I am told that I am an up-and-coming young attorney with the potential to do great things, and by all outward accounts I suppose that must be true. My firm has gone out of its way to offer me opportunities for growth beyond its norms. I have won awards. I have spoken at conferences and CLEs. I have been elected to boards and run committees. People seek me out for these positions because they are confident in my abilities, my commitment, and my sense of responsibility. I am dependable, competent, and pragmatic. I apparently give the impression of someone with goals and drive who knows where she is going and how to get there. It is an impression I have a hard time accepting because on the inside it is a very different story.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life and expect I will continue to struggle with them into the foreseeable future. I have been medicated for 13 years and have no intention of quitting any time soon. I fight a neverending war against a part of myself that I cannot remove. Every day I win battles, but the war continues. I fight to get out of bed in the morning, to smile when I see other people. I fight against the voice that tells me constantly that everything I am doing and saying is wrong and everyone knows it. I question every decision I make and my ability to make them. I feel like a failure and a fraud every single day. When something goes wrong, it is proof. When something goes well, it is luck or a fluke. Every day is a challenge, to keep going, to appear normal, to not give in. It is painful and exhausting. Even on my best days, the depression lurks in the back of my mind, waiting for a moment of weakness. I am constantly frustrated by my inability to be rid of it, no matter how hard I work and no matter how amazing I make my life.
Practicing law with depression is incredibly challenging. We work in a system that expects us to be perfect, to always know the answer, to be able to fix everything. It is impossible to live up to the image, and for those of us who are already inclined toward mental health issues, that impossibility can feel crushing. In many ways, I am one of the lucky ones. I have come to recognize my issues and get the help I need. I have family and friends who understand and support me, and I work in an environment that gives me the flexibility to attend therapy and confidential OAAP support group meetings with no questions asked. I am even able to speak openly with some of my supervisors and colleagues about my mental health and how I manage it. I work hard to maintain balance in my life because I know I can’t survive without it. I can’t join every organization, be on every board, go to every social, and work the long hours this profession often demands.
None of this makes me a bad lawyer. It does not make me weak, fragile, or unreliable. On the contrary, it has made me stronger. I wake up every day and fight for the life I have because the alternative is not an option. I know that I am capable of fighting, I know that I can survive, and I know that I can triumph. I know that good days can come, even after the darkest times. That knowledge gives me the resilience to face struggles in the rest of my life, as well as in my practice. When I learned how to accept and take care of myself, I also learned how to take care of others. I learned compassion and patience, and I learned perspective. I learned to look beyond what people project and see who they are beneath the surface. I can usually see where a person is coming from, and most of the time I can meet him or her there without judgment. I treat my clients like human beings, and as a human being I do my best to guide them through an often impersonal legal system.
As lawyers, we are ashamed and afraid to admit when we suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. We are afraid to admit our weaknesses because of how our clients might judge them or how our colleagues might exploit them. I recognize my weaknesses, and I also know how to work with them. I know my limitations, and I know what I need to do to succeed. I am not only the part of me that wants to run away from the world. I am also the part of me that gets up every day and fights, that can accept the possibility of failure and understand that I can come back stronger. Without my depression, I would not have any of those strengths. I am not ashamed of that part of me – I am proud of it. I am a good lawyer, not in spite of my depression, but because of it.