” Third, much of the public has a murmuring resentment or outright disdain for lawyers.
What to do about all of this? On this score let it be clear that I am not speaking to you from the mountain top, but from the valley. I struggle with these problems – and the potential antidotes – every day. But, I will give it a whirl.
First, recognize that many people are in the same boat as you. If you recognize that you are not alone in feeling the way you do, it can ease your burden. Some of this stuff is just the human predicament. Most people have a difficult time navigating through life. Chalk it up as a part of the deal we all signed on for when we were born into this troubled world.
Second, change your thinking. I call this the “stressed-out-lawyer” myth. This doesn’t contradict what I’ve said earlier; the point is that lawyers compound their pain by telling themselves — at virtually every moment of the day — how out of control they are. These thoughts, which a mental commentary on reality, – just plain out don’t help. We need to be more constructive in our thoughts. You’ll have to make the effort on this one.
Third – and I will never tire of tooting this horn – exercise. We can’t ever forget that we are essentially animals with high powered brains. The law jacks up our bodies with all sorts of high voltage situations we must confront. We must find a way to discharge this energy or it will wear our batteries out. Your poor body is literally screaming out to you to get rid of the stress before it eats away at your health. As the Nike commercials say, “Just Do It!”
The Past and Present – Seeds of Depression and Recovery From It
On this cool Monday morning, I’m feeling at bit melancholic. Change is in the air as the vibrancy of summer and all its activity is being nudged out by the creeping approach of Autumn. I went out to breakfast recently with my daughter – all of 10 years old – and my mother who will soon turn 82. I had my camera with me so I snapped a picture of them. They looked so happy; little did I know that they would be the seed for my blog today.
As my daughter ascends into maturity, my mom has long passed by this rite of passage seven decades ago. She’s in the final stage of her journey in this life. I’m taking her to the neurologist today to be evaluated for early dementia, her speech becoming more labored and her memory harder to access. And here I am in the middle of my own journey at 48.
Both have played an important role in how I dealt with my depression. When it first occurred, I had just turned forty. Prior to that, I had been on top of my game; a veritable master of my own domain. But the arc of my sun was falling. Into what, I had no idea. But, it was terrifying. Truly frightening to have a sense of something quite beyond sadness; to feel a fatigue that feels defeated with no change for redemption.
As the depression deepened, my young daughter became my sunlight. Her vulnerability, her sense of love for her Dad, would pick me up and keep me stumbling forward. It felt like God’s mercy was working through her at a time when I had felt abandoned by Him. The stronger the depression got, the more I felt that I needed something beyond any words anyone could say. I just needed to be hugged by her; this would be my redemption.
My mom played a role in my depression during another epoch in my life. As I have wrote about in an earlier blog about my alcoholic father, I grew up in a deeply troubled home. My father’s violent and explosive temper defined my childhood; his rage engrained into the blueprints of the house’s architecture.
In his book, The Truth About Depression, Dr. Charles Whitfield notes that over 327 clinical scientific studies have shown a strong link between childhood trauma and the development of subsequent depression in adulthood. In one study, researchers conclude:
“The mechanism for this increased vulnerability [to depression] has a strong mind-body component, and may be found in the patient’s appraisal of events. Adult survivors of childhood abuse have been found to have cognitive distortions about the world. The abuse experience may have altered their ‘internal working model,’ causing them to perceive the world as a dangerous place. They may be more likely to make negative appraisals of the world than they would have if they had not been abused. Not only does this increase their vulnerability to depression, but negative cognitive appraisals lead to the release of cortisol”.
See the article I wrote for Trial magazine, “The Connection between Stress, Anxiety and Depression.” It’s the article which follows the one by Andrew Benjamin, Ph.D. Also, see this article which talks about the link between elevated levels of cortisol in the body and depression.
My mom doesn’t like talking about our past traumatic childhood, much less any role she played in it as a passive observer. Now with her memory fading, I feel in some sense that a part of me won’t be be reconciled to this distant past. Even if my mom had stayed mentally intact, maybe it never could. That’s just part of life; not everything can be solved or fixed. But maybe it can be accepted for what it was and we can move on. We can see the fallibility of the people our parents were; that such abuse was more accurately a refection of their own torment, short-comings and regrets, rather than our lack of value as children.
While we might not be able to do anything about the past, we must take responsibility for our present. In particular, our cognitive distortions and how they infiltrate our law practice. How many lawyers are not jacked up by what is actually going on in front of them, but are unconsciously thrown back to a childhood that was traumatic in some way? We need to confront these distortions; these thoughts that keep us out of step with reality, make us unhappy and contribute to depression.
The Ladder of Success
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.
Giving Thanks – Even When You’re Depressed
Last week, I had a long-distance phone chat with a fellow depressive. She brought up the topic of gratefulness and how that helped her deal with her depression. Since it’s also helped me, let’s talk about it. My Polish grandmother used to say, “Count your blessings.” I think most lawyers put an odd twist on that bit of wisdom: “Count your problems.” We lawyers sit at lunch and commiserate about the variety, amount and significance of the stresses that dog us. Rarely do we ever have a chat about the blessings in our day or lives.
People who are suffering from depression rarely get a break from the negative self-talk running through their minds. To make matters worse, they may be surrounded by other grumpy lawyers who hate their lives, jobs or both (who may or may not suffer from depression). What can we do about this? We need to put in place practices or habits that mitigate against these corrosive influences. One way, is to start a gratitude practice – yes practice! There is research which shows that people who began ‘gratitude journals’ report higher levels of enthusiasm, optimism and energy and experienced less depression. We dont’ need to judge or dismiss our pessimistic friends, but we do need to recognize that such negativity will very likely only feed our depression. So, it not about them. It’s about us and what is good for us.
In his book, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons describes gratitude as a two part process. First, it’s a process of the acknowledgement of the goodness in our lives. Second, it is the recognition that the sources of such goodness exist, “at least partially,” outside of ourselves. He says it’s an awareness that we are on the receiving end of goodness and that the ‘giver’ acted intentionally for our own benefit. This can be so helpful because depression is inner focused and self focused whereas gratitude is an outward projection. By focusing on gratitude, we become aware of the positive aspects of our lives which can affect our very outlook on life.
Buy a journal, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Throughout the day, make mental notes of the small things you are happy for. Write them down as you observe them or later when it is more convenient. Personally, I put a three by five index card in my shirt pocket. I pull it out throughout the day and note positive things as they unfold. It’s very important to start with small things such as, “The air smelled great driving to work in the morning.” This is so because depressives ignore life’s beauty and tender mercies – even when they are right under their noses.
After we have made a habit of noting the small, ordinarily overlooked blessings in our life, the more substantial gifts such as, “I have a great family” will be easier to recognize and record. Do something to be kind to yourself today. Start a gratitude journal.