Editor’s note: This is the 14th story in the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series, featuring attorneys in their own words on how they overcame 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 TLAP at (800) 343-8527 and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.
I was 13. My closet floor was littered with the debris of adolescence: Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, tattered copies of Sweet Valley High paperbacks, a much-highlighted edition of The Scarlet Letter and a Mrs. Grossman’s sticker box. But as I lay sobbing amidst the jelly shoes and grosgrain ribbons, all I remember was the rushing blackness.
This was my first experience with clinical depression. It wasn’t called “clinical depression” in those days, of course. I was just “having a rough transition” to my first year of high school or “becoming a teenager.” It was 1983, pre-Prozac, and psychiatric care, especially for children and teenagers, was limited. So, I was encouraged to “tough it out.” And I did. Barely.
My grades dropped from middle school A’s and B’s to almost failing my first semester of advanced calculus. I was so exhausted after surviving a day at school that the prospect of homework was overwhelming. I knew I was disappointing my parents, who were spending a fortune for private school to give me the best possible education, but I felt like an outcast in the fancy hallways. I was miserable and I had no idea why. I buried my nose in books and tried to drown out the swirling thoughts of hopelessness and despair.
In the short-term, it worked. When I graduated from high school, I was a member of the National Honor Society. I had been a cheerleader. I had a tightknit group of close friends and we were all headed to prestigious colleges. I figured the nightmare was over and I was on my way. But among the lush hills of Virginia, I hit another wall. This time, the ground was harder.
I spent much of my first year on the telephone with my friends or my mother or asleep in the dorm lounge or watching television. I barely passed freshman calculus and had a rough time with Spanish I. Again, there wasn’t really a name for the sadness, the lethargy, the helplessness and hopelessness that I felt. I thought I was just stupid. But things improved. I graduated with honors, but there were consequences. Those freshman grades hadn’t helped during the law school application process, but I managed to squeak in.
I know what you’re thinking. Law school. Another first-year meltdown. But, no. The first two years were great! I found a niche, participated in moot court and mock trial, qualified for Order of the Lytae, and was chosen for membership in Order of Barristers. By the third year, though, cracks started to show. I was inconsolable after moot court and mock trial losses, devastated if I wasn’t on certain teams, and terrified of job interviews. People began whispering that I was “high strung,” “snobbish,” “unpredictable.” I began to withdraw from people and disappeared into the safety of my apartment. I was ashamed and confused. The world got very, very dark.
By some miracle, I got a job, then another and another. A pattern emerged: early successes, long hours, happy clients followed by burnout, decreased production, and collapse. I called in sick because I was so hopeless that I couldn’t get out of bed. I would sleep for 10 hours and wake up exhausted. My thoughts were fuzzy, even my vision felt cloudy. There seemed to be an odd sort of humming in my ears.
By this time, clinical depression was on the mainstream medical radar and I saw a doctor for the first time to discuss my mental state. Finally, I had an answer! I wasn’t stupid, I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t defective. I was depressed. Severely. Clinically. And, thankfully, treatably.
Diagnosis was really the beginning of my story. Although there are now a multitude of anti-depressants, anti-depressant boosters, and behavioral practices to treat depression, finding the right combination of those is a marathon, not a sprint. Today, my recovery depends on a multi-disciplinary regimen that includes medications, talk therapy, meditation, exercise and, most importantly, social connection. I need my people.
I know that talk is the remedy for shame and that asking for help and guidance is a sign of strength, not weakness. I am grateful to have found a lot of that support and aid through the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program. I made a call to TLAP on the most broken day of my life and was relieved to find that there was an understanding person, with real resources and understanding, who was able to guide me to safety and assure me that I was not alone.
Now, I am privileged to be on the other side of those TLAP calls and to assure other struggling lawyers that there is a way out and that if I can make it, they can too!