“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.
When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.’ – Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide”
A second-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, Matthew Benedict, died by suicide earlier this week by leaping from the Liberty Building he had been clerking at according to the Buffalo News. Another account of Matt’s life and suicide was reported in The New York Law Journal.
Matt’s funeral is tomorrow. By all account’s he was a tremendous, loving, talented, bright young man.Matt was kind-hearted, passionate and driven.
I’ve struggled to write this blog, just like I’ve struggled to do most things for what amounts to a very long time now-so long that it feels like a lifetime and what came before only fragments of a not well remembered dream. In actual temporal time, it’s only a few years of melancholy and moderately severe major depression. But in the life of the mind, there is an unbridgeable chasm between the person I am now, who I once was, and who I want to become. I am so lost in my isolation that my only refuge is in turning inward; a strategy which offers no solace at all-only shame and regret.
I feel so isolated. I suppose that is one of the hallmarks of mental illness – detachment – that it seems impossible to relate to anyone. Furthermore, I’m not an attorney, just someone who has lived the hells and wonderful peaks of manic depression. My exposure to the law is through my father, my uncles, my cousins, and Dan Lukasik. I hope to go to law school one day, but I need to retake the LSAT first. So why write a blog? What good could it possibly do? Hopefully, some of the sentiments I describe will resonate with you. But hope is fickle; a thinly stitched veneer stretched tautly over an ever-widening mire of unfulfilled promise. When I look back at what I hoped for, most of it has faded into the mists of time with barely even the trace of memory or, worse yet, has been completely buried beneath the scars of regret.
In the face of my futility, my stupidity, my selfishness, my demons, hope that I can one day return the love and support that has been given me has allowed me to trudge on, kept me from giving up. Even if it flies in the face of all rational thinking, experience, and who you believe you are the sole advice I would deign to give is to no never give up hope that you can bring yourself to a better place and can make yourself into the person you wish to become. Though there be no reason to believe, allow belief to inspire you all the same.
“I can only stand apart and sympathize/ For we are always what our situations hand us/ It’s either sadness or euphoria.”
The above is a stanza from Billy Joel’s song “Summer, Highland Falls” that has always resonated with me. The song itself captures the sense of helplessness, at times even ironic apathy, I have felt towards a disease (or mental illness or whatever I should call it) that has allowed me to leap through the heights of “euphoria”, and to spiral down into the depths of suicidal depression, seemingly completely independent of any of the external aspects of my life.
I once told a friend that in the past three months I had had at least 45 “perfect days” (i.e., days that I could not imagine being any happier in), but that 45 was a conservative estimate and it was probably more. I’ve also spent weeks on end consumed by vivid images of ways in which I could gruesomely kill myself. And both of these emotions, which at the time feel so pervasive and all encompassing, occurred while living on the same college campus and surrounded by many of the same people. So it’s hard not to “stand apart and sympathize” with the fact that regardless of daily accomplishments or minor setbacks, or even in the face of significant change, it doesn’t matter what you do. That because of who you are, in a very intimate and fundamental sense, you are going to experience “either sadness or euphoria,” and you have little say in how intensely you are going to experience that emotion, or for how long (so let’s hope its euphoria, and it lasts forever).
This complete lack of control has always weighed on me as a moral failure because I’ve recognized what I consider the best version of myself-productive, engaged, intelligent, charming and yet, due to an inherent weakness, have been unable to maintain that persona consistently.
Instead I, and I would like to emphasize the contradiction and confusion surrounding a feeling at once of helplessness and simultaneously of complete responsibility for being who I am, have eventually always succumbed to periodic bouts of anxiety, negativity, and self-doubt. These periods have always been characterized by an intense sense of isolation in which almost palpable barriers are restricting me from coming into touch with the people and events surrounding me while at the same time engaging/suppressing the most endearing aspects of who I would hope to be as a person.
There are two types of sadness which result from this frustration and alienation.
There is a horrible, painful sadness. For me, this type of sadness is expressed through intense suicidal ideation-constant mental images meant to shock the senses into an acknowledgment of how base you are. Brutal beatings, stabbings, gouging’s, hangings. It consumes you until the idea is all there is and it takes every ounce of energy you have to beat it back. And it breaks your heart to see someone you love not to be able to say that this is how you feel, and it’s not their fault, but you are worlds away and mired in a sadness/loathing that is impossible to understand for those who have not yet experienced it. And they love you, so they are trying to understand, but, how could they? And this breaks your heart even more.
And there is also a beautiful, cleansing sadness. For me, this beautiful sadness feels more real than anything in the world. When I have been at the height of mania-during the happiest times of my life, I have still felt intimately in tune with songs that deal with regret-juxtaposing the inadequacy of the self with the intrinsic sublimity of some other-which you have failed.
There is a powerlessness to this beautiful sadness, an inevitability. It is real because it exists at the core of our most vulnerable selves, and therefore its expression comes out at a time when we are “most alive” and most in tune with our emotional intuition-when we are most ready to admit to and grasp on to that which we truly hope for and believe in. This sadness is not manifested in horrifying suicidal ideations but rather in the awe-inspiring idea that we are not worthy of the wonderful phenomena we call life. That we are ashamed of our ugliness amidst so much beauty and yet, in spite of our baseness, we have the opportunity to exist within as well as work towards some greater good.
In many senses, for me, the mania of bipolar has been synonymous with stripping away the debilitating fear and anxiety which were so constricting for so long, and a constant struggle has been not to glorify it. My Mom is taking a wonderful self-help course entitled “Fearless Living” and those two words, again from my experience, imbibe what it means to be manic or hypo manic; imbued with amazing amounts of self-confidence and gratitude, it’s unbelievably easy to live a carefree, upbeat, happy-go-lucky lifestyle, all the while being extraordinarily productive. Thus thinking in the binary can be dangerous-there is a natural tendency to see every aspect of the mania as better than every aspect of the depression.
However, beyond the fact that I have never been able to sustain mania, there is also a depth of feeling engendered by the sincere melancholy of depression that I have never encountered in the euphoric whirlwinds of mania. And I think the small silver lining to what is a dark cloud is the depth of meaning such great sorrow can expose you to-in a way an almost redemptive suffering. At the very least, though depression has taught me to hate myself many times over, it has also taught me to love life. The sad beauty of such a self-effacing distinction, to hate your being while loving your existence, is something to be thankful for and, hopefully in time, something to build off of for the future.
I would like to close this blog with what have for me been some solid building blocks for sheltering myself from, coping with, and eventually recovering from depression.
When there seems to be nowhere to turn and the prospect of getting through the day seems unbearable, working out and (especially) yoga exercises are blocks of time where you don’t have to interact with other people, can be totally in your head, and when you’re done you feel a little better physically, even if not mentally. Really any small thing that you can do consistently and through which you can mark progress-I’m getting stronger, better endurance, or greater flexibility-is a wonderful way to establish extrinsic markers of success-I’m better at this than I was a few weeks ago, which, in turn, can catalyze good feelings about yourself as a person.
Think of something you’ve always wanted to do or be good at, and then identify manageable steps that you can take on a consistent basis that gradually takes you towards your goal. Don’t say I need to be as good as someone else or make an arbitrary benchmark-rather say I want to get in better shape relative to how I am right now, so I’m going to run or go to yoga more often. Or I’ve always wanted to know how to tie my flies, shuffle a deck of cards, play an instrument, or speak a foreign language, so I’m going to work on this task a few minutes each day as opposed to watching TV or surfing the web.
Taking little steps like these that are working towards longer goals, even if you are not aware of any specific professional or extrinsic benefits to achieving those goals, can be inherently rewarding in and of themselves. If you’re better at an activity, any activity, then you were a few weeks ago, that can be one small thing that you feel good about, even as the rest of your world remains shrouded in darkness. It can help motivate you to get through the day, can serve as a spring towards other “productive” behavior, and eventually be something you can hang your hat on. However, it’s important not to beat yourself up after a day in which you failed to take your positive “step”-rather have a little self compassion and say tomorrow is a new day, and it’s not the end of the world, indeed its completely ok, that I wasn’t able to do anything “productive” today.
Finally, reading and writing can be extremely cathartic. Reading great literature can give you an emotional connection to characters, ideas, and feelings during a time when you felt completely isolated and estranged from the outside world. Fiction and non-fiction distract you from the constant stream of negative and self-critical thinking that can paralyze you. And, in a way similar to the steps discussed above, finishing a book you’ve always wanted to read or one on a subject that you’ve wanted to know more about, can generate a (no matter how small) sense of accomplishment that, no matter how insidiously it attempts to, the depression cannot take away.
On the other hand, for me, writing is more of a risk. I can be very critical of myself as a writer-a case in point is this blog which has been taxing at times-and sometimes end up feeling worse after sitting down to write. At other times, writing has been akin to therapy in that it has helped me to sincerely articulate-in the best way I know how the complex matrix of emotions enmeshed within me. Even if journaling or poetry don’t make sense to a single other person, the fact that they make sense to you can temporarily relieve part of the burden imposed by self-guilt and personal shame. It can be an outlet for your anguish, space where you can be authentically yourself. Sometimes, you can be so overwhelmed by your depressive thinking that you need some way to release that thinking-writing can be an effective way to do this.
In any case, don’t immediately sit down and assume that because of your depth of feeling you’re going to write the next great American novel. Rather start with a paragraph or a poem. It might end up being useless junk that you never look at again, and that’s ok, because part of what depression is, is a needless anguish and self-doubt that is inhibiting you in your quest to live a full life and should be discarded as soon as possible. But amidst the uselessness you may stumble upon small snippets of truth-a rhyming couplet here, a few sentences there-that satisfactorily express for you one of the tragic and meaningful aspects of your condition (or symbolically the human condition more generally). These small snippets are worth holding onto as they reflect the deeper truths embedded within a malaise that so often brings us to our knees and which, on sublimely rare occasions, reveals insights that one (I believe) can only obtain through suffering.
As a psychiatrist, I had been aware, prior to his death, that Robin Williams struggled with a severe mood disorder – major depression and bipolar disorder, depending on the source of the reporting – along with related problems and drug dependence.
The vast majority of suicides are associated with some form of clinical depression, which in its more serious forms can be a sort of madness that drives people to despair – leading to a profound and painful sense of hopelessness and even delusional thinking about oneself, the world and the future.
I knew all of this, and yet this death still shocked and surprised me, as it shocked and surprised so many others. Williams seemed to be the consummate humorist, the funny man who would be just so much fun to be around. Unlike some comedians who trade only on irony and cutting humor, Williams appeared to us as a warm, big-hearted, endlessly fun, brilliantly quick, incredibly talented man. Though he was a celebrity, he was the kind of person that people felt like they knew – like the cousin, everyone just adores and hopes will show up at the family reunion. Williams was the kind of guy that people wanted to be friends with, the kind of person that one wanted to invite to the party.
This is not the typical stereotype of mental illness, which why the typical stereotype must be relinquished: Quite simply, it is false.
Mental illness can afflict anyone, of any temperament and personality. In the wake of his death, the strange truth gradually began to sink in: In spite of outward appearances, Williams’ mind was afflicted by a devastating disorder that proved every bit as deadly as a heart attack or cancer. He suffered in ways that are difficult for most people to imagine.
Why couldn’t Williams see himself as other saw him – as a person of immense gifts and talents, a man who stood at the pinnacle of achievement in the world of comedy and entertainment?
This is the tragedy of depression, which is so often misunderstood by those who have not suffered its effects.
Novelist William Styron – whose memoir Darkness Visible represents one of the best first-person attempts to describe the experience of depression – complains that the very word “depression” is a pale and inadequate term for such a terrible affliction. It is a pedestrian noun that typically represents a dip in the road or an economic downtown. Styron prefers the older term “melancholia,” which conjures images of a thick, black fog that descends on the mind and saps the body of all vitality.
Indeed, the title of his book – Darkness Visible – comes from John Milton’s description of hell in Paradise Lost. We’re not talking about hitting a rough patch in life or the everyday blues that we all experience from time to time. We are talking about a serious, potentially fatal, disorder of mind and brain.
Fortunately, in most cases, depression is amenable to treatment. Because the illness is complex – involving biological, psychological, social, relational and, in some cases, behavioral and spiritual factors – the treatment likewise can be complex. Medications may have a very important role, but so do psychotherapy, behavioral approaches, social support and spiritual direction.
In some cases, hospitalization may be necessary, especially when an afflicted individual is in the throes of suicidal thinking or when one’s functioning is so impaired from the illness that he or she has difficulty getting out of bed or engaging in daily activities. For the severely depressed, even brushing one’s teeth can seem like an almost impossibly difficult chore.
This level of impairment is often puzzling to outsiders – to the spouse or parent who is trying to help the loved one. Unlike cancer or a broken bone, the illness here is hidden from sight. But the functional impairments can be every bit as severe.
I recall one patient, a married Catholic woman with several children and grandchildren, who had suffered from both life-threatening breast cancer and from severe depression. She once told me that, if given the choice, she would choose cancer over the depression, since the depression caused her far more intense suffering. Though she had been cured of cancer, she tragically died by suicide a few years after she stopped seeing me for treatment.
Tragically, even with good efforts aimed at treatment, some cases of depression still lead to suicide – leaving devastated family members who struggle with loss, guilt, and confusion.
The Church teaches that suicide is a sin against love of God, love of oneself and love of neighbor. On the other hand, the Church recognizes that an individual’s moral culpability for the act of suicide can be diminished by mental illness, as described in the Catechism: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
The Catechism goes on to say: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
Robin Williams’ death – like the death of so many others by suicide who have suffered from severe mental illness – issued from an unsound mind afflicted by a devastating disorder. Depression affects not just a person’s moods and emotions; it also constricts a person’s thinking – often to the point where the person feels entirely trapped and cannot see any way out of his mental suffering. Depression can destroy a person’s capacity to reason clearly; it can severely impair his sound judgment, such that a person suffering in this way is liable to do things, which, when not depressed, he would never consider. Our Lord’s ministry was a ministry of healing, in imitation of Christ, we are called to be healers as well. Those who suffer from mental-health problems should not bear this cross alone. As Christians, we need to encounter them, to understand them and to bear their burdens with them.
We should begin with the premise that science and religion, reason and faith are in harmony. Our task is to integrate insights from all these sources – medicine, psychology, the Bible, and theology – in order to understand mental illness and to help others to recover from it. In cases where recovery proves difficult or impossible, we pray for the departed and never abandon those who still struggle.
Hi, I’m Dan Lukasik from LawyersWithDepression.com.
Today’s guest is Tom Roberts. Tom is a mental health speaker and writer living in Huntington Beach, California. He’s the author of “Escape from Myself: A Manic-Depressive’s Escape to Nowhere” Tom earned his Master’s Degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Kansas. He worked for several years as a broadcast journalist for local stations and freelanced for National Public Radio’s popular newscast “All Things Considered,” “The Voice of America,” and “ABC Radio News.” Tom has been a professional actor on stage, screen, and television and currently does voice-over work in the L.A. area. He is the creator of the website Tom Speaks Out!
When put in perspective, that means that of the 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S., 336,000 lawyers have struggled with some form of depression this past year. A staggering number when one considers the rate of depression in the general population is ten-percent.
Whether or not you’re clinically depressed can only be determined by a mental health professional. To be so deemed, you must have at least five of the above symptoms for at least two weeks.
But many people never get to the point of receiving such an evaluation or treatment because they or others see their symptoms as a “slump,” “sadness,” or even burnout. Perhaps a vacation will cure the blues, some say. Others take the tough love approach and tell the depressed lawyer to “snap out of it.” But none of this works.
The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience a full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief. Depression is not an emotion itself; it’s the loss of feelings; a big heavy blanket that insulates you from the world yet hurts at the same time. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.
Why do lawyers experience depression at higher rates?
According to Patrick Krill, J.D., LLM., director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program, just why lawyers have such sky-high rates of melancholy isn’t always easy to see:
(The) rampant and multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor. And not surprisingly, there are also some personality traits common among lawyers – self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness – that aren’t always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.
One factor is a pessimistic outlook defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style. These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events as stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.”) The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable while the optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors.
But there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law. Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudent. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by sodoing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, then law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.
Tyger Latham, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C., who treats many lawyers with depression, writes:
. . . I’ve come to recognize some common characteristics amongst those in the profession. Most, from my experience, tend to be “Type A’s” (i.e., highly ambitious and over-achieving individuals). They also have a tendency toward perfectionism, not just in their professional pursuits but in nearly every aspect of their lives. While this characteristic is not unique to the legal profession – nor is it necessarily a bad thing – when rigidly applied, it can be problematic. The propensity of many law students and attorneys to be perfectionistic can sometimes impede their ability to be flexible and accommodating, qualities that are important in so many non-legal domains.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT?
1. Join a Depression Support Group
You can (a) join or (b) start a support group in your community. These groups provide a place for the depressed to share their struggles and gain the encouragement and support they need to recover and remain well.
(a) Join a Group
A depression support group is not “group therapy”. The group is run by those who attend the meetings. To see if there’s a lawyer group in your community, go to the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ website to find such information. To see if there’s such a group in your city that isn’t lawyer specific, go to the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance’s website at www.dbsa.org.
(b) Start a depression support group for lawyers in your legal community.
If there’s not one in your hometown or the ones’ you’ve attended aren’t a good fit, think about starting one yourself or with another friend or two.
There are plenty of great websites to educate you about what depression is and the variety of ways it can be treated. A great resource can be found at the University of Michigan’s Depression Center website at www.depressioncenter.org.
If you would wish to work one-on-one with a life coach, I offer such services at www.yourdepressioncoach.com. My practice is unique in that I am a fellow lawyer who has struggled with depression over the years while practicing law. I believe I can help you if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:
You need someone to listen with a sense of compassion. I am that person. I will care. I will be in your corner.
You need a sense of structure at a time when life may seem pointless and meaningless. I can be an anchor for you, a safe port in a storm, a place to go and share your deepest struggles and concerns about home and work.
You need someone to educate you about what depression and anxiety are and their symptoms and causes.
You need guidance as you weave through the matrix of treatment options to find a plan that works for you.
In addition to treating with a psychologist and/or psychiatrist, you find that you get more encouragement, insight, and support to help you keep moving forward.
You suffer from anxiety and depression. If so, you’re far from alone. Studies show that as much as 60% of all people with depression also suffer from an anxiety disorder.
I will work with you on whatever specific problem most pressing to you. Here are some areas where depression and anxiety may be causing real pain and trouble in your life:
You need help getting things done at work. You’re falling behind and because of you’re the depression and/or anxiety. I can help by providing insight, support, and exercises to help you deal with this all too common and critical issue.
You want to leave your job. You’ve been coping with work-related depression and/or anxiety for some time and decided “enough is enough”. You want to make plans to transition to another job or career. I can help you develop your game plan to do so and hold you accountable for following through and take the necessary steps to make this a reality.
You’re a “Depression Veteran”. You might be further down the road in your recovery from depression and/or anxiety but still need help and encouragement. Or you’ve been struggling with off-and-on depression and/or anxiety for years. I will work with you to develop a program to make sure you do things that will help you recover and stay well. I will hold you accountable for actually following through with your program. I can help to motivate you to stick with a healthy game plan.
You are just plain unhappy. Many people, while not clinically depressed, are very unhappy with their lives. They have too much stress. Aren’t happy in their careers. Or don’t have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. The support and structure I provide for depression sufferers are easily transferable to getting to the heart of what’s causing your unhappiness. I will work with you to build a different set of skills and make different life choices to lead a happier and healthier life.
You need help explaining your depression to others. For loved ones and business associates that have never been through depression, it’s difficult for them to really understand your pain because they really don’t have a point of reference for psychic pain someone undergoes with clinical depression. They mistake it for “the blues” or everyday sadness, which it clearly is not. I can work with you to develop a language and actions that could help others understand. If you wish, I would also be happy to talk with others as your work to educate them about what depression is and ways that might be able to help and support you.
If you relate to any of these issues and think coaching might be a good fit for you, I offer a free twenty-minute consultation. You can contact me at www.yourdepressioncoach.com to schedule a meeting. I coach clients around the country via Skype and over the phone.
She had always dreamed about being Dallas County district attorney. But as her career took off, her personal life was falling apart—divorce, pain pills, thoughts of suicide. After two months of treatment, she says she’s ready once again to serve. Is she up to the job? Read the News
A major multi-national study of suicides has identified the behavior patterns which precede many suicide attempts. This may lead to changes in clinical practice in the care of patients affected with depression, as it shows the clinical factors which confer major risk of suicide attempts. Read the News
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.
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.
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.
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.