True Stories: A Woman Lawyer Speaks Up About Her Anxiety

“True Stories” is a series of guest blogs I am running. Below, a woman gives her anonymous account of developing clinical anxiety during law school and how she finally decided to get help and take care of herself.

I am a woman, an attorney, and someone who happens to struggle with clinical anxiety.

It started in law school. At first, I thought it was just the jitters from being in a fishbowl of super-competitive overachievers like me. This was Cornell Law School, after all. What did I expect?

But as my first year of law school progressed, my anxiety when from background noise to the forefront in my life.  I had panic attacks, I often couldn’t sleep, and I just felt wired all the time. It seemed to fuel my drive to succeed, and I over-prepared for everything, often reading a case note four or five times.  I never talked about my struggles with anyone that first year.

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

 

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

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

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

True Stories: An Attorney Shares His Journey Through Depression Before COVID and Now

“True Stories” is a new series of guest blogs I am running. Here’s an anonymous account by one small firm attorney who shares his story about his depression both before and after COVID-19. 

The practice of law is difficult even at the best of times.

Lawyers require a certain psychological stability. Attorneys in medium-sized and larger firms face the added pressures to bill significant hours and compete with colleagues. Advocates in smaller firms can experience social isolation and are often weighed down by administrative burdens.

As a small firm practitioner, I have found the time since Friday, March 13, 2020, when lockdowns began, particularly difficult. It was on that date that the world changed forever. I am, of course, speaking about the pandemic. There have now been approximately 3 million people who have died, and over 100 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide since that fateful day. I write mindful that the pandemic is improving in some jurisdictions and that it remains a dire and daily threat in others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Men Cry: Men & Depression

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

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

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

Living with Depression: A Commercial

SAMSHA in Washington, D.C. asked me, and others, to be in this PSA about living successfully with mental illness and how important support is in recovery. I am proud of what they produced, but it’s often not easy for me to talk about living with depression. I don’t want to be defined by it. More importantly, I don’t want others to define someone else who is, likewise, struggling with a mental health problem. I hope this commercial helps.

The Elephant in the Room at Law Firms? Lawyer Depression

I was 40 years old when depression first struck.

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

From the inside, however, something was terribly wrong.

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

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

Be Smart About How You Use Your Smartphone: Your Mental Health Is On The Line

 

Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party popper of our lives. It interrupts our story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to our office on the cellphone. – Steven Spielberg

My daughter in college, like most of her generation, seems addicted to her smartphone.  She pulls it out of her back pocket like a gunslinger from the wild west.

Not necessarily talking on it, but texting.  All the time. Every day. Like all her friends. When not pecking away, they’re on their laptops watching YouTube videos (no T.V., please!) or surfing the web on their mental boogie boards.

I like to think that I am not addicted to my phone.  And I guess, by comparison, to my 19-year old daughter, I’m am not.  I am on it about 2-hours per day. The average teenager spends about 9 hours a day consuming social media and music on their phones – often while doing other activities like studying for school.  And anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing since the introduction of smartphones.

Slogging Through the Swamp of Lawyer Depression With Dr. James Hollis

Here is my fascinating interview with Dr. James Hollis, psychoanalyst and author of several best-selling books including “Swampland of the Soul” and “What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.”

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.

You Can Recover From Depression

I am 57 years old. I am a lawyer. And I struggle with depression.

I was diagnosed when I turned forty.  I didn’t know what was happening to me. But I knew something was wrong. I was crying quite a bit.  My sleep became disrupted. It became difficult to concentrate.  I felt no joy in my life.

Ultimately, my family doctor diagnosed me with major depression and provided me with the help I needed. I started going to therapy and was put on anti-depressants. This saved my life.

Since being diagnosed all those years ago, I have learned to live with depression as have many of the 20 million people who are living with this illness right now in this country.

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