Bipolar Illness and Crisis

My life as a law student was great. I graduated from a top law school, had a job at the start of my third year, took the bar examination like traveling full speed through a green light; and then, the ground opened up and swallowed my mental health, my career and all the promise I had earned. My life as a young lawyer was launched with a full scale disaster. I embarked on a journey that would land me in the Lawyers’ Assistance Program 30 years later.

In the summer of 1982, as I was preparing to move to Chicago to start my judicial clerkship, I suffered my first horrific manic episode. I have very little recollection of what actually happened. I do know I ended up at my parent’s house with a shattered life and the potential of ending my career before it started. I was advised by a psychiatrist to cancel my job, take some time to figure out what had happened and “the bad feelings I had about myself.” I rejected that medical advice. I moved to Chicago anyway and started my job after delaying my start date for two months. My mother told me years later that my parents disagreed with my decision and were scared to death.

What followed for me were the most intense years of my life. Bipolar manic-depressive disorder is a formidable opponent with a full arsenal of weapons to launch against you. I managed to work through a battery of drug protocols, hospital stays, intensive psychotherapy, and pitch-black depressions. I succeeded only in producing a drug resistant depression. I secured a coveted job as an associate in a large firm in another city; only to be unable to move due to the debilitating depression. Another false start I would have to live with.

I soldiered on. I extended my time as a law clerk and then staff attorney in Chicago. The treatment for mania had a peculiar boomerang. The drugs could keep me from going too high, but could not control how low I could go. The depressions were vicious, relentless and would last for stretches of six months or more. I was suicidal most days for years. I learned to divide my days into three-hour intervals. Somehow, I persevered. I took a job at a law firm in Chicago. Of course, I took my vulnerabilities with me. I learned it does not matter how much money you make and how nice the place you live in is, when you come home and step into a black pit that has no bottom. At the end of 1987, I had nothing left to combat the depression and attempted to end my life. Of all my failures, I remain eternally grateful for this one. I landed myself in intensive care and then the hospital for three weeks to treat the depression.

Looking back, I wish I had reached out to the Lawyers’ Assistance Program during those dark years. I did not know how to reach out to anyone or anything during that time. It would have helped to know mental illness was not my fault and I was not alone. I think that I was wound so tightly by the image of being the successful lawyer that I lacked the wisdom to let help in.

With time, drugs, and therapy; I began to put my bipolar years in the rear view mirror. I did not have another hospitalization. I lost the large law firm job. I found a small firm job. I got married. I left the small law firm and went into private practice. The career that I expected after graduating from law school would always be the treasure that floated away, but I was finding a life practicing law. Yet, my illness and medications left me a parting gift, kidney disease. In 2008 I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease. That is what led me seek help from the Lawyers’ Assistance Program.

When I learned that I would need dialysis or a kidney transplant, I was struggling to keep my practice afloat. I did not prefer to be a sole practitioner. Finding the right professional setting was proving elusive, like a child catching its shadow. In 2008 and 2009, I became anemic, started dialysis, had three surgeries, three hospital stays and countless medical appointments and procedures. I did not know if I could continue to work and what I would do with my practice if I could not work.

In July of 2009 I became severely depressed. All aspects of working became unbearably heavy; like being required to lift twice your weight daily. I contacted the Lawyers’ Assistance Program and asked if they could assist someone with a chronic illness. It was the lifeline I needed.

The Lawyers’ Assistance Program helped me to navigate working full time while being on hemodialysis. There were so many issues that related to my relationships with clients and co-counsel. Meeting periodically with the LAP case manager helped me to gain my footing. The case manager helped me to tackle the harder questions like: Do you let clients know you have a chronic illness? My confidence in handling my practice improved. The Lawyers’ Assistance Program helped me to develop a practice that I could coordinate with kidney disease. I was able to grow my practice and enjoy several great victories in cases.

I returned to the Lawyers’ Assistance Program four years later as I was preparing for a kidney transplant. I wanted the transplant surgery to go well if I was fortunate enough to be selected. The case manager met with me and permitted me to join the weekly women’s group. Once again, the Lawyers’ Assistance Program helped me grapple with the issues of having a chronic illness and major surgery while working full time. I did receive a transplant. Afterwards, I was able to talk over the fears and uncertainty regarding returning to a full schedule. I questioned if I could make it financially and rebuild a practice after five years on the sidelines. Once again, being able to talk with the case manager made a huge difference.

Today, I no longer suffer from the debilitating effects of bipolar disorder. I am rarely depressed. If I am, it is natural and short lived. I have received this amazing gift of life in the form of a new kidney. I know I will face more obstacles to overcome. I also know, if I need it, the Lawyers’ Assistance Program will be there for me.

Karen