I first met Steven Dunn through my eating disorder advocacy. I was actively bulimic for over two decades and have been in recovery for just over twelve years. Steven had not long before, lost his daughter Morgan to anorexia nervosa. We talk often about advocacy issues and support each other in our work to raise awareness. His journey is an important one for our profession to understand. Here it is.
The legal profession demands excellence. It requires intelligence, guile, compassion, integrity and a sense of duty and honor. Trial work particularly tests all aspects of the human condition.
Those qualities and the trials and tribulations we attorneys face can steel us as we face the greatest challenge a parent can possibly encounter … the mortality of our beloved child. And the stress and mental strain of that battle far exceed anything our law practice can possibly throw at us.
I had carved out a niche law practice, representing corporate debt collectors for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. I had been admitted pro hac vice in over twenty federal courts outside the State of Texas. Respected and passionate, or so I thought, I believed I had found a calling. And then, life got in the way.
I am the proud father of a vivacious, beautiful, intelligent daughter who was 17 years old at the time when eating disorders first made their way into our life. She had the benefit of private school education, a comfortable house, good friends. Unfortunately for her father, she was far too much like me, was far too brash, embraced life fully and yet had obvious flaws. (A future litigation attorney if ever there was one!)
In February of 2011, while attending a movie with a friend, Morgan began to feel light-headed and dizzy. She left the theater and while walking out, passed out. She fell forward fracturing her jaw. Paramedics rushed her to the emergency room where blood was taken.
Her diagnosis? A combination of her weight being 86 pounds, her losing consciousness, her decreased level of potassium were all indicative of Anorexia Nervosa. A probable eating disorder. I didn’t know enough at the time to be deathly afraid. I should have been.
Morgan’s mother and I scheduled appointments with specialists, with counselors, and nutritionists. Amongst the scheduled counseling sessions were mandatory family counseling sessions.
And yet, her counselor became more alarmed and strongly recommended that we contact a heart specialist. And then you hear those words that chill any parent to their very core. “Mr. Dunn, your daughter’s condition has worsened to a point where she needs extensive, hospitalized treatment. One of her heart valves is leaking. She continues to lose weight. She is malnourished. Without this treatment, it’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when” she is going to die.”
And just like that, your law practice, the professional life you had built for over thirty years, seemed not so important after all. Helping a multi-million dollar corporation save $5000 on a case? Engaging in discussions about objections to interrogatories? Convincing opposing counsel that their client has no actual damages and the case is simply about his own attorney’s fees? You start to realize that those “professional truths” which you held so dear throughout your career have very little meaning. An you wonder who you really are.
Especially when compared with the task before you. You find that for females between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four who suffer from Anorexia Nervosa, the mortality rate is twelve times higher than the death rate of ALL other illnesses. You find that Anorexia Nervosa has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness.
And if you think we attorneys or law students are immune from it, you are mistaken. This past February, Brian Cuban wrote an article published on the internet website, “Above the Law.” He quoted some alarming statistics: “We can look to a recent study of mental health issues in law school published by the Journal of Legal Education, which found 27% of law students (18% of male respondents and 34% of female respondents) screened positive for eating disorders. Yet only 3% of respondents had actually been diagnosed.”
And so, the journey began. Morgan fought these eating disorders for 7 long years. There were so many hospitals and treatment centers, doctors and nurses. There were so many prescription drugs. The seizures she began to experience frightened us. And my focus on the practice of law continued to wane. So many family counseling sessions. So few individual sessions for me. And the stress and mental strain mounted.
The last two years of her young life were spent exclusively with me. I took her to weekly doctors and counseling appointments, many of which I attended. And yet, Morgan and I still laughed. Countless hours were spent playing backgammon. And how this emaciated waif so ill, could manage to whip me 2 out of every 3 games will forever remain a mystery. We watched Game of Thrones together every week. We shared a love of Mambo Taxis. She laughingly referred to me as “Her Twin.” When she walked into a room, people knew she was there. Though her body was slight, her personality was huge. And during that time, my once comfortable law practice continued to deteriorate.
I consulted with doctors and fought seemingly daily battles against this disease and the insurance providers which routinely denied payment for life-saving treatment. With each denial of authorization, with each deterioration in her health, the stress level increased. I wrongly believed this was my form of therapy. I could use these battles as my own form of counseling. I am a warrior. My perceived strength and perseverance would sustain me. How foolish I was.
I had never been a proponent of pharma drugs unless absolutely necessary. No drugs for anxiety or depression for me! Instead, I read internet sites on coping with fear, anxiety, depression. By sheer force of will, I would beat back those emotions. They were signs of weakness! They would not control me!
And yet, my focus on the practice of law continued to blur and erode. Motions to Continue hearings, extensions to respond to discovery, rescheduled depositions. A greater loss of focus and clarity. And the mounting realization that I could no longer serve my clients as they needed. I started to refer clients to other law firms. I realized that “Fear” was constantly present … and it was becoming my master instead of my servant.
Fear can be a trial attorney’s best friend. We harness it to research more deeply, to motivate us to look for every possible legal angle in a case, to explore how we and our opponent are going to argue a case. Fear is that driving force that finds you up at 2:00 a.m. the night before a trial begins going over your opening argument one last time. It hones our skills. As attorneys, we learn to embrace it because we can control it.
But, when your child’s life hangs in the balance, Fear escapes your control and gets you in its icy grip. No stirring closing argument is going to deter Fear and bring your child back to health. No well-researched brief is going to persuade this disease to leave your loved one in peace.
And then … your child breathes her last. On that day, you feel your soul, the very best part of your heart, leaving as well. For me, that day was October 30, 2016. A fog descends on you. The practice of law is out of the question. You merely … exist. A few visits to a grief counselor and you believe they are reading from a book studied in a Philosophy 101 Class.
A short time after Morgan’s death, a friend gave me a card which in essence said: When confronted with an unspeakable tragedy, one of three things happens: (1). It destroys you; (2). It defines your existence in a negative way, or (3). It fills you with incredible strength and unshakeable resolve.
Grief destroying a person is far too common. The local Dallas legal community felt the sting of grief taking life far too soon. One month after Morgan was taken, well-known attorney Brian Loncar was found dead of an accidental drug overdose just two days after he buried his own beloved youngest daughter, Grace. Grace had taken her own life. Those who knew Brian believe that it was a broken heart that claimed him.
For me, I was left with a shattered law practice, a shattered life, and a broken heart. The number of times I have thought, “if I got to do it all over again.”
And yet, in one of the many journals Morgan left behind, one of the many messages of hope she stated, “I can seem to help everyone else … I just can’t save myself.” And so, the mission for The Morgan Foundation came to fruition. And with that, perhaps a purpose for continuing Morgan’s legacy was born.
After all of these years, and so many false starts and missteps, I learned to get out of my way and let my soul find me. And when it did, its purpose was made clear. Advocacy dedicated to helping those suffering from eating disorders and at the hands of the dysfunctional mental health system. Using 35 years of courtroom experience to cajole, convince and push companies and treatment centers to focus on the patients … and not just their profits. Giving two TEDx talks. Writing weekly articles on the mental health industry. Using the skills we attorneys learn as negotiators and researchers to help those who suffer.
The practice of law is slowly reemerging even as grief continues to hound me every day. But just as we attorneys learn to use Fear to motivate us, so too I must use grief to motivate me, to inspire me, to live a life of substance and purpose. And perhaps at the end of my journey, the words on my tombstone can read, “Steven Dunn, He Was a Damned Good Daddy and In His Beloved Daughter’s Name, He Saved Lives.”
**Steven Dunn is a Dallas based attorney and founder of The Morgan Foundation. It is dedicated to developing and implementing community-based counseling and assistance programs involving community leaders, university professionals, counseling communities, and families. Our goal is to increase the accessibility of adolescent mental health care in schools, churches, and communities with free to low cost services in accordance with the newly created Texas Health Care Consortium.