I have a problem with depression. Some of the people in my life outside of work know about this. But because of my fear of encountering social stigma and causing damage to my career, I choose to be very private about this in my professional life. That tough and personal choice comes with a price, as being secretive with people that I spend so much time with puts an extra weight on me. Nonetheless, it is my choice, for now anyway. Maybe one day I will be able to face my fears, I don’t know. I recently read Dan Lukasik’s article titled, “A Lawyer Breaks the Silence About Depression Among Lawyers”. I am not a lawyer, but as a professional, this article spoke to me. I’ve been tempted to break my silence in the workplace about my struggle with depression. Dan writes, “If I had been sick with cancer or suffered a heart attack, would I write it (an article about his experiences with depression while practicing law) anonymously?” So I asked myself, “Would I keep things like that a secret from my coworkers?” Probably not. But the thought of opening up about my problem with depression….now that gives me pause. A part of me does want to just let it out and be rid of this beast of a secret. I believe that being free from hiding might help me heal when I’m coming out of a depressive cycle. I also believe that in some cases, it’s fair to let others know what’s going on. I thought about it. If I did break my silence, I might feel relieved-right? It’s not like I would be facing ostracism-right? What I realized is that I’m not ready to find out the answers to those questions. While I have great admiration for those who speak up about depression, I’m not yet comfortable in crossing that threshold myself. I’m not ready to let the professional world know who I am. For now, I am going to take this opportunity to write some things about myself, anonymously. If you are a fellow sufferer, maybe you can identify with some of the things here. If you are not, perhaps you will gain some understanding about my problem with depression.
- I have to write this anonymously. I truly hope that one day, this won’t be the case for myself and other professionals like me. But for now, I am unable to put that part of myself out there. I dread the misperceptions and the labels. I need to work.
- I am not dangerous. Seriously, I feel bad using a fly swatter. I am no more of a threat than a coworker battling cancer or living with diabetes. The truth is that the only living being I have ever been a hazard to is myself.
- I have willpower. When I look back at all the times I’ve sunk into the black hole of depression, I can’t believe I’m not dead. But somehow I’ve been able to crawl back out, somehow I’m here to write this.
- I am in pain a lot of the time. It’s doubtful that anyone would know it by looking at me.
- I get very sad sometimes, and I don’t always know why. This happens more often than I would like. When it does, I can’t just “cheer up”. If I could, I would.
- I am grateful, for the big things and the small. I really do recognize the blessings in my life. I am thankful for those who love me, for human kindness, for walks with my dogs, a fan on a hot day, a good book, homemade fruit smoothies, and so much more. I still have a problem with depression.
- I have a sense of humor. I get it, I may sometimes come off as super serious. Please don’t write me off though. When I’m not living through a period of darkness, or treacherously close to one, I’m actually pretty good at finding humor in most situations.
- I am not antisocial. Nor am I aloof. Yes, I sometimes gravitate towards isolating myself. Much of that comes from a paralyzing fear of exposing my problem. I’m working on that. The reality is that when I’m well, I love good company. I crave it.
- I do take ownership of my condition. And, I’ve finally accepted that my condition will be a lifelong battle for me. I know it’s not healthy to wallow in self-pity, solely blaming genetics and a stressful childhood. I know I need to own it. Yes, I have had moments of weakness.
- I am not the only one. I don’t have any research to share or stats to show on this, but I’ve lived long enough to know that there are others like me. Other professionals who suffer privately. If you are one of them, you are not alone my friend.
So there it is. I’ve just said more about myself than I ever have, without actually revealing who I am. It’s the best I can do right now, and I think it is progress. I’ll take it. Thank you for reading, and maybe I’ll see you at work tomorrow. By Anonymous
4 thoughts on “A Message From A Colleague”
The issue of stigma is profound. Professor Perlin at NYU has written extensively on “sanism”- the ism of mental health discrimination. Lawyers are prone to being discriminators. In my part of the world (NZ) the research suggests that disclosing a mental health experience is risky in the job market- I was told that if I had disclosed my wife’s mental health issue I would have not been employed; that most discriminators are family friends and may I suggest colleagues. These are the very people one would expect the greatest support from. One is usually characterized as incompetent or with incapacity. Some writers, Thornicroft et al and Byrne have suggested that the bite of stigma and discrimination can be worse than the actual illness in terms of consequences. I thought we worked in an enlightened and learned profession and I made a mistake of candour.
I made the mistake (?) more than 10 years ago of writing an article in the local law society newsletter that I entitled, ‘I’m on Prozac, why aren’t you?’ I was then practising as a barrister sole. I think the article contributed to a lack of briefs. Not sure. I couldn’t live a lie and at the same time practise law ‘truly and honestly’ as I had promised in my oath of admission. I had no idea of the strength of anachronistic stigma and misconceptions in the legal profession about depression. Ignorance is still the main problem – e.g. assuming specialists are involved in treating run-of-the-mill depression, or adding an assumption of ‘severe’ before the simple noun ‘depression’. Isn’t it about time we broke the silence? It’s hard because some hearers may use it as a weapon. So first find an ally or two who will support you when you need backup. Swot up the antidiscrimination laws applicable in your jurisdiction, and use them. And then educate, educate, and educate.
Depression is an illness, not a weakness. I hope that when you feel comfortable enough to disclose your condition that you find support from your peers. Your suffering allows you to feel more empathy for those around you — including your clients. Shame on your colleagues if they ostracize you for mentioning your illness. Highly educated professionals should be smarter than that!
I have worried about the same thing for years. I have finally decided that I can do more good by telling my story and owning up to who I am and what I am dealing with. I cant help those who would define my condition as simply a weakness of character,but I can help those who may get some benefit by knowing my story and what I have gone through. Especially since I have now made it back to work as an attorney and am doing work for a firm that understands my issues yet knows that with hard work I can be a productive and valuable asset.