Darryl Singer is a civil and commercial litigation lawyer in Markham, Ont.
It is a legal-profession secret that is finally seeing the light of day: depression, anxiety and addiction to prescription drugs are a real and urgent problem for lawyers. They are three times more likely to suffer severe depression or addiction than the general public.
Most of the lawyers I defend at disciplinary proceedings got into trouble with the Law Society of Upper Canada because of substance abuse or mental-health issues.
If you are a lawyer who is depressed or anxious, abusing alcohol or self-medicating with illicit or prescription drugs, get help. These are not problems that lawyers – or anyone – can deal with on their own. Addiction is serious business, frequently with tragic consequences.
I ought to know. For several years, I was addicted to OxyContin.
I was called to the bar in 1993. Ten years later, I was offered a job as vice-president and general counsel of a finance company. I was making great money, but my first marriage was falling apart and I was a parent to newborn twins. I was feeling trapped, stressed and depressed.
Plus, I hated the job – which was not the company's fault. The convergence of a job I was not passionate about, where I felt like I was just punching the clock, a deteriorating home life, an increase in my lifelong migraines and a lengthy bout of serious depression, resulted in an OxyContin addiction that quickly spun out of control.
In the mid-2000s, OxyContin was so easy to get. I went doctor-shopping. I visited six doctors regularly and had the OxyContin prescriptions filled at six different pharmacies to feed my habit.
In mid-2005, I left the in-house counsel position and set up my own practice as a solo lawyer doing counsel work for other law firms. And I continued to self-medicate with OxyContin.
I thought I was handling my addiction. But I really wasn't. My addiction fed my depression, and my depression fed my addiction. And the more OxyContin I took, the worse things got for me.
There were days when I could not get out of bed. I knew I needed to check voice mail, but my arm would not physically move to pick up the phone. When I did pick up the phone, I was incapable of dialling into voice mail. The OxyContin had turned me into a zombie.
When I couldn't get OxyContin for a couple of days, I would get Atavan, which resulted in me being at meetings I didn't remember attending. I couldn't take care of my children. I ignored paying bills even though I had money to do so.
By the end of my addiction, in 2008, I was taking about 300 mg a day of OxyContin. OxyContin doses beyond 200 mg a day are used to treat severe chronic pain or provide palliative care to late-stage cancer patients.
What brought my addiction to a head was the fact that my legal work was suffering. Clients, having left 10 or 15 messages for me about their legal cases, found they had no other option but to file official complaints with the Law Society of Upper Canada. As a lawyer, a father, a person, I had reached rock bottom.
One of the side-effects of OxyContin is it causing even deeper depression. But doctors don't tell patients that upfront.
When I finally sought treatment for my addiction, I started seeing a psychiatrist who told me that once I would stop taking the OxyContin, my depression would go away in four or five months. And it did. But at the time, it was a leap of faith for me.
I overcame my addiction by the end of 2009 by closing my practice for about a year and devoting myself to recovery. That was my full-time job. Today, my practice is thriving, I am a more involved dad and have a happy home life.
I am the positive outcome. I had several friends not so lucky, who died as a result of their addictions. There is hope, but only if you take the first step. I found that contrary to my fears of being shunned and ruining my career, people rallied around and did everything they could to help me.