The View from Under My Desk
California Lawyer

The View from Under My Desk

March 2012

Terri Cheney

I hid under my desk a lot. Even though I was only an associate, I'd done well enough to inherit a senior partner's desk - a massive old monstrosity with plenty of leg room underneath. It was cozy down there, and safe. The thick oak muffled the sound of the incessantly ringing phone. Still, I could still hear footsteps coming down the hall, and knocks at my office door. But the door was locked, and after a few minutes the footsteps would go away.

No one ever saw me in my little den of despair, surrounded by mounds of soggy Kleenex. And if anyone wondered where I was or if I was okay, no one ever asked.

I knew I was depressed, but then, what ambitious young litigator at a big entertainment firm isn't? I attributed my bleak moods, my crying jags, my utter inability to smile to the enormous workload I was trying to shoulder for such heavy-duty clients as Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and several major film studios. It wasn't at all unusual for me to work straight through the weekend, or well into the night. Even so, I couldn't seem to make a dent in my workload. Stacks of unread files heaped up high in my in-box; dog-eared casebooks littered my floor; and always, like the specter of death, another deadline loomed.

But inevitably, there would come a day when I'd wake up with an inexplicable surge of energy that would send me bounding back to the office, where I'd flip through the files with lightning speed, committing each detail to memory. Then I'd stretch out on the floor and devour the casebooks as if they were potato chips. Yummy. More, more, more.

So I'd ask for more work, and the partners never hesitated to give it to me. They never questioned, at least to my face, how I'd managed to dig myself out of the hole I'd been in with such astonishing rapidity. Or how I was able to produce pleading after pleading - a veritable mountain of paper - with such seeming ease. For a while, at least, my star burned bright, and that seemed all anyone could see.

Then all at once the star would burn out. I'd be unable to move, to think, to read. Worst of all, I couldn't write. My body felt so heavy, it was an effort just to lift pen to paper, let alone make the words sing. All I could think was, I wanted to die. But I didn't dare tell anyone how I felt. I just turned the lock yet again on my office door, and sank back under the desk. When I simply couldn't bear it anymore, I crept home and called in sick. Day after day, week after week, I had the flu. Or the mumps. A torn meniscus. Asthma. Shingles. You name it, I had it.

And still, no one ever asked what was happening.

It wasn't until eight years later - in 1994 - that I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At last, a clinical explanation for my mercurial life. Ironically, I was thrilled: It felt a little like "name that tort." But I also knew that the sober truth was, I couldn't go on living this lie. Still, I was too frightened to tell anyone. So I left my job to go out on my own, lest someone find out and fire me.

I'd like to think that the world has changed a lot since 1994. God knows I have. On the right medications, with the right therapy, and with stress kept to a relative minimum, I'm like another person. I don't ricochet from mood to mood. I don't hide behind an impenetrable facade. And when I finally summoned up the courage to tell the truth about my life, the world rewarded me. My first book, Manic: A Memoir, was a surprise New York Times best-seller in 2008.

I sometimes indulge in fantasy: What if someone, anyone, had asked me about my erratic behavior, my frequent absences, the eternal lock on my office door? Would I somehow have been spared all those years of shame and hiding?

The truth is, I would have come up with some clever explanation. So there's really no one to blame: I simply wasn't ready to look mental illness in the eye.

I don't think many of us were ready to back then. But it's time we started looking.

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar. She also writes The Bipolar Lens blog for Psychology Today.

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