Editor’s note: This is the first story in our Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series, featuring attorneys in their own words on how they have overcome mental health or substance abuse problems. The State Bar’s TLAP program offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call us at 1-800-343-8527 and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.
Like a drowning man, I was going down for the last time. Suffering from the mental illness known as depression, I had 20 years of ongoing psychiatric care under my belt. I had taken every medication in the book, and, together with psychotherapy, they had kept me afloat, functioning and outwardly successful. But this time was different, and I knew I was beyond help. The pain and misery were too much to endure and I was ready to take my own life, despite my doctor’s oft-repeated counsel that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Two years before this crisis I recognized I was too impaired to practice and took an indefinite leave of absence from employment. I compounded this disconnect from professional life by isolating myself from social contact as well, too embarrassed to tell anyone of my misery because of the stigma that attends mental illness. I was virtually a hermit, declining even the support and companionship offered by the small number of friends and family aware of my condition. I had an exit strategy and I was ready to implement it.
How could things have gotten this bad? With the benefit of hindsight I can give you a clinical answer: Genetic predisposition to depression had coupled with a pileup of accumulated stress to so affect my cognitive functions that I had become a textbook example of this disease. In my case, divorce, successive major illnesses, and multiple surgeries topped the list of precipitating causes, but it was long list, and one that culminated in acute depression. But that clinical answer does nothing to convey the state of hopelessness and anxious misery that brought me to the edge of the abyss.
The turning point—and the beginning of the road back—came when my doctor could do nothing more in terms of treatment than to recommend I admit myself to a psychiatric hospital. That advice, along with my desire to avoid leaving my daughter a legacy of suicide, saved my life and allowed me, over time, to recover. I chose admission to a “professionals in crisis” program at a clinic renowned for treating depression where I underwent two months of inpatient treatment followed by many more months of intensive outpatient care by therapists, psychiatrists, and support groups.
With depression, “recovery” is a long and painful process and one that is ongoing for life. At first, even things as basic as hygiene, nutrition, and exercise seem impossible to achieve and maintain. While mastering those I was also challenged to retrain my brain using the tools learned during hospitalization. I was taking baby steps at every turn and at times I felt like I was no better off than before hospitalization. But gradually the process took hold and I began to feel a little like myself again.
There are milestones aplenty in recovery, and one of the biggest ones is returning to work. I did this very tentatively beginning six months after discharge and working part time on matters usually delegated to new lawyers or even support staff. Then I tackled more challenging tasks, which served to rebuild my confidence and make me take on more difficult work. Successfully preparing a complex document, then meeting a critical deadline built momentum that I was able to sustain. At the same time I found myself re-emerging socially, which was every bit as difficult as returning to the workplace.
To my utter amazement, there came a point in time where I began to feel normal and to enjoy life. I could take on a new case and handle it with increasing ease. I began dating again. I engaged in and enjoyed social activities that I had actively avoided during years of mental illness. I began to help others in the same boat as me through volunteer work. I renewed old friendships and formed new ones. In short, I emerged from the darkness.
Today, three years after my first return visit to my office, I am able to do the best professional work of my career. I’m socially engaged and living a full life rather than enduring a day-by-day existence. I’m in better health mentally and physically than I have been in two decades. I’m alive again and, strange as it may sound, I live a happier and fuller life as a result of my experience.