A Lawyer’s Brush with Death
If left unchecked, it can persuade you — the intelligent, successful, admired person — to seek a permanent solution, suicide, to the temporary problem of depression.
I was working frenetically to earn the nomination of the Federal Liberal party in the Riding of Kitchener-Conestoga. I had to go door-to-door selling party memberships to people who would commit to supporting me at a nomination meeting. At the time I lived in Mississauga and worked in downtown Toronto as a trial lawyer. My days were long: 16 to 18 hours a day for six months. By November 2007, I had won the nomination… but lost my marriage. I was surprised to come home one day to find that my wife had left a note and moved out.
I responded by focusing with singled-minded determination on winning the election, believing that a win would solve all of my problems. But I came in second. Within 24 hours of losing, all the work, support, excitement and hope were gone. I was left in the grips of yet another downward spiral. I found that I missed my wife a lot. I felt I had embarrassed myself, my community, and my family. I began to believe that I did not deserve a career, respect, friends, love, and least of all, help. Within three weeks I thought my loved ones would be better off without me.
Existing in an untreated major depressive cycle for fifteen months, since the end of my marriage, on December 18, 2008, six weeks after losing the election, I took 180 sleeping pills with two bottles of wine. I remember thinking that I would likely die, but I did not care. I couldn’t see in the haze that followed, but I was vaguely aware that I was sitting at my computer. As I pushed myself out of the chair, I fell to the ground and my phone rolled out in front of me. In a moment of lucidity, I thought of my daughter and decided I was not ready to say goodbye. I found the speed dial for my estranged wife. With everything we had gone through, I had no reason to believe she would answer: it was the wee hours of the morning and she had call display. But she did and called 911.
I spent the next three months in the hospital being treated with medication, talk therapy, group therapy and meditation. I had 13 electro-convulsive treatments. Through all this time, no one knew the real reason I was away. I told some work colleagues that I was suffering from a physical problem. I told my family I was on an extended vacation and then away for an out-of-town trial. I was so afraid that people would think of me differently, and that I wouldn’t get the same high-profile cases I used to getting. Who would come to a lawyer who couldn’t solve his own problems? Who would ask me to fight for them if they thought I was weak? Nothing cries out weakness and vulnerability as much as major depression.
Within three months of leaving the hospital — six months after I was admitted — the darkness dissipated and I could return to work. The worst depressive cycle of my life was finally over. In my recovery I took solace from an ancient Greek poem written 2500 years ago by Aeschylus:
Lawyers with mental illness
There’s an oft-cited 1991 study out of John Hopkins University stating that lawyers are almost four times as likely to suffer from depression as the rest of society. In the U.S. they rank fourth among professionals who take their own lives, behind dentists, pharmacists, and physicians. By the time students reach their third year of law school, 40% have had an episode of depression. This makes sense given the environment — in law school, skepticism and pessimism are highly valued and students are immersed, often for the first time, in a competitive culture of Type-A personalities. Students compete for top grades, coveted clerkships, and scarce articling positions, all while worrying about their mounting six-figure student debt.
In the spring of 2014, CNN reported that Bar Associations across the United States had noticed a sharp increase in the number of suicides among lawyers. Because of my own history with depression, I went online to learn as much as I could. I discovered that these lawyers generally had three things in common: they were mostly middle-aged men; they were mostly trial lawyers; and, in almost every case, no one, not even their spouses, knew they were depressed. I was stunned. I fit squarely into that demographic — right down to the fact that no one, not even my mother or my wife, knew that I suffered from depression.
Life as a student
It wasn’t the first time I’d been depressed. I have a condition called dysthymia, a chronic low-grade depression that escalates into a major depressive episode every three or four years. It started when I was quite young and was perhaps first noticed by my fourth-grade teacher. I was nine-years-old when she asked me to keep a journal. “My Happy Book” was the place where I was to write anything that made me happy. The extra personal attention meant the world to me and helped me build self-confidence. But ever a shadowy companion, my depression never completely left.
To some, my childhood depression looked more like shyness or introversion. I certainly didn’t know there was anything wrong with me. As a child, and even as an adult, you don’t think your pain is necessarily the product of illness — especially not mental illness. Rather, you grow up believing that you are a worthless boy; a worthless teenager; and finally, a worthless man.
As I grew older and matured, and even as I enjoyed some success, my mood kept oscillating between chronic low-grade depression and major depressive episodes. When I fell into major depressions I would find myself intentionally alone at night, dwelling on thoughts of ending my life. But the tides would always subside and I would return to a stable, low-grade depression — something akin to an equilibrium between despair and relief. No one could tell because I was high-functioning and I learned how to hide the illness. I disguised heart-wrenching despair as intense determination, which not only masked my illness, but distracted me from it.
By all outward appearances, I continued to function and succeed. I did well in my undergraduate program at the University of Waterloo and was admitted on a scholarship to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. Ultimately, I was invited to join the partnership of one of Canada’s largest law firms before moving to the public sector to continue my work as a lead trial lawyer. I never missed a deadline, even as my personal life crumbled around me.
You may never know that any of your friends, family, colleagues or loved ones are suffering, especially the more high-functioning among them. For the best and brightest among us, the last thing to go is work.
Learning to live again
I tried to gain wisdom from my near-fatal experience by developing insight into my own illness. According to Dr. Jane Storrie, past president of the Ontario Psychological Association, professionals and other high-functioning people are “great at functioning when they are not coping.” This means that if you see signs of depression among your colleagues at work, it’s bad and they need help. Men in particular are more likely to hide their depression. They suffer silently to avoid appearing weak and they die by suicide in much greater numbers. The stigma that keeps them silent is the stigma that kills them.
In my case, as is often the case with depression and other mood disorders, the illness can be passed on genetically — sometimes with catastrophic results. Everyone in my father’s immediate family, for example, suffered from severe major depression. Some self-medicated with alcohol, like my father did until his death at the age of 51. His sister attempted suicide three times before passing away at the age of 76 last fall. Their grandfather took his own life at the age of 48.
With the help of professionals, I developed a 10-point scale:
10 is a happiness I have never known
8 is my best normal happy
6 is my dysthymic cruising altitude
5 is the onset of problems, where I start to lose interest in hobbies like playing the violin or watching NFL football
3 is a decline so severe, I need to get help
2 is when I cannot help myself and I need someone to pull me out of the darkness
0 is catastrophic.
I was asked to describe what a “3” feels like, but could not find the words. The closest I have come is a quote by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, in which he describes Sam Carton laying in the gutter watching the sunrise:
I have learned the secret is to never allow my mood to fall below a “3” again. When you are at this level or below, all you want is sleep and isolation, which is the worst thing for you because isolation
perpetuates the downward spiral. It deprives you of the vital connections that drive you to do more and be more, to love and be loved. It lets your irrational thoughts grow in strength and credibility. If left unchecked, it can persuade you — the intelligent, successful, admired person — to seek a permanent solution, suicide, to the temporary problem of depression.
Yet no one can help unless you feel comfortable telling someone about your own 10-point scale (or whatever tool you may use to monitor your mood). To do that, collectively we must put an end to the stigma around mental health. We must normalize the discussion.
My only hope is that somehow we can collaborate to break the pattern of people suffering silently. In other words, if I can have this story published; if I disclose these deeply personal and embarrassing things, maybe you, if you are feeling depressed, can pick up the phone and tell someone, anyone at all, and get the help you need.
There is good news: With the proper help, 80% of people recover from depression.
Managers, employers, co-workers, leaders, spouses and friends, must be part of the solution. I humbly ask that you undertake to take care of yourselves, your loved ones, and your co-workers by creating a safe place around you where mental health issues can be discussed without ridicule, scorn, or judgment.
Remind us, when we need reminding, that there are always better days to come and there is always hope.
And I know about hope. Eight years after my suicide attempt, I am still alive. I have a great career as a trial lawyer. Somehow, I was chosen to lead the Ontario Bar Association and its 16,000 members as its president. I got remarried to a wonderful, beautiful woman, and my family loves me. I also get to share my story here.
Back in 2008, I had taken 180 sleeping pills with two bottles of wine. Recently I learned that the lethal dose for someone my size is 30 tablets. Even in my darkest days, I will always remember that I am, indeed, a lucky man.
Orlando da Silva works for the Ministry of the Attorney-General as a lead trial lawyer in critical litigation involving Ontario. He is the Immediate Past President of the Ontario Bar Association and was recently named a finalist by CBC Radio Metro Morning as “Torontonian of the Year” for his work as a mental health advocate. Canadian Lawyer Magazine named him one of the “Top 25 Most Influential” lawyers in the country. Law Times named him “Top Newsmaker” in 2014.
Originally published in volume 18 issue 2 of Your Workplace magazine.