A year ago, I was a “successful” attorney with my own law firm and a six-figure income. Four months ago, I was a patient in a psychiatric unit suffering from debilitating anxiety and depression. Today, at 62 years young, I am happier and healthier than I have been in years and working on my new business, Goodkind of Life. I’m not embarrassed to talk about any of it. In fact, I believe it would be selfish of me not to share my experiences because it could help someone else.
From Jersey Girl to Yooper
My life started in a comfortable, middle-class suburb of New Jersey. Dad was a successful civil engineer and mom was a filmmaker, writer, model, small business owner, meditator, and fitness buff …this was the 60’s and she was way ahead of her time. My two older brothers and I had a good life. At age 17, I headed off to Syracuse University to study Architecture. A year later I transferred to Cornell University and changed my major to Design and Environmental Analysis. I experienced some anxiety and depression in college, but eventually, it subsided.
After graduating from Cornell, I moved to the Big Apple – New York City. At first, I worked for a design magazine as an Editorial Assistant and then I was hired by an Industrial Designer as his Marketing Coordinator. It was exciting to be single and living in NYC. A few years later I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan to work as a Marketing Communications Specialist for Herman Miller, Inc., one of the leading contract furniture design and manufacturing companies in the world at the time. I worked on trade shows, brochures, newsletters, and other marketing and sales materials. This was my dream job until my division of the company was eliminated and I needed to find a new job. I decided to try sales and got a job selling drugs — pharmaceuticals. It paid well, but I was bored and wanted something more creative and challenging.
During this time my mother, who was only 58 years old, died from ovarian cancer. My depression returned so I saw a counselor for a short time, and then powered on.
So here I was at 30 years old, recently married, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I considered my options and interests and decided to go to law school. Originally, I thought my focus would be products liability law because of my design background. However, in my second year of study, I worked in the school’s clinic for senior citizens and found my niche; Elder Law. I graduated from law school and started working in a general practice firm.
A few years later my husband Karl and I took a vacation to the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, fell in love with the area, and decided we wanted to live there. In the next twelve months, we had a baby, quit our jobs, and moved to the U.P. to became Yoopers; the nickname for U.P. residents.
Falling into the dark hole
After my son was born I had postpartum depression. I thought about killing myself or my child. This was worse than anything I had experienced before. For the first time, I felt like I was at the edge of a dark hole and might fall in. My doctor put me on an antidepressant and I powered on. I opened my own Elder Law office and Karl worked as a psychologist for Community Mental Health.
For a few years, we had it all, but then our lives unraveled. I had two miscarriages and we decided we were too old to try again. Around the time he turned 51, Karl was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a very rare bone cancer. He endured torturous treatment and pain for 18 months and then he died.
Anxiety and depression hit me like a tidal wave. I tried to power through because I needed to work and take care of my son, but it was harder this time. I struggled to get my work done and I cried a lot. My staff sent me home to rest. I went back on antidepressants and two weeks later I was back at work. People commend me for being so strong and resilient, so I assumed I was doing a good job. My business was thriving, and my son seemed happy and healthy. I never took the time to grieve for Karl.
Two years later I married Jack, a kind and attractive man I met on Match.com. I worked like a maniac while raising my son with Jack’s help. I brought on a business partner and things were good for a while, or so I thought. My mental and physical health were declining but I didn’t see it at the time. I was quick to anger and easily irritated. I complained a lot about work. I also developed a painful autoimmune disorder which took over a year to diagnose and treat. Once I got that under control, I weaned myself off the antidepressants because I thought I didn’t need them anymore;
I was eating healthy, exercising regularly and meditating. But I wasn’t okay, I was getting worse. I didn’t realize that I was having mental health problems. Again, I tried to power through like I always did.
The following year my father died, my son left for college, and I was at odds with my business partner. My marriage was in trouble too, for a variety of reasons including my anger. I exercised, meditated, got acupuncture, ate paleo; all at a frantic pace. Then one day while out mountain biking alone at 6:00 am in the morning I fell off my bike and broke my hip. I was forced to let my body heal for 8 weeks but failed to do anything for my unhealthy mind.
I divorced Jack, against his wishes, in April of 2018. Work was stressful, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I worried about everything. I was up to the edge of the dark hole about to fall in. Around that same time, my business partner started to pressure me to retire and sell the practice to her. I wasn’t open to this; I was only 61 and planned on working until at least 67.
That’s when I fell into the dark hole. I worked 10+ hours every day for weeks, usually with my door closed. I stopped going out with my friends and avoided phone calls from my family. My anxiety grew and grew, my heart was racing all the time and I could barely eat. I had no patience with anyone or anything and I struggled with tasks which were previously routine. I started to see a therapist, but I think I scared her off with my neediness. My doctor encouraged me to get back on antidepressants, but I refused.
I was in the dark hole and falling fast. I was in so much mental and emotional pain I would lie in bed screaming at night. It did not matter what anyone said, I felt hopeless. For weeks on end, I would wake up and think “this is the day I am going to kill myself.”
My friends and family tried to reason with me and guilt me about how it would harm my son if I was to commit suicide. None of it mattered. My depression and anxiety were overriding all rational and reasonable thinking. Long story short, I was admitted voluntarily to a psychiatric hospital where their goal was to keep me from killing myself and get me started on medications. It was a dehumanizing experience and I left the hospital feeling worse than when I went in. I was scared to be alone, so I moved in with a friend and her family for a few weeks. After that Jack stayed with me in my house for a month and a half. I was in such a dark place, there was nothing anybody could say or do to make me feel better. I felt hopeless. Suicide was the first thing I thought of each day when I woke up. My friends and family spent hours and hours listening to me, talking to me, and keeping me company. If they had not done this, I am sure I would not be alive today.
I understand why people commit suicide. If you’ve never had a mental illness like depression or anxiety, it might be hard to relate to this. I needed a lot more than positive sentiments to get well. I was mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally debilitated.
Climbing out of the dark hole
My exit from the dark hole required a lot of rest, exercise, healthy eating, medication, prayer and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of counseling which teaches the patient to recognize and manage their thoughts, and how to cope with life’s ups and downs. It’s not for everyone, but it was perfect for me. It took months of hard, slow and frustrating work. I was not a patient person, but I had no choice. If I wanted to get better, I had to slow down and allow my mind the time it needed to heal. This meant taking a long leave from my work which I resisted at first. My whole identity was tied up with being a lawyer.
After several months I started to feel better for a few hours each day. My mornings were filled with anxiety and worry, and my evenings were calm and clear. I was like two different people. I saw it and so did my friends and family. I continued working on my recovery and they continued to show up and love me. Eventually, I left the hole. I felt stronger, clearer and more content than I had in years. I came to realize that I was no longer happy practicing law and needed to do something about it. I decided to sell my practice to my partner and move on to something more fulfilling.
I’m starting a new business focused on helping midlifers, like myself, cultivate a life worth living. It was and still is a very scary move, but I’m prepared to cope with the challenges I know I will encounter. I’m diligent about attending to my mental and physical health every day because I know where the black hole is, and I don’t want to go back there.
Staying away from the dark hole
My story is just one example of mental illness. I know I am fortunate to be on the other side of suffering right now. I have empathy and compassion for those who are not as fortunate. I offer this summary of what I have learned in the hope that we can stop the stigma of mental illness and improve our health care system:
- It is possible to be mentally ill and not realize it
- People don’t choose to have a mental illness
- A lot of people suffer with anxiety and depression, but they are too ashamed to tell anyone
- Changes in mood, sleep habits and appetite may be a sign of mental health problems
- Left unaddressed mental illness can get worse
- When you feel anxious, depressed and/or suicidal you experience the world from a different perspective
- If you have never had mental health problems, you probably don’t understand what it feels like
- Healing poor mental health takes time, hard work and dedication
- There are a lot of tools for improving mental health and it may require many tries to find the right ones
- Not everyone who wants to feel better will find their solution
- Generic sentiments about positivity and happiness can make a depressed person feel worse
- Listening, loving, compassion and persistently being present can help a mentally ill person with their recovery
- Don’t judge others until you walk a mile in their shoes
- The mental health system in this country is shockingly underfunded, understaffed, and antiquated; this may not get better until the stigma of mental illness is removed
- No one is immune from mental illness
- Mental health matters