Four days before Orlando da Silva became president of the Ontario Bar Association this month he heard the news that comedic genius Robin Williams had taken his own life.
“I imagined Robin Williams alone in his room, what went through his mind,” da Silva told TorStar News Service this week. “I can understand the thinking, I can understand the emotions.”
The new OBA president has also lived with the torment of depression, the sense of bone-deep worthlessness and lacerating self-disgust. He came close, in fact, to taking his own life.
Six years ago, slipping into unconsciousness after swallowing a bottle of wine and handfuls of sleeping pills, da Silva made a last-ditch phone call to his estranged wife, whose 911 call likely saved his life.
In assuming his new duties, da Silva has decided to use the platform to speak publicly for the first time about his experience.
Now a Crown counsel with the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, da Silva grew up in a working-class family in Kitchener. His dad was a welder. He never met a lawyer until he went to law school.
In fact, his family lived beside the clubhouse of the Hells Angels, who he says scared the wits out of him but were surprisingly good neighbours. “If they saw my mom walking home from the grocery store, they would offer her a ride. She always politely declined.”
He realizes now that depression was always with him. As he looks back, he thinks his Grade 4 teacher, Mary Forrester, was the first to recognize he had struggles beyond mere shyness.
“She recognized that I was keeping to myself a lot, had trouble with focus and concentration though she thought I was bright … So she got me to keep what she called a ‘happy book,’ a little notebook.
“The point of the book was to write down things that made me happy in a day. And she told me to read it when I was feeling sad. She helped me feel worthwhile.”
The first time he recalls being debilitated by a low-grade depression that cycles periodically into serious episodes was in his teens; it happened again when he was articling.
Still, he became a lawyer, married, had a child, seemed to all the world like a classic son-of-an-immigrant success story.
His deepest crisis came in 2008, when he sought the federal Liberal nomination in the riding of Kitchener-Conestoga. During that time, da Silva and his wife separated and he was working himself to exhaustion.
He worked full-time in downtown Toronto, drove each evening to Kitchener-Waterloo to canvass and returned afterward to Mississauga. “I did that every day for two months.”
The emotional rewards of the campaign probably kept him afloat. He had a team of supporters, people cheering him, a party leader coming to town to hold his arm aloft.
When he lost badly, that disappeared overnight.
“I found myself spiralling into this dark place … ‘I must seem foolish to everyone. I should never have tried this.’ The more I thought of that, the more depressed I got. And I didn’t want anyone to know I was thinking these things.”
Soon, he was taking sleeping pills and drinking each night after work to medicate himself.
“One night I started drinking and within a couple of hours had swallowed 180 sleeping pills and a bottle of wine.”
As he was starting to lose consciousness, he said, “I decided, I don’t want to die.” He called his estranged wife. She called 911. He was taken to hospital, where he spent the next two months and was treated for months after his discharge.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it,” he said. He told his family he had been travelling and people at work that his health issues were physical.
In the period that followed, he tried different medications. He received 13 electroconvulsive shock treatments. “And eventually I started to feel better.”
A few months ago, before assuming the OBA presidency, he decided he would use the new platform to speak about mental health and tell his own story. One of the things that motivated him was the 2013 suicide of former Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman’s husband, Christopher Peloso.
“I could see that he has a loving family. He had what everyone always says — ‘He had a great life, he had no reason to be depressed.’
“That kind of thing reminds you, as a depressed person, of the irrationality that your mind goes through when you’re in the throes of it. You think that you’re not worthy of what you have, you don’t deserve the goodness in your life, you don’t deserve the love of your family, that they would all be better off if you were gone.”
Still, he thought “long and hard before I said anything. I thought, ‘What will my family think? Will they love me less? Will they treat me different?’ ” Some friends in whom he confided warned against going public.
In the end, he decided that “this might be my only good opportunity to get people talking about it.”
In an interview with the Law Times, he told his story. The Waterloo Region Record, the newspaper in the community where he grew up, followed with a report.
“I’m hearing a lot of positive things,” he said. “My family is proud. They think some good will come out of this. Lawyers have come to me to say, ‘Welcome to my world.’ ”
He knows that 10 years ago, or if he were in private practice rather than the public sector, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“But I think it’ll help if it means someone says, ‘If da Silva can get in front of a podium and say these things, then I can pick up the phone and call someone and talk about it.'”
Now living in Pickering, da Silva has a new relationship, a teenage daughter, two stepdaughters and an appreciation for those who cared about him.
Mrs. Forrester, the teacher who came up with the happy book, sent him an email this week and da Silva “got a chance to say thank you.”
In the weeks after his worst night, his ex-wife was his advocate in hospital.
He realizes, as he starts his one-year term representing the province’s 16,000 lawyers, that his condition requires vigilance and that human connection — some understanding, some compassion from others — can make all the difference in the world.
“It doesn’t take much,” he says, “to save a life.”
By Jim Coyle