Most people know at least one lawyer. What they don’t likely know is that there’s a pretty good chance they suffer from depression.
While the rate of depression in the general population hovers around ten percent, studies show that the rate of depression for lawyers is twice that. Accordingly, of the 1.2 million lawyers in America, approximately 240,000 of them are struggling with depression right now.
And I am one of them.
Why are lawyers so much more prone to depression than the average Joe? One study suggests that lawyers, beginning in law school, abandon their essential values to survive the rough and tumble world of the law. Other experts suggest that lawyers have personalities, such as higher than average self-reliance, perfectionism and need for accomplishment, that lead them into the law and make them more prone to depression.
My own path to depression combines some of these two views and more. Like many with adult onset depression, I came from a traumatic home. My father, a survivor of his WWII stint in the Navy, came back a broken man. Seeing buddies die in the Pacific seared his soul. Returning home, the stage was set for disaster and come it did. He became a raging, violent alcoholic and victimizer of his wife and five children. Leaving home for college at age seventeen, I didn’t ever feel anything like the depression I was to know all too well later in life. If anything, I seemed to be anxious, a pleaser, sensitive and an overachiever.
Over time, the stress load of my work as a lawyer became more and more difficult to bear. This gave way to free floating anxiety that dogged me most of the time. When I reached age forty, my life fell apart. I began crying all the time. In abandoned parking lots while I sat in my car, in my office with the door sealed shut, nothing seemed to assuage my sorrow. I became completely unmoored from the rituals of everyday life and couldn’t function as my depression deepened.
My sleep became fragmented. I would fall asleep exhausted, but wake about three in the morning. Still tired, but unable to go back to sleep, I would shower, shave, dress and get in my car to drive to an all night coffee shop. There I would sit there, my coffee and I, waiting for the sun to come up. Seeing it break over the horizon, I’d walk to my car and drive to work dreading yet another day of withering depression.
At some point, it became impossible to work. My therapist and psychiatrist told me to take four weeks off to allow the medication to kick in. I needed to tell my law partners about the diagnosis and need for time off. Sitting in a small conference room, my quaking voice, I told them that I was suffering from Major Depression and wouldn’t be able to work for a month. They sat there for a long minute or two until my one partner, Mark, pounced and said, “What's wrong with you? You’ve got a great job, beautiful wife and family. Go on a vacation!” Defenseless in my fragility, I soaked in his caustic comments. If I only I were more grateful, I wouldn’t be depressed, he seemed to be saying. If only I went to Florida for a week and got some sun, I would come back refreshed and my old self. But reminding myself of the many blessings in life made no dent in my mood and their was no vacation from my persistent melancholy.
My second partner, Frank, was silent. I simply couldn’t read what he was thinking. But the expression on his face was one of worry. I was the managing partner at the time and a big rainmaker for the firm. I imagined he was thinking about what my illness would mean for the firm and its finances? I was certainly thinking about it.
My third partner, Jim, just smiled, but then again, he always had a smile on his face. Tall with news anchorman good looks and bearing, he said, “Dan, you at ninety-percent is better than any lawyer I know.” I said to him, “Jim, I’m not a ninety percent. I’m at ten percent.” Jim was the one at the firm that would always seem to minimize problems and this situation was no different.
Looking back on that time over ten years ago, these types of responses seem so common to me know. Mark thought it was the lack of a grateful heart or maybe a little burnout. Frank thought about how my illness might cut into the firm’s bottom line. Finally, Jim minimized the issue, perhaps hoping that this storm would pass. The three of them had no reference point for depression and didn’t understand. Their reactions, the product of fear and ignorance, don’t hurt anymore and I’ve forgiven them. But when I hear similar reactions from others it troubles me and reopens those wounds from all those years ago.