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Depression and a career in law

Wednesday, 15 October 2014 Joe

Joe blogs about how a high pressured work environment made depression even harder to deal with.

In 2004, I realised that to start dealing with depression I needed to admit it was a problem by talking to someone about it. At the time in my mid 30’s, I found this extremely difficult until things got so bad that during a trip to my GP for treatment of conjunctivitis,  I poured out the feelings I had buried for 18 months and realised I was quite ill.

My depression came about as a build up of pressure in my private and professional life as a lawyer. A serious criminal charge against a sibling saw my family and job become dangerously entwined. My employer threatened to fire me simply because of my sibling’s alleged offence, to protect the reputation of the company.

Litigating cases through the day and having to deal with my family’s problems each evening. It was just too much for me and my body cried.

Four months off work allowing my medication to take effect and then a short phased return saw me well on the road to recovery. Eventually, my sibling was acquitted and I changed my job. In early 2005, I felt able to stop my medication and things were fine for a time.

However, this all changed earlier this year when I lost both my parents in a two week period. Both were sudden and unexpected deaths and I took them very hard. I am sure I could have coped with the grief if I could have taken more than two days unpaid holiday for each funeral and didn’t have to deal with work issues during each one.

A course of grief counselling helped somewhat, but the situation was made worse by an unresolved work issue relating to a meritless client complaint. I felt entirely unable to tell my employer or peers how I felt and how I was being affected by the double body blow of dealing with the sudden loss of my parents and a horrid situation at work.

I knew talking about how I felt would help, but I just couldn’t. I started to see the signs that I was going downhill. I lost the ability to concentrate, stopped my out of work hobbies and took no joy in life at all. Add to this constant tiredness and I realised I was on the edge of a breakdown.

My wife knew that something was wrong. Having dealt with the loss of a brother, two sisters and both parents in the past few years, she was all too aware of the effects of grief and signs of depression. Her own employer gave her three months paid leave, arranged counselling and a long phased return following the loss of her mother and remaining sibling in 2012. What a contrast to my own situation.

One Thursday morning, I felt absolutely desperate and called my GP surgery, only to find it was closed for training. The following morning I managed to speak with my GP and the relief I felt was immediate. An appointment the following Monday with him was very helpful and I was given medication to start immediately.

Despite my earlier experience, I ignored the signs that I wasn’t well. Even when first prompted by my wife to seek help, I was reluctant because of the stigma attached to depression and knowing that I simply couldn’t afford to take time off work or tell my employer. In the macho culture of my profession, such an admission could be career ending.

The key lessons I’ve learned from the experience are to not ignore the signs of depression and seek help. My employer does not know the issues I have faced and it is terrible that, after 22 years in the profession, I feel in such a vulnerable position. I can not be honest and open about the impact of grief and badly timed professional stress on my wellbeing.

However, the silver lining to this cloud is that the meritless complaint has been withdrawn and I have come to terms with my mental health, even if I still feel compelled to hide my condition.

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