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An Illness No One Talks About

 

I just returned to work after being off for a little more than six weeks. No, I had not been on an extended vacation backpacking across Europe. I had spent time in a mental hospital followed by six weeks of outpatient day treatment. I have bipolar disorder and was suffering through a severe bout of depression.

My direct supervisor knew where I was and what was going on in my life. No one else did. I did not hear from anyone while I was gone. I know my supervisor did not share my situation, and the people in my office did not want to intrude. They are kind and caring folk, but because no news was shared with them, they did not call my family to check on me or to see if they needed help. No one baked us a casserole. No one brought flowers. That was my choice, I suppose. Or, was it?

There is still a major stigma attached to mental illness, especially in the legal profession. I know that Lawyers Helping Lawyers has worked diligently to combat that stigma, and I appreciate the effort. I hope it works because a 2015 study conducted by the American Bar Association in partnership with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that attorneys do not usually seek help because they do not want others to find out they need help and they worry about confidentiality. Both reasons speak to the stigma associated with mental health illness and care.

This is the place where I should stand up, identify myself and make the argument that the only way to reduce the stigma is for us all to be honest about mental illness and mental health. But I am an attorney, and I am not that person. At least I am not that person to the entire readership of the Oklahoma Bar Journal.

I am taking baby steps. When I returned to work, I opened up to several people and let them know about my diagnosis and how overwhelming the depression had become. When I did that, I found that each of them also had stories of how mental illness had impacted them or someone they loved. They admitted they refrained from sharing their stories because of the stigma. None of us have “come out” to the rest of the firm. However, each of us is taking baby steps.

Two of us have begun attending the monthly Lawyers Helping Lawyers discussion group in Oklahoma City and have found a safe and supportive place to share what is going on in our lives. It is not easy for me to open up about myself and share personal details about my life with other attorneys.

However, I have started doing just that, and it has been okay, even positive. In fact, no one has treated me any differently – which provided my worried mind with relief. I am still not ready to reveal my identity, but I hope this helps someone out there to seek help from the resources available through the OBA. I hope I never reach the depths of depression I recently experienced, but, if I do, I hope I will be able to let my co-workers know about it so that my family and I will receive the support so desperately needed during those times. And, yes, I hope someone brings a casserole.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 89 pg. 48 (August 2018)