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.

 

September Texas Bar Journal focuses on wellness issues

This month's Texas Bar Journal focuses on strategies for lawyers dealing with anxiety, mental health, substance abuse and addiction, and depression. One important highlight is The Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) and the help it can offer lawyers in need. TLAP provides crisis counseling and referrals for lawyers, judges, and law students coping with substance use disorders and mental health issues. Find out more in the TBJ article. To get information or to seek help, you may reach TLAP at 800-343-8527 or visit their web page at www.texasbar.com/tlap.