By C. Kelly Rentzel
Editor’s note: This post is part of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program’s Stories of Recovery series. 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.
According to a recent study, those who score top grades in school are four times more likely to develop bipolar disorder than those with average grades. The correlation is even stronger among those who study literature. Like many lawyers, as a high-achieving English major, I already had two strikes against me.
My résumé reads like a success story: I was salutatorian of my class at Highland Park High School and a National Merit Scholar. I graduated from Rice University with honors and a double major. I was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the Dedman School of Law at SMU; there, I won the 1L “Best Brief Award,” served on the staff of the SMU Law Review, and graduated with honors. I began my 15-year legal career at Baker Botts LLP and later spent six years as a federal court staff attorney. In 2012, I was hired as the first in-house attorney at one of Texas’ largest banks; I now serve as its general counsel. Best of all, I am the mother of a bright and beautiful 8-year-old daughter.
But my story has had its challenging chapters: While at Rice, I had a spontaneous major manic episode and spent a month in a psychiatric facility. I was diagnosed with Bipolar I. Fourteen years later, while working at the courthouse, I had severe postpartum depression that failed to resolve and, after two years, bottomed out into severe, medication-resistant clinical depression. Following a suicide attempt, I was hospitalized and received life-saving shock treatment. Four months later, I began working at the bank. I have since been blessed with five years of remission and remain on a steady regimen of medication and talk therapy.
My personal story is one of success and mental illness. A diagnosis of mental illness is not an indication of weakness or lack of ability; in fact, as the aforementioned study suggests, it may indicate quite the opposite. I was fortunate to have received my diagnosis in such an undeniable way (mania is hard to ignore) so early in my life. Because I was so young, I did not feel responsible or ashamed of my bipolar diagnosis, and it served as a roadmap rather than a roadblock. Through the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, I hope to help others accept, understand, and use their own diagnoses to improve their lives.