A legal professional mental health series by Senior Fellow Don Blackwell of Bowman and Brooke, LLP, in Orlando, Florida
Author’s Note: There are lots of reasons the darkness that so often accompanies mental health challenges insists on isolation. They include: fear, guilt, shame, and stigma - to name just a few. But none are more prominent than the darkness' realization that its very existence depends on keeping love, empathy, and community at arm's length. That’s why it's critical for those who are walking alongside someone battling mental health issues to be love – steadfastly and unconditionally – and why its so important for those struggling to keep fighting to find a way to let love in. It’s both that simple and that complicated, as evidenced by the following letter I drove 4 hours to hand-deliver to my therapist a few weeks ago.
“I once asked my mentor, ‘What’s the most important advice you’ve given or received in your 30+ years of practice?'” ‘That’s an easy one,’ he replied. ‘Let love in!'”
- Dr. Stephanie May
Despite what I told you at the time, I realize now that I didn’t step into this space searching for answers about myself – how it was I could’ve done so much for so many for so long and yet still felt so all alone; how it could be that my heart seemingly knew no limits when it came to giving to other hearts in need and yet was so incredibly inept when it came to receiving love for itself; why my best – my absolute best – routinely elicited accolades from and, on occasion, even the envy of others, but never registered with me as being even marginally good enough; how someone could appear so put together, so in control of his world and his emotions on the outside and yet be so broken (shattered really) on the inside. No, I came in looking for a fight, hell-bent on finding out what was wrong with everyone else – why they didn’t get it (get me) – how they could be so oblivious, so indifferent to my pain – and when what I found instead was love, compassion, open arms, grace, empathy, and the prospect (however remote) of hope and healing, I started one.
And so, for the better part of the next three months, we butted heads you and me. Actually, I was the one who did most of the butting. Week after week, I came in not with humility and a heart open to change, but with another story, another compelling example of how I had been wronged, misunderstood, disrespected, underappreciated, overlooked, taken advantage of – unseen. In my mind, I had more than enough evidence (ammunition) in my stockpile to prove every point, a rock-solid case for why none of it had anything to do with what was wrong with me and everything to do with what was wrong with the rest of the world. I was on a mission and, for weeks on end, you just sat there – mostly in silence – never taking a note, absorbing every verbal body shot I delivered, saying just enough to make it clear you were listening (carefully) to every word, that not a single one of the thousands of tears I shed fell unnoticed, and that, in spite of my often offensive and angry words, I was welcome to come back. I’m sure more than once you wondered, as I did, if I would … if I could see that your lack of engagement had less to do with you not getting it, than with you not buying it … but, come back I did.
And then, one day it happened.
I don’t even remember what we were arguing about, all I remember is that I’d had enough – enough of you finally pushing back against the misguided narrative I’d been telling myself for a lifetime and grown quite comfortable with; enough of you calling bullshit on my tired tales of woe – no matter how compelling my side of the story presented; enough of you insisting I entertain the possibility that there was another, less self-victimizing side to those stories that told a very different tale – one grounded in a deeply wounded little boy; enough of you trying to convince me there was a better, less defensive, more open-hearted way to live; enough of you chipping away at the walls of my heart that I’d spent so much time building and reinforcing and took much pride in. And so, as had become my go-to move whenever I’d had enough, I got up to leave – without a word – and you in mid-sentence. And I would’ve left had I not seen the tears spontaneously streaming down the sides of your face – and known they were of my making. “I wonder if you realize how much that hurts,” you said simply. Sitting back down was the best decision I ever made.
With Eternal Gratitude, Don
I’m not sure what it is about the darkness that causes those lost or trapped in it to push the light of love away when love is offered and what’s needed most, but the phenomenon is real. I know, because I’ve experienced it in my own life and in the lives of those I love (dearly) and have worked with more often than I care to think about, let alone admit. And, I was about to do it again that day, a drowning man all but scoffing at a life preserver – a hand and heart repeatedly, unconditionally, non-judgmentally outstretched in love, offering a moment of grace, of peace, of respite from a storm that, truth be told, had been raging around and inside of me for far too long. Yet, the darkness would have none of it and, true to where I was in that moment, neither would I. Fortunately, this time around the light won! It’s part of the reason my go-to move now is to stay, lean in a little closer, and love harder. It’s also why I refuse to give up – on the wounded, the lost, and the lonely – no matter how many times they pull away or how effusive they are in insisting they’re “fine”, that “they’ve got this!” There’s simply too much hanging in the balance to let the darkness win!
Donald A. Blackwell has been a trial attorney for nearly 40 years. He currently is Of Counsel to Bowman and Brooke, LLP, where he devotes the majority of his practice to defending product manufacturers and distributors in complex product liability cases in state, federal, and appellate courts across the country. More recently, Don has spearheaded a campaign aimed at shining a light on the myriad of mental health issues disproportionately impacting the legal profession and the corresponding need for a higher level of Compassionate Professionalism among its members.
Don also dedicates a significant amount of his energies to supporting and advocating for individuals and families affected by eating disorders. He has authored multiple works on the subject and is frequently called upon to speak at local, regional and national eating disorder conferences and webinars. In 2020, Don organized and hosted the “Legacy of Hope Summit” - a first of its kind symposium attended by 25 of the country’s most highly-respected experts in the eating disorders field aimed at arriving at a blueprint for the path forward in the care and treatment of those diseases.
Don has been an LCA Fellow for over 10 years and was a 2014 recipient of the LCA's Peter Perlman Service Award.