[C]onfess your faults to one another . . . so that you may be healed.
My life looks good I do confess. You can ask anyone.
But just don’t ask my real good friends
Because they will lie to you,
Or worse, they’ll tell the truth.
-Derek Webb, “Crooked Deep Down,” She Must and Shall Go Free (2003)
Ken White, better known by his Twitter handle Popehat (also, if you are not following Popehat on Twitter, you should be – go do that now), is one of the most bitingly, brilliantly insightful individuals I pay attention to or have come across in the legal profession. He also battles, and writes pretty openly about, depression. Earlier this month he wrote a particularly poignant piece titled “Why Openness About Mental Illness Is Worth the Effort and Discomfort.” Therein, he details how he received a letter from someone he did not know who described to him how reading about Ken’s struggles helped him get through his own. Despite acknowledging that, as a litigator, being open about depression causes him to worry that “judges and opposing counsel and clients will judge me” and “that it will be used as a weapon against me,” these sorts of letters and reminders encourage him to continue despite “second-guess[ing]” himself and worrying that being so open might hurt his “professional credibility.” Also, he feels a certain pay-it-forward type of responsibility:
People who have fought mental illness — people who are still struggling with it, every day — can change people’s lives by offering hope. . . . You can make a difference. You can be open about how you’ve fought depression and anxiety. You can talk about how you felt hopelessness. You can talk about how you reached the point where you got help. You can describe how you had doubts about the point of getting help, too. . . . You can convey to people out there that they aren’t alone, that other people have felt the way they feel . . . . You can spit in the face of the social stigma against mental illness and its treatment. You can defy the trolls and assholes who will mock you and use your openness against you . . . . You can show that it’s possible to get better even if you’re broken, flawed, afraid. You can show that a setback isn’t the end of the road to getting better. You can help them understand there’s no magic instant cure, that recovery can be a lifelong process.
Just to make sure he leaves no ambiguity unchecked, he drives the point home:
You — you personally, not the collective you — can make a difference. It might be your story that connects with someone, that helps them imagine getting better. It might be someone in your social circle who is suffering and doesn’t know anyone else talking about these issues. It could be your take on this process that tips the balance towards treatment for someone you’ve never met or heard of. Your story counts. Tell it. . . . It will be embarrassing (though it shouldn’t be) and awkward (at first, at least) and some loser will probably take a cheap shot at you, but it’s worth it. Try it.
Setting aside the fact that I simply admire this sort of candor from someone who I feel I have a fair amount in common with (both being libertarianish legal professionals, which pretty much summarizes most of my animating traits) – and, since I am being open and all, setting aside the fact that my ears perk up anytime I hear about a chance to “spit in the face of” anything or “defy . . . assholes” (reasons #37 and #38 why I think I will make a great litigator) – this post hit me square between the eyes.
I have been struggling almost daily with depression since my second semester in law school (beginning right around the middle of March 2015), the roots of which I have since discovered run very deep but which did not rear its ugly head until the forces of stress about grades, stress about job prospects, stress about debt, and stress about an out-of-control intimate relationship combined to completely overwhelm me at a particularly vulnerable moment in my life. Having always been a more-or-less happy-go-lucky kid who always managed to submerge my emotions in books or relationships (or both at once), I was totally caught off guard and had no idea what to do about it. Plus, I had just witnessed a close friend go through a bout of depression right before I began to feel this way myself, and I had no idea how to help him besides trying to be around when I could and hang out when I was particularly worried about him. In short order, the wheels started to come off mentally and emotionally. For the first time in my life, I found myself unable to get out of bed solely because I was in such a perturbed mental state that getting up took too much effort.
That relationship came to a swift and ugly end, the worry about grades slowly lifted as I somehow managed to perform shockingly well (given my mental state) on finals that semester, the worry about job prospects disappeared as within two months’ time that summer I landed my dream law-school internship and then got a summer associateship offer from an amazing law firm, and the worry about debt began to drift away as I realized that I would likely be among the lucky ones to end up in Biglaw after graduation. The depression, however, did not go away
That was even more confounding than when depression hit me for the first time. I thought that, with all those ducks in a row, everything would reset back to my default norm. But it did not. I underestimated the physiological aspects of depression that do not change just because circumstances do. I overlooked the fact that the initial triggers for my depression were just catalysts that dredged up decades’ old issues that had been left unresolved that whole time.
So things got better but they also got worse. Externally, everything was clicking and it did legitimately feel great. Plus, with all I had on my plate (and still do), I was so mindlessly busy that it was easy to push off the emotions. But the effect of that was, when I did have those down moments that inevitably come no matter how busy one is, everything would come rushing back all at once and hit me like a freight train.
Depression, however, is the sort of thing that I think is particularly difficult for super type-A people like myself to admit or to address. For one, it is an incredibly complex emotion, and being someone who envies Spock’s prioritization of reason over emotion (“I am not capable of that emotion.”//”Emotions are illogical.”), it was tough to admit that my reason had been overwhelmed by emotion. Also, it is (foolishly) perceived to be a sign of weakness – hence Ken’s reticence to openly discuss his depression despite being well-established in the legal profession. If there is something lawyers, particularly litigators, cannot stand more than anything, it is willfully exposing a weakness to the opposition. For me, I also felt compelled by a perverse sense of masculinity to “man up” and “just deal with it,” especially since my problems were partly of my own making (they almost always are) and were comparatively small compared to others’ issues (I wasn’t dying of a terminal illness or experiencing the death of a child, for instance). And, of course, I worried generally about what people would think of me if they knew I was “crazy.” To boot, therapy just felt like navel-gazing – you know, “tell me about your mother,” “how did that make you feel,” etc.
But suppressing it did not help me at all. It only made it worse. It doesn’t help anyone at all. Admitting you need help (whether to yourself or to others) and then getting help (even if it feels like a pointless exercise in navel-gazing) actually does. It took some time to get to that point, and I needed some hand-holding along the way (thank you Hillary, Matthew, Marty, and Lawson, among others), but I got there. And I discovered that Ken was absolutely right – problems would not disappear with the wave of a psychological magic wand. What has been beneficial, however, has been obtaining tools and perspectives thanks to that therapy. It has been helpful to acquire mental coping mechanisms for analyzing and processing overwhelming thoughts and emotions that seem to make no sense but in fact are perfectly sensible – and, more importantly, manageable and resolvable. Help hasn’t made the darkness go away, and anyone who says there are simple fixes are either wrong, deluded, or lying. But it makes the darkness a little less oppressive and it helps you find others, which sure beats the alternative of groping around, alone, trying to find something or someone to give you a reason not to despair of everything.
Like most people, the things that precipitate and drive my depression are complicated. It can come on at almost any time, brought on by the most innocuous of occurrences. It is very difficult to explain without providing my long-form life story as background. And it sometimes leads me to act in ways that are inexplicable, or easily misunderstood, to those not privy to my circumstances. But I am finally finding the courage to stare down those things that drive it, to process them, and to let them do their worst to me so they can start to hurt less over time. And I am finally hopeful that that last part – i.e., that things will start to hurt less over time – will actually prove true, rather than simply dreading everything and fearing that depression is a black hole from which I will never be able to escape.
So, thanks to Ken’s challenge, I decided it’s time to be candid and speak freely – for better or worse. I have been blessed with amazing family, friends, and colleagues, who are bright and intelligent and thoughtful and who can handle my candor (they do with respect to everything else already!). I have been blessed with good jobs and opportunities, which gives me a bit more security to open up about all this (and, frankly, if it proves to be a setback with respect to other jobs and opportunities, then those were probably jobs and opportunities I wouldn’t really have wanted anyway; because if candor about something that sixteen million American adults suffer from every year is a liability, I’ll pass). “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (or, “With great power comes great responsibility,” if you prefer).
Too many of us battle silently, and thus alone, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, among others. That needs to end, and if I have the opportunity to help one person by opening up, as others have helped me, this’ll prove to have been worth the risk. At the very least, I revel in iconoclasm and welcome the chance, in Popehat’s words, to spit in the face of the stigma. So, every now and again, I may continue this conversation and unpack it further here in these pages; at least, whenever I decide I am sick of droning on about law and politics but still want to write about something. I hope you will not judge me, think less of me, or treat me any differently. But I trust most of you will understand, and I hope some of you might be encouraged, at the very least, to know you are not alone.
Music helps me a lot. Not only does it bring to mind memories of the people I care about most in the world (to be sure, it also recalls many painful and difficult memories), but music has also long been a way for me to find a voice regarding things that I could not articulate otherwise. I am a huge Bob Dylan fan, and knowing that Bob has felt the same exact way I do helps make me feel less crazy. So too I find this Foo Fighters song and video really helpful in particularly low moments (many thanks to Tyler for playing it for me for the first time last summer – along with that great James tune!) – it’s fun, emotive, and really strikes a chord with me. If music is your thing too, and you haven’t heard it before, you might enjoy it also. Until next time . . . .