On Depression

At 18, I swallowed a bottle of pills and tried to kill myself—it’s now the failure of which I’m proudest, surviving the epidemic of depression, dysphoria, and discrimination that has killed far too many women like me. Most differ from me in two ways—they are women of color and of humble means. But neither difference deserves death.

 

As a child, I knew I was very fortunate, born to a family of means and generosity. I never went without a meal, never worried about having a roof over my head, and my parent’s love for me was abundant and evident. But I was never happy—parallel thoughts ran through my head that I refused to connect, likely to protect myself: I want to be a girl, then a woman; I need to run away; I need to kill myself. My college therapist and I would later reconstruct my depression had begun as early as age 7 and run nonstop through college—my suicidal ideation began at least as early as middle school. In one session, she asked for a picture of me as a young child. When I asked why, she said because she wanted to know if I’d ever smiled.

 

Books, school, and competitive debate were all escapes, but the onset of puberty in high school was bewildering, frightening, disorienting, and I didn’t react well. I had a hair trigger temper and my words could be biting—I regret much of what I then said, particularly to those I loved.

 

At 18, I bottomed out. I had been talking about potentially committing suicide for months, if not years, with a close friend, and I’d agreed I would call her if I ever came close to attempting it. One fall night in 1993, I swallowed a bottle of prescription pills, while the lines of E.A. Arlington’s Richard Cory ran through my head—I thought happiness impossible for myself, I didn’t understand why, and I thought it hopeless. She, predictably and thankfully, called my parents. My father asked how many pills I had taken; I responded about 50; and he took me to the hospital. During the admission process, it unfolded that my father had told them I’d taken 50 milligrams—under stress, he’d reverted to physician mode and interpreted it as milligrams; but, of course, it was 50 pills. That night, because it was too late to pump my stomach, I underwent amphetamine psychosis.

 

At the hospital, where I only stayed for a few days, I remember a young African-American boy of about 7 showing me a picture he’d drawn. He was incredibly sweet, but troubled, and I remembered thinking he must be facing serious problems to be there. I also thought that, if, with all my advantages in life, I’d tried to commit suicide, he was lost. I hope I was wrong. I don’t know.

 

A cover story was concocted on my release from the hospital a few days later—I’d had the flu. I persuaded psychiatrist that I was a teenager too smart for her own good who had acted impulsively. A few weeks later, I traveled to compete in debate tournaments held at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, the St. Marks School in Dallas, and the Greenhill School in Dallas held over two weeks. Oddly, I was so depleted by the last that we performed the best; I couldn’t get in my own way; my partner and I won the tournament and, because my grades and test scores were only average for those admitted to Dartmouth College, winning that debate that likely won me admission.

 

At Dartmouth, the debate team was my salvation. My first quarter, I was both intimidated as one of only a few from the south and didn’t realize I was expected to study because I’d never done so before. My first quarter, I had a 2.1 grade point average, including a D in French. On the way out of the French final, the professor asked me how I thought I’d done and I responded: “You know, it’s tough to tell with foreign language exams.”

 

When I returned that winter, I took a quarter off of debate but was buoyed by the academic success of the rest of the debate team and their confidence in me. Fundamentally, the ability of small communities like the debate team to have faith in me sustained me in high school, college, and beyond, which is one reason I remain a huge supporter of debate.

 

But I remained depressed and both desperate for medical help and afraid of it—lurking in the back of my mind wasn’t the prospect of conversion therapy but rather schizophrenia. So I became a psychology major, and in the midst of my depression sought out the chair of the department, from whom I’d taken a class. He recommended my college therapist, from whom I’d taken abnormal psychology.

 

She saved my life, though I was too frightened to admit any transgender ideation to her. In her presence, I may not have smiled, but for the first time I crossed my legs at the knee in front of someone else. While under the stress of concealing my transgender ideation from a brilliant therapist, I also experienced a hypomanic episode of about a week. But, aside from too little sleep and some hyperactivity, there were few consequences—I quickly saw a psychiatrist who prescribed me Wellbutrin and Depakote. Though the drugs prevented any hypomania or mania, and my depression lifted enough to make it through the day, she and I well knew the depression still plagued me. But we couldn’t find a solution, and I was off to The University of Chicago Law School after being admitted off the wait list.

Law school, like debate, functioned as an important escape. When under the press of Socratic questioning or preparing for an exam, I was so absorbed that my dysphoria and depression abated, at least in that moment. When asked whether I would accept the position as Editor-in-Chief of The University of Chicago Law Review, the excitement and anxiety caused my ever-present defense to fall a bit. I responded: “I’d be delighted.”

 

An important concept I learned in psychology was that of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. Post traumatic stress disorder is the most obvious example. Whether a soldier in combat or a child being abused, it is adaptive for that person’s autonomic nervous system to develop hypersensitivity. I want people in those situations to have fight or flight instincts that readily kick into hyperdrive—it improves their chances of survival. But, when removed from those immediate dangers, that hypersensitivity can become maladaptive: when a car backfires in a small town in the United States, and the soldier reacts as she would in combat, that is maladaptive, but only because she is in the United States, in peacetime, and not at war.

 

I developed many coping mechanisms throughout my life. Among the most constructive was an escape into stories of all sorts and work. Since second grade, outside work, I’ve read about three books a week and always loved plays and movies.

Law Review, then my clerkship, then five years with Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York all had the same effect—surrounded by wonderful and wonderfully intelligent and hardworking people, the press of the shared work created opportunities for distraction that were unparalleled. But alone, always, in the handful of respites from work, I was depressed.

 

You need not be happy to do well at work. Joshua Schenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness explains how Abraham Lincoln managed and harnessed his depression. I’ve read it twice. It makes a persuasive case that throughout his life Lincoln struggled with depression; and it charts a huge array of coping strategies he deployed. In 2014, though, when re-reading the book, I realized that it never said that he escaped from his depression. And I thought, “If someone as brilliant as him could achieve so much and still be miserable, I’m doomed to continued misery unless I do something.” And I had eliminated every possibility other than transitioning.

 

As for my work, as a lawyer, I’m always speaking on behalf of someone else—never myself—which enabled me to do it even at the height of my self-loathing. As a lawyer involved in complex cases that require both strategic thinking and teamwork, I could deploy many of my survival skills while working with and for others, which was an enormous relief. Within teams of lawyers, I could reason out strategies using the same thinking that had allowed me to navigate life despite my depression and dysphoria. To do that caused my loneliness to subside: the other team members knew not why thinking long-term and looking around corners came so easily to me but it mattered not. It was valued.

 

Yet I retreated into both stories and work to the detriment of living. For example, most people my age who I respect are doing something far more important than reading, working, or writing a novel—they’re in a loving marriage, raising children, or both.

 

And that is what most perplexed me about my mentors—not their intelligence, or their craft, or their ability to navigate complex cases—but that their work gave them such joy. The contrast between the pure happiness they derived from a job well done and my dull satisfaction was always jarring: I found satisfaction, but never joy.

 

I went through bouts of intense exercise. In New York City, for a few years, I took boxing classes with Jimmy Fusaro at X-Fit. I appreciated dropping weight and developing muscle; I appreciated the slight improvement in my ability to sleep; I acknowledged that it relieved a measure of stress and tension; but it never made me joyful.

 

And I was not bullied my entire life either. Though lonely in elementary and middle school before I learned to mask my depression, in high school I made a deliberate effort to solve that problem and became quite popular. I promise. In hindsight, I realize in part it was because I could talk all the female high school students, with whom I spent hours on the phone each night, into attending every party, regardless of their differences and no matter their cliques. In college, I realized popularity hadn’t made me happy, so I became more isolated, but not disliked. Again, I promise.

 

I recall a college psychology professor in a lecture saying that depressed people face a social cycle that reinforces their depression. They are depressed, so few people want to be around them because they bring them down; they become more isolated; and it deepens their depression. I thought, unkindly: “How many years did you go to school to figure that out?” I’d figured out that piece in elementary school, remedied it in high school, but remained unhappy.

 

I remained depressed throughout my 20s and 30s, but another life experience prevented me from killing myself. In my 20s, five friends and acquaintances of about my age died suddenly: one from an allergic reaction, two in car accidents, and two by suicide. In each case, for their friends and loved ones, it was as if a nuclear bomb had exploded. I couldn’t bear to impose that pain on my family and friends.

 

To those considering suicide, I would say there’s nothing romantic about it. Don’t let literature fool you. It will be the last thing you do in this world; the final memory you will leave for either a first responder or someone you care for will be your corpse after you have soiled yourself; and you will never know any happiness in this world. Many of you face obstacles greater than I can imagine, but whether you suffer from depression or dysphoria, you’re incredibly tough and brave to have made it through yesterday, last week, last year, and the prior years; if you were tough enough to do that, then you can make it through tomorrow, next week, and the coming years.

 

Work hard to find the help you require, but also find the right relative, teacher, guidance counselor, or therapist. Get help before you are in crisis if possible, but get help. If time permits and for longer-term work, don’t fear interviewing therapists—an effective therapeutic relationship is a partnership, and you need be comfortable with the most intimate professional relationship you’ll ever have. Much of therapy is uncomfortable, but perhaps you, like me, will reach a point where your sessions are also filled with laughter.

Others have made it through what you’re surviving and found happiness—if you’re queer, you can look, as I did, to Janet Mock; if you have a mood disorder, you can look, as I did, to Kay Redfield Jamison; and if you are schizophrenic, you can look to Elyn R. Saks. All have written books, and Elyn Saks gave a TED Talk. And, for each, know that there are many more who have found happiness but choose to live quieter, more private lives.