One Trial Lawyer’s Journey From Severe Depression to Greater Fulfillment

I do not consider myself a lawyer. I am a human being who took on the role and career of a lawyer for 25 years. Unlike some people who entered law school with a burning passion to practice law, I ended up there because I was confused about my career direction and had no career counseling. Stop here. If you don’t feel excitement and joy when thinking about a career my hindsight advice is don’t enter it!

After a couple of years in NYC working for a small firm I quit because I hated following orders due to my anti-authoritarian streak dating back to early childhood. When I left for California I passed the CA bar exam, worked briefly for a solo practitioner, and then opened up my own solo practice. During my first few years I took whatever I could get including cases involving wrongful employment termination, wrongful eviction, workers compensation, and personal injury. I gradually steered my practice completely into plaintiff’s personal injury because I come from a family of physicians and I was truly fascinated by the medical aspects of these cases.

After I while I became rather successful as a lawyer, especially because I had a nose for what made a good case, I enjoyed investigating the facts, I cared about my clients (most of them anyway), and I frequently knew more about the medical/psychological aspects of the client’s injury than the defense. My Achilles heel was my biological tendency toward anxiety and depression which, to my mind, are two sides of the same coin.

Although I got excellent results in my cases I was plagued by fears of failure and so I worked myself to the bone when it came to preparing for depositions, hearings, and trials or opposing motions to compel discovery or obtain summary judgment. Although I was never sued by a client in 25 years I always worried that the innately disgruntled ones who complained about everything in their lives might sue me. So I worked extra hard to make sure their cases turned out well. To put in all these hours I gave up on exercise, sat more, and ate unhealthy, high salt, high sugar foods to give me some compensatory pleasure. Stop. If you are doing these things you will damage your physical and mental health. Our bodies crave outdoor exercise in the fresh air and they crave real food, not the processed crap made in factories.

At the beginning of the 1990s I took on some new challenges. I moved to a larger, more expensive office. I became a homeowner. And, my wife became pregnant with our first child. In the mid-1990s, I developed a bridge phobia, a phobia involving the fear I would fall out of the window of a tall office building, and panicky dread over crime in our neighborhood which seemed to be getting worse every day. To help myself through these irrational fears I became a good friend of Jack Daniels. This nearly led my wife to divorce me. The threat of divorce woke me up like a cold shower. I went to see a psychiatrist who put me on Zoloft and I stopped drinking. Things got better. We had a second child, a son. In the coming years I became a very good father. I adore my kids. They adore me. Both kids are flourishing. This is something I am very proud of.

In the decade between 1995-2005 I handled an increasing number of cases involving traumatic brain injury and made significant income. Initially these cases were very exciting. Over time they became a drag. Why? The defense, which had paid up relatively quickly in the early days, now used scorched earth tactics by hiring experts in human factors, biomechanics, neurology, psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, neuroradiology, etc. I had to hire counter experts in each field and I had to pay to depose every over-priced, hostile defense expert who gave me all their specious reasons why each client was a neurotic, a hysteric or a malingerer.

I felt like Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a steep hill every day. The litigation costs drained my coffers to the point where I was late on my rent, my copier machine rental, my records fees, and witness fees every month. In the midst of these depressing circumstances my mother suddenly died of a brain virus. And then, one day, my wife noticed we were completely out of money and our home equity lines were maxed out. I instantly plunged into what my psychiatrist called a psychotic depression in which I heard a voice from within me tell me to die over and over again, relentlessly 24/7 until after 4 days of it, I went to a hospital emergency room.

The psychiatrists who cared for me in the hospital told me I had snapped as a result of an inborn vulnerability to depression, years of stress from legal practice, and the trauma of my mother’s death and insolvency. They told me never to return to legal practice. My past 8 years have been a journey back from severe depression and into a new, more fulfilling life. Thanks to a private, own-occupation disability policy I was able to pay my family’s living expenses while recovering.

upward-spiral

I researched and wrote my book for lawyers, The Upward Spiral: Getting Lawyers from Daily Misery to Lifetime Wellbeing, on stress and depression while studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I became ordained as an interfaith chaplain and sat with dying patients at a local hospital. More recently I entered an MS program in mental health counseling at Capella University. I anticipate becoming a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor at the beginning of 2017. I am finding my studies, practicums, and internships in mental health graduate school to be very meaningful and fulfilling.

Law is a very stressful profession which produces severe depression in one out of every five lawyers. What is my message to my colleagues in the law who suffer depression?

First, face the depression. Do not deny it and self-medicate it with unhealthy substance or behavioral addictions.

Second, try medication. For a depression with obsessive, suicidal rumination (like mine) it can be life-saving.

Third, see a therapist (a psychologist, MFT, counselor or social worker) so you can explore and understand the bio-psychosocial roots of your depression and choose the best form of therapy to resolve your depression.

Fourth, consider couples counseling or family therapy so your spouse and children can understand your depression and have an opportunity to educate you as to how it is affecting them. This can lead to improved understanding, communication, and cooperation at home within the family system.

Fifth, consult experts in nutrition, exercise, and sleep to develop ways for you to eat healthier, exercise more, and sleep better. A wonderful book on these topics is Go Wild by Dr. John Ratey.

Sixth, spend more time in nature because there is nothing better to quiet the mind, ease the sore psyche or restore the spirit.

Seventh, take time to actualize your potential as a unique self through whatever activity calls to you, be it photography, calligraphy, water color painting, baking, cooking, etc.

Good luck. I know you can beat depression and be happier.

Harvey Hyman, J.D. spent 25 successful yet stressful years practicing personal injury law in New York and California.  Thanks to an episode of severe depression in 2007, he found happiness and joy that had always eluded him.

 

Regain Motivation With A Depression Action Plan

Everyone feels down at some point in their lives. But if you have major depression (also called major depressive disorder), you likely feel depressed every day for most of the day, especially in the morning. You might wake up and have no energy to get out of bed. And even when you do get up, deciding what to do first can feel like a mountainous task.

At those times of inertia, it’s easy to get discouraged. But giving up the idea of getting anything done can make you feel powerless and perpetuate feeling depressed. Instead, fight back with an action plan that propels you ahead, even when you’d rather lag behind.

Creating a Depression Action Plan

A depression action plan can help take the guesswork out of where to get started each morning. It can also empower you to see just how much you can do, which is important because people with depression tend to compare their current levels of activity to past ones.

“For an action plan to be effective, you first have to understand that major depression is an illness, not a weakness,” says Stephen J. Ferrando, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical public health in the department of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Stop comparing yourself to the past. “It’s not your fault you have depression,” he says.

To get started creating an action plan, it’s best to work with your doctor or therapist. “When you’re depressed, it can be difficult to determine where to begin,” says Randy Auerbach, PhD, ABPP, a researcher, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard School of Medicine, and the director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Your doctor or therapist can help you identify both short-term and long-term goals to work toward.

Consider these steps you might want to include in your daily action plan:

Tasks you need to do

Make a list of four or five things you need to get done today, such as work and chores. To avoid getting overwhelmed, break down each goal into small parts. For example, instead of making cleaning the entire house your goal, decide to clean just one room today, says Brian Iacoviello, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Activities you enjoy

If depression has taken the enjoyment out of all activities for you, write down what you once found pleasurable. Working toward doing the things you once enjoyed can help you slowly regain momentum. You can also try adding new activities, such as soothing stress-coping experiences (e.g., meditation, yoga, and tai chi).

Time with your support network

Research shows that a support network is critical for depression recovery. Make plans with friends and family and show up even when you don’t feel like it. It helps to have a friend who will hold you accountable. “Social support can be an enormous ally when you’re in dealing with depression,” Dr. Auerbach says. A local or online depression support group can also be a good resource.

Exercise

In a review published in in 2013 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers reported that even low levels of physical activity, such as walking or gardening for 20 to 30 minutes a day, can help ward off depression. If you’ve stopped exercising, set reasonable goals to allow yourself to slowly get to the level of physical activity you want to reach. You might even combine exercise with socializing by picking a workout activity to do with a friend.

Healthy meals

Eating a balanced diet may help alleviate depression symptoms. Include steps in your depression action plan to create healthy meals each day. To maximize benefits, aim for three meals that include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, lean meat, fish, eggs, and low-fat or fat-free diary. Never skip breakfast. Be sure to drink plenty of water because even mild dehydration can affect mood. Limit your alcohol intake.

Medication

If you’re taking medication, include specific times to take it in your depression action plan. Sticking to your prescribed treatment plan is the best way to speed recovery.

Journaling

Your entries can provide insight for you and your doctor or therapist to review together to determine patterns of behavior that may be holding you back from doing everything you want to do. Record behaviors such as what you’re doing, how successful you’re being at doing those things, and what you think about when you’re doing them. Once you’ve identified any negative patterns, you can work with your doctor or therapist on how to let them go.

Rewards

Implement a system of rewards to give yourself when you’ve accomplished a goal in your depression action plan. Self-care activities — such as a massage, a new haircut, a movie, or any other activity that makes you feel good and follows your plan for recovery — make good rewards.

How to Stick to Your Depression Action Plan

When the temptation to do nothing crops up each morning, realize that you’ll have to push yourself to take the first step to get started. Once you do that, know that your level of motivation will likely increase. To stay on track, be sure to schedule activities at specific times so you don’t get overwhelmed about what to do next or how much you have to get done. Post your depression action plan in a visible place, and set up reminders by programming alerts on your phone.

Also, remember that your depression action plan may not follow a straight path. There may be setbacks, and that’s okay — just do your best to keep going. Then at your regular doctor appointments or therapy sessions, you can discuss your progress and work together with your doctor or therapist to identify what may still be getting in your way and figure out what to do to change it.

At the end of each day, focus on what you’ve accomplished instead of what you haven’t. “The greatest challenge for a person with depression is to overcome pessimistic thinking, helplessness, and hopelessness,” Auerbach says. “But with proper treatment and a good action plan, depression can be conquered.”

By Barbara Sadick

Copywrite 2014, EverydayHealth.com

Overwhelmed? 8 Tips to Avoid Burnout and Balance Your Life

For so many people these days, our life is like a house of cards. We teeter along shakily, just barely managing to hold up our sky-high pile of commitments and stressors. Sometimes it feels (accurately) that if you try to put just one more card on top, the whole mess will come crashing down. It’s not a good feeling. It’s not a fun way to live. Yet it’s normal for most of us. And we’re exhausted.

One of the things I remember most from the psychology courses I took in university is the classic Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. These researchers examined medical records to determine the relationship between life events and the likelihood of getting sick. They ranked the 43 most stressful life events, assigning points to each based on the potential negative impact on health.

Some of the stressors are thankfully rare, such as death of a spouse (#1) and imprisonment (#4). But others are much more common, such as divorce (#2), marriage (# 7 – positive life events can be stressful!), change in health of a family member (#11), business readjustment (#15), change in financial state (#16) and even things we dream of, such as outstanding personal achievement (#25).

I recently went through a series of life shifts, some really wonderful and some more challenging. I held up pretty well for a while, but eventually started to feel a lot more moody, tired, and just plain overwhelmed. Whenever I go through a transitional season like this I’m always grateful for those early psych courses and my awareness of “The Life Events Scale”.  Too much change, too many demands, and eventually the human mind and body will cave in under all the pressure.

This has happened enough times now that I know what to do to get myself, my health, and my sanity back. If you’ve got too much change (or just too much, period) going on in your life, here are some tips to get yourself and your life back, ASAP:

1) Get the best sleep you can

If you’re stressed out, getting enough sleep should be your number one priority. Give yourself time to wind down before going to bed, and create the quietest, darkest sleeping space possible (my husband and I use black-out curtains, ear plugs, and white noise from the bathroom fan to block out street sounds). The more stressed out we are, the earlier we try to get to bed.

2) Meditate or pray in the morning

I normally spend quiet time in meditation every morning, but the numerous recent changes in my life had made it hard to maintain my old routine. I felt unhinged, and quickly felt so much better when I forced myself to find a few quiet minutes every morning again. Sitting for just five minutes, breathing deeply in and out, has been shown to create a sense of calm (and even lower blood pressure!) that lasts throughout the day.

3) Make yourself eat, no matter how crazy things are

The more stressed I am, the more I try to do before breakfast (and breakfast often ends up eaten at lunchtime). Skipping meals and snacks leads to low blood sugar, fatigue and brain fog, making you feel unable to cope. Discipline yourself to get some real food into your mouth as soon as you get up – you’ll feel much calmer, clearer and more focused. Make sure you eat throughout the day and don’t let yourself ever get too hungry. Don’t ignore your body’s cues for needing food and water, no matter how busy you are.

4) Load up on greens the easy way

I get a physical and psychological boost from superfoods, as I know how much my body appreciates them when stressed. I try not to go a day without the simple green smoothie I make in my blender, it takes less than five minutes to make and less than a minute to drink.

5) Get through one day at a time

As the ancient saying goes: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When life is particularly stressful, it really helps to just focus on getting through each day. I use my morning quiet time to get centered and ready to face the day, and that day alone. Life feels so much easier when you face it one day at a time.

6) Make no your default answer

I read a great blog post from Paul Angone the other day called “Stop Trying to Balance Your Life”. His thesis was that our fundamental problem isn’t our inability to balance it all, it’s overcommitment. I totally agree. I’ve written about this before: when you say yes to something new, you say no to something else. (see my previous post on Saying No) There isn’t an infinite amount of time available to you. When you say that yes it will mean something really important will be squeezed out: that time alone you desperately need, or that extra hour of sleep that would make all the difference, or the precious time with your spouse or kids that you all long for.

7) Take sanity breaks

Lose the go-go-go mentality, it will kill you. Take breaks whenever your body or mind start to feel tired. Have a snack. Get up and do some stretches. Rest your brain. Take your lunch outside and sit by a fountain with the sun on your face (I did that the other day, it felt so good). You need breaks, don’t tell yourself that you’re better off just plowing through.

8) Give yourself a Sabbath day every week

In this 24-7 world we live in, it’s easy to treat every day as another opportunity to tick off to-do list items. For a long time now I’ve saved my sanity by taking Sundays off, no matter how busy my life is. Whenever I’m tempted to work because I’m feeling panicked about some upcoming deadline, I remind myself that in the past I’ve somehow always gotten done what needed to be done, even if I’ve taken a day off.

One day a week, try to avoid doing anything that feels like work. Turn off your phone. Don’t go online. Take a nap. Read a good book. Spend some time with your family and friends. Go for a walk together. This day of rest and rejuvenation will refresh you and give you the energy you need to face the trenches yet again for another week. And you will still somehow get everything done.

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7  Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. 

Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013

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