When Crap Befalls Decent People

How can we continue to believe in God when good people are beset by bad stuff and tragedies?  Read this excellent blog from Beyond Blue sprinkled with wise insights from Rabbi Harold Kushner

The Swampland: An Interview with Dr. James Hollis about Depression in the Law

Dan:  What is depression?

Jim:   I think first of all we have to differentiate between depressions because it‘s a blanket term which is used to describe many different experiences, different contexts and different internalized experiences of people.  First of all, there is the kind of depression that is driven by biological sources and it is still a mystery as to how that works.  We know it affects a certain number of people in profound ways.   Second, there is reactive depression which is the experience of a person who has suffered loss and as we invest energy in a relationship or a situation and for whatever reason, that other is taken away from us, that energy that was attached to him will invert as depression.  Reactive depression is actually normal.

We would have to figure out where that fine line is and where it might cross over into something that was more than normal.  When we say that a person is grieving too long or it is affecting their lives so profoundly, that’s a judgment call, of course, but we do know people that have been sort of destroyed by reactive depression because they had attached so much of their identity to the other, whatever it might be: a position in life that they lost or a relationship that was important.

But I think none of us can avoid occasional reactive depressions because life is a series of attachments and losses.  Most commonly, when we think about depression, however, we are really looking at a king of intra-psychic phenomenon where we might say there are parts of ourselves that are contending with each other.

If you think lawyers have to deal with outer-litigation, there is inner-litigation going on continuously as we are subject to a lot of interpersonal strife and conflict between values.  For example, there are conflicts of duty and we have an obligation to many competing values within us.  I mean, one of the most obvious duties that we all live with is that you have to earn a living to support yourself and your family and on the other hand, the price of the particular way in which you are doing it is psychologically and perhaps, physically, costly to you.  So already, there is a significant conflict there.  If the ego continues to override that conflict without addressing it, we could expect the symptoms, including the symptoms associated with depression, to show up.

In effect, the good news and the bad news are the same here in the sense that the psyche is not passive, it’s active, it’s continuously expressing its point of view and it is manifesting in our body which is somatic issues in our emotional life,  in our behaviors and of course, in our dream life.  Those expressions of opinion are often something we call “symptoms” in the contemporary mindset and we want to sort of replace symptoms as quickly as possible and that is understandable.  At the same time, the real question is why have they come, what is our own psyche trying to say to us.   Or, put it another way, for what reason is my psyche refusing to cooperate with the agenda that my conscious life has addressed and emerged into?

The withdrawal of energy is often profoundly conflictual within and produces a lot of suffering.  The more I might push myself, the more depressed I might get.  So from a psycho-dynamic standpoint, you would say, well, what really is the value conflict here and how is it that we can learn from the psyche and what we might consider a more appropriate set of choices for you.

Dan:  You know, from what I have seen and from what I have researched, about 10% of the U.S. population suffers from depression.  There have been a couple studies actually about lawyers and law students with depression that show that as many as 40% of law students in America at some point during their 3-year career as law students will deal with depression. Out of the million lawyers in America, about 28% suffer from some type of depression or about a whopping 280,000 lawyers. A recent study on law students is equally troubling: 17% screened positive for depression.

What do you think explains that Jim? What is it about the legal profession that explains an almost tripling of the rate of depression for those in the law?

Jim:   It is hard to generalize.  We would have to look at each individual lawyer on a very personal basis to see what are the factors involved there, but I might say sort of categorically that the legal profession is, by its nature, adversarial and I have known many fine human beings who were lawyers who inwardly suffered when they were in conflictual situations.   I recall one lawyer who I worked with many years ago in another part of the country who was torn by conflict within his family.  He became a lawyer and then he became severely depressed because exactly that kind of conflict that he had suffered so much in his personal life was replicated in his professional life.  He said to me that if I got to trial and failed to settle it, that he was personally a failure.

When I asked him what he meant, you meant, he said, “My whole job is to try to work it out beforehand. Of course, he played that mediatorial role between his parents at some point earlier in his life and so I realized in many ways, his depression was rising from the fact that he was driven into  a role in his family of origin and he identified with that role,  and it sort of rolled over into his adult sense of profession and he chose the law in good faith, but  it was really the unconscious complex that was making the choices for him and to his credit, he was able to look at that and frankly leave the profession and become an educator which is what his real enthusiasm was for.

I would say that first of all, we have to recognize that one is always pitted against someone else in the law. It is seldom a cooperative operation and for some people, they would thrive in that, but for many people, that is a source of great internal stress.   Secondly, many times, lawyers – – like physicians- – are increasingly really prisoners of systems of what appears to be an empowered profession.  It is often one that is highly constricted and constantly scrutinized in having to be reporting all the time to one authority or another, so one can often experience some loss of personal authority and personal autonomy.

Thirdly, with lawyers, there is always this sense in which one has to question, what am I serving really.  Theoretically, the law asks us to serve others with impartiality and everyone deserves a right to a hearing, and these are laudable values, of course.  But, I think often what one can feel is that one is in a compromised position in the first place.  Again, for some people that can cause great internal conflict.  One can even feel that one has in effect, prostituted one’s conscience at times, or one’s talents and that too weighs heavily on lawyers.

But, I would have to say, in each person’s life, we would have to look at what are the factors. There are obviously people who are psychologically appropriate for the various natures of the work.  I know there are many aspects of the law and we would have to try to identify what is the psychology of the person coming into that.  In my profession of psychotherapy, there are many who come from very troubled backgrounds.

They often got identified as children as helpers, mediators, as persons who had to sacrifice their own interests on behalf of stabilizing their environment.  So there is a high rate of depression and stress, burn-out and substance abuse among therapists as well and also the nursing professions and all the professions where you might say is a caregiving function or a service function that one will often find one’s own psychological history exacerbated, intensified and even worsened.

Dan:  I would like to read a brief passage from your wonderful book, “What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life“.  In there you write:

“The recovery of personal authority is critical to conduct in a reconstruction of the second half of life.    If we are a little more than our adaptations, then we collude with happenstance and remain prisoners of fate.  No matter how sovereign we believe we are, we remain the loneliest of surfs to the tyrannies of whatever remains unconscious”.

I think one of the things that I found interesting, as I read further on in the book, is your notion of psychological adaptions and how they relate to somebody who is suffering from depression.  Can you elaborate on what role adaptations serve with depression?

Jim:   Well the fact that we have survived as individuals and also a species in an often very difficult environment is a function of our capacity of that adaptation. Without the ability to adapt one would be destroyed by the conditions of life. But then, you see, to some degree one’s becoming identified by whatever the environmental factors were that necessitated that adaptation, what happens is through repetition or the fact that these adaptations often occur very early in life, I mean adaptation such as avoidance patterns or the way our engagement with others works out or our compliance adaptations and so forth, these often tend to get replicated a lot and become sort of behavioral systems within each of us.

So that we can fast forward several decades and find ourselves really the creatures of these adaptive patterns: patterns that were once protective, but because they keep getting applied to new situations become constrictive and oblige repetition.

Sigmund Freud noted early that the power of the repetition of compulsion and the power of programming within each of us. The problem of the unconscious, of course, is that we can’t say anything about it definitively and yet these behaviors and their patterns keep falling into the world from us so therefore we would have to admit that they are coming from us and therefore, we have some accountability for it.  

And so, as a therapist, one of the things that we look to discern is what are the patterns that are coming out of this person’s life, from where they might they come and then to make these adaptations more conscious and to see how they get systematized,  and then at some very profound  level, we could see a person who is operating  in a very powerful position outwardly can, in fact, be enslaved  to the messages of decades ago.  What he believes is his free choice is often his protective mechanisms and again, they are there for good reasons, but they completely ignore the fact that the individual has grown up.

He now has a consciousness, he has an empowerment, he has a capacity for resilience that were not present in the life of the child and therefore, there is a kind of unconscious regression every time one of these implicit messages takes over consciousness, so, until we can begin to recognize what are the silent messages to which we are in service, we remain prisoners of history and the very adaptations that were necessary during our childhoods are now constricting agencies.  Working through that and stepping into risk, stepping into an enlargement of vision and honoring the desires within us that wish to be expressed through us into the world.

Sounds simple in the abstract, but in fact people often find is that their most difficult obstacle are their old fear-based adaptations that once were necessary long ago, but today are binding us to a disabling past.

Dan:  Here’s another quote I would like to read from your book, What Matters Most:

“All of us feel shamed by life. All of us consider ourselves failures of some kind, screw ups in something really important to us.  Notice how shame, consciously or unconsciously pulls us away from risk, ratifies our negative sense of worth through self-sabotage or compels us into frenetic efforts of overcompensation or yearning for the validation from others that never comes; how much each of us needs to remember one definition of grace as accepting the fact that we are accepted despite the fact that we are unacceptable”.

It is just a beautiful passage that I think captures so much.  A lot of your writing addresses the issues and problems that all of us must face at mid-life.  Can you talk about that some more? What connection does shame have to do with all of this, with depression suffering and so forth?

Jim:  I would like to respond to two things.  Before we hit mid-life, we often identify with those adaptations that carry us into our lives and create relationships, professions and life patterns.   Then by mid-life, we can typically no-longer ignore the protest that may be coming from within us or in our marriages or in our other behaviors.  It is at that point one might begin to question what is going here really.  “Who am I, apart from my history? Who am I, apart from my roles?”

It can lead to a very interesting conversation which can, in turn, lead to some significant changes and a greater freedom in the second half of life.  But, I think most people feel shame.  Now, the difference between shame and guilt is that with guilt we feel that we are accountable for something we did or failed to do and often that has a powerful effect on people’s lives.  But shame is a feeling that who I am in itself is not sufficient or it is contaminated in some way.

So people can be shamed by the conditions of their birth or the conditions of their family origin or by events that occurred in a person’s life wherein he or she feels that they were insufficient or inadequate.  The kind of generosity or forgiveness or acceptance we would give to another is often very hard to give to ourselves and so typically what we do is we double our work or try to anesthetize our suffering.

But I think shame is an often neglected feature in peoples’ lives and will show up in two primary ways. One is through patterns of avoidance and hiding out from the life we want to live.  The other is grandiosity which is an over-compensation so that one has to continuously try to prove one’s worth to others and that exertion, in the end, leads to greater and greater sense of frustration and emptiness.

Since we are often not conscious of any of this, whatever accomplishments are there are never enough.  It can drive a person higher and higher and higher in his or her efforts to demonstrate personal worth as a treatment plan for guilt.  That person remains very much hooked by that which invariably leads to excess and then leads to consequences which again feeds the shame cycle again.    I think one of the hardest things in life, in addition to recovering personal authority, is learning self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. These are not easy things because they must include honest accountability for choices made, choices not made and for consequences that are choices produced.

Dan:  Jim, would it be fair to say many successful people or those who strive for success, in some way continually over-compensate in their lives and careers?  And when they, in some sense fail to meet these unconscious goals of success, however well or fully defined, they feel shame? It seems to me that this is a reality for a lot of lawyers who are engaged in a very competitive, win-loss type of career.  And they often do not have a place to go to work that through.

Jim:   That’s right.  I think most folks have seen the film, Citizen Kane. That whole story basically was a portrait based on the life of overcompensation; a power-driven person who is still compensating for the conditions of poverty and shame of his childhood.   If one could have unlocked that secret early, his path in life might have been less destructive and less driven by demons, so to speak.

Frankly, that’s the role of therapy. I believe therapy is such an important means by which one can have a conversation with oneself.  Too often, people associate therapy with some grand pathology.  But I think if we explore it rather as a kind of encounter with one’s deepest self, that one will begin to realize that I myself am a mystery, I am a complexity, I am a richness of which I know only a small portion from a conscious standpoint.  It is not about self-absorption or narcissism.

Quite the contrary, it is a humble dialog with a therapist. And then one becomes, frankly, less dangerous to the world. We become a more available partner, spouse, parent, and colleague and I think can begin to zero in on what really does matter to us, what choices we are making.

Dan:  One of the things I took away from your book is the idea that most of us, on an unconscious level, believe that life is a problem to be solved rather than mysteries to be lived.

I think that this insight has helped alleviate a lot of my depression and others I know.  With depression, there’s so much ruminative thinking.  We get caught in this vicious circle of trying to solve depression.  Or, in a greater context, larger issues such as, “Why was I born into a family with an alcoholic father?  Or, “Why am I such a screw-up?” We try to answer these negative questions over and over again.  But these are questions with no true answers.

Jim:   I think that we need to realize that suffering depressions – – and I put that in the plural- – is actually a normal human experience and highly functioning people and capable people often have what I would call “pockets of depression” and yet are not governed by it.

These pockets of depression have to do with real losses they have experienced in their lives or the experience of internal conflicts.  The human condition itself involves suffering and we always have to ask a question, “Is the way in which I am experiencing my suffering and my conflict, is it leading me to a larger life or is it leading me to a smaller life?”  “Does it enlarge me or does it diminish me?”

And I think we usually know the answer to that question.  The flight from suffering leads to an inauthentic life, to a superficial life.  So, I think it’s important to recognize that in the course of our journey, we will, from time to time, visit what I call “The Swampland of the Soul”. And in every swampland, there is a task and if we can identify that task and address it, it can lead us out of victimhood and into a large consciousness.

One of them is depression.  So again, we have to remember that the word means “to press down”.  So, we must ask ourselves, “What is being pressed down?” “What energy, what value, what agenda, what desire is being pressed down and are we the unwitting agencies of that oppression or is it something that has happened to us along the way with which we identified and what life wishes to be served? And in many cases, people, by just asking these questions, will be led to a larger life, a change, if not a change of direction or course in life, a change in some of the attitudes with which they address daily life.

James Hollis, Ph.D. was born in Springfield, Illinois. He graduated with an A.B. from Manchester College in 1962 and with a Ph.D. from Drew University in 1967. He taught the Humanities 26 years in various colleges and universities before retraining as a Jungian analyst at the Jung Institute of Zurich, Switzerland (1977-82). He is a licensed Jungian analyst in private practice in Houston, Texas, where he served as Executive Director of the Jung Educational Center of Houston from 1997-2008. He is a retired Senior Training Analyst for the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, was the first Director of Training of the Philadelphia Jung Institute, and is vice president emeritus of the Philemon Foundation, which is dedicated to the publication of the complete works of Jung. In addition to the book “Living a More Considered Life: What Matters Most,” he is the author of “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up“.


An Interview with Will Meyerhofer About Depression in the Legal Profession

Will Meyerhofer, JD LCSW, is an author and a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC.  He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU School of Law and The Hunter College School of Social Work.  Following law school, he worked as an associate at the BigLaw firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City before becoming a therapist. He is also the creator of the website and blog The Peoples’ Therapist.  I spoke with Will about what depression is, how it forms and why so many lawyers are afflicted by it.

Dan:  As someone who has suffered from depression and treats people for depression, what is depression and how does it develop?

Will:  When Freud was asked why he went into neurology, and medicine, the career which developed, for him, into psychoanalysis, he said he was inspired by Charles Darwin’s astonishing breakthrough with the theory of evolution.  Freud was an admirer of Darwin.  That’s relevant, because evolution, I believe, plays an important role in depression.  Depression is an evolutionary adaptation of humankind gone wrong.

It’s a bit like Sickle Cell Anemia, which is actually an adaptation in our blood intended to prevent Malaria.  Unfortunately, that adaptation can also go too far and result in a harmful blood disorder.

Human beings have an enormously long childhood – the period of dependency following birth.  That is chiefly due to our single most important adaptation – large brains, which at full size, would never fit through the birth canal.  So we are born with a partially developed brain, about a third of its full size.  As a result, our brains require a strikingly long period following birth– at least compared to most other higher species – to develop and mature.  During that time, we’re utterly helpless.  Many species are born, brush themselves off, and a couple of hours or days later, they are up and running around – just think of horses birthing foals.  That’s not true for people.  Humans take 10-14 years before they’re in any shape to take care of themselves.  Our brains don’t even reach their full size until we’re about 6 years old.

Dan:  What does this long period of childhood have to do with depression?

Will:  We humans experience a very long period in our lives in which we demand and require enormous amounts of care in order to survive.  Otherwise we’d die.  Little children comprehend that situation on a cellular level.  If you walk away from a little child – make it clear that you are planning to abandon him for any length of time – that little child is going to absolutely flip; he is going to scream so loudly it will peel the paint off the walls.  That’s because he knows he could die if he is abandoned.  A child will always experience solitude as abandonment.  To put it bluntly – the role of a human child is to please.  It’s more intense for humans than for other life forms, because we require a lot more care and for a much longer period of time.  Reptiles lay eggs and disappear.  They might even feed on their own young and not think much of it.  But mammals need care – milk from the mother.  And of all the mammals, humans need the most care – years and years of it.  So humans spend many years learning to please.  We grow up with this directive to please – and blame ourselves if we fail at that task.  It gets coded into our brains and becomes a trained behavior, an instinct.  Keep in mind, the threat of death is real.  Historically, as a species, humans display high rates of infanticide.  This phenomenon exists in many species.  Birds often cull their young, and throw hatchlings out of the nest if there is insufficient food.  But with humans, because we require so much care in our early years, if things are bad, it would not be uncommon to take a child who is disfavored – perhaps an illegitimate or disabled or otherwise undesirable child – and leave it out in the woods to die or simply abandon it as a street urchin.  It is incumbent upon every human child to please so he can receive care and survive.

Ok, so how does this apply to depression?  Under stress, humans regress – they fall back instinctively into old, unconscious behaviors acquired during childhood.  In our case, that means falling back into the childhood pattern of locating the fault within –  feeling that you’ve failed to please, and that if you’re not pleasing, you are going to die.  So, when you are under stress and things aren’t going well for you, you blame yourself – it must be your fault.  Instead of acting like an adult, and getting angry and thinking – I’m not being treated well, I have a right to get angry and advocate for myself, or take care of myself, if no one else is going to do it – instead of that healthy, adult functioning, it’s the old regression, to “I’ve failed.  It’s my fault.  I’ll die because I’ve failed to please.”

An adult – unlike a child – does not have to experience solitude as abandonment.  You can say I am an adult.  I am independent.  I can take care of myself.  Not only that, I can choose an environment that’s healthy for me and I can reassure myself.  I can self-sooth, I can self-parent.  I can say to myself, hey you are a good person, come on.  You choose who you are going to be each day. You are proud of who you are. You make that determination.  You make that judgment whether you are worthy of being valued and receiving care each day.  And you can tell yourself, Hey cheer up, you are going to get through this.  You’re going to surround yourself with people who value you because that’s what you deserve and you are going to take care of yourself.  And you can feel angry if you’re not receiving the care you deserve.  That – in a nutshell – is how you address depression.  You snap out of the regression to behaving like a dependent child and become an adult, a parent for your own child.

Dan: What signs do you look for to diagnose depression?

Will:  There are two major indicators for depression that give it away each and every time.

First, I see an absence of appropriate anger.  A child does not get angry when the parent fails to provide him with suitable care – the child sees himself as helpless.  You can’t get angry at someone if you need them desperately, the way a child needs a parent.  It’s not where the hell are you, I need a feeding, my diaper needs to be changed.   Instead, the child’s in absolute panic and thinking I’m bad, I’m bad, I’ve failed here, I have failed to please – now they’ll leave me to die.  That is the first characteristic of depression – absence of appropriate anger.  If I ask a depressed client “Are you angry right now?” I’ll always hear the same answer.  It will be always be some variation of “I’m only angry at myself.”  The rest of that statement would be “. . . because I’ve failed to please and can’t survive on my own.”

The Second indicator of depression is a dismantling of a person’s self-esteem apparatus. There’s no sense of pride in yourself or a sense of value in who you are and what you do. You think I failed, I hate being me.  A depressed person will insist, over and over again –I’m only angry at myself.  I don’t like who I am.”  That’s because the depressed person’s fantasy is to escape into someone else – someone who will please, and therefore be worthy of care – and survival.

Dan:  The absence of appropriate anger and a dismantled self-esteem.  I think those are two things that people on the street and even lawyers would associate with lawyers. We expect them to be tough and strong.  We expect them to have high self-esteem and take pride in what they do. In your experience, why is the exact opposite true for lawyers struggling with depression?

Will:  At a law firm, you are reduced to a child-like helplessness.  You have no right to speak your mind, to self-advocate – to stand up to authority.  Instead, you go helpless, and try to please.  Any anger, if it is acknowledged to any degree, is tightly bottled.  You can’t show it.  The environment at law firms is uptight, rigid and extremely constrained.  You can’t say to the partner – “Oh, for heaven sake, it’s Friday – why are you bothering me with this?”  You say – “Yes, sir.  I’ll do it right away.”  If the partner – who is clearly exploiting you to make money – announces you are going to be working all weekend, you say “Absolutely, no problem.”   You do not put up any kind of a fight.  Lawyers, especially young lawyers, imagine themselves as helpless as young children in the law firm environment – utterly dependent on the partners, utterly incapable of advocating for themselves, or providing themselves with the care they need on their own.  They permit themselves to be abused in an extremely toxic, exploitative environment – they often don’t even seem to realize they’re being abused.  They’re too busy attempting to please their abusers.

Dan:  Will, you treat a lot of lawyers with depression.  Is depression in some way different for lawyers?  Are there different causes for their depression?

Will:  If I were to design an environment specifically to create depression, I would design a law firm.  The reason is that lawyers are pleasers.  A lawyer tends to be the kid with the best grades in the class – a generalist whose primary skill is getting good grades – pleasing teachers.   If you are really good at math, you become a mathematician or a scientist.  If you are particularly skilled on the violin, you become a musician.  But if you get an “A” in everything, then your only skill set is getting good grades – and to monetize that skill set, you wind up heading to law school.  That’s pretty much how I did it.  I got into Harvard and then went on to NYU Law.  I wasn’t spectacular at any one thing – I was a generalist.   I was also the teacher’s pet.  I was an excellent student – but what is an excellent student?  It’s someone who gives the teachers what they want. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, they dropped out of Harvard, they weren’t good students – because they – and others like them – were geniuses, and entrepreneurs, not good students.  Lots of geniuses drop out of college – it’s a common feature they share.  They’re not pleasers. Einstein struggled to complete the academic rigamarole required to get a teaching post – he was too busy re-inventing physics.

Lawyers tend to be good students.  A genius or an entrepreneur – an individualist – says I’m going to do it my own way and the hell with you.  Screw Harvard. I don’t need it.   This is in contrast to lawyer, the pleaser – the type of person who says I’m going to compete viciously with my peers and get straight A’s at Harvard and then go to a top law school and compete some more to get more straight A’s and then get a job at a top law firm and keep on competing.  What happens to a pleaser when you get to these top firms? You do what you are told.  And you compete.  That’s a very typical lawyer behavior – you are essentially pleasing partners who are replacements for your parents and teachers, what therapists call the idealized parent object, the primary object – the person you’re programmed to please.  And you are killing off your peers – the other children who compete for parental attention and care.

Dan:  Big firms then have collections of pleasers and demanding partners.  What does that do to the psyche of a lawyer?

Will:  A law firm takes all these pleasers, herds all these kids who have always gotten A’s, and concentrates them in one giant feeding lot.  So you have an entire law firm stocked with pleasers, and no one to please!  There are no more teachersThe partners are the closest thing to a parent-object, and they’re overgrown pleasers themselves.   It ends up with everyone competing with everyone else and everyone feeling like they’re failing.  Throwing people under the bus is not a management technique except in a law firm.   Anyone who’s ever worked in big law firms will tell you that folks get thrown under the bus every day at those places.  It’s the antithesis of good management.   That’s because they’re all competing – no one is stepping back and getting pleased, and saying – hey, you’re doing a terrific job!  Good management is a requirement for happiness at a workplace.  Everyone seems to realize that but lawyers.  Employees need to feel supported, appreciated and motivated.  They’ll do better work if they believe they’re good at what they do.  Employees need to feel like they want to come in everyday because they like their workplace.  Every time you walk in, you need to feel like Yeah, I know everybody here, my boss knows me, he respects me, he thanks me for my work.  A good manager understands this – it isn’t rocket science.  A fundamental management principle is that a review process needs to be supportive.  There should be about 90% praise, and the constructive suggestions should be just that – constructive and suggestions.  You don’t get anything remotely resembling that in a law firm because everyone is busy instinctively competing with each other like little baby animals trying to kill off the other baby animals as though they might die if someone else succeeds.  Management technique, at a big law firm, amounts to throwing someone else under a bus, and thinking you feel better afterwards – like, somehow you’re now in a safer position.  It’s madness.

Dan:  Please tell us about your two books.

Will:  My first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, actually started out as notes for  young therapists.  I was doing trainings for volunteer counselors at a hospital and I kept repeating the same things over and over to them, explaining anxiety and depression.  So I started with these notes and realized there was a book there that I could use with my clients.  That’s one way to look at therapy – as educating your clients – training them, really, to be therapists themselves, to the extent that they gain an understanding of emotions and how they work.

The first part of the book is about gaining awareness and understanding how anxiety and depression work. The second part tackles applying that knowledge to your life as you live it.

It’s interesting, how I came up with the title.  I wrote this phrase, somewhere around the middle of the book – “Life is a brief opportunity for joy.”  It was a literary agent, later on, who read the book and spotted it and said, that’s your title Will.  It seemed to sum up the entire book.  Let’s face it:  We are all heading to the same place – oblivion – a hole in the ground.  It’s a brief trip and it goes by quickly. Our mission is to be joyous. Life is a gift – it really is.

Many many lawyers make themselves incredibly unhappy. I think sometimes it’s as if they’re determined to make themselves miserable.  And depression is, at its heart, a self- punitive behavior.  You are doing this to yourself.  You are beating yourself up. You are being a bad parent to your inner child, by abandoning him to panic and attack himself for failing to please.

Dan:  So when someone struggles with depression as an adult, they’re basically repeating the maladaptive patterns they learned in childhood – – but this time they’re doing it to themselves.

Will:  Pretty much.  You’re not pleasing others, so you blame yourself for that failure.  You place the fault within and dismantle your self-esteem.  That’s what I did.  Instead of saying to myself maybe I don’t belong here, I kidded myself I did belong there.  The truth is, I never belonged in the legal profession.  I went because of the money and to try to please my mother in some misguided way.  I was a writer and a young therapist, at heart.   I would have become a therapist if my parents had done a better job handling my coming out as a gay man.  I  would have gone into mental health right away because I was fascinated by it.  But my parents hated that I was gay and sent me to a psychiatrist to be “cured.”  That scared me away from mental health, and in the end I wanted to make my parents happy and provide them all the money and the status to compensate for being gay.  I didn’t even understand what law was. I just went into it blindly thinking well, okay, status and money.

Dan:  Now, tell us about the second book and why you wrote it?

Will:  Well, the second book has a silly title, Way Worse than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning.  I have a literary agent friend who always seems to come up with my titles and she came up with this one, too.  We were kidding over coffee and I said, well basically, if you’re not smart enough to get into medical school, you have two choices.  You can aim a little lower and go to dental school or you can become a lawyer.  Weirdly enough, I’ve had people write me who read the book and said “You know, I went into dentistry and I am glad I did.”  Or, “I went law and damn I should have gone into dentistry.

So that was the idea – you should have been a dentist.  There are people who bash dentists and talk about their high rate of suicide or depression.  In actuality, I think that’s a myth.  The dentists I know are fascinated by it and doing a lot of good for people.  I have a bunch of dentist friends.

But anyway, I came up with this silly title and the book was based on a bunch of columns I wrote for Above the Law, along with additional materials that were either too personal or too honest or too long or too – something – to get included in the original published columns.  Every time I wrote a column, I thought of more I wanted to say and I realized I was starting to exorcise my own demons from that very traumatic experience of trying to be a lawyer years before. I dedicated the book to the partners of Sullivan and Cromwell, just for a laugh.  The back photo, if you really look at it, is my firm’s facebook photo from my very first day at Sullivan. They took my photo in a suit and tie – I was terrified, but trying to look confident and successful.

Dan:  Give us just a few thoughts or ideas about how lawyers can recover from depression.

Will:  First of all:  Remember who you are.  I had a friend at the firm, years ago, a brilliant guy. He went to Yale Law School and then onto Sullivan and Cromwell.  I remember him looking at me one day as if he were saying the most forbidden thing he could ever admit: “Will I just don’t think I’m very good at this.”  And I remember thinking, God, that’s how I feel.  This guy was so accomplished and I thought, My God, they have really torn him down. He has forgotten who he is. I told him “Look at your record. You were a Yale undergrad and then Yale Law” and on and on; top of his class in everything and I said “How did they do this to you?”

How do you remember who you are?  There are a couple of things that can help to snap you out of depressive thinking.

One, remember that you are not always right, but you are not always wrong either.  It might not be your fault when things don’t go right at work.  Depressed people tend to put the entire fault on themselves.  Everything is their fault, they failed and they feel they have no right to anger. I always tell my clients “Look, you have the right to have anger, even if you’re just angry that it’s raining outside.  Get angry about something.”  It’s about dignity.  The inherit dignity of being an adult and possessing a right to your own opinion, a right to your anger.

A child doesn’t really get angry.  He gets scared and terrified.  But an adult can say, hey, maybe this isn’t the right environment for me.  I remember someone at Sullivan & Cromwell, at some point, very sadistically telling me, “Maybe you’re not cut out for this place.” At the time I was desperate. I went to my office and wept because I had to be cut out for it. I had to succeed.  Then I realized maybe I am not cut out for this.   And I remember laughing and then I thought Oh my God, there is a way out. I don’t have to please.  I can please myself.  I can remember who I actually am.

I pose this question all the time to my lawyer clients:  Who are you really, inside?  They say “Well, come to think of it, I was an English major, I loved reading, I loved computer games and I always wanted to go bicycling,” or whatever.   It starts to come back and they remember who they are:  “You know, I love to bake cupcakes and I love to go hiking. I’m mad about punk music from the 70’s.”  Whatever floats their boat – their very individual, quirky, personal boat.  And then a person starts to come back to who they really are, to their true self.  That’s the beginning of the end of depression – simply remembering who you are, giving yourself the dignity to be you – not trying to care for yourself by pleasing others, but doing it directly – by caring for yourself, in the way you need to be cared for, the way the child inside you – who celebrates life and drinks deep of joy – needs to be cared for.  That’s how you beat depression.


11 Years

From the blog Depression Marathon, a writer takes stock of her 11 year journey with depression. Read the Blog.

Spirituality and Depression: A Talk with Dr. Hamdy El-Rayes

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Hamdy El-Rayes about his new book, Mental Wellness: A Spiritual Journey. In his book, he explores the connection between spirituality and depression and how the lack of spirituality can be a cause of depression.  Dr. Hamdy grew up in Egypt in the Muslim faith and experienced depression as a young man.  He found a spiritual healer in the Sufi Muslim tradition who helped him recover, but found that his depression returned when he came to North America. 

Dan:          Can you tell us about your background?

Hamdy:     I have a MBA and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and currently live in British Columbia in Canada. I also teach at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and work in upper management there.  I became interested in the subject of depression because I have suffered from depression and anxiety.  I found that there was no help out there that could help me heal with spirituality and that’s when I decided to take my own future in my hands and decided to use my skills and research background to find a way out.   That is what led me into this work.  That is what led me to write a book, Mental Wellness: A Spiritual Journey, on depression and found the H.R. Mental Wellness Center here.

Dan:           How old were you when you first experienced depression?

Hamdy:     It started at a very young age. My first time was when I was 14 years old.  I then recovered and managed to find my own way through a spiritual teacher and I kind of brought spirituality into my life. I didn’t struggle with any depression again until I came here to Canada.  I found that the North American lifestyle takes you away from yourself and you lose your sense in the process of living a life here. That’s what happened to me.

Dan:           Can you elaborate on that?  What is it about our culture that creates and sustains depression?

Hamdy:      We live in a very fast-paced culture.  We are driven from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed.  We don’t have time to interact with ourselves.  We don’t have time to reflect on our life with all the technology around us to keep us moving at a fast pace – cell phones, computers, IPAD’s and you-name-it devices. Today we are distant from a sense of spirituality in our lives.  This drift really began about a century ago with the theories of Sigmund Freud.  He had an enormous influence on the university culture in Europe, the United States and the educated people of his time.  His influence and those of his protégés continue to this day. He considered religion, the more formal and institutional practice of religion, as a kind of mental disorder.

Dan:            That is a very interesting.  I think when we talk about depression in contemporary culture in the west, we often talk about treating depression with medication and psychotherapy because that is what the psychiatric and psychological establishment tells us to do.  But there is not much discussion about spirituality and how spirituality can help somebody recover from depression, let alone suggest that its absence in our lives can be a cause of depression.   

Hamdy:      Yes, it became like a taboo.  For most of the psychiatrists in the U.S., spirituality is not thought of as a solution to depression because it is not based on science and biology about how the brain work

Dan:          I agree that many in the west think of depression solely as a medical issue, as a disease, and when people think of it as a disease, they say, “ Well it’s like heart disease or diabetes.”  If it is just a medical disease, people probably don’t think that spirituality, and the lack of it, has to do with their depression.  You have a new book out, Mental Wellness: A Spiritual Journey.  In it, you say that spirituality has a lot to do with depression and healing from it.

Hamdy:     It is not really my personal opinion.  It is based on work done in past 20-25 years where doctors started recognizing that there is a powerful relationship between health and religion.   There are about 95 articles and research reports about the impact of spirituality on various physical and mental illnesses.  As we know, spirituality helps people with addiction, healing from various physical illnesses like diabetes, arthritis, heart problems.  It even helps cope with cancer. 

Dan:           Can you talk more about how a lack of spirituality contributes to depression?

Hamdy:      In developing our character, there are some qualities we develop when we bring spirituality into our lives.  This character development changes our way of thinking and when you change your way of thinking you change your perception of the world.  How we perceive the world plays an important role in depression.

Dan:          Can you give us an example of one character quality that you are talking about in terms of development in your spiritual tradition and it may relate to depression?

Hamdy:     Well I’ll give you something very close to us all: love. The capacity to love is something we can develop in ourselves and grow by practicing our spirituality.  One of the main things people struggle with is the lack of love in their life.  So often, they didn’t learn how to love themselves. And if you don’t know how to love yourself, it is tough to know how to love other people.  Most of the people who suffer from depression have something from their childhood that set the stage for depression in adult life, whether they were abused or didn’t learn to love themselves or others at home.

Dan:          Was that the case for you?

Hamdy:     I wasn’t very healthy as a child.  I was given the leeway of doing things that maybe other kids in the family were not allowed to in my culture.  I was given a little bit of freedom to be me and that may be the best thing that I got from my family although it was for a reason.

Dan:          What country were you born in Hamdy?

Hamdy:     Egypt. 

Dan:           When you spoke earlier about spirituality and your childhood spirituality, were you raised in the Muslim faith?

Hamdy:     Yes.  I was raised as a Muslim in a conservative family where religion was very important.  I was kind of rebel and was given the freedom not to go to the Mosque because I really didn’t like it.  I didn’t like it because I found that many people who went to Mosque were not as my mother told me:  all good people, very kind, very caring and all those things. I didn’t see it in the people who went there.  So I said no, I don’t want to be there.  So I was allowed not to go.   Although my father, I remember, he was kind of ashamed.  He was embarrassed that his son was the only kid that didn’t go to the Mosque.   Everyone else went to the Friday prayers.  My friends would meet in the morning before prayers and then go to the Mosque.   I was the only kid who went home.    My father got to the point where he would say “Hamdy, I will give you something.  I will give you money every time you go to Mosque”.   The sum of money he offered would be like the equivalent of $50.00 today.   To a child, $50.00 is a huge amount of money!   I told him no, I don’t want money.  That’s why I got depressed and started talking to this spiritual teacher. He was a wonderful man. 

Dan:          Was he a Muslim as well?

Hamdy:     Yes, he was a Sufi.   He was a very spiritual man and every discussion you had with him was very deep.

Dan:          How is a Sufi Muslim different than just a regular Muslim?  What is it about Sufism that’s different? 

Hamdy:     Sufism is the mystical part of the Muslim religion.  A Sufi is a person who is focused on the depths of developing themselves.   They don’t attach to the rituals as much as in being.   Religions are wonderful.  I have studied Judaism and Christianity and you know they have the same foundations. When it comes to practice, we most of us tend to focus on the rituals and forget where the rituals where supposed to lead us, how they were supposed to transform us in our daily life experiences.

Dan:        I am a very liberal Catholic, a religion that has many rituals.  We can also get caught up in the rituals to such an extent that we go through the motions with rituals and neglect the practice of our spirituality.  It doesn’t transform us in some positive way.  I read a book by Brother David Steindl-Rast who wrote that there is the belief in God and the trust in God.  There are many beliefs, but only one trust in God.  Belief comes from the mind and trust from the heart.  In my tradition, I trust in Jesus as a “Person”.  I have a personal relationship with Him and I try to practice and nurture that every day.  In doing so, I feel more aligned with my true self.

Hamdy:     In my book, the most important part of spirituality is to come to know yourself and develop your character.  Developing your spiritual skills becomes easy as you practice and becomes like second nature to you.  Rituals when not combined with true spirituality will not help us to know ourselves.

Dan:           Can you tell me, why did you write this book?

Hamdy:     I wrote it because  I had developed  this program for myself to help me heal and I had outstanding results, I couldn’t even dream of getting the results I got.  So I decided to offer this to people on my own.  I set up a charity and I started offering this program to people in the community.

Dan:           For those of our readers who are interested in your book and would like to know basically what it’s about, can you give us just a brief synopsis or an idea of what kind of things your book addresses?

Hamdy:     I start with really trying to kind of correct the erroneous conclusions about life that we formed in childhood and carried into our adult lives. The past we are moving in today leads to depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses.    That is the essence of the book.  So we start with learning how to manage stress to get us to a place where we can function well in our daily lives.  That is the most important step.  Then I talk about, in the introduction, how the American community has distanced us from spirituality which is an integral part of our human experience. Our life is incomplete without incorporating spirituality in our life.

Dan:           And I think that sense of spirituality, I think one of the key elements of it, at least in my own experience, is a sense of community and a sense of belonging.  A lot of people find that experience absent in modern society.  Do you feel that way too?

Hamdy:      Absolutely, it is part of the process because if you look into how we develop ourselves, when we develop our spiritual skills, in every skill, it has as a part of it community and how we relate to our community.  So that is an important thing. 

Dan:           When there is an absence of that relationship to community, I guess we could think of it as a form of stress; we don’t feel the support, we don’t feel the positive energy of other people and we are kind of left alone to battle in the world.  We become estranged from humanity and alienated.

Hamdy:     You know we are social beings and if we don’t have the community that we are a part of, we are lacking something and that can be a kind of contributing factor to our depression.

Dan:            Did you find that in your own experiences of depression that you had difficulty managing stress?

Hamdy:      Yes. You know, the problem with stress is that there are smaller stresses along the way and stress is cumulative. So we have small stresses and we don’t manage this stress which is cumulative and affects us in a very significant way whether physically or mentally without us noticing because we kind of become numb to the impact of stress and we don’t see its cumulative effect, unfortunately, until we are burned out or we are suffering from a major mental or physical illness.

Dan:          In your book, do you have some recommendations for how we should approach healing from depression.  Can you share with our readers’ one or two?

Hamdy:     Number one is learning how to manage your daily life, how to relax with meditation and living mindfully.   It not just to practice meditation, it is to bring it into your life in every activity you do in your life right now.  Living mindfully is a very important thing and if you live mindfully, you are not distracted with things that happened in the past or concerns about things that may happen in the future.

Dan:          I agree with you and I think meditation is important.  I guess it might be fair to say, the opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness which I guess, while we are in depression, it is kind of a mindless state where we are confused, disorientated, disconnected.  Was that your experience?

Hamdy:     Absolutely, and in the process, we get more distant from ourselves.  We are really unaware of how we feel physically or emotionally until we get a wake-up call that is depression or having a mental or physical illness. 

Dan:       The culture really contributes to that. You said earliest we are driven from the moment we get up and we override our symptoms or signs that we are in trouble; maybe we are suffering from depression or heart disease or other problems.

Hamdy:     One other thing is when you start practicing your spiritual skills, you kind of are more oriented to become yourself.   One of the main reasons for our depression is conditioning from our families and fast-paced culture that allows us to become distant from our essential  self.     It is important for us to recover this true self.  In recovering our true self, you live in harmony with the world around you; you are not in conflict anymore.

Dan:           Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me.  Thanks for your time Hamdy. It was a great talking to you.

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