The tipping point

By Michael Dempster April - May 2012

Lawyers face a greater than average risk of addiction, depression and other issues. So why is it so hard for them to admit they need help?

The tipping point Photo of John Starzynski by Paul Eekhoff.

When people read or hear John Starzynski’s story, they’ll often close their eyes. 
  
It usually happens when they see a reflection of themselves, or someone they know, tumbling toward depression, addiction or some other black hole.
 
Some make the connection as Starzynski talks about his early days as a sole practitioner, proud to be a lawyer making a contribution; married with two young kids, a great wife and a demanding job. Others relate to a later period when daily pressures took control of body and soul; when Starzynksi was “burning to death, night after night,” a cruel nightmare that robbed him of precious sleep. 
 
And some look into the abyss as Starzynski describes his two suicide attempts and how he was hospitalized for stress.
 
Like so many in his profession, he was conscientious, a perfectionist, and most certainly a workaholic. Eventually, the stress triggered a bipolar disorder that ended his 14-year law career in 1990.
 
He never saw it coming. Few do. 
 
“I was so oblivious to what was going on,” Starzynski says. “I just figured I’d get through the day and the next day I’d get up and I’d be fine.
 

"Denial is such a problem. There’s an arrogance among lawyers that we’re the best. We solve problems, so we can’t have them." John Starzynski Volunteer, Ontario Lawyers' Assistance Program

“I wasn’t in tune with my body or my feelings. I didn’t know what a feeling was. I just kept going on. I told myself, ‘this is the way you do it.’”
 
Starzynski will tell you he got lucky and found help. Since 1995, he has shared his experience and knowledge as a tireless volunteer with the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program. A resident of Guelph, Ont., he writes, speaks regularly and acts as a peer counselor, describing a descent that’s compelling —and not that unusual.
 
“I’ll tell my story a lot because many lawyers think they’re the only one who have ever had a problem,” he says. “When I talk about what happened to me, the heads are nodding in the audience. People realize they’re not alone.”
 
He lists symptoms his audiences recognize: the sleep disturbances, panic attacks, feelings of inadequacy, loss of appetite, drinking too much and dozing off at parties.
 
Research has shown the incidence of major depression in lawyers can be as much as four times higher than in the general public. Stress is frequently the trigger, activating pathologies such as depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress and, in Starzynski’s case, bipolar disorder.
 
He remembers his own tipping point. It occurred during a four-day family holiday to New York, where, in the city that never sleeps, he couldn’t: his nightmare of burning to death was so overwhelming, he was afraid to lie down and close his eyes.
 
Once home, he ran into a friend who told him that he didn’t look well. Starzynski stared at him for a few seconds and burst into tears.
 
It was a turning point, a time to ask for help. Since then he has learned that his bipolar disorder has chemical, psychological and social elements that require a regular regime of therapy and medication.
 
Today, when he speaks to an audience about his experience, he warns them that anybody can be at risk of stress-related depression and other disorders, no matter how much success they’ve achieved.
 

Michele Hollins, Q.C.

Photo of Michele Hollins by Marnie Burkhart/Jazhart Studios.

That includes people like Michele Hollins, Q.C., who becomes the CBA’s second vice-president this August and CBA president in 2014.
 
“Yes, even me, the happiest person in the world, who loves her job,” says Hollins. A single mom, she fell into a bad depression for months when her twin daughters went off to university.
 
“It was always just the three of us, so that was quite a life change for me,” she says. “It hit me hard.
 
“I had no history or experience with depression. It took me a long time to recognize it. In fact, it took people [from within the CBA] coming to me and saying, ‘Look you need to do something about this.’”
 
Hollins recovered. Her co-workers were patient, empathetic and helpful. During her acclamation speech in February, she spoke about the need to focus, facilitate and heighten awareness around personal wellness.
 

"Yes, even me, the happiest person in the world, who loves her job." Michele Hollins, Q.C. Partner, Dunphy Best Blocksom LLP, Calgary

The support she received spurred her into promoting a peer assistance component within the Alberta Law Assistance Program, an initiative that’s gaining momentum.
 
Starzynski knows first-hand the value of lawyers helping lawyers.
 
“These peer support people will sit with you,” he says. “If you need someone to go to an AA meeting with you, or a psychologist, they will. They’ll call you every day if necessary to make sure you’re alive.”
 
During his most difficult days as a sole practitioner, Starzynski didn’t have peer support. He had no sounding board. And he didn’t feel comfortable opening up to just anyone, fearing it would be seen as a sign of weakness or that word might get out that he wasn’t well.
 
“A sole practitioner is isolated, even more so because things are always so busy,” he says. “In my case, I felt responsible for staff, worried about liability, not answering a call . . . all those things.”
 
He now understands that he was losing a piece of himself every day. Even though his wife Marg — “she loves me unconditionally” — tried to talk to him, he rebuffed her suggestions. When he finally did agree to counselling, he dismissed it as hokum. 
 
“Denial is such a problem,” he says. “There’s an arrogance among lawyers that we’re the best. We solve problems, so we can’t have them.”
 
Today’s stress levels aren’t easing and Starzynski says he’s “terrified” by the stories he hears of growing suicides within the ranks. The number of reported cases is small, but there are other deaths that aren’t characterized as suicides. Regardless, he says, one is too many.
 
He urges people who see themselves in his story to call their provincial or territorial law assistance program for free, confidential help tailored to their needs.
 
“There’s the expression that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” he says. “The same goes for getting help. Lawyers do need other people. We can’t fix ourselves.”     

John Starzynski’s three-point program for physical, emotional and spiritual health:
 
1. Take care of yourself so your body functions properly: Get eight hours’ sleep, exercise, eat three meals a day, cut out or cut down on caffeine and alcohol and drink water.
 
2. Talk to somebody who understands you and will not judge you. Share your hopes, dreams and disappointments.
 
3. Ask yourself where you fit in. Try to discover what gives you satisfaction, ignites your passion and makes you a whole person.

Michael Dempster is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
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