True Stories: A Lawyer With Depression’s Journey from Pain to Mental Health Advocacy

 

“True Stories” is a series of guest blogs I am running. Below, Gavin Alexander bravely tells his story of a journey from Harvard and Biglaw to becoming a champion for mental health and well-being in the legal profession.  

I felt comfortable enough to come out as bisexual when I was 16.  I didn’t feel comfortable enough to come out as suffering from depression until I was 30.  As a result, while I was pretty darn sure from around age 12 that the symptoms I was experiencing were tied to mental illness, I did not seek or receive any kind of treatment or mental health support until I was 5 years into my practice as a lawyer.  I was petrified that leaving any sort of “paper trail” of having received mental health treatment would place a cap on my ambitions, limit my career prospects, or even cause me to lose the support of my family and friends.

During my time in law school, I thought about killing myself nearly every day of every exam and study period. I believed, based on messaging I received from law school career services offices, law professors, and the legal media, that anything short of massive success would result in abject poverty and an inability to repay my over $200,000 of student loans.  I wound up finishing my 1L year at Boston University School of Law with the number 1 GPA in my section of over 80 students, transferring to Harvard Law School, graduating from Harvard in the top 10% of my class with a GPA of 4.02, and securing a clerkship with former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”) Ralph Gants.  I provide these details not to brag, but to illustrate that depression and suicidal ideation can affect even those who show all external indicia of success.

True Stories: A Wife’s Pain Over Her Husband’s Struggle With Depression During His First Year of Law School

“True Stories” is a new series of guest blogs I am running; this is the fourth in the series. Here is a heartfelt story from Katie, who writes about her husband’s struggles with depression during his first year of law school.

Three years ago, my husband became a first-year law student at a state school with an excellent reputation. After several years of waffling between pursuing medicine, law, military, and scientific research careers, he opted for law and was admitted to a number of schools, accepting his best offer. We relocated so that he could attend, moving from the sunny Southwest to the frigid winters of the Mid-Atlantic. He was excited at first, eager to begin a new chapter of his life, and enthusiastic to embark on a learning journey; he loves to read and study politics, economics, business, and law, and I felt that this endeavor would help him fulfill his potential both personally and professionally.

A Lawyer’s Tough Tale: Depression at a BigLaw Firm

This a guest blog by a lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, and his difficult journey with bipolar depression and his BigLaw firm.  

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Wired: Anxiety Strikes at Harvard Law School

Freud was of the opinion that in fear a person is responding to a specific and immediate threat to physical safety while in anxiety a person is responding to a threat that is objectless, directionless, and located somewhere far off in the future—ruination, for example, or humiliation, or decay. Daniel Smith, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety

I spoke at Harvard Law about the challenges of living with depression and the epidemic of poor mental health in the legal profession. It was a memorable event.

Days before I am scheduled to talk, my sleep goes cuckoo. I become incredibly anxious about my speech. What if I fall flat on my face? I graduated from some third-tier law school, after all. I don’t belong lecturing at Harvard.  My churning nighttime ruminations now seep into my days as the event gets closer.

Real Men Cry: Men & Depression

“A lazy part of us is like a tumbleweed. It doesn’t move on its own. Sometimes it takes a lot of depression to get tumbleweeds moving.”  – Robert Bly, Morning Poems

Growing up the son of a WWII vet, my dad’s parenting style could best be described as minimalist: punishment at his leisure as alcoholics are prone to do; hard, physical labor built character; and praise came from athletic accomplishments like football which prized hitting.

Crying? Only once as a young child. Dad’s reaction? “I’ll give you something to really cry about if you don’t knock it off. Only girls cry!” Looking at him through the eyes of a child, the message was clear: Crying (or any display of sadness) was never to be done again if I wanted his approval (In essence, his love which never came).  As I grew older, he added this maxim: Pain, physical or emotional, was to be endured, if not conquered.

Change Your Thinking, Change Your Anxiety and Depression

Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is.

It can generally can take two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation, and imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation.

Decastrophizing means mentally bringing the problem back to its proper perspective.

We may end up recognizing that a situation rates only a “5” or “10” on our awfulness scale and not the “95” that we currently perceive.  Decastrophizing means more than purely acknowledging that our feared situation is unlikely to arise. It means considering the consequences if it should arise.  It means considering the consequences if it should arise, and recognizing that in any event, we would cope.

The Elephant in the Room at Law Firms? Lawyer Depression

I was 40 years old when depression first struck.

I was a trial lawyer and managing partner at my firm. From the outside, I was successful: a high-paying career, interesting work, a great family, and lots of friends.

From the inside, however, something was terribly wrong.

There was a deep sadness that wouldn’t go away. Before this time, I had gone to therapists for stress-related issues. Therapy always worked. After a few months talking things through, I always felt better and stopped going.

But this time, it was different. Things didn’t get better.

Bottoms Up: My Drunk Dad, My Depression

My dad was an alcoholic.

He died at age 56 from too much drinking. Almost 40 years ago.

I was 19 at the time, a sophomore at a local state college. I lived upstairs from my Polish grandma who, was a big woman with arms as strong as an elephant’s trunk.

One morning, my Aunt Clara, who, with her husband Eddie (who was genuinely cross-eyed), lived with grandma downstairs, came up to tell me, “Your father died today.”

I had never heard my dad called “father.” It sounded formal, like, “The President of the United States died today.”

My dad had been ill for months. The year he died, 1981, Hospice wasn’t around. Most people, as sick as my dad with cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, met their end in the hospital.

Too Much Depression, Too Little Sleep: 3 Things You Can Do to Get a Better Night’s Slumber

The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

When first diagnosed with depression, my sleep became fragmented in a way I had never experienced before.

Before this time, I, like most frenzied lawyers, had periods of restless sleep tinged by stress and anxiety. But my sleep would return to normal after a lengthy trial or round of contentious depositions.

But this was different.

Lots of Depression, Little Sleep

I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep through the night. I went to bed early, exhausted from trying to make it through another day with depression. Trouble sleeping is a symptom of major depression.  Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., a psychiatrist, writes:

The body is bone-weary; there is no will; nothing is that is not an effort, and nothing 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.”

The Suicide of a Law Student Hits Home

When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.’ – Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide”

A second-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, Matthew Benedict, died by suicide earlier this week by leaping from the Liberty Building he had been clerking at according to the Buffalo News. Another account of Matt’s life and suicide was reported in The New York Law Journal.

Matt’s funeral is tomorrow. By all account’s he was a tremendous, loving, talented, bright young man.Matt was kind-hearted, passionate and driven.

Built by Staple Creative