Stigma: Real or Imagined?

I have been an active member of the North Carolina Bar for 21 years and have fought anxiety and depression throughout that time. Prior to 2007 I was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and recovery from alcoholism became my primary “issue.” I was fortunate to find my way into a local 12-step program and have now been sober for 12 years. Somehow my marriage and job survived a very troublesome time. Through therapy and medication, my anxiety and depression have been largely controlled for the last decade, but I still encounter very difficult patches when I need extra support. Life is hard and it is even harder when anxiety and depression are thrown into the mix (I can’t even imagine going through it if I wasn’t sober).

I give background because I think there are plenty of other NC lawyers out there that struggle with mental health issues and alcoholism/addiction at the same time. I want to direct this Sidebar to the ones that are trying to deal with these issues alone. Had I never reached out and gotten help on both fronts, I would be dead today. That is not hyperbole – I would be dead. Unfortunately many people don’t seek help or even discuss their afflictions because they are ashamed or embarrassed about them, or worry about how other people (clients, colleagues, friends) would view them if they knew they took anti-depressants or went to 12-step meetings (or God forbid took time off of work to complete a treatment program). This is stigma, and it is awful. Imagine if diabetics worried that people would view them as weak if they used insulin? Mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders are diseases, just like diabetes. They affect millions, and yet lots of people are still afraid to discuss them. They are afraid their livelihood will be affected if they come clean and get help. I felt that way years ago, even while my livelihood was being so negatively affected by anxiety and depression and drug and alcohol abuse. This is insanity and still goes on throughout the NC Bar.

I am now extremely open about my mental health and substance abuse issues. I’ll tell anyone, because it might mean I get the chance to help someone else down the road. Also talking about my issues is liberating. Keeping something that overwhelming to myself would be utter hell, and I know it would have led to a quick downfall for me. I sometimes see that someone has committed suicide and people say they had no idea they were dealing with any mental health or substance abuse issues. I wonder if keeping such a fundamental truth bottled up might not make suicide more likely. It is such a lonely and desperate headspace…and one to which I never want to return. My life is hard and there are months that I feel anxious and depressed. But I have an enormous support group because I am open about it. It feels good to have friends and colleagues ask me how I am doing, because they know I am suffering. That would not happen if I tried to avoid the horrible stigma that is still placed on mental health and substance abuse issues.

Periodically I agree to speak at CLE programs, and I give my “story” as part of the substance abuse hour. I have been asked if I worry that I will lose clients or that people will think less of me if they hear some of the depressing details of my alcoholism and recovery. The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT. Every time I speak, I get calls and emails afterwards from people that admire what I have been through and my willingness to share. If anything, I have gained clients, and I have certainly gained friends. If you are struggling, open up about it. Don’t be ashamed, there is nothing to be ashamed about.

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