Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The naked lawyer, drugs and depression

Media coverage of barrister Peter Hayes’ death, and last days of life, has had a distinct below-the-belt focus. He was found nekkid – so what? I sleep naked, and I hope to die in my sleep. Ergo, I hope to die naked. So if the n-word or sight in my death should ever confront any of you down the track, you read it here first.

Admittedly though, the n-word would have gotten much less prominence in Hayes’ case had in not been in the close vicinity of two other “Um-ah” terms: “prostitute” and “drugs”. In turn, the p-word (which refers to a legal activity that is generally thought to be no one else’s business) seems to have only been so openly used in Hayes’ case because of the d-word. Drugs (illegal ones), then, are the only real baddie in the story of Hayes’ death; the rest is just tabloid prurience.

From the preliminary medical reports, it appears that Hayes died of a heart attack, and that the drug/s he had taken may not have caused his death. Time and autopsy will tell whether the d-word also was just another incidental detail given ridiculous media prominence.

In the meantime, I want to talk about another d-word – an above-the-belt one, this time – that seems to have had a pervasive role in Hayes’ life and death. Perversely, “depression” is a word that the media seem to have been unable to say, despite (or because of?) all the other salacious detail. Hints have been dropped, but mostly in an ambiguous context, in which allusions to Hayes’ mental fragility could simply refer to drug highs and lows.

I don’t know for a fact that Hayes had depression. I do know from first-hand experience, however, that Hayes had a mental breakdown in 1990, and that this was kept quiet at the time, even within the legal profession. In 1990, I was an articled clerk assisting on a large commercial litigation matter, which had finally gotten to trial. For me, that had meant endless photocopying in the weeks prior to trial: a set of several lever-arch files for the judge, my side’s two or three barristers, and quite a few others. The premise of my side’s case was that within the thousands of lever-arched pages in each copied set was a sort of conspiracy, in which the other side’s company had sold my side’s company a multi-million dollar “lemon” (of a life-and-disability insurance company). If so, this was certainly not handily expressed, or even implied, in any single document. The trial was going to be interesting then, for whether my side’s barristers were going to be able to draw any nuggets out of this paper desert.

During the trial, I was head trolley-boy, and so the paper “desert” might more accurately be termed a paper “mountain” from my POV. I wasn’t in the court-room when, early on in the trial, Hayes had a mental breakdown and so was taken off the case, but naturally I was told about it, along with the firm injunction to keep it quiet.

The fact of Hayes’ mental breakdown did not surprise me. Spending weeks utterly absorbed and lost in a paper wilderness did enough strange things to my head, and my greatest intellectual challenge was to ensure concordant page-numbering of the copied sets – a mere dip of my big toe in the documents, compared to the full-body immersion of Hayes (et al) in them. Now that’s nakedness.

Hayes in 1990 was much thinner than he was in recent years. Obesity is a disease strongly co-morbid with (i) poverty and (ii) depression. I think we can rule out poverty in Hayes’ case. Hayes’ late-life obesity is thus Exhibit 2; showing that Hayes’ mental fragility in 1990 was probably not a once-off, but something that stayed with him, and probably worsened over time.

That the legal profession outflanks all others (by far) in its rates of depression was written up in the AFR a few weeks ago. This was a fact that I’ve instinctively known anyway, at least since 1990. It would also seem to be a fact that most lawyers have instinctively grasped along the way.

I assume that Hayes received appropriate mental-health treatment, in 1990 at least. Two brutal facts need be stated here: (i) depression cannot be cured, or even significantly alleviated, for a sizeable minority of its sufferers, and (ii) if you’re in this category, it is surely better to embrace than futilely fight the black dog. That Hayes remained a lawyer after 1990 is thus Exhibit 3: misery loves company, or there’s safety in numbers.

That Hayes evidently self-medicated is "case closed" on the d-word, your honour. Drugs didn’t do it, depression and documents did.

I really hope that Peter Hayes has now gone to a better place, and had a less burdened trolley-boy than the 1990-me to help him on his way. And my apologies to his family, if I have raked up stuff they may have preferred been kept private - I mean no disrespect.

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