Editor’s note: This is the second of four special posts in the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program’s Stories of Recovery series for National Suicide Prevention Week (September 10-16). TLAP offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at 1-800-343-8527 (TLAP) and find more information at tlaphelps.org.
One sunny Thursday afternoon in the spring of 2012, I found myself hanging from the top of a door by the rope that was tied around my neck. It hurt. A lot. And that was how I came to realize that I didn’t really want to die that day. I somehow extricated myself from the situation and called a friend, who came over and convinced me to go to the VA hospital, where I spent the next six days learning the ins and outs of the rules of the psych ward.
I graduated from law school in 1995 and passed the bar in November of that same year. I passed on the first attempt, which was a total surprise since I had to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination three times before passing. I got lucky and got my first lawyer job immediately upon passing the bar, working for a judge as a special documents master on a nine-month trial. At the end of that trial, I was so disgusted with lawyers that I never wanted to see the inside of another courtroom.
So I took a job with a publishing company editing treatises on civil procedure and evidence. I had health insurance for first time since I was in the Navy. It turns out that editing law books is even more stressful than being in the courtroom. Being a perfectionist and working with the imperfect product of language was really hard on me. Eventually, my girlfriend insisted I see someone about my mood swings and suicidal thoughts.
Around 1998, I gave in and saw a psychologist, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. I was devastated, depressed, and miserable. I didn’t want a “label.” But it all made sense, looking back at how I dealt with stress in college, the Navy, and in law school. During those times, when I would get stressed, I would frequently think about killing myself. I remember driving to law school one day and thinking how wonderful the day was because I was only thinking about suicide once every few minutes instead of a few times every minute.
So I then went to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed a drug known as a mood stabilizer that made me even more miserable because it was like being in a box where I could scream as loud as I wanted and nobody could hear me. But, being new to psychiatry and a former pharmacy technician, I was afraid to quit taking the medicine without the doctor’s permission. It took all the strength of will I had to titrate myself off of the medicine and then to tell the doctor about it afterward.
I did it, though, and because I was so unhappy with medication, I went off it for about nine years. During that time, the publishing company closed our office and I got laid off. I spiraled up and down. I tried hanging out a shingle—with no mentor and no clue—but all I got to show for it was a grievance for practicing without paying my bar dues. At one point during those awful nine years, I took a retail job in a bookstore, which was really fun—until I got fired. Then later that week, my friend’s wife kicked me out of their house because I was being too loud and obnoxious— I was manic and had no idea. I felt miserable again. I kept hearing on the news about veteran suicides and how the VA was trying to prevent them. So the next morning I mustered my courage and went to the VA to sign up for benefits that I had earned but never requested. The clerks at the VA processed my paperwork for eligibility and then directed me to an acute mental health clinic in the building because it was clear that I couldn’t wait three weeks for an appointment to see a doctor.
I saw a doctor that afternoon who was nice and compassionate and who scared me by knowing all about my symptoms without me telling her much, if anything. I had “manic bipolar” written on my forehead that day. And that’s when the paranoia set in. I got more and more scared that she was not going to let me leave the building. So abruptly in the middle of our conversation I told her that I had to leave, got up, and walked out the door. I walked to avoid the VA police’s attention but wanted to run as fast as I could because I knew that behind me in those hallways were giant beach balls coming to get me. Somehow I made it to a nearby park where I stayed until dusk because I was convinced that the police were at my house looking for me.
When I got home that night, I discovered that nobody was looking for me. This, combined with the ebbing of the paranoia (the exercise probably didn’t hurt), gave me the courage to go back to the VA the next day to see the same doctor. She prescribed a different mood stabilizer than the one I had tried previously, and I agreed to try it. This time the medication worked! It was as if I were wearing earplugs in a loud concert. I didn’t know it until then, but I had been hearing noises in my head for years. The medication silenced them. It was an amazing feeling to hear silence for the first time in just about forever.
The doctor and I agreed that because I was not working and because I was still fighting suicidal thoughts, I would enter the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, or PRRC, at the VA. The groups I went to concentrated on cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. I had to go through the groups a couple of times each—it took me about three years to feel comfortable leaving the program—but when I finished, it was because I was working and not struggling as much with suicidal thoughts. Some medications worked better than others, but I eventually found a regimen that keeps the noise in my head to a minimum and allows me to think clearly.
Before I graduated from the PRRC, I was afraid to practice law because I felt incompetent. It took a while, but I finally realized that having bipolar disorder does not make me stupid. While still in the PRRC, I enrolled in another program at the VA called Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, where the most incredible social worker in the world walked me through the process of first figuring out what I wanted to do (did I really want to fix computers or would I rather be a lawyer?) and then helped me figure out how to go about reaching my goal.
Once I decided that I’d rather be a broke lawyer than a broke computer tech, I called the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program and came in from the wilderness. I was nervous. It was one of the hardest calls I’ve ever made, but the TLAP people were incredibly helpful and compassionate. Senior staff attorney Cameron Vann answered, listened, and reassured me. I knew that the call was confidential, and she re-emphasized that. I gave her only my first name in the beginning. We talked a bit and I told her about my bar issues—I was then suspended from practicing for failing to take my CLEs. She said that she could help me get CLE credits. She also pointed me to a monthly TLAP group where I met people in the same boat as me and made friends.
For more information on suicide warning signs and prevention, go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org or facebook.com/AFSPnational. For the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call (800) 273-8255.