Someone once told me to be very careful about disclosing that I am in recovery. The phrase he used was cute but ominous: “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
I’ve chewed on that now for two years. It makes sense to me that many people cannot speak openly about mental health conditions or other disabilities in their professional lives and it makes even more sense that this occurs frequently in law. One of the more heartbreaking stories I learned was that Justice Gerald Le Dain resigned from the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988 because of the unfortunate belief that someone with depression could not be a good judge.
I’ll probably never be a judge, but I am someone who has felt the pressure that Justice Le Dain likely felt. I often cursed myself for being weak if I could not rise to the challenges that I presumed other people did with grace.
Mental illness runs in my family. My grandmother committed suicide before I was born, and my uncle did so during my lifetime. I was 13 at the time and I did not yet appreciate that the complex biology that had imprinted me would eventually lead to my own diagnosis of major depression. I was 16, and I was immediately hospitalized over March Break upon revealing plans of suicide to a doctor. I came back from March Break and re-entered school.
I was scared but I was also relieved. By the age of 16, I had been holding my breath for quite a few years. I’d spent much of my adolescent life feeling “apart from” – apart from you, no matter who you were or how much you told me that you cared about me or that I was not alone. It was a lonely and painful existence, but I had a diagnosis, so I was cured.
That was not how it actually worked for me and I am sure I am not alone in that experience. Over the course of the next nine years, my depression took me to predictably dark places. I adopted coping mechanisms that did not serve me. I attended therapy regularly throughout my undergraduate and master’s degrees, but alcohol was always there, and my excessive consumption of it became a progressive illness of its own.
I eventually applied to Windsor Law and was accepted. I was again relieved. I loved law school, but I did not like myself very much yet, and as a result my time at Windsor Law was confusing. I developed a double life. I succeeded quite well in my first two years, winning multiple advocacy competitions, churning out above-average grades and enjoying the short-term excitement of making new friends. Everything looked promising on paper, but alcohol continued to play a prominent role in my private life. Eventually that became public. I gained about 50 pounds over the course of a year. When I came home for visits my family was concerned, but I was very good at hiding pain when I needed to and, while again holding my breath because I knew I was in trouble, I secured an articling position at a prominent Toronto litigation firm. Again, relief.
My articling term paused abruptly when I took two months off to address my failing health. I cannot explain why it got so bad before I asked for help. Mental illness is sometimes just like that. I did not trust anyone, least of all myself. I did not believe that there was anyone else like me – intelligent, kind, capable, and with incredible willpower in every area of my life, but unable to apply those attributes to my illness. I believed that if I needed something done, I had to do it myself. I had become accustomed to handling a lot of pain on a nearly constant basis. Old habits like that die hard, and that was the case with me.
Women who are also members of marginalized communities face unique challenges in the legal profession. Disclosure is the main one in my experience. There are still parts of me that fight a deep-seated shame about living in recovery from my various mental health issues that I suppose is not entirely self-imposed. For every story like mine of recovery, there are many that we simply do not hear because of compounding systemic ills like sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and many others. My privilege speaks loudly in this piece.
My narrative around my experience has importantly changed due in large part to the recovery-related activities in which I participate. I’m not a victim of circumstance, nor do I know all of the answers. Back when I was actively sick, I could be both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing at the same time, and these confusing dual stories only propelled my inability to identify what my core values were. The reality is that I am powerless over many areas of my life. There is no need to stymie my personal and professional growth by being scared of my disability.
I am certainly not powerless about what I tell myself. If I tell myself that I should be ashamed of my concurrent disorders and afraid of disclosure, I close the door on possible opportunities, including the opportunity to reach others. I limit my ability to feel discomfort. I limit my ability to practice resilience which is comforting when the rest of the world is overwhelming and chaotic.
On days when I feel deeply connected and attached to embarrassment and shame, I try and remember the truth: asking for help was the most courageous thing I have ever done in my life. Without doing it, I know I would not be able to have the life I have today. I have become more teachable as a result of the work I’ve done to deconstruct the narratives I’ve spent so long reinforcing. The benefits have come quickly, and I welcome them. The double life no longer takes up my energy. Recovery has allowed me to import some of my “soft skills” of empathy and gratitude into my professional life as a lawyer.
Lawyers can and do recover, and they live full, gratifying lives with fulfilling relationships. While this may seem obvious to many people, it’s something I figured out only relatively recently. I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to share that discovery here.
About the author
Jessie Gomberg is a lawyer in Toronto, a graduate of Windsor Law, and was called to the bar in 2019. She is completing her LLM at Osgoode Hall Law School, doing research on mediation in civil sexual assault and abuse cases. She is the section editor of the OBA's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee. She has been sober for nearly two years.
This article original appeared on the OBA’s SOGIC Articles page.