Principal, Pro Se, LLC
Living with dysthymia and depression

While working as a lawyer, Andrea feared the stigma she would face if her colleagues found out she had Depression. But after receiving therapy, she realized that her condition gave her a unique skillset, and she now owns a business that coaches professionals in how to best communicate and express their opinions and feelings. Andrea is passionate about sharing her story, and she reflects that “the overwhelming shadow of loneliness was one of the most devastating aspects of my condition. If I had known then that I was not alone, it would have given me hope. Letting those who are in that kind of pain know that they are not alone, that there are many people who have been and are currently in the same situation and are successful, is vital.”

Andrea’s Story

When were you first aware of your condition?

About 35 years ago, when I was practicing at a patent law firm in New York City, over the course of about a year, I became less and less interested in the things that I had always enjoyed. I spent more and more time at work keeping up with my workload and trying to prove myself as a woman in a male-dominated profession. A friend commented that I was “no longer my bubbly self” and I found myself breaking into tears without apparent reason. I would wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to go back to sleep, even though I was exhausted. My appetite faded completely. But it never occurred to me that there might be something really wrong. I didn’t think that there was anything I could do to feel better, and just accepted that it was my natural state of being. After many months of this, it was my mother who realized something was wrong and suggested I seek help. I was resistant at first, but I am grateful that I took her advice and sought help.

How has your condition impacted your work and career?

Having depression while working at a law firm was extremely difficult for me. The condition itself made it challenging to get my work done; I was demotivated, distracted and exhausted when my depression was at its greatest depth. I always completed my work, but there were days when it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Although I was able to seek help, I could never tell anyone what was going on in my life. I was at a huge disadvantage in my profession as a patent lawyer due to my gender and my quiet disposition. If any of the partners had known that I was suffering from a mental health condition, my career would have been greatly compromised. I never submitted health insurance claims for therapy for fear that it would be discovered that I had sought help. What I eventually realized was that litigation practice was a great stressor for me in that it required me to argue with anyone at any time about anything, which was not congruent with my personality. When I left the law firm to work at a corporate patent department, I discovered that my skills lay in transactional deal work, which relies heavily on interpersonal relations. The empathy and comfort with my own feelings that I recognized and developed in my therapy work helped me immensely in this area of legal practice.

What is your life like now?

I retired from the practice of law three years ago and now own an executive coaching practice. I coach attorneys and other professionals in finding their best way to communicate and express their opinions and feelings, which is immensely rewarding. I also volunteer for non-profits, serving on the board of an arts education organization, my law school and my synagogue. I play the piano and spend time with my husband and son (and our standard poodle!); I also attend concerts and the theatre and find enjoyment in most things. I lead a full and happy life.

What help or specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?

There are, of course, times when I feel that I have started to slip into sadness.  When I recognize that happening, I know that I must monitor myself and understand what is causing that feeling. Depending on the source, I determine how best to address it. I can strategize how to express myself to the other individuals involved and resolve what is affecting me. I also look at how I can change my environment to resolve the issue. In all cases, I have physical and mental exercises that are helpful in heading off an episode of depression. I also know (and tell myself) that hope is not lost. No matter what, I can remind myself that I’ve gotten through this before and will do so again.

What do you do to manage your condition and stay healthy on an ongoing basis?

On a daily basis, when I awake, I offer a prayer of gratitude for everyone and everything in my life:  my family, my friends, my poodle and the opportunities to help people through my professional and volunteer work.  I also spend a few minutes meditating:  mindfulness is extremely helpful in dealing with depression.  In order to combat the onset of a depressive episode, I must pay attention to how I am feeling and how I am relating to others.  I also exercise regularly:  physical activity helps to refocus me away from upsetting or sad thoughts; it literally and figuratively gives me strength.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition?

Yes, there are definitely positives that come from having a mental health condition. Successfully combatting depression and keeping it at bay has made me a stronger and healthier person in general. When I have a challenge in my life, I know that I can successfully face into it because I have been able to create a stable life for myself despite having been depressed. It has also given me deep empathy for others who are suffering. Having a mental health condition has guided me to find my passion for helping others through my coaching and volunteer work.

What words of encouragement would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?

I would encourage anyone who is feeling “down” for a long period of time to consult with a professional therapist to determine if this is a condition that can be addressed. Depression is like a slippery slope: we can feel a little sad and start sliding toward the edge of a cliff. If we fall off the cliff, it is difficult to climb back up and sometimes, it can be extremely dangerous and lead to feelings of despair and, in some cases, the contemplation of suicide. It is so important to find help and support before reaching the cliff’s edge. 

We should not be afraid of the stigma that we believe attaches to the condition of depression. Close to half of all attorneys have been found to suffer at least one episode of depression during their careers. It is a mental health condition that can be addressed and kept in check, not a sign that you are not fit to practice law or any chosen profession. It is not an inherent defect, any more than a physical condition is. We need to address it and manage it throughout our lives. But it should not stop us from achieving our true potential.