I am a Social Security disability attorney and I just won another bipolar case for the most deserving of clients.
I have a soft spot for her myriad problems: psychotic breaks, commitment to psychiatric hospitals, deep depression, panic attacks… you name it. Today was a glorious day when I feel proud of my profession and lucky that I have found somewhere to do good while living with a mental illness.
Yes, living with a mental illness. I am 37 years old and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in February 2000.
I was an overachiever in high school and went to Washington and Lee University on a full academic scholarship. Upon graduation I got a good job at Capital One in Richmond, Virginia. The future looked bright.
But then things started to speed up. I found I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. My mind raced and I began having delusions that I was God and could save the world. I walked in Heaven on Earth and believed I saw the way to take us all there. I felt an enormous empathy for those around me. It felt like a knife to the heart anytime anyone else hurt, and the converse was true, too. Others’ joy was multiplied a hundredfold in my heart. This overwhelming love can be unbearable in its power.
We would later find out that heightened religiosity is a touchstone of mania in bipolar sufferers. It runs wild in me.
After six days of not sleeping or eating, I checked into Norfolk Psychiatric Center. I spent a total of two and a half weeks in the hospital.
My diagnosis was bipolar disorder, which my doctors labeled the “good mental illness.” It hasn’t been so good to me over the years.
I believe wholeheartedly that medication is the answer to mental illness, and I started a regimen immediately. I would learn that the right recipe of medications makes all the difference. At that time, though, the right recipe eluded me.
I slipped into a deep depression in the summer of 2000. Depression comes on like a thief in the night and only after you rise from its darkness do you see how pervasive it was. When depressed, you are stuck in a cruel mental suspension: you don’t think things are that bad but you also don’t think they can get better. So you make no great effort to change the status quo.
In spite of a major manic break and a severe depression in 2000, I decided to go to Washington and Lee Law School in 2001. My therapist advised against this; she warned of the stress that comes with being a lawyer and cautioned against addictions that plague attorneys.
I insisted on going to law school. I struggled with the side effects of medication and didn’t make the grades I was accustomed to. Law school was fun and heady, but mental illness made it an uphill battle. There were treasures in that time, though. It was there that I met my brilliant and compassionate husband, Nathan Chaney, a man who does not flinch in the face of mental illness. He’s loved me through the very worst times, the times when I wanted to give up on everything. Everything.
My grades did improve and I got a job clerking for a federal judge in Virginia. In 2005 I passed the Arkansas bar exam, married Nathan, and moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas. The highs and lows a normal lawyer experiences were exacerbated in me, and I took to chaotic mood swings every few months. There was no room for any shearing of intellect or for any departure from reality in the practice of law. Lawyers do not have disabilities. For those of you out there who are practicing while suffering from mental illness, I know the hell that is your every day. I never seemed to get my feet under me, or escape the weight of the illness, in Fayetteville.
After a suicidal time in 2009, we moved back to Nathan’s hometown of Arkadelphia to be close to family while we raised our son. I found a groundswell of support and the Chaney Law Firm gave me the outlet to practice in a way that accommodates my illness and lets my talent shine. I practice part-time, enjoying a busy Social Security disability practice. I can stretch my legs as an attorney on my own schedule; I had the opportunity to argue in front of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in February.
My path has led me to become a mental health advocate. I volunteer for Arkansas Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. ArJLAP is a wonderful program that offers free treatment for judges, lawyers and families who struggle with mental illness, addiction, stress, anxiety, and the like. Simply put, ArJLAP is saving lives.
I am proof that with proper treatment, and accommodation from an employer, an attorney with mental illness can shine brightly. I hope my frankness can spur an open dialogue among lawyers and employers about how to tackle mental illness in our profession.