Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Resilience as Her Dream Disappeared

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Resilience as Her Dream Disappeared

Article excerpt

SERIES: FACing Mental Illness

Something about Amy Sell's Goldilocks blonde curls, discreet wardrobe and demure avoidance of direct eye contact brings to mind women of a simpler era. But her life has been anything but uncomplicated.

According to stories her parents told about their eldest daughter, Sell was a happy, voluble child, singing songs and telling stories as she grew up on the family's dairy farm in Wisconsin, eventually joined by two younger sisters. But not long after the family lost the farm and moved to Sarasota when she was 7, her behavior changed precipitously.

"I don't know what caused it, but I became painfully shy and wildly anxious," says Sell, now 36. "I was very awkward and didn't really like to be around people. And I started to have some difficulty with concentration."

Nevertheless, she was a diligent student who did well in school and never got into trouble. Her family's philosophy was that if you put your head down and worked hard, all things were possible, and Sell took it to heart. She graduated as an honors student from Riverview High School, went on to a degree in political science and criminology from the University of Florida and was accepted to the very competitive law program at Gainesville in 2002.

Law school is stressful for anyone, much less someone with difficulties focusing and concentrating. Still, Sell managed well enough for the first year and a half. Then a series of incidents -- including "being on the receiving end of a crime" and the loss of a friend to drowning -- pushed her over the edge.

The multitude of scars on both her arms, from wrists to shoulders, remain as testament to the severity of her breakdown. Doctors saved her life with transfusions and gave her the first of what would become a long list of mental health diagnoses over the past 15 years. Major recurrent psychotic depression. Social anxiety. PTSD. Schizoaffective disorder. Social phobia. Borderline personality disorder.

"I'm an overachiever," Sell laughs, with characteristic self- effacing humor.

Placed on an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic, she returned to law school. But faced with a routine background check by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which screens all potential law candidates for "character and fitness," she simply could not bring herself to reveal her history.

"They were asking for the hospital's records and diagnosis," she remembers. They said, 'If you don't tell us anything, you will be permanently barred from applying to the Bar ever again.' At that point I was already sort of doubting myself, and I just couldn't bring myself to check the box. I decided I'd just find something else."

She withdrew her application, "with prejudice," meaning the door to becoming the criminal defense lawyer she once hoped to be would forever be closed. …

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