How I Almost Became Another Lawyer Who Killed Himself

Note: The following is an abbreviated version of this article. The full article is featured in the Summer 2014 North Carolina State Bar Journal.

Though I likely had been depressed for a long while, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression in late 2005. As another lawyer who helped me put it, suffering from depression is like being in the bottom of a dark hole with — as you perceive it from the bottom — no way out. The joy is sucked from everything. Quite often, you just want to end the suffering — not so much your own, but the perceived suffering of those around you.

You have frequent thoughts that everyone would be better off if you were not around anymore, because, being in such misery yourself, you clearly bring only misery to those around you. When you are in the hole, suicide seems like the kindest think you can do for your family and friends, as ending your life would end their pain and misery.

While I do not remember all of the details of my descent into the hole, it was certainly rooted in trying to do it all – perfectly. After my second child was born, I was trying to be all things to all people at all times. Superstar lawyer. Superstar citizen. Superstar husband. Superstar father. Of course, this was impossible. The feeling that began to dominate my life was guilt. A constant, crushing guilt. Guilt that I was not in the office enough because I was spending too much time with my family. Guilt that I was letting my family down because I was spending too much time at work. Guilt that I was letting my bosses down because I was not being the perfect lawyer to which they had become accustomed. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

The deeper I sunk into the hole, the more energy I put into maintaining my façade of super-ness and the less energy was left for either my family or my clients. And the guiltier I felt. It was a brutal downward spiral. Eventually, it took every ounce of energy I had to maintain the façade and go through the motions of the day. The façade was all there was. Suicide seemed rational.

There were danger signs, of course, but neither I nor anyone around me recognized them for what they were. I burst into tears during a meeting with my bosses. I started taking the long way to work in the morning and home in the evenings — often taking an hour or more to make the 5 mile trip. Eventually — after months of this — my wife asked me what was wrong and I responded, “I just don’t know if I can do this anymore.” She asked what “this” was. I said, “you know . . . life.” And started bawling. The façade crumbled and I was utterly adrift. [I don’t actually remember this conversation with my wife, but she does.]

After getting over the initial shock of my emotional collapse, my wife forced me to go to the doctor and get help. She took the initiative to find a doctor, make me an appointment and took me (which is good, because I was utterly incapable of doing any of those things). She called my firm and told them I needed FMLA leave. One of my colleagues put me in touch with the N.C. State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) who connected me with a LAP volunteer who had suffered from severe depression and recovered. I found the peer support of LAP to be a critical tool in my road to recovery. With his help, treatment from my doctor and the support and love of my family, I got better and better. I started taking medication and clawed my way to the top of the hole.

But, for more than a year, I was sort of clinging to the edge of the hole about to plummet back down. So, I changed doctors and medications and did a lot of talk therapy. Eventually, more than 18 months later, I was finally back to some semblance of my “old self.” I was happy again (mostly). I was a good father again (mostly). I was a good husband again (mostly). I enjoyed being a lawyer again (mostly). I enjoyed life again.

There have been a couple of relapses, where the hole tried to reclaim me. However, I never fell all the way back down. I will happily take medication for the rest of my life. And I will regularly see a therapist for the rest of my life. I will be forever vigilant regarding my mental state. Small prices to pay.

Had I not gotten help, I would not be writing this article because I would likely not be alive today. No amount of will power or determination could have helped me climb out of that hole. Only by treating my disease with medication and therapy was I able to recover, control my illness, and get my life back.

Now, I don’t write any of this to solicit sympathy or pity. I am doing fine. I have five wonderful (if occasionally maddening) children and an amazing wife. I have a job that I love and am truly good at. I have the job that I was put on this earth to perform, which makes me incredibly lucky. I have wonderful students who will be outstanding lawyers. I have no complaints.

I write this because I know that when you are depressed you feel incredibly, profoundly alone. You feel that you are the only person on earth who has felt the way you do. You feel like no one out there in the world understands what you are dealing with. You feel like you will never feel “normal” again.

But you are not alone. You are not the only person to feel this way. There are lots of people who understand. I understand. I have been there. I got better. So can you.
So, please, if you are suffering from depression or anxiety (or both) get help. Tell your spouse. Tell your partner. Tell a colleague. Ask for help. Asking for help does not make you weak. It takes profound strength to ask for help. You can get better. You can get your life back.

Trust me when I say that life is so much better once you get out of — and away from — that dark hole. It is well worth the effort.