Acknowledging my depression for the first time during my third year of law school was as terrifying a realization as it was liberating. Between finishing up final classes, getting ready for the bar exam, and preparing for the first semester of my LL.M degree program, I fought every day to simply get out of my own way, and I fought even harder to hide it. I would wake up in the morning in tears, yet by the afternoon I was at school, going through the motions, and relieved to just make it to the end of the day.
This contradiction of being in law school and living with depression was an unbearable secret. At my core, I was beyond ashamed and embarrassed. I would beat myself up over and over again with the same though: how did I mange get myself to law school only to end up feeling this way? I was so lost, and I was experiencing a pain that was as indescribable and unfamiliar as it was pervasive and present. I convinced myself this that feeling this way was the price I had to pay to become a lawyer, to live up to this expectation I had created about myself. So just get through it, I told myself. This is the way it’s to be done. Suck it up. Survive.
In the months to come, however, my depression worsened. Despite having passed the bar exam, started course work toward my LL.M degree, and a relationship with a man who said he cared for me, I crashed. I spent entire days in bed, with no one to the wiser. I stopped answering my phone and emails, and I wasn’t going to classes. Getting out of bed felt like stepping off the edge of a cliff. Life having any sense of forward momentum and progress was something that seemed to happening for other people, and I was left struggling, trying to figure out how to keep up.
Something inside me managed to articulate clearly and loudly that something was wrong with me that went beyond telling myself to suck it up. One morning, moved by forces that to this day are still a mystery to me, I found my way to the university’s student counseling services. A social worker took me in a back room for an intake interview. Directly and clearly, I was honest for the first time about what was happening to me. The next thing I knew I had a calendar filled with multiple weekly appointments with a psychiatrist who immediately put me on an anti-depressant and talk therapy.
Believe me when I say that those talk therapy sessions in the student counseling center changed my life. My therapist saw through me with kindness and compassion in a way I didn’t think was possible for another person to do, and she understood the how and why of what was happening to me. She helped me put words to emotions and thoughts that existed only in my head. I learned that I could say I was dealing with depression, and that with work it was something I could learn to manage.
But my therapist also told me this was only the beginning for me with understanding and successfully managing my depression. She said we had only scratched the surface. Her words were profound and prescient. As my experience with law evolved from getting through the competitive and pressure filled environment of law school to the demands of practice, so did my experience with depression and its affect on my ability to know and to listen to love myself. For a while, I felt good, and depression felt like memory. I found I was more comfortable with and better at being a working lawyer than I was a law student. Practice requires you to touch more upon your true nature more, I think, than law school. There was less posturing and more action, and I am more suited for that reality. I still, however, had a lot to learn about asserting myself and holding my own in intense environments. As the red flags of my depressive behaviors and thoughts would pop up, I realized that no matter what anti-depressant I was on, or what words of wisdom I tried desperately to recall from a therapy session, I was still out of sync with myself emotionally and my surroundings. This was a powerful insight, but I still could not in the moment handle the stresses I experienced on a daily basis successfully or in a way that felt true to myself. Sexism, cutthroat competitive colleagues, long hours, bitter partners who saw heaping insult upon you as affective training and as lawyerly karmic right. The romantic ideal of the practice of law as noble and worthwhile was elusive and false. The reality was all too much.
Even as I become more successful in advancing my career, obtaining a Federal clerkship and a Big Law job, my depression didn’t dissipate and disappear, as I had naively hoped it would (because as all lawyers know, the right job and status fix things, right?). Instead, its presence became more insidious, because when I felt it, I immediately knew it meant that something was dreadfully wrong, and the fear of where it could take me became all-consuming. The energy it took for me to hold my own with colleagues and clients and still at the end of the day deliver good work took over, and any healthy sense of self-care I had learned when I first acknowledged depression in my life was pushed aside. I now felt like a failure at the most fundamental level because I couldn’t control my depression. Even as my experiences with depressive tendencies became more insightful and clearer to me in their meaning, I was still at a loss as to what to do, and I brutally beat myself up for not being able to fix it.
After completion of a project I was on in 2009, I left my job, and I left life as a working lawyer. And again, I crashed. For a time, I swung too far in the other direction, internalizing depression to the point where it became my identity. I didn’t know where depression ended and my sense of self began, and concluded that the entirety of my life would be determined by its presence. Therapy and medication again were options, but this time, I knew in my gut what I needed was beyond the relief they would provide.
Only with time and by stepping back from thinking of myself as both a lawyer and as someone with depression have I have learned that ultimately I am neither one of those things. I have learned that when I fight and ignore my intuition is when I get into trouble. That is what depression at its worst takes from me. It takes away my voice. When outside noise and pressure and people are too loud, and are in turn amplified in my mind by my depressive thinking, I, in the most glorious sense of the word, am gone. The “I” whose evidence of worth is proved by mere existence; the “I” that only has to live and breathe to be worthy, is nothing to me. All I can see is worry and striving and other people’s judgments, and my own judgments, and angst and pain.
I don’t know that I will work in law again, but I entertain the thought now and then. This thought isn’t without a realistic notion of what it will take to get back into the profession, so, equally, I honor the thought that I may never find a fit for myself in law. I’ve also accepted depression in my life as a siren meant to warn me I’m headed for trouble. This clarity isn’t without fear. I’ve had hard times since I left my last job as a lawyer, but I can honestly say that what I’ve learned about myself and life since has so far been worth it all.