I’ve been depressed for a while.
I think it really set in last year after I had a couple of really awful outcomes in high conflict family law cases. I get so much pleasure and enjoy the sense of being in sync with my talents when I write, mediate or speak in front of a group. Adversarial advocacy in family law isn’t on that list and, as a family lawyer, I spend a fair amount of time doing this. So I found myself becoming depressed.
What does depression look like? Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an episode of major depression to qualify. Major depression really knocks your feet out from underneath you (literally). It can be difficult just rolling out of bed. Days and nights are filled with obsessive rumination that acts like a mental whirlpool, driving the sufferer ever deeper into a vortex of hopelessness. Those struggling with major depression know for a fact that their lives will not and cannot get any better. For those made supine by this despair, antidepressant medication can be a literal life saver. Rather than elevating mood, these drugs put a floor underneath one’s mood so the whirlpool is shut off and the experience of an endless psychic descent ceases. Thankfully, what I’ve been experiencing is not nearly that debilitating or painful.
Dysthymia Allows Us To Function But In A Colorless World
My kind of depression is termed “dysthymia” in the DSM IV (mental health’s diagnostic “Bible”). With dysthymia, a person can still function after a fashion. However, life’s colors are faded. It’s more difficult to enjoy pursuits that had, not long ago, brought pleasure. We withdraw from our closest relationships. Paradoxically, I found myself coming home and drinking more. I love the taste of good vodka, and indulged that taste every evening. I say paradoxically because, as we know, alcohol is a quintessential depressant. However, I’ll also admit that I enjoyed the buzz before I drifted off to sleep. I wasn’t eating very well and found myself filling up this dark hole that was pulsating in my core with my favorite foods. (Try putting some salsa on Triscuit crackers, covering them with cheddar cheese and “nuking” the concoction in the microwave for three minutes. My mouth waters as I write this.) Anyway, I can attest that the short term comfort from “comfort foods” does bring a certain relief that is, indeed, short term.
At my office, it would take me all of about 15 minutes to shift into a cranky mood as I managed a case load of work that I increasingly had come to believe was basically pointless. I saw myself dealing with people who had grown apart in their most intimate relationships, overwhelmed by grief, betrayal and (most definitely) fear. They were then dropped into a process in which they were being assaulted by sworn statements made by their spouses and forced to respond in kind. Litigated family law, I have come to believe, is a preposterous exercise. By the time a marriage ruptures, two people who had formerly been intimate have arrived at the end of a long path marked by thousands of interpersonal and intrapersonal events which are both momentous and staggeringly trivial when measured against their impact. These people then ask another human being, often someone who has no training or interest in either psychology or family law, to make momentous decisions for them decisions based on scant information (20 pages of a sworn statement and another 5 minutes of a lawyer making a pitch). In trial, decisions can rest on the strength of a two-hour appearance on the witness stand. It’s a ridiculous process.
In this context, it is no small wonder that coming to the office to do what I have been educated and trained to do day after day would lead to dysthymia. As I said, I was not charming to live with. I was edgy. I was also lazy. That’s not my word, but it’s how my lack of interest in day-to-day household activities was labeled (not that I ever evinced much interest in this sphere of life). But depression drains the sense of purpose from your life so that you aren’t motivated to do the smaller things you used to do as a matter of course.
Actually, I think a lot of us struggle with dysthymia but because it really doesn’t affect our major life responsibilities, we just soldier on through the grey. Many studies have reported that lawyers have a high incidence of depression. Yet I think few of us really recognize it in ourselves precisely because we are basically able to continue on with what we’re doing after a fashion.
Last year, during the six months or so of my most pronounced dysthymia, although I took very poor care of my body, didn’t nurture my most important relationships with both family and friends, wrote very little (though writing is very rewarding for me), and found solace in crappy food and a bottle, I kept going to the office and avoiding things that were bringing me more and more angst and aggravation. Clients protesting my delayed response to their inquiries and issues pushed me even further into avoidance mode. My predominant emotion became worry about my practice. How’s that for fun? the capacity to experience joy is drained and the sharpest emotional experience is worry.
With Help, I Started To Resurface
A handful of events allowed me to start to resurface in this swampy water. I started to work with a very gifted therapist who incorporates neuro-feedback in her practice. This modality, which has been around for a number of years, enabled me to train my brain to augment or dampen brain waves by interacting with various computer programs or “games.” I remember being told that I had “punk beta waves” which is pretty emblematic of a depressed state of mind.
With a nutritionist’s help, I also started taking daily vitamins (with a boost of D since we don’t get a ton of sunlight here in the Northwest), omega 3 fatty acids, and Co-Q-10 which supports cellular health. After a Google search, I realized that, nutritionally speaking, I’d been living under a rock for a while. According to the Mayo Clinic, Co-Q-10 is manufactured naturally by the body, and low levels can, among other things, impact heart health. The vodka has been jettisoned. I still enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner and promise myself that if I have trouble keeping it to that amount, I will explore a 12-step meeting.
With all this support, I found that color started to fill the shapes of my life. Most importantly, perhaps, I began to seriously consider making a professional transition that I had been avoiding for a long time. Just last week, a man called who was deeply involved in a difficult family law conflict, with a real litigator on the other side. The case would definitely result in some healthy income in these economically troubled times. But I took a deep breath and referred him.
I knew that any transition in my feelings and attitude would not come immediately and that I needed to give myself some time. My lips and nose are above the surface of the swamp now and I’m pretty confident that in a month, or two or three, my whole head may emerge. I’m breathing now, though, and that’s an important start.