“A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles” – Christopher Reeve.
Lawyers with depression often think of themselves as less than – less than competent, less than successful even less than, remarkably, a good person. This inner dialogue can circle the block fifty times a day all while they are living the lives of successful lawyers – at leaston the outside. Looking out their office windows, they privately fear that others will find out just how incompetent they really are; or, worse yet, that they have clinical depression – - then what will they think? They sit on the lid of a boiling pot of depression hoping they can get it under control, but that hasn’t been happening; the steam keeps pushing the lid upward.
Most lawyers with depression in some fundamental sense –feel broken. This conclusion is fueled by the depression itself – both biological (sleep, appetite, energy levels) and psychological (e.g. “Nobody really cares about me, I stink at my job or my depression will never end.”). But this brokenness isn’t just an “inside job” – crummy stuff we tell ourselves about ourselves. Other people or events in a depressed lawyer’s daily orbit serve-up damaging assessments and innuendos about a depressed person’s behavior or personhood.
They may tell us that we are letting them down at the office (e.g. not billing enough hours) or not contributing enough to family responsibilities – yes, loved ones can get fed up with the depressed person’s withdrawal from the family, the inability to do chores liked he/she used to and the depressed person’s sourpuss. Or, they deny the immensity of the suffering of the depressed lawyer by minimizing it: “Don’t worry, things will get better. You’re just in a slump.” We sense that their agenda isn’t so much about helping us get better, as it is about them their needs. Why else would we feel so much crappier and lonely after such exchanges? It isn’t as if their needs aren’t important, but shouldn’t our mental health be at least as important?
Then there is the cultural stigma – a cloud of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding – surrounding depression. American culture tends to see depression as a moral or personal weakness; the “just-get-over-it” rants of a society that likes simplistic answers to complicated problems. Dr. Richard O’Connor captures some the irony of how our society sees depression as different from – or maybe not as realas – other forms of illness:
“Where’s the big national foundation leading the battle against depression? Where is the Jerry Lewis Telethon and the Annual Run for Depression? Little black ribbons for everyone to wear? The obvious answer is the stigma associated with the disease. Too much of the public still views depression as a weakness or character flaw, and thinks we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. And all the hype about new antidepressant medications has only made things worse by suggesting that recovery is simply a matter of taking a pill. Too many people with depression take the same attitude; we are ashamed of and embarrassed by having depression. This is the cruelest part of the disease: we blame ourselves for being weak or lacking character instead of accepting that we have an illness, instead of realizing that our self-blame is a symptom of the disease. And feeling that way, we don’t step forward and challenge unthinking people who reinforce those negative stereotypes. So we stay hidden away, feeling miserable and yourselves for ourselves for our own misery”.
In my view, lawyers with depression are not so much hapless, as they are heroes. What’s a hero, after all? Someone who has a great challenge to confront? Check. Someone who must confront great adversity? Check. Someone who must get up every day and do battle with a formidable adversary? Check. You see, YOU are that person. You’re the person who has to get up every day and cope with your depression. Others can help and support you, but it’s ultimately your walk to walk.
Some of the best people that I’ve been privileged to know – both lawyers and non-lawyers alike – struggle with depression. While they don’t have shiny medals pinned on their lapels, there is an unmistakable strength in them – even if they don’t see it. I know it’s real because I see and feel it – just like when I am in a grove of giant and majestic pines during a walk in the forest.
Why can’t we re-imagine our self-image in relationship to our depression in a more positive light? Why can’t we think of our battles with depression as, in fact, heroic? Instead of counting all of times that depression has gotten the better of us and knocked us to our knees, how about embracing and giving ourselves credit for all of the times that we have triumphed over our depression, the times that we have risen to the occasion in spite of our melancholy and the moments that we have looked depression in the eye and said, “no more.” Make no mistake about it that takes gumption – lots of it!
In my opinion, viewing yourself as a hero is a constructive and healing experience for lawyers with depression. It doesn’t deny that we struggle with it sometimes, but it more importantly doesn’t deny the power we actually do have over it and the courage it takes to deal with it to the best of our ability each day.
“My hunch is that the disease/defect model of depression, is unwittingly contributing to the ongoing stigma of depression. Through the lens of the disease model, the legions of the formerly depressed are a “broken” people who need lifelong assistance. I would like to see a more revolutionary public education approach, with campaigns that emphasize the unique strengths that are required to endure depression. Even if a person is helped by drugs or therapy, grappling with a severe depression requires enormous courage. In many ways, a person who has emerged from the grip of depression has just passed the most severe of trials in the human experience. If we acknowledge that surviving depression requires a special toughness, we will not see formerly depressed people as a broken legion, but as a resource who can teach us all something about overcoming adversity”.