Following up on my previous post, 'Big Law Killed My Husband': An Open Letter From A Sidley Partner's Widow: American Lawyer op-ed, 'Scared. Ashamed. Crippled.': How One Lawyer Overcame Living With Depression in Big Law:, by Mark S. Goldstein (Counsel, Reed Smith, New Yoek):
It was Oct. 16, 2017. A Monday. My wife’s 32nd birthday. A day after the Jets blew a 14-point lead to the Patriots. It was also what I thought would be the last time I would ever walk through the halls of Reed Smith, the law firm at which I had spent the past four-plus years.
Roughly six weeks earlier, I had been diagnosed with severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety. I felt scared. Ashamed. Crippled. As if I was going to die. Perhaps most of all, I felt alone, particularly in a profession that often stigmatizes mental health disorders. A profession that tends to label them, instead, as “burnout,” or sweep them under the rug. The symptoms of my conditions, which had likely been percolating for some time, came on suddenly and swiftly over Labor Day weekend 2017. These symptoms included not only mentally crippling cognitions, but also physically impairing side effects as well. By early the following week, I knew that this was no mere passing phase; it could not be ignored.
For the next month and a half, I sought the counsel of a small circle of family, friends and colleagues. With their support, I searched high and low for a path to reclaim a life that I felt slipping further away by the day. I attempted to persevere with my personal and professional lives. This, unfortunately, proved futile. My relationships with my wife and son continued to deteriorate, due largely to my own self-imposed isolation. As for work, I simply could not function. In fact, I spent most of my time parked on the couch in one of Reed Smith’s wellness rooms. And when, between panic attacks, I could stomach being in my office, I was often held hostage by symptoms of my OCD.
Eventually, I realized that the “stigma” associated with mental health issues—particularly for lawyers—and suffering in silence, paled in comparison to the need to protect my personal well-being. I realized that I needed time away to address my issues head-on. To seek professional care and help. To salvage whatever semblance I could of my life as a husband, father, lawyer.
On Oct. 12, I mustered the courage to inform Reed Smith of my decision to take a leave of absence. The firm was exceedingly supportive and conveyed a clear message: take all the time you need to recover. Still, as I turned off the lights in my office on Oct. 16—the day before my leave began—I was confident I would never set foot on that gray/brown carpet ever again. I was confident that I would not and could not recover; that there would be no light at the end of the tunnel for me (and, frankly, no end of the tunnel). At least not while I remained a lawyer.
Over the next 11 weeks, I underwent an oft-challenging journey of self-reflection. I re-evaluated both my personal and professional goals. On an almost weekly basis, I met separately with a psychiatrist, psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist. I began taking—and still to this day take—prescription medication to treat my mental disabilities. I also came to terms with the fact that the conditions from which I suffer are indeed disabilities, no different from physical impairments. With the help of a mindfulness coach, I took up meditation. I began running again, and went for long walks in the nature preserve near my home in Maplewood, New Jersey. I spent more time—quality time—with my wife and son. I started engaging in activities that had fallen by the wayside, due to my conditions, for many months prior. Many of these were unremarkable, mundane activities that I had previously taken for granted. Listening to music, watching movies, smiling, laughing, even reading legal publications.
By year-end, I felt like my old self again. I wasn’t “cured,” nor will I ever be. But I was finally ready to hit the play button on a life then on pause. I returned to Reed Smith on Jan. 2, 2018. Although my office, as if frozen in time, had not changed one bit, I still had no idea what to expect. Would I be welcomed back, shunned or something in between? While the firm had been tremendously supportive both before and during my leave of absence, was that mere rhetoric?
Quite quickly, I came to realize that it was not. In fact, 2018 proved to be perhaps my most fulfilling year as an attorney. Reed Smith, including everyone from the partner with whom I work most, to the labor and employment group more broadly, to management, HR, support staff and beyond, welcomed me back with open arms. I was treated as if nothing had happened and no time had passed. I felt no stigma or shaming. Quite the contrary, I worked with an even broader swath of attorneys and on even more exciting matters. I joined LEADRS, Reed Smith’s disability affinity group. The firm helped me overcome what I had previously believed to be an insurmountable obstacle. ...
I started this article with a date. I want to end it with another: Dec. 9, 2018. That was the day I learned that, less than 12 months after my return to work, Reed Smith had voted to promote me to counsel. While we are not and should not be defined exclusively by our professional achievements, this was, for me, the culmination of many months of hard work, both on a professional and, more importantly, a personal level. It was a day that, a year and a half earlier, I didn’t know whether I would be alive to see.
As I said above, I will never be cured and, if you also suffer from mental health disabilities, you will never be either. However, if you are an attorney suffering from such disabilities, one thing I can assure you is that you can not only maintain a legal practice, but that you can in fact thrive.