The Bipolar Lawyer

In July 2005, I was taken to a Dallas psychiatric hospital in a suicidal depression. Years later in recovery, I ordered the records of that visit. One of the first things I noticed in the attending psychiatric  physician’s notes was “rule out bipolar disorder”.  I had never heard of bipolar disorder.

Here is the story of a lawyer who is dealing with bipolar disorder. What it meant to him before, during and after his diagnosis as well as moving forward in life.  Reid Murtagh is a lawyer in Lafayette, Indiana. He writes often about his journey and mental health in general.  His column, “Mental Fitness” can be found in The Indiana Lawyer.

Q: Where have you been in life?

It all started in Lafayette, Indiana a few months before the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.  Reagan was president and mullets were socially acceptable.

My mom was working as a P. E. teacher and my dad was working nights as a patrolman for the sheriff’s department. My sister came along 19 months later.  Words can’t describe how much my parents loved us. We were the quintessential all-American family that exuded success at all times.

My dad was elected as sheriff in 1994 (later appointed by President George W. Bush as the United States Marshal for Northern Indiana).  That made me the sheriff’s son, which was a blast.  I was a straight-A student and painfully shy.  I was obsessive about studying and my grades.  I felt a lot of pressure to achieve but it was all internal pressure.

I had friends but not much of a social life.  I did not drink alcohol or attend any parties where there would be alcohol.  I went to a couple school dances and had a brief stint with a girlfriend. Other than being shy and a little awkward, I was a happy teenager.

Everything was pretty much going according to plan. I started my senior year and was applying to colleges.  Then as fresh prince would say, “My life got flipped turned upside down.”

I went on a run after school.  On my way home, I felt something I had never experienced before.  This wave came over my body and all of the sudden I had no energy.  I almost felt paralyzed.  I felt like I was going to faint.  I laid down in the grass on the side of the road.  I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stand back up.  I made it upright and walked for short periods and then laid back down and eventually made it home. This was the start of my first mental health crisis.  I had recurring episodes of unexplained sensory and motor impairment.  For several months I could not make it through the entire school day without having an episode during class.  I would just shut down. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I would have to put my head down on the desk.  Someone in my class would help me walk to the nurse’s office.  It was bizarre.  I had never asked to be excused from class or even been to the nurse’s office before.  I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.  I started seeing a therapist who could meet with me at the school and I started taking Paxil.  I still go to the same therapist today.

The therapy and the medicine pretty much resolved the symptoms and I was able to catch up the work I missed the fall semester and graduated in the spring.  The  relief I felt was so great that I stopped taking the medicine and stopped going to therapy.  I was in denial. I continued without medicine or therapy until my third year of law school when I went to a psychologist and was diagnosed with cyclothymic disorder.

After I graduated from law school, I moved back to Lafayette and worked as a deputy prosecutor. Somehow, I acquired some dating skills along the way and fell madly in love with my dream girl and my future wife.  I most certainly out punted my coverage.

I left the prosecutor’s office to work in a four-lawyer general practice private law firm.  I was very productive my first three years and the seniors named me as a partner January 1, 2015.  This should have made me feel very good.  Instead, it triggered a major depressive episode.

I was in a very dark place for several months.  I was no longer able to perform at the same level that allowed me to make partner.  I tried to hide it.  I could not admit to myself that I was underperforming.  I placed the blame externally. I thought about leaving the legal profession and even told some people that I no longer wanted to be an attorney.  Luckily, I reached out for help.  I contacted the Indiana Judge’s and Lawyers Assistance Program.  I was referred to a psychiatrist who changed my medicine.  I was finally correctly diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.

I had already dug myself quite a hole at the law firm.  I decided to leave the firm and start my own solo practice.  Courtney, my wife, was pregnant at the time and our daughter was born in April 2016.  As soon as I got my bipolar II diagnosis I knew I was going to share it publicly.  I don’t know why but I just really felt that I needed to be more open about my private struggle.  I decided that I wanted to publicly disclose my bipolar diagnosis in a meaningful way, but I had no idea how to do it.

I decided to share my diagnosis on Facebook.  I then pitched the idea of the Mental Fitness column for the Indiana Lawyer and shared my diagnosis with the legal community in a published article in January 2017. The response to the article was overwhelming.  All of the responses to my disclosure have been encouraging to this day.

Q: Where are you in life now?

After I shared the diagnosis, I faced another dilemma.  I wanted to continue to help others, but I did not want to be known as the bipolar attorney.  I did not want it to become my identity.

Now, I am fully committed.

I have realized that this is just part of who I am.  You just don’t get many opportunities to do something like this in life.  It was scary.  I knew that people did not want me to do it.  I knew that people did not understand. But I did it anyway. I am grateful that I did it for myself. I don’t know where it will lead and I am okay with that. I have a purpose.

I feel great.  I am now in my third year of my solo practice.  It has been harder than I anticipated.  I have made mistakes as a business owner.  I don’t have the security of the steady paycheck that I would have had if I stayed at the firm.  My first priority has been my health. I have been able to come home from work and enjoy the time with my family.  That is why I did all of this and that is my motivation to stick with it.

Q: What is your hope for the future and message to others?

I hope that people who want to disclose feel they can.  Selfishly, I hope more people disclose. I hope more attorneys, judges, doctors, CEOs, and elected officials give themselves the gift of disclosure.

I hope we can start talking openly about suicide.  I think we can push beyond general terms like anxiety and depression.  Depression causes extreme or irrational negative thoughts. Anxiety causes extreme or irrational thoughts of fear or worry.  Why can’t we talk about the negative thoughts?  Why can’t we talk about the fears?

Such as:

Depression: What is the point?  My life is so fucked up. Everyone else has a perfect life.

Anxiety: Fear of an early death.  Fear of being ordinary.  Fear of shame.

A lesson I have learned is that horrible and awful thoughts are not facts.  When I am depressed, I have suicidal thoughts.  During an elevated mood, fears of an early death often pop into my head.  I know that I will continue to have these thoughts the rest of my life.  I have no ability to control the thoughts in my bipolar brain.  It took me a long time, but I have learned to accept that reality.  Having irrational thoughts does not affect my ability to practice law or to be a loving husband and father.  Those thoughts are powerless because I have learned to cope with them effectively.

I do the work.  I make myself do things I don’t want to do. I take my medicine. I go to therapy.  I value my recovery time. I have learned to love and care for my bipolar self.

Reid D. Murtaugh is attorney in Lafayette and the founder of Murtaugh Law.  You can e-mail Reid at reidmentalfitness@gmail.com.  Also, you can learn more about Reid’s practice at www.murtlaw.com.

Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at brian@addictedlawyer.com.

 

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