One lawyer’s story of mental illness

by Kevin E. Joyce, Esq.

This article originally ran in TBA News.

There’s a local lawyer who, for many years, was physically fit and mentally healthy. And then one day, he woke up feeling terribly ill. He knew he couldn’t go to work. What he didn’t realize was that he had entered the most awful six months of his life.

He didn’t know what the problem was but, over time, came to learn that his diagnosis was “major depressive episode.” During the following months, the lawyer spent six weeks as an inpatient in the Toledo Hospital and Cleveland Clinic psych units.

The lawyer learned that depression was much more than feeling sad. He would walk around his house and yard – constantly “staring” into a deep, dark tunnel – unable to visualize absolutely any sort of future in his life.

The lawyer couldn’t concentrate or focus – he couldn’t read. He had severe anxiety for lengthy periods. The lawyer had no appetite and lost a lot of weight. He repeatedly experienced suicidal thoughts. So much so that his wife removed from their house a hara-kiri knife his father brought back from his stint in the Navy in World War II.

Treating depression usually includes finding the right antidepressant, which is a matter of trial and error. The drugs typically take six weeks to take effect. If one doesn’t work, the patient and his psychiatrist move on to another.

But the lawyer learned that antidepressants don’t always work. When that occurs, the patient experiencing a major depressive episode must consider electroconvulsive therapy, the treatment of last resort.

The lawyer was referred from Toledo Hospital to the Cleveland Clinic for ECT. He was so ill his brother had to ride in the ambulance with him on that lengthy trip.

Upon arriving in Cleveland, the lawyer and his wife met the lawyer’s new psychiatrist who said, with the utmost confidence, “Oh, yes, he’s going to get better.” That promise meant a lot, especially to the wife of a patient who had been living in a deep, dark place filled with suicidal thoughts for five months, without any improvement.

After six sessions of ECT, the lawyer could literally see the sun shine again.

Even after his recovery began, the lawyer knew he needed to make major changes – and that his life as a trial lawyer was over. He resigned his partnership with the firm where he had worked his entire professional career, since law school. Removing his furniture and emptying his office was a traumatic experience, to say the least.

For years afterward, the lawyer’s health was good with the exception of a few episodes of depression that led to admissions to Flower Hospital’s seventh floor.

However, thirteen years after that initial major depressive episode, the lawyer began to experience symptoms quite different from those of depression. He had feelings of grandiosity; he began thinking he was the smartest guy in the room. Worst of all, he became aggressive and argumentative, damaging relationships with his family and closest friends.

This time, the lawyer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was fortunate that he had the less severe form of BPD that includes hypomania and not the more severe form that includes full-blown mania and hallucinations. The right meds were all it took to set things straight.

Who is this lawyer? I am – and I have been struggling with depression and BPD for two decades. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced any symptoms of mental illness for the past five years. I have learned, however, that my mental health can make a 180-degree turn at any time.

How do I stay well? I no longer drink alcohol, no mean feat for an Irish American! I visit my psychiatrist when scheduled and see my psychologist as needed. I take four medications each day as prescribed. I get plenty of sleep. I work out three to four times a week. And I have a strong support system led by my wife, a registered nurse.

My mental health can be a struggle but, with lots of hard work, I am healthy most days. If you or a colleague is an attorney experiencing symptoms of mental illness, do not procrastinate. Do not be deterred by stigma. Act promptly to get professional help. Your life may depend on it.