Stories of Recovery: On the brink of suicide, I found new hope

Editor’s note: This is the fifth 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.

I could not open my eyes. I could hear someone calling my name but I didn’t recognize the voice. I let myself drift back into unconsciousness.

The next time I woke up, I was alone except for the machines that whirred and beeped around me. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. Tubes pumped oxygen into my lungs and my arms were strapped down to the bed. The instinct to panic was overwhelming. Then, a nurse appeared at my side. Smiling, she informed me that my family was in the waiting room. I didn’t want to see them because I was so ashamed. How could I have wound up like this?

At 12, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression by a psychiatrist who was happy to fill out a prescription for Prozac and send me on my way. During my senior year of college, I found myself once again battling the anxiety and depression. I went to the school infirmary and requested a prescription. It didn’t help so I began to drink on days that the anxiety was particularly intense. I looked forward to it. It seemed like a reward for all my hard work.

The first year of law school was dizzying. I drank on weekends to excess, which was the only thing that seemed to help. It also made things worse. I did dumb things while drinking that I couldn’t explain, things that made me ashamed. But I didn’t stop drinking. I thought I just needed to learn how to drink better.

When I began my first job after law school, I had no idea what I was doing. I constantly felt incompetent and afraid. My anxiety skyrocketed. I spent my weekdays looking forward to the weekend when I could hang out, drink, and relax. So many other people seemed to feel the same way that I never considered for a moment that my behavior wasn’t normal.

My anxiety and depression got worse and worse, leading me to miss work. Then I would feel worse for missing work. Then I would feel more anxious, more depressed. And then I would drink.

After a while, I started losing hope. I began to think of all the ways that the world would be better without me. I just couldn’t see any way out of the darkness.

One night I decided to end my life. It wasn’t a decision the way people imagine. It was a moment of sobbing desperation. I had been drinking all day, working myself into a wretched state. I didn’t want my life to go on the way it was going. Very simply, I couldn’t stand another day like this one. I took a whole bottle of sleeping pills. There wasn’t a lot of forethought, and I certainly did not consider the long-term consequences of this decision. I just wanted the pain to stop. Suddenly, with the finality of my decision staring me in the face, I panicked. I cried out to God that I didn’t want to die.

While I was in the hospital a doctor came in to speak to me. The doctor informed me that I needed to agree to seek treatment or he was going to recommend inpatient treatment, with or without my consent. He handed me a list of outpatient treatment facilities.

That first phone call was the hardest. I thought surely I would lose everything that I had worked for, but I didn’t. God had not saved my life to deliver me into continued misery.

The road to recovery was not easy. I admitted my drinking problem and sought treatment. I underwent therapy and counseling for my anxiety and depression and have learned positive ways to deal with their symptoms. I have found God.

Through my faith, I have learned not to trust in my own understanding of things, and to relinquish the delusion of control. I deal with what I have power over, and I try not to obsess over the things that I do not. I am still practicing law. I have a family and friends and I am happy. I hope that by sharing my story, I encourage another attorney to seek help, restoring value to the years I lost.
 

 

Stories of Recovery: How I made it

Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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.

Even as a kid I identified with that cartoon character who walked around with a little black cloud over his head. I was depressed and life was depressing. So much so that I clearly needed help—and was lucky enough to be sent for counseling early in my life.

I learned that it was not my life circumstances, but my ability to cope with life. And that I had to take responsibility for dealing with the depression. So, I have for most of my life since I was in college had a counselor, a paid counselor. You can’t talk about this stuff just to friends. They’re not equipped. Every counselor has been wise—a reality check—and loving.

 

I have had long periods when depression has not been a problem, when I have been happy, competent, and productive. And I have had all too brief periods when I was wildly happy, super competent, and amazingly productive—being a little manic once in a while can help you get a lot done.

It was not until early in my law practice that I had a major depressive episode characterized by utterly crippling panic. I had to get out of my head—literally—and made a serious suicide attempt. Even after a month of hospitalization I thought my mind would never work again. But I had read enough while there to diagnose myself as manic-depressive and begged for lithium, and it worked.

With the knowledge that it was a “chemical imbalance,” I knew I not only needed medication, but had to keep taking it. I refused to let the MDs tell me how I was supposed to be feeling and insisted on changes when new meds didn’t work.

After Prozac came along, I had decided it was party time—I could drink again. That, of course, quickly required more medication. The anxiety side of my depression worsened. The procrastination became deadly. I started falling down, physically and professionally.

It was not until I quit drinking that I got sane. I have been blessed for many years with a psychiatrist who is also a loving therapist. She suggested I might not be ready to quit my hourlong biweekly sessions until I quit drinking. Through the grace of God and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am grateful to say I have now been sober for 11 years.

It wasn’t just quitting drinking—although that’s absolutely necessary—that got me sane. I had to quit my profoundly negative way of thinking.* I had gotten in the habit of expecting the worst of other people, and getting it. Of expecting the best of myself, and hating myself for not becoming the lawyer I thought I should have been. I was miserable.

Beyond the support of medication and the healing of wise counsel, changing my thinking has been the third solid leg of real sanity and peace. I have had to learn to recognize when it is just the depression talking, i.e. when my brain is lying to me, or when it is just “stinkin’ thinkin’,” as the program calls it. Is it depression or just plain old self-pity? Either way the cure is the same—changing my perception—recognizing that the trouble I am seeing is not necessarily real.

I have learned to forget about the “parade of horribles” and to just be grateful. To be compassionate, especially to myself. To be patient. Kind. Strong. To be here now. And I have become the lawyer I have always wanted to be.

*Science has gone a long way in explaining exactly how and why our thinking creates our emotions and well-being. Highly recommended: the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?,” neuropharmacologist Candace Pert’s “Molecules of Emotion, “ and cell biologist Bruce Lipton’s “The Biology of Belief.”

Stories of Recovery: Turning things around after depression

Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

I am so grateful that my life is headed in a positive direction. Actually, it has been headed in that direction for a few years, slowly, one day at a time, but it took a while for me to get some real traction.

For years I have struggled with depression. It became so bad it destroyed relationships and ended my legal career as a practicing lawyer, or so I thought. I had tried various methods and sought help from time to time, but that hopeless feeling just seemed to get stronger and stronger. When things really got bad, I was desperate enough to listen seriously to suggestions for help, and to take small actions over time.
 

 

Surprisingly, one of the first things that really helped me was yoga. As a former athlete in high school I thought the very suggestion was silly. I was encouraged to attend a class, and the exertion after a long period of inactivity and the emphasis on breathing kept me engaged just enough to get my thoughts away for the negative spot where they had been stuck. It was worth another class, then another, and now I attend regularly. The focus on body-mind health has changed my thinking.

It has taken the help of many folks to help me stay on track, and the volunteers at TLAP with monthly support groups and camaraderie of meetings have made a big difference. I take the time to say thank you as those folks are there when I need them, and I am now doing my part to be there for other lawyers in need. That feels good.

I found a good fit with a therapist, and it was not my first attempt. In those sessions I am frequently reminded that I have accomplished a lot, and to do something new for me in taking credit for the actions I have consistently taken, not discounting them or expecting even more of myself.

Recently I returned to the practice of law in a less adversarial setting and in an of-counsel sort of practice. My job is a blessing. Being productive, without having to “go out and bring in business that will pay on time,” without having to deal with all of the adversity that accompanies most law practices, without the daily worry to cover the overhead, and working with just plain good folks who are kind, helpful, and interested in each other, has been so good for me. I found a practice that is a good fit for me, and other lawyers can do the same.

TLAP’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Convention, held annually in June, has been a helpful opportunity to enjoy other lawyers, learn what is healthy for lawyers, and see how lawyers can practice wellness.

A few months ago I lost a close family member with whom I had reconnected as I came out of my depression. That family support made all the difference in my efforts to get well. It is a closeness I treasure.

Because of my willingness to take action and with the support of other lawyers, therapy, yoga, a job, and family support, I’ve turned things around. I have accomplished a lot.

Stories of Recovery: A cautionary tale

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.

 

Stories of Recovery: A 'drowning man' finds hope

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.