Despite stigma and fears for his career, lawyer Reid Murtaugh decided being open about his bipolar II diagnosis was a vital part of his recovery.
By Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Lawyers often write articles for legal journals—about their firms, their cases, or their area of legal expertise. The piece Reid Murtaugh wrote for The Indiana Lawyer was different: He revealed to the legal community that he has bipolar II disorder.
“It was hard to know that you have something that no one knows about you and you can’t share it. It’s difficult to live with the feeling that you have to keep it a secret,” explains Murtaugh, 33, who lives in Lafayette, Indiana, with this wife and their toddler.
“I felt like I was being almost dishonest because I had to put on a different face than what I was feeling. I was constantly hiding things.”
Murtaugh realized that keeping his struggles from the people with whom he spent the majority of his waking hours—his colleagues—was making his recovery journey harder. And if he was being truthful with himself, he knew his work was suffering. He decided he was going to start sharing about his bipolar disorder in a meaningful way to help others, as well as to help himself connect with the people in his life more authentically.
He knew of few other attorneys who were open about mental health problems. Stigma pervades the legal profession as much as any other sector of society, and he was concerned about how disclosure would affect his reputation and career. Nonetheless, he was deeply convinced that ending the secrecy was something he had to do for his own well-being.
He started by telling his law partners. Then he began sharing with friends. One day, he wrote a Facebook post describing his bipolar journey. And then he wrote the article for The Indiana Lawyer.
Surprisingly to Murtaugh, none of his fears came true after the piece was published in January 2017. His law career continued to flourish. Instead of negative reactions from his legal peers, he heard appreciation for his openness.
“It just became easier and easier the more I shared,” says Reid. “I even got to the point that I wondered why I ever worried about being open.”
Reid first sought help for depression and anxiety after symptoms emerged in his late teens. He tried to manage on his own during college, but when he hit law school the depression resurged—along with what he now recognizes as hypomanic periods when he was unusually motivated and energetic.
During his low periods, when it was difficult to concentrate and he felt extremely irritable, “I was still able to get my work done,” he recalls. “It was just more of a struggle because I was so tired and unmotivated.”
After consulting a psychologist, Murtaugh’s diagnosis was switched to cyclothymic disorder—a label that’s used when recurring mood symptoms don’t fully meet the criteria for full-blown episodes.
With the help of medication and psychotherapy, he graduated law school and was admitted to the bar in 2009. There is a “moral character and fitness” section on the bar application that includes questions about having a psychiatric disorder or past hospitalization, and Murtaugh was able to provide documentation of his participation in a treatment plan.
He began working as a county prosecutor, then joined a law firm. His days were long and stressful, his cases requiring a lot of trial work. In 2015, extended bouts of intense depression interfered with his work and his home life.
“I didn’t know if what I was experiencing was just the stress of being a lawyer or if something else was wrong,” says Murtaugh.
It took some agonizing, but Murtaugh ended up reaching out to a resource established for members of the legal profession who are struggling with stress, addiction, and other behavioral health issues. He sent a simple email to the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP): “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.”
He got the support he needed and another tweak to his diagnosis—this time to bipolar II.
Murtaugh had begun to question whether he could still be a lawyer because the high-pressure demands at his firm. The connections he made through JLAP and meeting other lawyers in a bipolar support group showed him that having a successful law career while having bipolar was possible.
“Anytime you are in a room with people with a similar diagnosis or experiences, it eliminates the feeling that you’re isolated or the only one feeling this way,” he reflects.
He did make some changes, however: In December 2015, he set up shop as a solo practitioner. Instead of doing litigation, which was locked into a court calendar, he focused his new practice on estate planning and helping business owners.
“I have more control over when I work because there are less court hearings and deadlines,” says Murtaugh. He also appreciates “less pressure for productivity” now that he’s not answerable to other partners about the bottom line.
Although speaking out about his bipolar was an important step in Murtaugh’s recovery, the decision led to a dilemma of sorts: how to keep helping others in the same situation without making his illness his identity. He says he sometimes feels the urge to reclaim his privacy, but he also really wants to make a difference.
“The whole process had a really positive impact on me personally. I think about my disorder a lot less than I used to. My burden feels a lot less because I took on the challenge of sharing, and I succeeded.”
• • • • •
What works for Reid
Continuing education: “I knew about the depression and anxiety, but there are a lot of other symptoms [in bipolar disorder], like irritability. It really helped me to find out about some of the symptoms that I experienced that I didn’t realize were related.”
Brain dump: “About once a month I go to a coffee shop and try to get my thoughts down on paper. Not writing an article or writing for work, but just writing. My goal is to get my head down on paper. … It helps me to express my creativity and get the thoughts out of my head.”
Body-mind meditations: “This has really made a big difference for me. I will sometimes do guided meditations, which are about five to seven minutes. Other times I will do a body scan, which directs you to focus on a certain area to feel the energy in your body, instead of [just] relaxing.”
Printed as “My Story: A Case for Disclosure,” Winter 2018
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