“True Stories” is a new series of guest blogs I am running. Too often, lawyers don’t know the burdens other lawyers carry both outside and inside the office. Here’s an unvarnished and anonymous account by one BigLaw lawyer who shares his powerful story.
I am an attorney with major depression. Understanding this recovery story from mental disease requires a trip back to my childhood, where depression first took root.
When I was nine months old, my mother left me alone with my father, an unpredictable, violent alcoholic. She returned to find a pile of blankets on the living room floor. Underneath, she found me, covered with welts. My father told her that I wouldn’t stop crying, so he hit me until I stopped crying. The physical (and later verbal) abuse continued for several years, as did my ability to accept it without responsive emotion.
At the age of four, I began going to the next-door neighbor’s house for before and after school care. There, the neighbor’s oldest son repeatedly sexually abused me. He warned me not to tell anyone, so I didn’t.
Growing up in constant fear, I learned to hide all feelings, both good and bad, and keep secrets.
Despite an unpleasant home life in school, I excelled both academically and athletically. Trophies and report cards bearing straight As were proof to the world that everything was “normal.”
At age thirteen, I drank alcohol for the first time. It was magic. It made me feel safe and “normal” on the inside. I chased the sense of ease and comfort produced by alcohol, on and off, for a few years but quit drinking following a near-death experience involving alcohol.
For many years my life appeared normal from the outside. I became a husband, a father, and a partner at a well-respected firm. But on the inside, I felt anxious and afraid all the time–uncomfortable in my own skin.
After my first trial, I recall asking my mentor – – “How long do I have to be a trial lawyer before I’m not nervous in the courtroom?” He laughed, took a long drag off his cigarette, and said – – ”You never get comfortable; you get used to being uncomfortable. Our lives are 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror.” The perfect job for someone who could experience trauma without showing any emotion.
Over twenty years later, my mentor, the greatest trial lawyer I ever met, retired. One of the last things he said to me was, “take that file off the corner of my desk; every time I look at it, I tremble.” It took him fifty years to lose the ability to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. It took me half that time to reach the same point in my legal career due to non-work situations.
After 26 years together, my wife suddenly asked for a divorce. My son began to suffer severe emotional problems, which jeopardized his life. I was diagnosed with cancer and experienced a physically disabling condition involving chronic pain.
Simply put, physical and mental pain led me to a breakdown. I lost the ability to mask my feelings. The decision to take a few weeks off of work to “recharge my battery” resulted in several months being unable to work. Most days were spent lying on a couch in the darkness, cursing morning sunlight, feeling too tired and sad to move, bathe, and eat. I rarely slept and dropped over sixty pounds in four months.
Nobody from work called to ask how I was doing. I felt abandoned. A psychologist became so concerned for my safety that she called for a welfare check after I failed to return a phone call. I met with an army of pain doctors, orthopedic surgeons, and mental health professionals who, together, concocted a variety of “pill cocktails,” which took me further and further down the dark hole.
At this point, you may be thinking this story has an unhappy, tragic ending. But it doesn’t.
A year has passed since I hit bottom. During that time, I found a mental health professional who listened closely to me, took away the shoebox full of pills and ended the search for a purely chemical cure. I have a new surgeon searching for a solution to my chronic pain. My son received professional help, moved in with me, which offers me a daily opportunity to be a loving father. My ex-wife and I speak kindly regularly and pray for each other’s happiness.
I began counseling to try and understand the dramatic impact childhood abuse had on my inability to handle major life changes and develop new skills and methods to deal with life’s failures and successes.
What led to the miraculous turnaround and recovery? Five things. First, I admitted I suffered from depression. Second, I proactively sought professional medical assistance until I found doctors who listened to me and made the necessary adjustments to my recovery and health programs. Third, I became an active participant in a group of people who live with depression and, based on their experiences, suggest specific actions and provide support. Fourth, after learning I am not alone, and how to recover from depression, I share my story with others and encourage them to get help.
During the last year, two people contemplating suicide heard my story, approached me, and accepted my help. Both, like me, are doing better today. And fifth, I have learned to be grateful for my disease, as it ultimately led to the honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness required to address the early life experiences which caused decades of unhappiness.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. To be continued.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255
National Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs. Provide free, confidential support to lawyers throughout the country.
Lawyer Depression Project. This group runs weekly, virtual support group meetings for lawyers dealing with depression and anxiety. The group is national and confidential meetings are held several times per week. Go to the website for more information.
University at Michigan Depression Center. One of the best resources I have found, this organization’s website is loaded with ideas and resources, including how to create your own “Depression Toolkit.”