Rumination in the Legal Profession

There’s always a lot going on in my head.

But then again, there’s a lot of racket coming from yours too.

Lawyers think for a living, after all.  There’s always the mental hum of marshaling the evidence, resolving conflicting LexisNexis opinions or assessing the climatic shifts in office politics and how it affects the pecking order.  As advocates, we give a lot of deliberation to turning our analysis into persuasive locution. Lincoln, reflecting on his life as a trial lawyer, wrote, “When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say.”

For lawyers with depression, there’s another kind of inner buzz.  It’s called rumination.

We might be tempted to think of rumination as a form of worry, a rehashing of all the shit that can go wrong. But, it’s actually not.  Worry focuses on potential bad events in the future.

Rumination, a cousin of fretful forecasting, is similar to worry except it focuses on bad feelings and experiences from the past. 

According to book The Mindful Way through Depression,

“When we ruminate, we become fruitlessly preoccupied with the fact that we are unhappy and with the causes, meanings, and consequences of our unhappiness.  Research has repeatedly shown that if we have tended to react to our sadness or depressed moods in these ways in the past, then we are likely to find the same strategy volunteering to ‘help’ again and again when our moods start to slide.  And it will have the same effect: we’ll get stuck in the very mood from which we are trying to escape.  As a consequence, we are at even higher risk of experiencing repeated bouts of unhappiness.”

In the First Person

I need a lot of time to get going in the morning – slurps of java, (the Starbucks “bold blend” varnish remover if I need a “stiff drink”) time to read the morning news, a sliver of time to plan my day  — and sometimes, ruminate. When ruminating, it’s as if pieces of my past are painted on those little squares of a Rubik’s cube that I’m endlessly manipulating  to solve.

Even though this style of thinking ends up making me feels crummy, in varying degrees, I like to ruminate. It some odd way, it seems to temporarily relieve me of any free-floating anxiety I might be experiencing.

Melissa Kirk writes,

“It feels good to ruminate.  Why is this? Two things happen to me when I’m dwelling on a problem.  The dwelling seems to stop the immediate pain or distress, the way rubbing a sore muscle can relieve the soreness temporarily, until you stop rubbing.  Also, I feel like, when I’m ruminating, that I’m acting on the problem of trying to solve it.  Rumination, then gives us the sense of taking action towards a situation that is distressing us, which relieves the distress in the short-term.”

This type of “mind rub” also skews the facts: I ignore the positive side of those past events and accentuate the negative.  Indeed it is rumination’s focus on the negative that gives it its solution-less quality.

We usually don’t ruminate when we’re happy.  When life is good, we savor everyday plentitudes of grace that have fallen on us whether earned or not.  This type of looking back is really reflection, not rumination.  When we reflect, we appreciate and learn from our past; no need to chomp on the bitter morsels of yesterday.   Interesting aside: the origins of the word “ruminate” come from the Latin word to describe the process in which cows chew and regurgitate their food, or “cud,” over and over again – yummy! 

We chew on our thoughts when we’re upset or in some kind of emotional pain or funk.  Rumination is a way of responding to life that involves repetitively and passively focusing on the symptoms of distress, and on its possible causes and consequences.   This plugs into depression because depression is passive.  We feel scant energy and incapable of taking action when in a melancholic ditch.

According to The Mindful Way through Depression,

“We ruminate because we believe it will help us overcome the unhappiness of depression.  We believe that not doing it will make our condition worse and worse.  We ruminate when we feel low because we believe that it will reveal a way to solve our problems.  But research shows that it does exactly the opposite: our ability to solve problems actually deteriorates markedly during rumination.  All of the evidence seems to point to the stark truth that rumination is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

According to research done by Susan Nolen- Hoeksema, Ph.D., many ruminators negative outlook hurts their problem-solving ability. According to her research, they often struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems.  For example, if a friend is avoiding them, they might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just avoid them too.” Even when a person is prone to rumination comes up with a potential solution to a significant problem the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard for them to move forward. Such depressive rumination most often occurs in women as a reaction to sadness.  Men, by comparison, more often focus on their emotions when they’re angry, rather than sad.

Percolations in the Brain

According to a recent Stanford study by Sian Beilock, Ph.D., changes were discovered in the brains of depression sufferers when ruminating.   MRI’s were taken of two separate groups: those with and those without depression.  Each group was separately prompted with various techniques to promote ruminative thinking. The MRI’s of people’s heads disclosed that a lot is going on in our brains when we are ruminating. 

According to an article in Montior magazine commenting upon Beilock’s work:

“People with major depression had greater activation than controls during the rumination task in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Thought to be involved in mood regulation, the anterior cingulate cortex may be infusing more emotion into the depressed individual’s ruminations than controls.  Depressed individuals also had greater activation in the amygdala, that almond shaped region deep in the brain that is a major player in negative emotional reactions.  Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, people with depression showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex, where our working memory (a.k.a. cognitive horsepower) is housed.  If depressed individuals spend a lot more of this neural real estate trying to regulate their thinking, they may have less brain power left over to do other important thinking and reasoning tasks.  This may explain the cognitive deficits depressed folks sometimes show.” 

Unplugging From Rumination

Here are some thoughts about how to deal with rumination.

First, need to learn that rumination doesn’t solve our problems – it insidiously perpetuates them.  “We can’t,” wrote Albert Einstein, “solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  We can’t solve our depression by using the same ruminative thinking habits that may have caused it to begin with.

Second, we need to see why, if it doesn’t work, we keep doing it.  We do so because it tricks us into thinking we are actually being productive and briefly reduces our anxiety.

Third, once we have seen that it doesn’t work and why we keep doing it, we need to make small behavioral steps and resolutions to change it.  Yet, as Dr. O’Connor says, “We aren’t to blame for our depression.   But, we are responsible for getting better.”  Responsibility implies action, not just good intentions.

Depressives often hit a wall in their recovery when asked to change their thinking and/or behavior: they’re either too tired, frozen or can’t get out of their own way.  Often, they are fatalistic:  “The way I see the world is just the way the world is and my life is – screwed up.” They feel that life has dealt them a bad hand and try to solve unsolvable problems:  “What did I do to deserve depression?  Why can’t I ever get things done?”  These thoughts just produce paralysis, not productive solutions.

Of course, there’s an element of truth to many of our ruminations.  If there weren’t so, we wouldn’t endlessly cudgel ourselves over the head because we would quickly see just how silly ruminating really is.  For example, would any of us ruminate about why we didn’t  become a circus clown?  We don’t because there’s not a scintilla of evidence in our past that we ever wanted to be a clown or had the opportunity to do so. 

Rumination is more clever and seductive than that.   The ruminative habit compels us to churn away at half-truths or things that actually did happen.   For example, “why were my parents so screwed up?” Or “why did they leave me a legacy of depression or anxiety?”  There’s truth in these questions.  My parents were screwed up.  My parents did leave me a legacy of depression.

It’s been written that the truth will set us free.  The problem here isn’t with the truth, it’s what we do with it.  Ruminators run with it in a destructive way when they cycle through these issues over and over again with no resolution in sight.  With regard to our parents painful legacy for many of us, is there any answer that would ever satisfy us?

There is tragedy in this world, bad things do happen to good people and life is often unfair.  Yet, as Helen Keller once wrote, “The world is full of suffering.  But, it’s also full of the overcoming of it.” THAT is reality too.  So, when we sit down to eat our daily fare of our thoughts and meanderings that make up our days, we might want to pick from the upbeat side of the menu. 

And not chew on our food too much.

Finding Our Way in the Law

It’s in the darkness of men’s eyes that  they get lost – Black Elk

Graduating from law school is both exciting and frightening at the same time.  There’s a real itch to put our knowledge into action, to be a bona fide “attorney at law” and to start making some dough instead of spending it on tuition and books. On the other hand, we really don’t know a lot about the application of legal theory to legal combat, may have a heap of debt and pray that our first stab at competency doesn’t land us face first on the courthouse steps. 

Beyond all of these pragmatic concerns is the meatier matter of living a life in the law that matters; a life in accord with our inner core of what we truly value in life.  As author Studs Turkel once wrote:

“Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”

Lawyers, young and old alike, find it difficult to live out their values in the workplace, to search for “meaning as well as daily bread.”  There are challenges and compromises, some more difficult than others.  For example, we may really value spending time with our family.  But as the demands of our career mount, we become untethered from this life-giving sustenance as we spend more and more time toiling at the office.

Andrew Benjamin, Ph.D., J.D., a lead researcher in studies about the mental health of law students and lawyers, concludes that much of the dissatisfaction in the profession comes from a widening gap between the values we truly care about and the things we end up pursuing in in our jobs as lawyers.  This takes place over time and its effects are cumulative.  Many end up leaving the profession.  Or, if they stay, are mired in unhappiness, discontent and can’t see a way out.

Dr. Benjamin found that approximately 20% of lawyers – about twice the national average – aren’t just unhappy; they’re suffering from clinical anxiety or depression. We aren’t talking about everyday stress, sadness, blues or categorical grumpiness.  We’re talking rubber to the road clinical anxiety and depression; devastating diseases that cause breakdowns in every area of one’s life.  Put in perspective, Benjamin’s studies suggest that a whopping 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling – some very badly.

Certainly a gap between our values and the way we live as lawyers doesn’t cause depression.  But it’s one of many factors that include a history of depression in one’s family and emotional abuse and/or neglect during one’s formative years that make a person prone to depression. 

Lawyers also seem to have a particularly fearsome type of stress overload; a jacked central nervous system fueled by the adversarial nature of the trade.  Modern science now knows that there is a powerful connection between chronic and remitting stress and the development of clinical depression.  As I wrote in “How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression,” chronic stress and anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones such as cortisol which damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (involved in how we perceive fear).

The point of all this sobering news isn’t to rain on anyone’s parade.  Law can and should be a noble calling and a satisfying way to make a living.  Rather, these warnings are meant to impart some thorny wisdom: living out your values and dreams are just as important as – to quote my brother Wally’s favorite expression, “carving out a living”.  Or, as Studs Terkel earlier surmised:  “. . . to have a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”

It’s scary when you sense that you’ve wasted a lot of time doing a type of law – or law at all – that fails to connect with your deeper values.  Part of the fear is driven by the growing sense as we age that we don’t have forever – we are finite beings.  When we don’t know the way, can’t find path to move our outer life closer to our inner life, we can experience a sort of existential terror.  We may be sitting in a classroom, at court or just wandering downtown during our lunch break and a visceral sense that we yearn for something else will hit us.  How many of us quickly dismiss such thoughts as minor meanderings that aren’t worth our time.  But, these thoughts may keep coming.  Listen to them.  If we don’t, we may risk greater peril.

Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, talks about the dangers of not following the murmurs coming from within us all:

“Of course, most people won’t follow a calling until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so – pain that we appear to have an appalling high threshold for. Eventually the prospect of emotional and financial turmoil, the disapproval of others and the various conniptions of change, can begin to seem preferable to the psychological death you are experiencing by staying put.  Those who refuse their passions and purposes in life, though, who are afraid of becoming what they perhaps already are – unhappy – won’t of course experience the unrest (or the joy) that usually accompanies the embrace of a calling.  Having attempted nothing, they haven’t failed, and they console themselves that if none of their dreams come true then at least neither will their nightmares.”

So remember your values and where they are trying to lead you.  That’s realistic.  Our values are not set in granite; they can and will change over time.  Yet the only tuning fork you will ultimately have is trying to build a solid bridge between who you really are and what you are in the real world.  We can and will hit choppy waters as we sail our ships in our careers.  There will be many temptations – money, power.  This story has been played out for millennia.  As you go through your career, watch the currents and stir your ship bravely, with integrity and passion.

As Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.  Don’t let the noise of other’s grievances drown out your own inner voice; and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary.”

The Trouble With Walter

If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

Like all parents, my mom and dad were flawed people – as I am.  Yet, they were something more than that.  

I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone.  The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.”  Maybe it isn’t till midlife that we really work hard to interpret the stories of our past.  I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a comprehensible story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale.

The author of “Slaughterhouse-Five“, Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII veteran like my dad, wrote:

“The most important thing I learned was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.  All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. It’s just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Now on the doorsteps of 50, I still wonder what role mom and dad played in my depression.  Looking at the facts, I guess it’s all too obvious: drinking and mental health issues on both sides of the fence.  In my most self-absorbed moments, I blame them and feel justified in doing so.  In brighter moments of lucidity, I see that they, like me, were somebody’s children once.  They didn’t start out in life the way they ended up – nobody does.  They were, in a real sense, victims.  This fact doesn’t excuse what happened; the real pain they inflicted on their children. But it does help me to understand their plights in life.  And with that understanding comes some measure of peace, a peace of heart.

Turning the pages to our Past 

Jonathan Frazen, author of the best-selling book “Freedom” about a family that struggles with depression, writes:

“Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed, you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.”

Here’s Jonathan Frazen talking about his novel on PBS:

How much of our life is determined by our familial past?  How much of it is spun by choices we make apart from that past?  Apart from what happened to us at the hands of parents, can we really change?  I believe that shifting through our past helps us to become “unstuck.” And after all, depression is about being stuck.  We can’t go forward, if we can’t go backwards and to see the truth of about past.

There are some things we can change and some we can’t.  We can’t change our genetics and scientists now know that the genes we inherit play a significant role in our vulnerability to depression. There is a gene that regulates how much of a chemical called serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter.  The amount of serotonin that flows to your brain influences your mood, and emotional state.  Those whose serotonin transporters included a gene that was shorter than would be typically expected at a certain point had a harder time bouncing back after experiencing a stress event. Chronic stress and anxiety, as I’ve written about before, have a strong correlation to a vulnerability to clinical depression.

This bit of news makes me want to know my ancestors, these ghosts of my past.  These folks and I have something in common: irksome chromosomes that could flip off the happy switch in our brains from time to time.

I heard on National Public Radio that there have been 60 generations that have lived and died since the time of Jesus.  Since the extent of my knowledge about my family only goes back, at best, 100 years to the time of the birth of my grandparents, that leaves me about fifty-eight generations or 1900 years of emotional and genetic history unaccounted for.  I wish there was some kind of recorded history of their lives because I am a continuation of them even as my daughter is of me.

Dad’s Story

Dad was born in Buffalo in 1926, the oldest of five born to immigrants from Poland.  I never met my grandparents, but from family lore I’ve learned that they were tough people who lived even tougher lives: brute physical labor for their daily staple of meat and potatoes, playing pinochle while plumes of cigarette smoke wafted up to the ceiling and crates of cheap booze on the weekends. If you looked crossways at them, they’d likely belt you in the mouth.

Alcohol played a big role my family’s drama through the generations.  Sometimes they drank at home, but more often in what my grandma called “Gin mills.”  Men would cash their checks in these Polish joints, throw their money on long wooden bars sip draught beer as they talked about all the scraps they’d been in that week just trying to get along in life.

My dad grew up in this world.  At 17, he went off to fight in the Pacific theater against the Japanese.  War must have deeply affected him, as it does all young men.  Robert E. Lee, writing of his experiences in the Civil War, wrote his wife in 1864:

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of the earth.”

In today’s New York Times, there’s a review of a new book out about J.D. Salinger author of “The Catcher in the Rye.”  The article notes that Salinger, who served in the infantry during WWII in Europe, witnessed a lot of death and mayhem and struggled with depression his whole life: 

“Salinger’s experiences during WWII heightened his sense of alienation.  The war left him with deep psychological scars, branding ‘every aspect’ of his personality and reverberating through his writings.  Salinger had suffered from depression for years, perhaps throughout his entire life, and was at times afflicted by episodes so intense that he could not relate to others.”

Ultimately, he stopped publishing, moved into a cabin in rural Connecticut and practiced Yoga and Zen meditation.

Dad clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression and PTSD, something that would, like Salinger, haunt him for the rest of his life.  But war can’t explain all misery, can’t explain the storms that would rage in his head.  His younger brother Roman, also a war veteran, became an alcoholic.  Dad’s younger sister suffered from depression and been treated for it with medication suggesting a possible genetic propensity in our family for the illness. 

Mom’s Story

Mom, like dad, was also part of WWII generation. Her older brother Joe went off to war in the Pacific for three years.  As fate would have it, he met my future Dad aboard a ship in the Philippines and said, “If we ever get the hell out of this shithole, I’ve got this cute, blonde sister back in Buffalo.” They survived, my parents met, fell in love and married.

Mom had an alcoholic father, also an immigrant from Poland.  She recalled being asked by her mother to go find her dad on a regular basis when he didn’t return home after work.  Often, during the harsh Buffalo winters, she would find him passed out in a snow bank.  The only intimate moments she remembered sharing with him was when for her eighth birthday he took her to a Shirley Temple movie and bought her candy.

Mom and dad quickly had three kids.  Things went well the first ten years of their marriage, but the wheels began to fall off from there on out: dad drank too much, became a gambler, womanized and had unpredictable outbursts of high octane rage.  Mom collapsed back into herself and never really recovered.  She began to eat a lot, added lots of pounds to her slender frame and watched T.V. all the time.  Maybe the dopey sitcom narratives sliced through the quiet pain my mom carried – all the time – all of her life.

Dad died 32 years ago at the age of 56 (I was 19) from too much drinking and smoking. He died sort of unrepentant, never saying he was sorry for anything.  But, in my own mind at least, I think he was sorry.  I think he just couldn’t bring himself to say it because of the enormity of his sins.  But I have learned to forgive him, this enemy of my childhood who I had wished as a boy that he would just die.  The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

As for my mom, well, she died last May at the age of 82 of brain cancer.  I wrote about her death in a recent blog, but I didn’t say just how difficult it was to really know mom. She was always somehow distant, like a star in the sky. She never had any friends, her family was her circle. She loved us, but often did not connect with her children; maybe because she had never been cherished as a child.  She did, after all was said and done, the best she could and, in this sense, was so much easier to forgive and let go of than dad.

Walter – Second Edition

Walter, my oldest brother at age 59 and dad’s namesake, and I were walking back the other night to the parking lot after our hometown hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, had taken a real shellacking.  I asked him in the frosty, hidden darkness where men – – if they do at all – – share a sliver of their true inner lives: “Do you ever think of dad and what did he meant to you?” He replied, after a few huffing breaths: “Not really, just what a real asshole he was.” 

My brother has never been in therapy, never taken antidepressants.  But he had heroically forged ahead “carving out a living” as he was prone to say.  Yet, I couldn’t help think about the profound effect dad’s abuse had had on him and my other three siblings.  I wonder if he sometimes thinks about it at night while lying in bed with the windows cracked open on a hot summer’s night.  Does he wonder why he can’t stop feeling bad about himself? Why he doesn’t feel more confidence?  And the toughest part of it all, the thing that keeps me up at night when I think of my burly, big-hearted brother, is that he probably blames himself for all of these feekings as adult children of alcoholics are prone to do.

My Coming Around

As for me, a real veteran of therapy and antidepressant medications, I know all too well that my parents are still tangled up with me long after their deaths.   My therapist once said that I had to work out the long buried grief of never having had the parents I needed.  Over the years, I have done a lot of grieving for the childhood I didn’t have. Yet, as I was to learn, it wasn’t only my grief about my childhood troubles that I was to deal with, but for my parents as well.  For the loss of their innocence, their difficult childhoods and all that they could have been.

Despite the pain in my family, there was love; fractured though it may have been. As he aged, I sensed that my dad knew that too much had gone wrong that he couldn’t fix.  But in small gestures here and there, he showed affection and love.  As my mom’s wake last May, I was privileged to give the eulogy.  What I said was my mom’s defining quality wasn’t success, intelligence or gardening, but kindness – that this is where she planted her flowers that continue to grow in the hearts of her children and grandchildren.  And what a gift that is.  One that’s always in bloom.

My parents were both hopeless in their own ways.  They were dealt a crummy hand in life.  They were born with certain genes, into a family and time in history that they didn’t choose.  The difference between them and me, the blessing that came out of my depression that didn’t for them, was that my pain forced me to finally confront my wounds and work hard to heal them – an ongoing project for us all.  It forced me to examine the long unexamined within me.  It gave me a choice: I could continue to live out my parents damaged views of life or embark on my own journey and discover what was real and true for me.

While it is true that none of us can avoid the pains and difficulties that come from living on this planet, what modulates the pain is love — pure and simple.  Andrew Solomon, who has suffered from depression for much of his adult life, captured this in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

“Depression is a flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection.  It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.  Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”

In the end, love really is the only thing that saves anybody.

Judges and Depression

Loneliness is the most terrible poverty — Mother Teresa

I’ve written a lot on stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, but not about the judiciary. There has been much commentary, research and Law Journal articles about what ails law students and attorneys — but not about judges.

I guess that’s not surprising.  In my work over the past four years, I have spoken with scores of judges from all over the country.  It’s a noble, important calling in life.  But it’s also very stressful, demanding and . . . lonely.

Here’s a clip from the new documentary A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession. My good friend Judge Michael Miller talks about the loneliness of being a judge:

Isolation, Loneliness & the Judiciary

In an article for Judicature magazine, psychiatrist Isaiah Zimmerman culled through twenty years of notes he accumulated from treating state and federal judges.  Here are the voices of the judges in their own words: 

“Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning, of how isolating it would be.”

“Except for those very close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.”

“Judging is the most isolating and lonely of callings.”

“The isolation is gradual.  Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with    them as before.”

“When you become a judge, you lose your first name!”

“It was the isolation that I was not prepared for.”

“After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”

“The Chief Judge warned me: ‘You’re entering a monastery when you join this circuit.’”

“I live and work in a space capsule – alone with stacks of paper.”

“Your circle of friends certainly becomes smaller.”

“Once you get on the appellate bench, you become anonymous.”

These weren’t isolated comments or small pockets of pedestrian sadness.  Dr. Zimmerman notes that about 70% of the judges he interviewed came up with these observations on their own.

There are several things that contribute to a sense of judicial loneliness.  The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on judicial behavior both in and out of the courtroom.  Judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety and thus must be cautious and keep an appropriate distance and bearing at social and bar events. There are good reasons to have these restrictions, but if a judge isn’t careful to live a balanced life, they can help trigger a profound sense of lonesomeness.

Loneliness isn’t just emotionally painful; it’s also dangerous to your health on multiple levels.  According to an article by psychologist, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:

“Evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships are not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”

Given the pressures and isolation of the job, judges need to recognize the dangers associated with loneliness: unhappiness, discontent, health problems and perhaps . . . depression.

Judges and Depression

Judges are supposed to be problem solvers in black robes; not human beings with psychological problems of their own.

Given the position that judges occupy in our society, the stigma around disclosure to others –and perhaps getting treatment for clinical depression — is much, much greater. 

One psychiatrist I know who treats judges told me that judges request very early or very late weekday or weekend appointments.  Moreover, they ask not to be scheduled before or after another lawyer or judge and pay in cash so as not to attract attention or leave a paper trail.

For the first ten years of my career, much of my practice was spent litigating cases in state and federal courts in New York City.  One of my best friends from those days is now a judge.  When I decided to go public with my depression four years ago by writing an article for Trial magazine, my friend called me for dinner to catch up on things.  He wanted to know how I was feeling and expressed concern about my plans to go public about my depression. 

“Dan, why can’t you write the article anonymously,” the judge said.  “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” I replied. “Why should I have to write such an article anonymously? What do I have to be ashamed of?  Depression is an illness no different than diabetes or heart disease.  Would I write an article about those illnesses . . . anonymously?”

We kept in contact with dinners and phone calls over the next four years, but over time our conversations centered less on my depression and well-being and more on his.  You see, my friend the judge disclosed to me that he was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide some years before. 

I think he felt he could trust me.  Moreover, I think my disclosure gave him implicit permission to talk about his pain and struggles; a hurt only his therapist and wife knew of.  He spoke of the loneliness of his job and how he missed the collegiality of his old large firm.  But, he said that on the balance,  he’d rather be a judge and didn’t regret his change in vocation; a move from the courtroom to the chamber.  He liked his job, enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the chance to do justice.

The statistics on lawyer depression are deeply troubling.  They suffer from depression at a rate twice that (20%) of the general population.  As such, about 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.  No studies have been done on judicial depression.

There are 1,774 federal level judges in the U.S. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of judges, approximately 350 judges across America are suffering from depression. Even though there haven’t been any studies of judicial depression, why would we expect the 20% rate to be any different than that found with attorneys?

I couldn’t find any statistics on how many state judges there are in the U.S.  New York State has 1,250.  Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of these judges, approximately 250 of the Empire State’s judiciary are suffering from depression.

This isn’t sadness or burnout, but true clinical depression.  Sometimes, we confuse being down in the dumps with depression. They’re really not the same thing – not even close. Here’s how psychologist Richard O’Connor, best-selling author of the book Undoing Depression, distinguishes it:

“Everyone knows what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

Nobody’s Perfect

Perfection is also an indicator for depression.  In his article Even Judges Get the Blues, Judge Robert L. Childers writes:

“Because of the weight of public expectation, judges generally feel that they should be perfect.  Not only do they feel that they should be fair, impartial, and make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but the public expects this of judges as well, as do the lawyers who practice before them.  This can create undo pressure for judges and, consciously or unconsciously, keep judges from admitting or recognizing the signs of debilitating disease.”

In an article from the ABA Journal,  Perfectionism, Psychic Batterning’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression, the piece states: “Lawyers [and judges] are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They ‘intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others’ . . . . They don’t take direction particularly well. They tend to have to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they’re told.”  In another article from the ABA Journal, it notes that when combined with depression, perfectionism makes it harder for a person to seek help.  And in the worst case scenario, leads to suicide.

Loneliness & Depression

Depression is a multifaceted illness that has several different causes – some genetic, some physical and some emotional.  In the depths of my depression, I felt very alone – like I was trapped at the bottom of a dark well. 

Many with depression isolate themselves because it’s painful to be around others.  I would hang out at Starbucks and do my work.  I didn’t want others I knew to engage me; I didn’t want others to see the pain I was desperately struggling with.

I’ve found that loneliness and depression often travel the same road.  This creates a lot of problems because the two can feed off one another.

According to psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer:

“Depression is a problem that often accompanies loneliness. In many cases, depressive symptoms such as withdrawal, anxiety, lack of motivation and sadness mimic and mask the symptoms of loneliness. In these cases, people are often treated for depression without considering the possibility that loneliness may be a contributing and sustaining factor in their condition.”

Generally, the debilitating symptoms of depression can usually be managed with antidepressant medication. But when the underlying loneliness is ignored or overlooked, the depressive-like symptoms will probably continue. Unless the reasons for loneliness and depression are separated out, it can easily turn into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where depression leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression.”

Turning It Around

While depression might not be our fault, it is our responsibility to get better.  We need to start behaving and thinking in constructive ways.  Here’s some food for thought:

  1. Get help.  You can’t handle this by yourself.  It is a problem bigger than any individual person.  The A. B.A. ‘s Commision on Lawyer Assistance Programs recently created a Judicial Assistance Initiative.  Reach out to them and they can get you pointed in the right direction.
  2. You may have to take antidepressant medication to help you.  That’s okay.  You may have a chemical imbalance that you need to address.  For many, psychotherapy alone won’t help until they quieted down their somatic complaints — e.g. fatigue from sleep problems — so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems.
  3. Whether you need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist.  A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression.  Interview a couple therapists before you settle on one.
  4. Exercise. The value of exercise is widely known: It’s simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical behavior and habit – they absolutely need to work out.  In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey devotes a chapter to the importance of exercise in alleviating depression.  Please check this book out.
  5. If you have a spiritual practice, do it.  If you don’t, think about starting one.  This could be anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass, or walking the woods.  A lot of research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression recovery.  If you believe in God or a higher power (I am Catholic), 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, are very important pillars of recovery. Two books from my tradition include Seeing beyond Depression by Father Jean Vanier and Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sister Kathryn James Hermes.  Also see the wonderful guest article she wrote for my website.
  6. Get educated. Read some good books on the topic. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  On this subject, I recommend Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undong Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor suggests 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/or depression.  Also see the article I wrote for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression. It is a companion piece to an excellent article written by Andrew Benjamin called “Reclaiming Your Practice.”
  7. Build pleasure into your schedule.  Judges, like all those in the legal profession, are busy and have the “I will get to it later” mentally – especially when it comes to things that are healthy pleasures.  We have to jettison this approach to how we live our days.  We must begin to take time – now – to enjoy pleasurable things and people.  A hallmark of depression is the inability to feel happiness or joy.  We need to create the space where we can experience and savor good experiences and feelings.
  8. Practice mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath, and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of consciousness. Normally, we immediately react to our thoughts (e.g. “I am losing my mind with all of these deadlines”).  With mindfulness practice, we can begin – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them.  If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the best-selling book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.
  9. Remember to be kind to yourself. It sounds so simple. I tell this to depressed lawyers and judges all the time and they usually look puzzled.  They often admit that they have 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 on poor mental, emotional and physical habits. We must learn to acknowledge that we are worthy of love from ourselves and others and that part of such love involves taking better care of ourselves.
  10. Spend time outside and in nature.  We humans forget that we are part of nature and the animal kingdom.  We need fresh air and sunshine.  Even more so when the darkness of winter strikes.  If you live in a part of the country with long winters, load up on vitamin D and consider using a light box to help you.

If you or a judge you know might be suffering from loneliness and/or depression, please forward this article to them.  Here’s a list of depression’s symptoms and a self-test from the Mayo Clinic.

Is It Lawyer Unhappiness or Depression?

Since you get more joy out of giving to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give – Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s a Difference

Is there a difference between discontent and depression, a lack of fulfillment and true melancholia? 

The lines between murky malaise and downright clinical depression are blurred in everyday conversation, the popular media and discourse amongst professionals and academics about what troubles the legal profession.   Two journal articles – which, by the way, I enjoyed immensely, “Stemming the Tide of Law School Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology” and “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” took this approach by canvasing studies that have been done on law student and lawyer unhappiness, discontent, stress, anxiety, depression and wellness.

But unhappiness is not depression, not even close.  I am not saying that this was the authors’ intentions, or for that matter, even their suggestion.  Nor I am saying that these issues aren’t related to one another.  Yet, I don’t think this lumping-of-the-maladies approach is particularly productive because it plays into the popular myths that depression is just an amplification of everyday sadness or, worse, a banal self-absorption with all that’s wrong in one’s life.  Remarkably, a recent poll showed that 45% of Americans think of depression as a failure of will.

Another problem with the lumping together approach is that sadness and depression call for radically different solutions.  In the two journal articles cited above, the first concentrates on positive psychology and how it can help alleviate distress and the later on living an ethical life and picking the right job — no doubt important considerations for everyone.  Yet I’m not sure that any of these approaches is a panacea to the epidemic of depression in the law.

To me, unhappiness and discontent are part of the human predicament.  It’s unavoidable that all of us will go through epochs in our lives when things unequivocally stink; we mope and wonder why meteorites always seem to pelt us when our car battery’s dead, our kids are in an uproar and the day at the office was survivable at best.  In the book Zorba the Greek, the larger than life Zorba was asked if he was married and replied with great gusto, “Me? Wife, kids, job — the full catastrophe!!”

But depression isn’t part of the human condition.  It’s a multifaceted illness, for some disabling and for many cruel. For many of its victims, the pain isn’t so much a feeling of sadness, but of nothingness.  There’s no air to breath, little room to escape this type of pain – until one, hopefully, gets treatment or it passes, mercifully, of its own inscrutable violation.  

How can nothingness be painful? Perhaps, it’s because it’s emotions that give life its vibrancy. These visceral forces energize us, heighten the intensity of our lives and make the human experience so rich.  The absence of this life force leaves us impoverished, longing and mourning for that richness in our being we once knew.

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a depressive, captured this experience when she wrote:

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”

At least when the problem is one of discontent, we have our faculties (e.g. the ability to concentrate), are capable of making choices and bring focused energy to bear on changing matters in small or large ways.  For someone in the throes of depression, the power to choose is diminished if not extinguished.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his seminal book Undoing Depression, writes in his blog:

“Everyone knows what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

No, depression isn’t unhappiness.  But discontent in one’s vocation is a real problem and often very painful.  We feel like a jammed door that won’t let us open into a life that works on some fundamental level.  We know something is wrong, sense that we’re stuck like in the traffic of our lives.  Our happiness is trying to tell us something and we know it.  Our emotional core senses we’ve been living a life out of sync with who we really are.  And if we’re in the legal profession, we’re not alone in this experience – far, far from it. 

Drifting Towards Unhappiness in the Law

There has been much debate about whether lawyers are really unhappy, to what degree, why that is so and what can be done about it. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gretchen Rubin, a Yale Law School alumnus who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, about her book “The Happiness Project.”  Here’s her take on why so many lawyers find themselves in funks:

“There’s [this] whole notion of ‘drift’ that I think a lot of people fall into with law school.  They’d don’t decide, necessarily, to go to law school, but they drift into it, really for a lack of a better idea.  And that’s one of the reasons so many lawyers are unhappy.  They hear these lines that, on their face, seem to make sense: ‘It can’t hurt to take the LSAT.’ ‘I can always go to law school.’ ‘I can always change my mind later.’ That’s what happened to me.  I drifted into it.”

Gretchen realized that she had never made any real choice about whether to go to law school, let alone join the legal profession.  Yet, how many lawyers really chose their jobs? Most of us stumble around. There is a steep learning curve to life and there are few instruction manuals.  It’s often through trial and error that most people find their way.  The discovery that you’ve invested lots of time and money into a career that you later find was a bad fit is troubling indeed.  Many aren’t willing or able to make the leap to change matters; hence, unhappiness and distress. 

Perhaps the notion of happiness depends on how long you’ve been in the profession.  Recently minted lawyers seem to expect something more from their jobs than their predecessors.  The New York Times article The Falling Down Professions notes:

“Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago. ‘There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,’ notes Richard Florida, the author “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.”  ‘Now they just want to be themselves.  It’s almost as if they are interviewing places to see if they fit them.”

In a sense, it’s amazing that young lawyers are even taking into consideration flexibility and creativity; all the more so given the sour economy and the glut of law school graduates — currently about 150,000 per year.  But an increasing number of young lawyers seem willing to seek a job fit that jives with their desire for not only a decent paycheck, but a decent life.   Many middle-aged or older lawyers eventually get there, but often after a lot of struggle and pain.  Some switch jobs to find a better fit (the litigator who starts a real estate practice) or others chuck the whole profession and start life anew in other fields.

In the new book “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law,” the authors point out that six experiences that are critical to making a person satisfied with her life, including security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem.  Certainly, money can and should be part of the equation, but not to the exclusion of other intrinsic values. 

There’s nothing new here, but don’t we all need to be reminded of this message over and over again?  At the very least, it’s a counterweight to the popular and legal culture which puts way too much emphasis on money and deludes us into thinking that more of it will mean greater happiness.

According to psychology expert and lawyer Dan Bowling, “Common sense, though, would suggest that the happiest lawyers are those who feel they are really good at law practice, who deal with clients and can see results of their work, or who have a sense that they are involved in a greater cause. Another question about the research, he say, ‘and I think it’s a fair question is this one. ‘It’s the so-what question.  It is: Whoever said law is supposed to be easy? Law is a career sacrifice for clients. . . . Who said we’re supposed to be happy?’ Bowling has an answer: ‘I think the law can be a jealous mistress, but I also think she can be kind, too,” he says.

A contrary view is offered in “Scholars Debate: Is Law a Picnic?” by Harvard Law Professor David B. Wilkins who reports that in a study of 4000 lawyers in the first decade of their careers:  “. . . contrary to what many believe, there is ‘no evidence’ of ‘any pervasive unhappiness in the profession,’ he says – at least not among those who began practicing in 2000. In that group, nearly three-quarters reported being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs.

Perhaps happiness is somewhat determined by the type of law we go into.  In The Happy Lawyer, the authors note that those who work for government, in a small firm, or in a solo practice, as well as those attorneys who work aligns with their values, are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.

In “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Patrick Schlitz writes:

“This is the best advice I can give you: Right now, while you are still in law school, make the commitment—not just in your head, but in your heart—that, although you are willing to work hard and you would like to make a comfortable living, you are not going to let money dominate your life to the exclusion of all else. And don’t just structure your life around this negative; embrace a positive. Believe in something—care about something—so that when the culture of greed presses in on you from all sides, there will be something inside of you pushing back. Make the decision now that you will be the one who defines success for you—not your classmates, not big law firms, not clients of big law firms, not the National Law Journal. You will be a happier, healthier, and more ethical attorney as a result.”

We each have to take our own journey in life to find out what makes us happy.  Just don’t get stuck in negative rumination about what’s wrong in your life.  Think about what could be “right” in your life.  Believe, at the very least, in the possibilities and follow your passion.  Make no mistake about it, there will be a cost.  If one follows one’s passion there may be risk, the displeasure of our peers and family members and financial concerns.  But if one doesn’t take this journey, if money carries too much weight in what we’re willing to do to make a living, we will be unhappy; if this situation goes on to long, maybe depressed.

Further reading:

Chicken Little: Lawyer at Law” by Stephanie West Allen

The New York Times Dissects Lawyer Unhappiness with a Note on Following Your Dreams” by Victoria Pynchon

 

 

I’ll Be Eating Humble Pie on Christmas

Bow, stubborn knee — Shakespeare

I walked into an old church downtown yesterday.  Its edifice was old and craggy, its stones walls worn by a century of wind, pelting snow and acid rain.  I walked through its medieval-like doors, the smell of melted wax, a dollop of frankincense and recently fallen snow wrapped around my newly chapped face.

No one was there. I sat in a well-worn pew near the front.  I looked up at the vaulted ceiling full of stars, angels and saints.  I thought of the tens of thousands of souls over the past hundred or so years that had worshipped here, sought answers and sought peace.  Now here I was.  

A conundrum of faith is that we never really know.  That’s why we must rely on faith, I guess.  It seems like we’re given just enough light to see our next footstep in life, but never full illumination to see the entire journey ahead of us. It’s not reason to despair; it is reason to feel humble before the mysterious grandeur of all we don’t know.

It’s okay to have doubts.  One of Jesus’ disciples, a guy aptly known as “Doubting Thomas,” had his for sure.  But the opposite of faith isn’t doubt – it is fear.  We’re all on some kind of existential thin ice wondering if and when it’s going to crack and our lives fall apart.  It isn’t odd or strange to feel this way.  It’s part of the human condition. 

Henri Nouwen wrote:

“As we look at the starts and let our minds wander into the many galaxies, we come to feel so small and insignificant that anything we do, say, or think seems completely useless.  But if we look into our souls and let our minds wander into the endless galaxies of our interior lives, we become so tall and significant that everything we do, say, or think appears to be of great importance.”  

We have to keep looking both ways to remain humble and confident, humorous and serious, playful and responsible.  Yes, the human being is very small and very tall.  It is the tension between the two that keeps us spiritually awake.

I think real faith, is humble faith.  To be otherwise is great hubris; a belief in one’s certitude to the exclusion of others.

Sister Joan Chittister writes:

“The opposite of humility is arrogance, something we are all guilty of at one time or another.  Arrogance corrodes our awareness of the power of interdependence and leaves us to die incomplete.  It reduces the creation of others to dust. It makes it impossible for us even to see our own knees.”

Many, many people around the world – good folks – have no one, are alone or are living under very difficult circumstances. They are the poor, both in body, spirit or material goods. A man seeking a donation in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, says to the grouchy crank:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. … We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”

We should feel humble before such a reality; cognizant of all the blessings we’ve been given and maybe determined, perhaps for the first time in a while, to share our blessings with others in want as we speed toward the New Year.   

The bible is usually tough for me to read.  I don’t get a lot of the historical facts and how they play into what I am supposed to learn from the teachings. Maybe it’s in admitting that I don’t really know much that I become more open to everything.  The Zen call it “beginner’s mind;” a state where we let go and empty ourselves of ourselves. There is something authentic in our coming to life on our knees rather than our heads that try to figure everything out.  As U2’s Bono wailed, “If you want to kiss the sky you’d better learn how to kneel.”

It’s when I meet real people who have lived these words that I feel a greater sense of the reality of the in the bible – it’s the reality of word made flesh.  That was the whole point about Jesus, wasn’t it? It wasn’t enough for God to send prophets with plumes of grey hair firing out of their heads and scary wooden staffs.  No. God had to crank up the volume loud enough so we could hear. And the message was intimate and personal.  He sent Jesus into our troubled world so “. . . that the people who walked in darkness [could] see a great light.”

In my own brokenness, sometimes I listen too closely to the voice of depression; the sad parrot on my shoulder that tells me I will always feel crummy and never really feel good about myself.  Then I think about that part in the bible where Jesus says to one of his followers, “Who do you say I am?”  The disciple replies that he is the Christ, the savior.  Similarly, I think we can all ask Jesus “Who do you say I am?”  The response is surely not the one depression would con us into believing. It’s a loving and authentic voice, one that says we are cherished and belong.

Jesus’ birth was a humble birth, indeed.  As Thomas Merton once wrote, “There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.”

Sister Joan writes again:

“It is our need for one another that teaches us our need for God.  It is our down-deep incompleteness that cries out all the days of our lives to be complete – by those around us, by God.  We must pray for the humility it takes to find our wholeness in our littleness.”

Beyond the gifts, the feasts and the holly and the ivy, remember to be humble.  It is this humility, this lack of ego that allows us to be part of the healing mysteries at Christmas time.

As for me, I’ll sit around my Yuletide table.  And after the turkey and mashed potatoes, eat some humble pie.

Hangin’ With Depression

depressed_man-2

I’ve been living with depression for the past ten years or so – longer than I’ve known a lot of people! I’ve come to think of depression as a sort of troublesome companion; one I need to keep some distance from and yet, at some other level, recognize as a voice I need to care about and even listen to.

Not Letting Depression Define Who We Are

It’s helpful sometimes to think of depression as not “me,” but an “it.”

It’s so easy to get lost in depression; to wander into a compass-less night with no way home.  During these times we just don’t experience depression, we are depression. We can’t get any traction or relief from its withering pain. It rants and never raves; it’s negative thinking on steroids.

Dr. Richard O’Connor writes:

“Most tragically, this depressive thinking is likely to be turned on yourself. You remember all the times you failed, and all the times the other guy succeeded; you literally can’t remember your successes. You probably think of yourself as different from others: weaker, damaged, shameful, and inadequate. You don’t consider that you can’t get inside another person’s skin: the confidence you envy may be just a front; the skill you wish for is just practice and hard work; the success you covet may be bought at a high price.”

During the peaks and valleys of my depression over the years, I have learned to say to myself “that’s my depression talking.”  I’ve learned to put a little space between me and this formidable foe.

But I know, deep in my bones, that this companion will travel all of life’s pathways with me – it’s here for the long haul.  While it may not define me anymore, it wields a pointy pencil and shades in various features of my character, reality and moods.  There will be days when I’m better at seeing this, at cutting through the clutter of depression as I navigate my day.  And then there are still days when it bogs me done a bit, cuts into my productivity and colors my face a deeper shade of grey.

For some, like me, it may not be a question of ultimately curing depression, but containing it; of keeping it at the periphery of my life.  When it tries to wander into the center, the wise sentinels – my psychologist, psychiatrist and chums – remind me that it’s time to refocus and employ my self-care stuff to keep depression at bay.

You are not your depression.  It may be a part of your life, but it isn’t your life.

Listening a Little More Closely

Sometimes we fight our depression too hard.  In our attempts to extricate ourselves from its pain, we sometimes chew off a limb like an animal stuck in a steel trap.  Sometimes, we need not squelch the pain of depression, but listen to it because it’s trying to tell us something.  It can be a messenger from somewhere deep inside of us, not just an illness or a psychological malady.

I’ve often thought that part of depression is a lack of love for one’s self, whatever the reason.  This pain, through years of neglect can pathologize into real illness, like depression; it can grow into a giant monster that we’re just too scared to face.  So we hide in our work, our addictions and in all the many fronts we show to the world.  We kick the can down the road, hoping that things will get better, hoping that depression will just leave us alone.

We need to incline our ears to our pain.  As the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives we fear are princes and princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants us to help.”

Somewhere in all us is that depression dragon, that part of us long neglected, abandoned and helpless.  We need our hearts to turn and love this part of ourselves that wants help from us, wants to be heard, wants to tell us that for us to heal and have a shot at happiness, we must listen – maybe as we never have before – to all that is truly in us and needs our attention.

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., in her book Listening to Depression, writes:

“We only reflect on those things that break down in our life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of your life. We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.

But if you begin to open to the possibility that there was something fundamentally wrong with your level of functioning before your depression, only then does the idea of depression as a gift begin to make sense. A breakdown can become a gift when it is in the service of increasing reflection on your life which will lead you to ask the fundamentally important questions: What is wrong with my life? What can I do to correct the problem? When you listen to your depression, you can heal your life.”

Depression feels different on different days.  Sometimes, try treating it as an “it.”  And during other times, perhaps when you’re feeling a little better, try listening to what it is trying to tell you.

Is Lack of Life Meaning Your Depression Trigger?

 As a new year approaches or gets under way, many people ponder the meaning of their lives, and whether they are where they want to be. Depressed people, though, often avoid this pondering, because it brings up some really uncomfortable issues they are frankly not sure they can deal with.

For depressed lawyers, the stakes can seem very high indeed, if they suspect (or know) that their daily work and life has little meaning for them. The idea of a career change or life change can be deeply frightening, and act like a trigger or a multiplier to an existing depression.

Meaning is one of those things that depressed people usually feel they lack in their lives. “Feelings of worthlessness” is always on those checklists of depression symptoms. A life that feels meaningless, feels worthless. And while that feeling of a meaningless, worthless life is often the illusion that depression projects, with many lawyers, there’s some hard, cold reality behind it. The objective, logical, detached thinking that law demands often silences that need many of us have for meaning in our work and lives. Meaning lives in our emotions, not our logic.

What Meaningful Looks Like

Exactly what is meaningful differs for each person. Some of my clients find work more meaningful when they are out in the field working directly with clients or witnesses, rather than in the office enduring conference calls. Others find meaning by communicating an important message well in a brief. Many lawyers enjoy and find meaning in helping a client achieve a goal that feels worthy to them—keeping a client out of jail, helping an entrepreneur avoid a regulatory quagmire that would have doomed a really super business idea, or vindicating a client whose intellectual property was stolen by a competitor.

If your work doesn’t carry some inherent meaning for you, that lack can be the trigger for depression, rather than the symptom of it. If your work actually violates your values—those things that have the most meaning for you—it’s almost sure to send you into a funk eventually. I see that with my clients consistently. They are unhappy, or depressed, because their work lacks meaning for them.

If there exist pieces of a depressed lawyer’s life that hold meaning for them, that’s a relatively easy fix—find ways to increase the size of those pieces in their work or life. A lawyer who finds meaning in helping the underdog can add some pro bono work. Someone who values interacting and collaborating with people can volunteer to do training or mentoring. (The list of people who need mentoring is endless—less experienced lawyers, homeless or economically disadvantaged people who need basic job searching skills, at-risk youth, and college students trying to find their niche are just a few ideas.) Sometimes simply cutting back on hours and spending time with family and friends will add meaning.

Many times, though, it’s the work itself that lacks meaning, no matter how the unhappy lawyer slices it or tries to re-arrange his or her work life. Particularly when that lawyer is ignoring her or his creative side, routine legal work will never have enough meaning to combat unhappiness or depression.

Ignore Those Creative Urges at Your Peril

All humans are born with a great capacity for some type of creative work, whether that be problem-solving, developing innovative products or approaches to business, or some type of self-expression such as writing, painting or performance. We tend to see creativity as the making of art, but it’s much more than that. It’s seeing old problems with a new set of eyes, of wondering “what if we tried doing it this different way . . .? What could make this better . . . ?”

Law, in contrast, values applying the same old solutions to new problems. That’s the DNA of law. For those with a creative bent, that DNA can feel like a death knell to meaning in their lives.

Lawyers whose creative gifts are centered around problem-solving will find it easier to add meaning to their work life in law, but lawyers whose creative gifts revolves around self-expression or making new things will have a hard slog of it. The greater your creative gifts, the harder it is to endure work without creative meaning. Your soul protests vehemently and doesn’t really care about what society thinks about stable, large paychecks.

What does that vehement protest look like? Often, depression. I don’t for a moment think that every depressed lawyer is a blocked creative—but many are, if my clients are any indication. Once they start getting in touch with that creativity, their lives go from stuck to moving. When they start adding that thing that has deep meaning for them—creating in some form—their depression often lifts or lessens markedly.

The hardest thing, as anyone who suffers from depression knows, is getting started. So start small. Add meaning in tablespoons, and suddenly you will find it in your life by the gallon.

Here are a few ways you could start to add meaning to your life:

If you find meaning in problem-solving, get some Legos and figure out how to build a tree, a piano or whatever appeals to you. (Legos, incidentally, are now way cool. There are Harry Potter and Star War Legos sets, among many other brilliant ones. You could start with a kit and go from there.)

If you find meaning in beauty, add some to your life. Put some art on the walls, or find a lovely object you can put on your desk or a bookshelf you look at daily. You could even get some pretty paper and craft some origami. A pretty scarf or unusual tie could add a big lift to your life. Even colorful or unusual office supplies can boost to your creative spirit.

If making something new holds meaning for you, get some polymer clay, sold as Sculpey or Fimo, and comes in a cacophony of colors plus metallic and glittery version, and make a coaster. Or make some worry beads; or whatever else appeals. If you can’t seem to create something for yourself, then do it for a child. Children love presents, period, and they’ll love that you made something just for them.

If kindness and compassion top the meaning scale for you, start slipping a few dollars to a homeless person regularly. Or volunteer monthly at a soup kitchen. Or make it a practice to smile and greet people who look like they’re having a bad day.

Adding meaning to your life can be a lot cheaper than therapy and medication, and have some profound effects. Living a meaningful life can be a powerful part of your arsenal in fighting depression. And the downside? I can’t think of one.

This is a guest blog by Jennifer Alvey.  Jennifer is a recovering lawyer and a professional life and career coach, as well as a published writer. She graduated from Duke Law School, where she served on the Duke Law Journal as Articles Editor. Following law school, Jennifer clerked for a federal appeals court and then moved into private practice with a large Washington, D.C. law firm. While at law firm #3, Jennifer began developing her creative talents, and left law to pursue one of her passions, writing. In 2007 she started a blog Leaving the Law.

Stressed and Depressed Guys in Blue Suits

Beneath the body armor of their pin-striped suits, male lawyers carry a terrible burden. Corrosive levels of stress bombard them and they’re expected to pony up and take it by fellow lawyers and judges — and themselves. There is a serious disconnect between the conversations going on inside their heads about how they really feel about their inner turmoil and the ways they present themselves to their busy world as competent, confident and glacial under pressure.

Studies show that lawyers suffer from elevated rates of stress and depression —  more than double the rates found in the general population. There are some physiological and psychological clues as to why this is so for men in the legal profession.

A new study finds that stressed men have diminished activity in brain regions responsible for understanding other’s feelings.  The study concludes that under stress, men tend to withdraw socially while women seek emotional support.  Recently, I was preparing for a trial scheduled to go on a Monday.   I had worked hard the whole weekend and was cranky and exhausted.  Sunday afternoon, my wife asked if I felt okay and whether I was stressed.  I shrugged off her question and said that I really didn’t want to talk about it. 

Yet in times when my wife is stressed, she turns to me for support and encouragement – and she’s a lawyer too.  As a man in the legal profession, I expect myself to just bear it and soldier on through the mud of litigation.  If you can’t take it, you can’t cut it goes the mindset in the legal culture.  As if there were no middle ground, no way to express this sense of free-floating anxiety.  As if it was all that simple.

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s ABA Journal, “Lawyers under Stress are Critical, Cautious and Distant, Personality Test Shows.” The tests, administered to 1800 lawyers at big firms, were conducted in collaboration with Hogan Assessment Systems, found that, on average, the lawyers:

• Generally do not seem to have a strong need for public recognition, although there is a subset of lawyers who seem to crave recognition and notoriety.

• Tend to deal with others in a direct and matter-of-fact way, but may come across as cold, critical and argumentative.

• Tend to be self-critical and temperamental but are also self-aware, open to feedback, and emotionally expressive.

• Are most attracted to environments that emphasize quality and are less commercially focused than professionals in other industries.

• Tend to value education and educational activities.

While these stress-related problems don’t necessarily cause male depression, they are additional risk factors for those are predisposed to it.

Terrence Real, author of the book “I Don’t Want to Talk about It,” makes an important point about how men deal with their melancholy: for every male who discloses his depression and gets treatment, there are four others who are able to hide it and won’t get help. He writes:

“Covert male depression has three main domains: self-medication, isolation and lashing out. Self-medication may be drinking, drugging, womanizing and even watching excessive amounts of television. Some forms of self-medication are tolerated by our culture so it is hard to get across that what these men are doing is stabilizing depression.

A covertly depressed man will isolate himself and withdraw from intimacy with his partner, his kids, his friends. He can’t afford to be intimate with others because he is desperately trying not to be intimate with himself.

Lashing out can mean violence and domestic abuse. Untreated depression may be an integral part of many male batterers.”

Men drive their pain deeper into the well of their being to avoid dealing with it, to avoid facing the fact that they feel overburdened and, perhaps, afraid.  Alone at the bottom, there is darkness with no ladder out.  Many of them will need an escape rope dropped into them by other caring people, if they are lucky to have such people in their lives.  They feel odd and alone; like they are the only man alive with this problem.

In fact, depression is a secret pain at the core of many men’s lives, and one that goes largely undiagnosed and untreated. Watch the trailer of the recent documentary “Men Get Depression” which aired on PBS:

What Men Can Do About Stress

Check out this stress blog by therapist, Elizabeth Scott.

We all know exercise is important to controlling our stress levels. The problem isn’t that we don’t know that. The problem is that we don’t do it.  Hook up with a trainer at your local gym.  It’s is a relatively cheap way to motivate you to exercise. It also makes you accountable to someone and it’s painful to the pocketbook if you blow it off – must trainers charge you for no-shows! Here’s a great blog about managing stress with exercise and a good diet from a personal trainer.  Also check out the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain which has three great sections about stress, anxiety and depression and what happens to the human body when we work out. I do use a trainer and it has had a dramatic impact on stress loads I carry.

For a quick fix, check this web article “Eight Immediate Stress-Busters.”

Read an article I wrote for lawyers in December, 2008 edition of Trial Magazine, “The Connection between Stress, Anxiety and Depression.” It is a companion to Dr. Andrew Benjamn’s wise advice, “Reclaim Your Life, Reclaim Your Practice.”

What Men Can Do About Depression

Read Terrence Real’s book because it’s important for all of us to learn about depression from a male perspective.  Also check out the website Mid-Life Men which offers stories from guys about their depression experiences.

Have your wife read Is He Depressed or What? Many women ask themselves this question every day wondering whether their husband or boyfriend’s short temper, tendency to withdraw, and mysterious physical complaints might be indications of some deeper psychological issue. The book offers an overview of the ways men typically express signs of depression. It provides strategies they can use for improving communication, dealing with relationship complications, and coping with men’s physical symptoms related to depression, such as insomnia and sexual dysfunction.

Above all, the book helps your spouse avoid becoming lost in your depression. By paying attention to their own needs, they can best preserve their well-being and peace of mind—and so are able to offer the most support to you.  I often suggest that men buy this book for their wives rather than ask their wives to go out and buy it.  This demonstrates that you are in this together, that you care about her feelings and that you want her to understand.

Get help.  Therapy is not scary and you don’t have to go it alone. Therapy will help you to feel better by having someone to talk with.  Check out this article where a therapist answers seven questions about how therapy works and what to expect. It is something productive you can do about your stress, anxiety and depression and it can help you to develop some better coping skills.  If you are concerned about being seen, many therapists have early morning or late evening hours. You also tell them that you have a concern about being seen by fellow attorneys or judges and request that he or she not schedule you at a time when that therapist may be treating someone you don’t want to see.

Men, you can’t handle exorbitant levels of stress and depression on your own.  It’s not shameful to get help.

Darkness on the Edge of Town

The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love – Margaret Atwood.

Last Sunday marked daylight savings time where we spin the clocks back one hour. While I enjoy the earlier light in the morning, there’s something about the darkness emerging earlier at the end of my day that makes me want to go to sleep earlier.

When my morning alarm clock rings, I ignore my body’s hibernatory cries for more slumber and paw my way out of bed.  Jumping into my car after a shower and shave, I wheel out of my driveway and rocket to my local Starbucks to drink my daily joe.

Drinking my coffee, I look out the window.  There is a distinctive pallor that comes over our world at this time of the year; the grey of the parking lot seems a lot greyer and people wandering into Starbucks this morning glummer.  Folks in the northern climes with depression find this a trying time.  The darkness seems to reflect a more woe-be-gone take on life.

I felt a wee bit flat as I labored under the din of fluorescent lights in my office yesterday.  As I look up at these artificial bulbs, I imagined London Barristers of old working by whale oil lamps in white wigs trying to stay warm as logs burned in their stony hearths.  No squinting like nowadays, but the fake lights bounce off my papers rather than illuminate them and add a shine to my bald head.

There is a form of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder or “SAD,” which swoops down on many this time of year.  It wreaks havoc with our circadian rhythms, our body’s internal clock, and knocks our sleep and brains off balance.

About 11 million people in the U.S. have a clinical form of this depression.  Another 10 to 20 percent may have a mild SAD and it’s more common in ladies than gents.  It’s also more likely to strike you – no surprise here – the farther north you live.  Just great – I live in Buffalo, New York.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, SAD expert and author of the excellent book Winter Blues, talks about SAD in this short video:

The specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. It’s likely, as with many mental health conditions, that genetics, age and, perhaps most importantly, your body’s natural chemical makeup all play a role in developing the condition. A few specific factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption of your circadian rhythm may lead to feelings of depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Talk to your doctor to see whether taking melatonin supplements is a good option.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression.

Factors that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Being female. Some studies show that seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men, but that men may have more severe symptoms.
  • Living far from the equator. Seasonal Affective Disorder appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and the longer days of summer.
  • Family history. As with other types of depression, some studies have shown that people with a history of depression are more apt to have SAD.

There’s a bunch of recommended ways to deal with SAD; everything from antidepressants, fish oil supplements, light therapy and exercise.  I have taken antidepressants for years, I have a cobwebbed lightbox in my basement (should use it more often) and I exercise.  With the workout, I throw in 15 minutes in the sauna which raises my core temperature – I find that this helps a lot.  After all, the folks in Finland know a lot about dealing with the cold.

Stay warm, lighten up and make sure that your sadness doesn’t turn into SADness.

By Daniel T. Lukasik, 2018

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