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Mental Fitness: I’m not scared of the bipolar stigma

January 11, 2017

mental-fitness-murtaugh.jpg“My child overdosed on heroin and died.”

“My spouse was in a serious car accident and will be permanently disabled.”

“My business is failing and I am considering filing bankruptcy.”

“I am in jail.”

“Help.”

Lawyers routinely receive these calls. We are trained to help other people when tragedy hits or people hit rock bottom. But, are you taking good care of your brain?

In this article, you will learn a mental fitness exercise that only takes three minutes.

But first, I will share my experience with asking the Indiana Judges Lawyers and Assistance Program for help in May 2015. Since that time, I have gained the confidence to discuss it publicly. Contacting JLAP was the first step in that process.

Mental fitness is not just for people with mental illness. Everyone has unproductive, unhelpful, irrational thoughts at times. I encourage everyone to take the time to think about your own mental fitness. I am not saying that the legal profession is more stressful or more difficult than other professions; I am just pointing out that lawyers receive a large amount of emotional input and the work requires a lot of mental energy. A large emotional input without an effective release can be disruptive to someone with perfect genetic brain chemistry.

I don’t have perfect genetic brain chemistry. I have had multiple major depressive episodes, which started at age 18. I have taken medicine and worked with a therapist most of the time since the first episode in high school. I have a medical condition. I believe the most accurate diagnosis is bipolar II, which is a mood disorder with both elevated and depressed moods. The elevated moods are much less intense and less frequent than the severe up swings caused by bipolar I.

I know that even more so than depression or anxiety, there is a stigma associated with bipolar disorder. I am 32 years old, and I have kept the diagnosis private until recently. I first shared my diagnosis publicly on Facebook a few months ago. I do have a nasty disease that causes intense emotional suffering at times. But I am also able to thrive as a young lawyer, a husband, a dad and a community volunteer. I have been practicing since 2009, and I started a solo practice in December 2015.

This is new territory for me. I have never written an article for publication before. It is not easy to be openly bipolar. There is not an instruction manual on what to do and what not to do. It is not easy to keep it private, either. I decided to be open about my bipolar diagnosis because I want to connect with other members of the profession. I want to help. I want to share my experience. At the same time, I don’t want bipolar to be my identity.

My JLAP story

I contacted JLAP in May 2015. I remember how hard it was to ask for help. I typed out the email but could not convince myself to push send. I remember looking up the phone number but not calling. I think it took me two to three weeks to work up the courage to finally send this email:

“I have been struggling with my depression lately. I would like to talk someone at JLAP. Please let me know how to do this. Thanks.”

When I was preparing to write this article, I tried to remember as much as I could about what I was feeling during that time. I looked back at my emails to try to refresh my memory. I sent the email the day after my birthday. I didn’t realize it until I copied the email into this article and noticed the date. I don’t remember if my birthday prompted me to send it. I do know that sending that email was a huge gift to myself. It was an act of self-care.

I did not have to contact JLAP. I was already being treated and taking medicine. I could have just started going to therapy more. I did that, but I pushed myself to do more. Going to therapy was easy because it was familiar. Contacting JLAP was scary. I am so thankful that I did it.

JLAP provides a wide range of support services. It is not just for attorneys with substance abuse issues or mental illness. If you are experiencing a difficult time for any reason, JLAP can help.

3-minute meditation

When I am feeling anxious or depressed, I have found that trying to “relax my mind” can be incredibly frustrating and unproductive. My therapist shared a technique called the body scan that I have found much more effective. Instead of trying to make the thoughts or feelings go away, you focus your mind on the different regions of your body and allow yourself to experience the nervous energy without trying to change anything.

You will need a smartphone or computer, headphones and a quiet space. Here is how to do it:

Search for “3-minute body scan meditation” on the internet.

Find a place without distractions for three minutes.

Shut your eyes.

Click the video.

Listen.

I am still trying to develop the habit to do this daily. Honestly, it has probably been over a month since the last time I did it. I have found that it is very difficult to regularly do it during the work day. I have had the most success doing it first thing in the morning.

Remember, lawyers often think about taking care of others before themselves. It is easy to get consumed by the work. I encourage you to take off your lawyer hat and do something for yourself. Hopefully, you will give it a try and develop your own mental fitness routine.•

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Reid D. Murtaugh is an attorney in Lafayette and the founder of Murtaugh Law. You can email Murtaugh at reidmentalfitness@gmail.com if you want to learn more about mental fitness. Also, you can learn more about his practice at www.murtlaw.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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