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Confronting Mental Illness

Hilary Chaney’s new book, “Through the Open Door: A Bipolar Attorney Talks Mania, Recovery, and Heaven on Earth,” recounts her personal struggle with and victory over bipolar disorder, including the challenges she faced during her studies at Washington and Lee’s School of Law.

A member of the undergraduate Class of 1998 and the law Class of 2004, Hilary is currently handling Social Security disability claims at Chaney Law Firm in Arkadelphia, Ark., after spending four years as a civil litigator in Fayetteville.

In a recent post on the blog PsychCentral, Hilary writes about her experiences, including her first manic break, which came after she had graduated from W&L and was working at Capital One in Richmond:

“But then things started to speed up. I found I couldn’t eat and couldn’t┬ásleep. My mind raced and I began having delusions that I was God and could save the world. I walked in Heaven on Earth and believed I saw the way to take us all there. I felt an enormous empathy for those around me. It felt like a knife to the heart anytime anyone else hurt, and the converse was true, too. Others’ joy was multiplied a hundredfold in my heart. This overwhelming love can be unbearable in its power.”

Hilary describes the ups and downs, and she notes that the stresses of both law school and then practicing law have exacerbated the problems. In 2009, she and her husband (and law school classmate), Nathan Chaney, and their son moved to Nathan’s hometown of Arkadelphia. Now that she has begun working with the family law firm, she has discovered “a groundswell of support.” The firm, she writes, “gave me the outlet to practice in a way that accommodates my illness and lets my talent shine.” She practices part-time and volunteers as a mental health advocate for Arkansas Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program.

Writes Hilary: “I am proof that with proper treatment, and accommodation from an employer, an attorney with mental illness can shine brightly.”