“Life is overrated”: One lawyer’s struggles with depression
By Keith Anderson, LL.B., LL.M.
This article is excerpted from a longer article posted on the website of the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program, in which former Nova Scotia lawyer Keith Anderson relates his personal battle with depression, for the benefit of other lawyers who may be facing similar struggles.
“Life is overrated.” I made that comment early one morning as I traveled to Cape Smokey to learn how to ski. Over the years, it became a phrase we would use at the firm when something went wrong. Little did I know that in time, I would actually think that of my life.
March 2003 was a turning point for me. On the 7th, I was diagnosed with depression. On the 11th, I was suspended from the practice of law by the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. On the 11 and 12th, I suffered a breakdown. My mind was in fragments — some functioning, others not. I had lost my health and career in a week. Clearly, not my best moment.
But my life had become a series of bad moments — bad days, leading to even worse months and years. I just thought that was to be my life. I didn't recognize that it was an actual illness.
When I was advised by the Bar Society of the complaint filed against me, I took my own advice and retained a lawyer: Guy LaFosse, Q.C. I remember meeting with Guy after he had reviewed the complaint and my history. I had had three complaints in 18 years of practice, all of which were dismissed at the first stage of the procedure. His question to me was: “What happened? What went wrong in your life? This just doesn't happen.” I had no response. He suggested I see my doctor. Two days later, my doctor of 25 years diagnosed me with depression and prescribed me an anti-depressant.
Four days later, I was suspended pending a final resolution. The public hearing was held in Halifax (I lived and practised in Sydney) and lasted a few hours. I responded to questions from the Bar Society's lawyer, my lawyer, and the committee members. It all appeared surreal. However, I did accept responsibility for the decisions I made that formed the complaint. I had acted wrongly, improperly, and unethically. The crux of the complaint was with regard to my purchase of a new house.
I wasn't sure how I had arrived at such a point in my life. Over the next few months, and even to this day, I would learn how depression wrapped around my mind and how it had such a devastating impact on me.
Depression is like a dark fog that slowly settles into one's mind. With a clear mind now, I can look back and recognize the symptoms.
I started to withdraw from my friends. Solo lunches became common. I would get a bagel and a bottle of water and drive around the city. If I didn't have the energy to drive, I would park among the vehicles in a parking lot, hoping that I would not meet anyone I knew. I just wanted to hide for that half hour.
Tears occurred daily. I would cry as I drove to the office. I would collect myself in the parking lot, walk in, and work all day as if all was wonderful. Pretending to be fine was exhausting. Then more tears as I returned home.
I cut off communications with important friends from university days. My last relationship was shortchanged. As depression eroded my self-confidence and self-worth, I slowly cut off my contact with her. I couldn't commit to a trip or even dinner the next night. I thought I didn't deserve to be with her. I could not allow myself to be happy.
"We, as lawyers, are the ones who fix other people's problems. We tend to be strong-willed, determined, and hard working. We don't ask for help; people ask us."
Then insomnia took hold. I would sleep maybe two to three hours a night from Sunday to Thursday. By the weekend, I would be so tired from life, I would collapse and sleep. But the cycle returned on Sunday. This routine went on for months and years. I didn't sleep because I hated my life so much, I didn't want the next day to begin. So if I stayed awake, it delayed the next morning's arrival. Depression can be powerful.
My level of concentration was low. I couldn't focus to read a book. Watching a movie was no joy. I would be sitting in a theatre and after 20 minutes, I would realize I had no idea what I had been watching.
Why did I miss these signs of depression? For me, life in my twenties was wonderful; I did well in school, then at work. I was optimistic. Then my thirties rolled around, and I had my own personal challenges surface.
My law partner got us involved in a failed business, leading to some debt. My father died at age 59 in 1992. I come from a close family. As well, my father was a real estate agent, and my practice was in real estate, so we talked every day about something. His death was the trigger for my depression. As well, the pressures of the debt load and practice became overwhelming at times.
I thought I could handle my own difficulties, but in hindsight, I was at a loss. We, as lawyers, are the ones who fix other people's problems. We tend to be strong-willed, determined, and hard working. We don't ask for help; people ask us.
Now, back to March 2003. After the hearing at which I was suspended, I walked across the street to the hotel where I was staying. My mother and sister were waiting for me. My brother-in-law was called and arrived a few minutes later. I decided that we should check out. I wanted to see my niece and nephew at my sister's house, just outside of Halifax. My mind was beginning to unravel even more.
I mentally and physically collapsed at my sister's. I spent the next three months confined to a bed. My niece gave up her bedroom for me. There was a chair at my bedside, and my family took turns sitting with me. Without them, I would have ended up in hospital. This self-confinement would actually last, to some extent, for a few years.
The Bar Society gave me a list of doctors for whom they would cover the cost of the first ten therapy sessions. With my family's encouragement, I called one of the doctors. I had never been to therapy before, so it was all new. It's amazing what one will tell a stranger. The floodgates opened, and out flowed my life.
I attended therapy once a week for two years, then once a month for awhile. Attending therapy became the highlight of my week. I learned how to handle anxiety attacks, which occurred daily at this time. As well, I came to understand depression and its impact on my life. My doctor also helped me wean myself off the medication. My family and I discussed my illness at length, learning about depression and what steps to take to get me healthy.
June 23, 2003, was the date set for the final resolution of the complaint. By this time, my lawyer and the Bar Society's lawyer had come to an agreement to which I had consented. But the agreement had to be approved by a bar committee. I testified again for a few hours. I was better able to explain what happened in my life that led to the complaint. I now understood depression. I had found a new house, isolated from the world, with no neighbours. I told few about this house. The need to hide was paramount; it meant my survival. I had one goal, to get that house. My decision-making was governed, if not dictated, by my depression. Thus, my decisions were improper.
This committee approved the agreement. I would be suspended for two years, backdated to March 11, 2003. The only requirements to be reinstated are that I be healthy and that I cover the Bar Society's costs. The chair, John Merrick, Q.C., said at the conclusion, “I need say no more, but, Keith, go home and get well" Darrel Pink, the executive director, also wished me well.
Over the next months, some friends came forward to help. They did not just say they would help; they actually did so. They helped sell my house, stored my belongings, called just to see how I was doing. Others took me to a few movies and even got me to attend Pilates classes for awhile. Others contacted me when they read what I wrote for the National Post, an article called “How I Returned to a Life Worth Living.”
But I also wanted to get well. A series of small steps would lead to major accomplishments. I would go to a favourite restaurant, get take out, and eat in my vehicle in the back parking area.. After doing this for a few months, I then could eat in the front parking lot. Then one day, I could actually eat inside. This entire process took around six months.
"I had found a new house, isolated from the world, with no neighbours. I told few about this house. The need to hide was paramount; it meant my survival. I had one goal, to get that house."
I would leave the house to go certain places where I would be comfortable. I could go to Chapters when it wasn't busy. I felt relaxed there. As well, as my mind became clear, I tried reading books again. I could now read and enjoy it.
There were a few bumps along the way. Some people didn't contact me at all. The day I learned of the complaint, I told my law partner. He didn't speak to me after that and then went to Florida on holidays. He didn't know about the suspension until after the fact. He didn't attend the June 23 hearing. I haven't heard his voice since March 7, 2003.
I was snubbed by one person in a grocery store, who used to greet me with a hug. A local judge put his head down when he saw me in a corner store.
Now, I want to make it clear that this is actually a happy story. Getting suspended was a good thing. Don't get me wrong: it was devastating to me, but it had a positive aspect. It removed me from an unhealthy workplace. Those pressures were gone. I was put in a place, physically and mentally, where I could focus on getting well. I knew it would take a long time, but at least I had found a path to a second chance at a real life.
I will one day apply to be re-instated. I have a healthy mind now. If I am fortunate enough to be reinstated, I am not sure what my career will be, but it will unfold.