Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
This is a cautionary tale. A story of denial, of toughing it out at any cost, and of what that cost might be. But it is a cautionary tale with a hopeful ending.
In the middle of the night almost three years ago, I woke up in a cold sweat, both of my hands clenched into tight fists. My sleep had been fitful. I had dreamt, but my dreams were really nightmares, filled with anxiety and fear. I got out of bed, poured myself a glass of wine in the kitchen, and went to our media room to watch infomercials until the morning alarm went off.
That day at work, I was totally disinterested in what was on my calendar. Those events, meetings, and projects, to me, were nuisances at best. I just wanted to be left alone. I was forgetful and irritable, and I couldn’t seem to make decisions, except any decision that would put something off until later. I had trouble staying focused and was still plagued with the feelings of anxiety and fear from the night before. Nothing specific, just a gut-level feeling that something bad was about to happen, soon. Finally it was late enough to go home, and I hurried out the door.
That experience was not new to me. Most of my nights and days had been the same for several years.
Back in 2006 I had found myself in a terribly dark place. In thinking back, it was like I was in a fog, a fog so dense that I couldn’t see out of it. The fog kept me from seeing the love and respect that my family and friends had for me. It kept me from appreciating the successes I had already achieved in my career, and from seeing the possibilities and opportunities that might lie ahead. It prevented me from enjoying any of the good things that were all around me.
Instead, my mind was filled only with darkness and despair. On many days, sometimes for days in a row, I couldn’t bring myself to go into work. I was miserable.
And yet, astoundingly, that same fog kept me from being able to see how messed up my thinking was, and how badly I needed help. I was just going to tough it out.
Eventually, my employer approached me with concerns. Scared that my job was on the line, I anonymously called the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program with the State Bar and was referred to a psychiatrist and a talk therapist. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and told that I had been self-medicating with alcohol. Working with my therapist, we identified the major source of my stress and depression: my job. We explored my childhood, my mother’s depression and suicide attempts, her prescription medication abuse and addiction, and talked about the role both genetics and environment can play in mental health. We discussed a new way for me to approach life, a pattern of healthful living for both mind and body. Several months later I was pronounced “cured.”
Here begins the cautionary part of this tale. Astoundingly, I stayed in that job, continuing to believe that I could just tough it out, remaining in denial that I had been impacted by my family experiences, and ignoring any version of that old admonition, “take care of yourself.” Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before I found myself in my old pattern.
Fast forward to the night I began this story with, waking up in a cold sweat with my fists clinched. Not long after that night, I called TLAP again and was again referred to a therapist. Astoundingly, I still stayed in that job, and still behaved as if I could overcome it all on my own, if I were just tough enough. Not surprisingly, a year later, I found myself on the phone with TLAP for a third time.
Here begins the “hopeful ending” part of this tale.
The third time appears to have been the charm. TLAP connected me not just with mental health professionals, but with legal professionals, as well—legal colleagues who have had, or who are having, similar experiences. They understand.
I have taken a sabbatical from practicing law and am thinking about the direction my life might take from this point on. I have a daily meditation practice and have adopted a way of living that respects the health of my mind and body. In short, I am taking much better care of myself. I call this a “hopeful” ending, not a “happy” one. To me, “happy ending” suggests that all the conflict has been resolved. It hasn’t. I still do a daily dance with anxiety, and from time to time dabble in depression. But as long as I take care of myself, I am full of hope.