Reflections on living and practicing law with mental illness
BY AARON D. PAKER
Editor’s note: This article briefly discusses suicide and suicidal ideations.
As I approached adulthood many people in my life, from family to school counselors, had pointers on how to get into the “good” colleges and how to get the “good” jobs. This traditional wisdom taught that you had to follow the rules by dressing and speaking professionally, being polite, talking about your strengths, hiding your weaknesses, and never sharing more than you had to unless it made you look better. To this I say: Horsesh*t!
Traditional wisdom says that I should not be sharing the story of my journey with mental illness, that it will put a black mark on my record and no one will ever want to hire me or work with me again. I’m sharing it anyway, for a few reasons. First, I hope that talking about my struggles might help even one attorney reading this to feel empowered to get help for their own mental illness. Second, my experiences make me a better attorney in my field. And finally, no one with any disability, mental or physical, should ever be made to feel ashamed of what they have had to overcome.
I spent over 30 years of my life with daily suicidal ideations, attempted suicide over a dozen times in my youth, constantly fought urges to harm myself or others, and even spent entire days doing things that I could not remember because my false memories were more real to me. I have experienced the effects of going five days without any sleep and the only slightly less disorienting effects of sleeping for nearly 24 hours straight. I have lost friendships because I was too terrifying to be around and nearly lost the most important relationship in my life because of addictions to alcohol and gambling—my first attempts at self-medication.
I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at age 21, after over a decade of denying my illness. I tried medication but the ones prescribed for me at that time made things worse. I spent over a decade getting to a place where I felt nearly normal on a daily basis without medication and more than another decade fine tuning the process.
Today I am a person who has learned to live with mental illness. It was not, and still is not, an easy life to live, but the funny thing is, now that I have it more or less under control, I thank God every day for this struggle, because it has made me a stronger and more empathetic person as well as a more effective lawyer.
Specifically, my experience controlling my illnesses makes me uniquely qualified for the work I do in Medicaid planning and probates. High on the list of ways that this experience helps is my ability to understand the struggles that clients and their families face as dementia and other illnesses slowly set in. I understand how frustrating it is not to know which memories are real and which are not. I have seen the concern on the faces of friends as they watched me struggle to get through the most basic functions of my day because of physical or emotional pain and exhaustion. I understand that the struggle is often 10 times worse than we let on to others.
Also important to my particular practice areas is my ability to remain calm and rational without being cold and detached. After decades of working to keep my mood in the normal range while it tries to soar into manic flights or crash into a weeping wreck, I am able to sit in a room full of people who are going through terrible struggles, openly sobbing, and keep a calm, reassuring manner while still engaging. Many attorneys grow uncomfortable around such displays of emotion and try to stop the crying or detach and become ultra-focused on getting through the business and getting out of the room. I encourage my clients to express what they are feeling and to talk about things that may appear to have nothing to do with the legal work I will be doing, because I know that I cannot help them until I know the depth of their struggle.
The fact that I have endured and persevered through incredible hardship and come out on the other side also helps me meet the common challenges that all attorneys, whatever their practice area, face. I try to keep myself to a 40- to 50-hour workweek, but I know that a 60- to 70-hour week now and again won’t break me because I have seen worse. I try not to let the pile of files that need immediate attention grow to more than two or three feet tall, but when it does I do not grow anxious or throw in the towel because I have overcome worse. When a client complains that what I did is not good enough, for whatever reason, I do not take it personally or question my worth as an attorney because I have had thoughts that are a lot worse. There are not many things that this career can throw at me that are worse than the things I have overcome in my life, and that allows me to push through the challenges that cause this profession to have such high rates of mental illness.11 The WSBA recognizes the urgent need for mental health help in the legal profession and cites, on its Member Wellness page, to an article in the Journal of Addiction Medicine that identifies “significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress” in attorneys and law students. www.wsba.org/for-legal-professionals/member-support/wellness/mental-health.
There are two types of attorneys who I expect and hope are reading this article: those with mental health struggles and those without. If you do not have any mental health issues, I am overjoyed for you. I ask that you keep an eye out for colleagues who may be struggling and, rather than giving them a hard time about getting emotional in a meeting or jumping on them for seeming sluggish at the end of the week, talk to them and support them. If you are looking to hire new attorneys and a candidate self-discloses a mental health issue, don’t let it negatively impact your consideration of them as a candidate; with some support, they could be the best hire you ever make.
For those of you who have or suspect that you have a mental illness, seek professional help. Don’t let pride or stigma prevent you from getting the help you need to be the best, most functional version of you. If you are avoiding treatment because you are an attorney and dammit you can fix this on your own, it’s likely that you cannot. There are much better treatments now than there were when I was 21, and most of the professionals prescribing medications are better versed in potential side effects. Yes, you are an attorney and that means that you are good at pitting yourself against anything and coming out on top but, hopefully, it also means that you are intelligent enough to recognize the fights that you cannot win without help. Your struggle is part of who you are and it gives you incredible power and insight, so long as you get the help needed to allow you to control it and not the other way around. Whether you learn techniques to control it on your own or you control it through medication and therapy, you can learn to turn your “weakness” into one of the greatest strengths in your life. But it all starts with admitting that you need help.
You can seek help on your own or contact the WSBA Member Wellness program at 206-727-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are not ready to take that step, talk to a trusted friend or coworker, or even call or email me and I will find time to sit down with you over coffee and just listen and be a first line of support. I am not a trained professional but I have a pretty good sympathetic ear. It is not as important how you start getting help as it is that you start getting help.
1. The WSBA recognizes the urgent need for mental health help in the legal profession and cites, on its Member Wellness page, to an article in the Journal of Addiction Medicine that identifies “significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress” in attorneys and law students. www.wsba.org/for-legal-professionals/member-support/wellness/mental-health.