by Jim Warner ’92
In support of the well-being of lawyers across the professional spectrum—from students in the classroom to attorneys in all walks of legal life—we are launching a Mental Health Impact Blog Series, in partnership with alumnus Jim Warner ’92. Comprising deeply personal essays by community members who have struggled with mental health issues, the series provides restorative insights and resources to fellow lawyers in need. Read them all here.
The Mental Health Impact Blog Series coincides with a Law School-wide initiative, which will include lectures and workshops to support and promote mental well-being. To get involved in the activities or to write a guest post, contact email@example.com.
“You are no more likely to suffer from depression now than anyone who has not suffered from depression.” And with those words from my treating psychiatrist, I was cured.
Until I wasn’t.
In the months leading up to this optimistic sign-off from my psychiatrist, I had lost my job after plunging into a major depressive episode in my late 40’s. I had undergone therapy, taken a course of antidepressants, and rebuilt my emotional and physical health in about three months. Job done. I chalked up this unexpected and traumatic period of my life to a high level of stress at work. I was the General Counsel for a company that had just gone public.
Four years later, my old friends, Anxiety and Depression, knocked on my door again. This time, they hadn’t booked a return ticket. They intended to stay for a while.
In the midst of one of my worst days, I wrote a message on masking tape and put it in my bathroom vanity: “This is a gift.” It didn’t make me feel better. Some days it felt more like a “gift from hell.” But I wanted a daily reminder that this was an opportunity, not a curse. I could confront this condition as it did not seem to want to go away on its own.
What do anxiety and depression look like? It’s different for everyone, but for me there were some fairly common symptoms: rumination, racing thoughts, sleepless nights, lack of appetite, weight loss, dread, paranoia, feeling like an imposter. Simple things I took for granted became suffocatingly hard: Writing an email. Choosing what to eat. Casual conversation. I was absent—physically and emotionally—from family and friends. In the morning, it felt like I had a lead blanket on top of me. I struggled to get out of bed. Sometimes, I didn’t.
Let’s throw a healthy dose of shame on there. I perceived myself as a reasonably high-functioning person. This stuff shouldn’t happen to me (more on that in a bit). But there I was, struggling with overwhelming feelings of helplessness. I believed that I had let everyone down—my wife, my three young boys, extended family, friends, and co-workers. I was tumbling down a very deep, dark hole, and it was very hard to see the light.
Finding Hope—and Help
Here’s the good news. With patience and perseverance, it does get better. A lot better. As someone in the recovery community once said, “My life is 10 times harder, but it’s 100 times better.” There is some work to be done. And not the billable kind.
Start somewhere. Anywhere. For me, since my brain felt like a dumpster fire, I focused on my physical health. That seemed more concrete and controllable. I first had to get over the fact that I wasn’t as healthy as I was before (shame buster No. 1) and just accept where I was. I ran/walked one mile instead of five, lifted 20 lbs. instead of 50 lbs. The doing was the thing.
Find someone on the “other side.” One of the hallmarks of depressive thinking is a loss of hope. How is this ever going to get better? When I was feeling frustrated with a lack of real-world advice from my esoteric psychiatrist, I figured there must be someone out there who understood what I was going through. So, I Googled “lawyers with depression.” Up came the website www.lawyerswithdepression.com (remember how Google used to have that “I’m feeling lucky” function?!). On the other side of that website was an amazing man, Dan Lukasik, a lawyer in Buffalo who had experienced a serious bout of depression. Dan set up the website to fill what he saw as a gap in information and resources for lawyers battling depression. Dan became a mentor and coach to me as I worked my way through recovery. The most important words he said to me: “I’ve been there.”
“You’ve come by this honestly.” When I went through my second bout of depression, my new therapist offered that observation after I mentioned that some other members of my extended family had experienced mental health issues. (OK, another tip: Your recovery is one of the most important things you will ever work on, so be a demanding consumer. Shop around. It’s critical to find the right fit with all members of your wellness team).
Understanding that I may have a predisposition towards depression was an unexpected relief. It allowed me to shift my perspective on what I was going through. If a doctor observed that high blood pressure ran in my family, I wouldn’t immediately think I was a bad person because of it (shame buster No. 2). I would ask, “What should I do about it?” It also prodded me to look beyond my current episode and see the need to build lifelong habits for my wellness. As they say, while you are in recovery, your demons are doing pushups outside your door. Play the long game and kick your demons to the curb.
The Importance of Tent Poles
Pay attention to your tent poles. That’s another piece of advice I picked up from a counselor with the Florida Bar’s Lawyers Assistance program (another great resource that exists through most state bar associations). When we first met, she asked me what my “tent poles” were. In order to withstand the elements, a good tent needs more than one tent pole. Medication, sleep, nutrition, emotional health, physical health, mindfulness, family, and community relationships can serve as the tent poles for living well. Everyone has their own mix. If one sags, the others provide support while the storm passes.
Over time, I have developed a simple system to track my tent poles. Every day, I have a to-do list for work on one page. On the other side of the page, getting equal time and attention, I write down the initials:
“p” for “physical” (exercise and movement are keys to my mood);
“e” for “emotional” (making an emotional connection—doesn’t have to be Academy Award-level stuff, asking the security guard in the lobby how it’s going and really listening—will do);
“d” for “decision” (take some action—move something forward—big momentum builder);
“p” for “planning” (think longer term than what’s in front of me—that’s a good one for the “hope” muscles—thinking positively about the future);
“b” for “breathing” (it’s taken me a while to develop this one, but a quick 10 minutes of breathing/meditation work using an app has been a game changer);
“20m” (short for “20 minutes”—as in, do something completely not work related: a book, podcast, music, movie, sporting event—on the theory that we all have 20 minutes in our day to enjoy or learn something);
“f” for “fun” (the wellness game requires some serious work, but give yourself a break every once in a while, and celebrate the fun and frivolous);
and, a recent addition: “g” for “gratitude.”
I may not hit them all in a day and I don’t worry too much about the quality. The daily practice and reflection build resilience and a sense of wholeness. If I’m hitting most of them on a regular basis, my tent’s going to be pretty strong. It’s also a good early warning detection system if I’m experiencing some headwinds in my wellness.
My daily practice evolves as I learn more about mental health and wellness. The demon is still outside doing push-ups, but he’s not getting in my house any time soon.
SERVICES AND RESOURCES
This blog series is meant to shine a light on the often hidden epidemic of mental health struggles felt by so many in the legal profession and beyond, and to share personal stories and insights into recovery. It is not meant to provide professional advice or counseling. If you are struggling, below is a list of resources you may find helpful. If you are in crisis and this is an emergency, please call 911.
For a list of services offered to students, faculty and staff through the University and the Law School, visit https://www.bc.edu/content/bc-web/schools/law/sites/students/community/health-and-wellness.html
Individual counseling and psychotherapy consultations are available at BC Law (Alumni House, Room 112). Call 617-552-3310 and ask for an appointment with the Newton Campus clinician. Law students may also meet with any of the clinicians at University Counseling Services main campus location at Gasson Hall Suite 001 (140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467). Students can schedule an appointment at the main campus location by calling 617-552-3310 or visiting Gasson Hall Suite 001. Interactive campus map
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL) (31 Milk Street, Suite 810, Boston, MA; (617) 482-9600; helpline: (800) 525-0210; https://www.lclma.org/) is a confidential counseling and referral resource for lawyers and current law students. LCL offers help for alcohol and drug abuse, stress, depression, work, family, marital issues, mental health and other personal issues.