The most stressful question during law school that a student in addiction recovery or who has sought treatment for other mental health issues , may not be about the rule against perpetuities on that property exam. It may be the addiction/mental health question on the bar examiners application that must be filled out to sit for the bar exam.
The question that may be phrased in a way requiring an applicant to disclose mental health issue(s) that may only be known to the applicant and his/her therapist or other treatment provider. A question which, if answered in the positive, can have substantial ramifications on when and if the applicant will be allowed to sit for the bar exam or obtain a license if the exam has already been taken and passed. I had to answer those questions while dealing with mental health issues.
Around 1985, as a student at Pitt Law, I filled out my Bar examiners application in preparation to sit for the Pennsylvania bar exam. While I don’t remember how the question was phrased, the likelihood is high back then that questions about mental health were asked in a way that would require me to disclose treatment regardless of what real world bearing the answers had on my ability to practice law. Ironically, I would have been one of the applicants the examiners would want to flag.
At the time I filled out the application, I was an alcoholic. I was clinically depressed. I was bulimic. I mentioned none of these. I was not being dishonest. I had no idea I was an alcoholic. I did not know what depression or bulimia were. I had not sought treatment for any of them as relatively few people did at that time.
When I applied to sit for the Texas bar exam in 1987, my defaulted student loan (I corrected that) was an issue, but not the still untreated eating disorder, depression or alcohol. I had also added addiction to cocaine to my “resume”. To the best I can determine, here is how the question as asked in 1987:
“Within the last (ten) 10 years, have you abused, been addicted to, or been treated for the use or abuse of alcohol or any other substance, to include court ordered treatment”
Once again, there was no self-awareness that I had any problems. In my mind, I was not abusing alcohol or cocaine. I had never sought treatment, so was nothing to disclose. From strictly a sitting for the bar exam standpoint, ignorance was both bliss and beneficial to me. I failed regardless. Cocaine and Jack Daniels were not great study aids.
While I don’t believe in revisionist recovery, the argument could certainly be made that if I had answered in the affirmative as to my mental health issues, getting me into some sort of practice and delaying my sitting for the exam could have changed my recovery path for the better in the long term.
While my own lack of self-awareness and treatment (which would have been good thing for me back then), spared me the bar examiner scrutiny, others have been put through the grinder of being flagged and required to jump through mental health hoops to prove they are worthy of sitting for the exam or getting their license to practice if they have already passed.
Atticus Finch (not his real name) is one such example. Atticus is a licensed attorney in large eastern city. He says,
“There should be a ‘Miranda Mental Health’ warning on state bar fitness applications indicating that anything you disclose from a mental health standpoint may be extrapolated by someone completely unqualified make such decisions, that anything disclosed may be extrapolated to its worst possible speculative outcome and prevent you from sitting from the bar exam or delaying your licensing after you have passed”
Of course you’re dammed if you do and damned if you don’t. You disclose it and put yourself at the mercy of some faceless person who may have no mental health training and if you don’t you’re dishonest on your application and it can come back to haunt you after you have established your career. I was dammed because I was honest.”
Upon passing the bar on his first attempt, Atticus was eager to get admitted and wanted to be as honest as possible in submitting his character& fitness application. He says,
“I disclosed everything I ever did wrong, including a public urination that occurred years before. After four months had passed, I was told they needed records of an arrest for a failure to appear that was ultimately dismissed with no charges files. I felt compelled to disclose this because on the character and fitness application I was asked if I had ever been “temporarily detained” or “placed in cuffs” Same with the question that asked if I had ever been suspended or kicked out of a University. I had both these things happen to me, so once again gave them my narrative and explanation.”
Upon providing them with all the requested records, Atticus was invited in for an interview. He says,
“After going through each incident that I voluntarily disclosed, the person that interviewed me asked me if my parents had been divorced. He asked me if I saw a psychologist and what medication I was on. I of course told him the truth that, yes my parents were divorced and that I was currently seeing a psychiatrist for the sake of getting my ADHD medication prescribed.”
The examiner then recommended that Atticus meet with the Character and Fitness psychiatrist for a mental evaluation to see he I was “prepared to practice.” He says,
“Despite the fact that I had no problem with drugs or alcohol, the counselor recommended to the committee that I meet with the drug and alcohol bar counselor for six months. “
Additionally, it was mandated that Atticus have weekly therapy appointments for six-months with a private therapist that he had to pay for myself. His therapist would report to the bar counselor with monthly progress reports and with a follow up evaluation at the end of the period. Atticus jumped through those hoops and was finally recommended to the committee to be admitted to the bar, a year and a half after passing on his first attempt. He was finally licensed two years after taking the exam. Atticus says,
“The ordeal of the mental evaluation was degrading and took a toll on my self-esteem. Not to mention, the delay in bar admission has hindered my marketability.”
The individual who interviewed Atticus at the character fitness committee said his application reflected someone who was not equipped to practice. Atticus says:
“I’ve never been convicted of a crime. I never had an alcohol or drug problem. During law school and after, never drank or drink more than 2 nights a week and not to the point of getting drunk. It appears my sin was one of complete honesty.”
While Atticus got to sit for the bar exam before being flagged for his honesty, some don’t even make it that far. Their ability to sit is significantly delayed. Nationwide change is needed in several areas including (but not limited to), how bar examiner application mental health/addiction questions are asked. How the process works once an applicant is flagged, and how law schools guide students through this process. Some change is occurring. We need to go further.
“I want to start off by saying that as a former clinical director for a JLAP, from both a clinical and systems perspective, some of the most difficult cases to work with were often Bar applicants. Clinically, they are emerging from a time in their lives where newfound freedom, alcohol, experimentation, and figuring out how to cope with “adulting” is a huge roller coaster.
As Bar applicants, they are part of a process where they are powerless. Very often, the first time they fully understand that DUI or arrest they had during their time as an undergraduate is going to affect their bar application, is after they’ve entered and completed a significant portion of law school. The bar application process feels shrouded in mystery, and often even law schools are hesitant to help applicants fill out their application to the bar.
Applicants to law schools are required to disclose their legal histories on their applications. If they are accepted, they often believe their mental health and legal histories are “approved.” They are surprised and frustrated that those issues come back to affect them currently, in such a serious way, by delaying or preventing them from being licensed.
Bar examiners and law schools hold the key to truly getting to the root of helping to improve the mental health of law school students, and future lawyers. Encouraging law school students to seek help early, even while in law school, is instrumental in changing the prevalence of advanced substance use disorders in the population of practicing attorneys. Students are often fearful that disclosing that they are struggling or have gotten help will make bar admission difficult or impossible. The inherent culture of law schools, the competitive, show-no-weakness academics when paired with a philosophy that all that matters is academic standing, is a recipe for disaster.
If the system were in place where law school applicants were actually encouraged to seek help, it could make a huge and positive change. Some professions do better with this issue. For example, Physicians have programs in each state that assist medical students, similar to LAPs or JLAPs. Many states, on their applications ask physicians requesting licensure to disclose their mental health and substance use history. Applicants are asked if they are in good standing, and able to practice safely and check the box, “Yes” or “No.” There is a provision that states that if an applicant is currently involved in the state PHP and in good standing, they can check the yes box. It is a beautiful system, that allows and even encourages physicians struggling with these issues to admit it, seek help, and have enough oversight to ensure that they are practicing safely.”
I used to love New Years resolutions. They brought the hope and the fantasy of a whole new Brian without any concept of what that meant or how to do it beyond reflexive responses to pain, regret and shame.
I remember making resolutions dating back to college and law school. Study harder. Be more outgoing. Make some friends. Drink less. Get drunk less. Stop binging and purging (I was bulimic). Lose lots of weight (even though I was of normal weight) Each resolution lasted few a few days, maybe a week. Then came the drinking binge. The food binge with the resulting purge. The inevitable “what’s the point.” Anger. Shame. Defeat. Depression.
As the years passed, and I sunk further and further into untreated clinical depression, addiction and problem drinking, my resolutions still came but only adjusted to fit the problems of the day. Snorting less cocaine. Possibly changing drug dealers (yes that was an actual resolution) or switching to Jack Daniels and Diet Coke from Rum and Diet Coke to find the right balance of intoxication that would allow me to feel confident, outgoing while also self-medicating the pain of depression and childhood trauma. Taking cabs instead of driving after my DWI so I could inhale more cocaine and drink and lessen the risk of arrest and killing anyone but myself(that did not last long either).
During my career as a lawyer, (during the time I had one before it fell off a cliff do to drug and alcohol use), I don’t remember once making a resolution to better a better lawyer. Better serve my clients. Take care of myself mentally so that I can better serve my clients.
January 2006 was my last resolution that I would stop drinking so much and stop using cocaine completely. I had met a woman I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Her love would be the difference. You might imagine how that worked out. Addiction is a disease. It takes more than love to deal with it. By June 2006, we were dating and I was trading Dallas Mavericks championship tickets for cocaine. In April 2007, I took my second trip to a psychiatric facility. Once again, Pain Shame. Defeat. Cycles repeating.
When I began my long term recovery from drugs, alcohol and my eating disorder in April 2007, I decided that it was time to do something different. Yearly resolutions clearly were not my path to sobriety and self-love. I began taking my life one day at a time and concentrating on the day I was in rather than projecting far into the future and setting myself up for failure and another cycle of pain and shame and of course addiction relapse
My resolutions transitioned more to daily goals. One day sober. One day without sticking my finger down my throat. At least one meeting in 12-step(Alcoholics Anonymous is the most well known). One session with my therapist. One Lexapro to deal to even out my clinical depression. One day of allowing myself to be vulnerable. Dismantling the brick wall I had built around my feelings decades ago, one brick at a time. One day at a time.
As the years passed my goals built on that base. Doing what I love most which is writing. Blogs, books articles. Sharing my recovery in as many forums as I could. Hopefully hitting the pillow each night having opened up the possibility of recovery to at least one person regardless of what path they ultimately chose.
Today I also have daily affirmations. To do the next right thing and learn from it if it was the wrong thing. To exercise mindfulness in my decisions either in preparation or reflection. That is often done in a hot shower rather than a traditional meditation session. To do at least one thing to take care of myself mentally and physically. Finally, each day, to love myself and allow myself to be loved. Each day, I tell myself, I am enough.
As we begin 2018, whatever your resolutions, goals or affirmations, be sure to love yourself and take care of you every day. Build on that. Take it from me. Playing catch-up sucks.
In 2012, I was approached by one of the show’s producers to appear on a segment related to my struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder(BDD). A disorder that while not talked about a lot publicly, affects 2-3 percent of the population men and women equally. A disorder that has been around for over 100 years but has really only been out of the shadows for about the last twenty. A disorder that played a substantial role in my battles with addiction, depression and eating disorders.
My struggle came to the show’s attention as a result of a local Dallas interview I did on the topic.(Scroll down to watch) After the interview aired, the email came. A very nice email. While I knew the Dr. Phil show had a lot of “reality drama” to it, I was naturally excited. My first instinct was to jump at the opportunity for the exposure as I was writing my first book, “Shattered Image” at the time. It was specifically about my struggle with BDD.
At the time, I was just over five years into my sobriety, seeing a therapist once a week (I still do) and on my medication to control clinical depression and the obsessive/ compulsive urges that go hand and hand with BDD. I was therefore not one of the desperate and vulnerable people who often go on his show. I simply saw an opportunity to get the word out about Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
I then went to YouTube and did a sampling of a few of his shows. I saw parent and family blaming for a multitude of mental health disorders. I saw family and sibling drama. Tears. Shouting. Family battles brought into the public eye. The revealing of a multitude of terrible traumatic events in an environment that clearly was not safe. Mental health issues that even as a layman, I know cannot possibly be addressed in a healthy manner in television segment when the primary goal is ratings, not the well-being of the guests. It is not rocket science that drama drives those ratings. That drama certainly does not come at the expense of Dr. Phil. It’s the guests who are often the collateral damage.
Knowing that this type of drama is standard fare of the show, I then asked for my families input. I was especially worried that since I had no control over the show narrative it would be turned into my blaming my mother and family for my disorders and everything I went through. While through a lot of therapy, I realized none of it was her fault, at that point in my recovery, I often did not publicly express it in a way that conveyed the lack of blame. My family urged me not to do the show for that reason. I could not control the Dr. Phil narrative. As one of my siblings put it:
“Its like Jerry Springer without the boobs and fistfights”
The selfish Brian wanted to get on the show and get the exposure. The Brian who had a book soon to be released. The Brian however, who loved his family and respected their wishes not to be dragged into something that I had no control over declined the offer. People have told me that I was an idiot for not doing the show. Many book sales! My response is that my dignity and the dignity of my family has no price tag.
I had not thought about that in years. Then I saw the current allegations made against the show. Of course these are just allegations at this point. Whether the claims seem plausible would depend on how you view the show. If it’s a caring Dr. Phil about healing, then it seems inconceivable that would go on. If it’s a Dr. Phil who cares only about ratings and drama which many people believe, anything is possible because its not therapy, it’s a reality show and in show business, anything is possible.
I did reach out to the show( as well as others) years later to see if they had any interest in a straight-up show about BDD without the drama. No therapy. Just people telling their stories. No response.
I for one am glad I said no back then. Whiles most medical shows pander to nonsense to some degree, there are some out there who periodically, honestly try to bring light to serious issues while maintaining the dignity of the guest. I don’t see Dr. Phil as one of those shows. I see “reality therapy” as potentially more damaging in the long run to a guest than any good the show can do. I am glad I said no. Time for my psychiatrist’s appointment. Couch only. No cameras!
There is a popular internet meme that is often attributed to the actor Robert Downey Jr., although I can’t figure out when and if he actually said it:
“I don’t drink these days. I’m allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs.”
Not long into the start of my Dallas party days and my career as a licensed Texas attorney, I also “broke out” into handcuffs.
August 8, 1992, not long off of finally passing the Texas bar exam on my third try. The first two attempts going bad because my bar study revolved more around cocaine and alcohol at real bars than review books. This night is about the Dallas bar I am at getting hammered on giant beers and peach sweet cider ale. I take frequent trips to the bathroom with my newly purchased cocaine “one hitter” from a local head shop. Finally, around 1 a.m., the cocaine and booze money are exhausted.
Soon I’m flying up the highway well over the posted speed limit. I don’t notice the state trooper parked on the side of the highway waiting for someone just like me. He pulls me over within walking distance of my house. He asks, “How many have you had tonight?” I give the answer given by thousands of intoxicated individuals across the country right before they are arrested. “Just a couple, officer.” After the roadside tests, which in my drunken state, I believe I execute perfectly, he tells me I’m being arrested on suspicion of DWI and slaps the cuffs on me.
The trooper is a nice older guy who even pulls over to loosen my cuffs when I tell him they’re cutting into my wrists. We carry on a pleasant conversation the entire trip to the Lew Sterrett jail, which is the main jail and holding facility for the city of Dallas. I ask him if he’d take me back to my car when I blow under .10 (the legal limit at the time). He laughs and says that he doesn’t think that’s going to be the case, but promises if I’m not booked, they will get me back.
He’s right. I blow a .11 on the Breathalyzer. I fail to follow the legal advice I gave time and time again. Don’t blow. But like any drunk, I’ve convinced myself I’m not intoxicated.
Being handcuffed on the side of a public highway was humiliating. It was nothing, however, compared to the assembly line booking process staffed by Dallas County deputy sheriffs. Rightfully so. I’ve earned the verbal abuse. It’s open season. One of the deputy sheriffs leans across the table, sees my fake diamond stud earring, places his face inches from my nose, and starts yelling for all to hear:
“YOU’RE A STINKING LAWYER? ONE THING IS FOR SURE. YOU DO STINK! YOU’RE A DISGRACE TO THE LEGAL PROFESSION! I HOPE THEY KICK YOU OUT!”
I agree with him. I don’t say a word. I’m put in a large holding cell (otherwise known as “the drunk tank”) that smells of puke, urine, and the stench of the non-showered. Men, some much younger than me, dressed in their hip night club shirts and alligator shoes are crying uncontrollably in shame and uncertainty for their futures. They’re beneath me, I think at first. I’m a lawyer! But then, after a few minutes sitting on a concrete floor, I realize they are me. I am them.
I stand close to the phone in the drunk tank waiting for the shirtless tattooed dude to finish using the phone. He’s screaming into the phone in Spanish and gesticulating wildly. I take a step backwards. Only outbound collect calls are permitted. Who will I call? Family is out. I’m too ashamed.
About ten hours after my arrest, I’m released. My first call is to my father. I cry uncontrollably in shame and fear of the unknown consequences to come. My life is over. I vow to him and myself that “I’ll never drink again.” My next call is to my brother Jeff. He’s circumspect. “Yeah, you fucked up. Deal with it. Learn from it. Get a good lawyer.” My last call is to another friend to take me to the tow yard to get my car. Standing in the “line of shame,” I notice another guy who had been in the drunk tank with me there to get his car. I don’t feel so bad. Misery loves company.
Monday, August 10: Back to work. I can still hear the crying in the cell, and my own sobbing with my father on the other end of the line. Despite numerous hot showers to wash away the memories of the drunk tank, I can still smell stench.
Now I’m crying in my office, wondering about my future Do they let convicted felons keep their law licenses? Will I get fired? My boss knocks, and I wipe the tears away. He wants to talk about a case going to trial. I need to get the shame off my chest. If I’m going to get fired, so be it.
“I was arrested for DWI over the weekend.”
“Did you hurt anyone?”
“No, spent the night in jail. I’m sorry.”
“It happens, Brian.” He repeats the advice I had received from my brother Jeff. “Get a good lawyer and learn from it.” Sigh of relief. I’m not getting fired.
I managed two weeks of sobriety after getting out of jail. Just as long as it took to feel secure again in my established routine. My DWI should have been a learning experience. It was not. Or rather, it wasn’t the learning experience it should have been. Like many addicts who are humiliated, repentant, and swear off drinking, drugs, or whatever else in the immediate aftermath, the farther the event was removed in time, the easier it was to tell myself it would never happen again. I only learned it’d be better to take cabs to and from the clubs. That way I could drink and do as many drugs as I wanted without getting busted.
I pled not guilty. I approached my friend who was with me at the bar that night and asked him to lie for me at trial. Having more integrity than I did, he refused. The state trooper did not show up for trial, so the charges were dismissed. I remember my attorney handing me the dismissal. When I thanked him, he said to thank the assistant district attorney for dismissing the case. I had no idea he was being tongue-in-cheek. I stuck my head in the ADA work room next to the courtroom and with a big, ear to ear, teeth-baring grin, said, “Thank you!” They were not amused. The look in their eyes told me I should have humbly stayed quiet. I high-tailed it out of the courthouse. No thought about how I’d gotten to that point. No thought of being in desperate need of treatment. Just relief that I had dodged a bullet. No hard consequences other than the few grand I gave my lawyer and getting my car out of impoundment.
I may have beaten the DWI, but cocaine and alcohol had taken over my life and were robbing me of my ambition, my ability to focus, and the stability of all my relationships—professional and personal. Before long I’d lose my job for not meeting expectations. The beginning of a slide into addiction that would carry many more consequences not yet envisioned.
To get some perspective on these issues, I reached out to Miami lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Brian specializes in representing lawyers before the bar. Here is what he has to say:
“When lawyers are arrested for alcohol or drug related offenses – or there are allegations that the lawyer was impaired when arrested, reporting requirements to the Bar are just part of the issue.
The lawyer must first determine their obligations to the Bar, as different states have different requirements. The lawyer should real the disciplinary rules to understand whether there are different requirements for a felony or misdemeanor, and whether the requirement is upon arrest, upon the filing of charges, or upon disposition of the case.
After the lawyer understands their reporting issue, the next question is whether it’s time to look in to a lawyer’s assistance program. The Bar may be less concerned with the underlying allegations, and more concerned whether the lawyer has an addiction. The lawyer should consider whether an evaluation is necessary, as the Bar may require one prior to closing any disciplinary file.
Lawyers should understand that state Bars are concerned about impaired lawyers, and if the Bar can be a partner in assisting the lawyer with a substance issue, it may result in no discipline – saving the lawyer from public embarrassment, and putting the lawyer on the road to good health.”
*December is Impaired Driving Awareness Month. During the holiday season, this of course happens more frequently. Make smart decisions. Please also note that the average drunk driver will drive drunk 80 times prior to arrest. If you have a problem, don’t wait for consequences to catch up to it. Today is as good as it’s ever going to get to seek help so you don’t break out in handcuffs.
I am often asked the role family played in my recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. It’s an important question. We know that while families do not cause addiction, they can play an important role in recovery, even in subtle ways.
There is no magic formula to determine when everything will come together in that one moment when someone decides that it is time to take the terrifying step forward into the unknown of sobriety. There were times that my family tried to help me but I was simply not ready to begin my recovery. Jail. Failed marriages. Multiple failed bar exams. Collapse of my legal career. A family more than willing to get me into residential treatment and do whatever else was necessary. I had as much family support as could be asked for. There was also a lot of pain and frustration when they were ready and tried help me but I was not ready. Not an uncommon story.
While each person in my family has played an important role, one moment that stands out in my recovery is a conversation I had with my father in the days after my “rock bottom”.
April 9th 2007. I am broken. I am lost. By walking through the door of Alcoholics Anonymous the day before, and accepting my desire chip, I have taken that first scary step into recovery. That first step forward we all must take to survive, regardless of the mode of recovery chosen. I am still missing something however. I am missing that conversation. The conversation of a shy, depressed, bullied 13-year-old boy and his dad. A clinically depressed child in an era when depression was hidden like a contagious disease, so not to spread to others. Spending countless hours alone in his bedroom wanting to be accepted by the popular kids at school. Wanting his first kiss. A date to the prom. A difficult relationship with his mother. Not understanding that he is loved. Too afraid of being told he is not.
Now, days off of an alcohol- and drug-induced blackout. Two days off of my second trip to a local psychiatric facility. I’ve begun the journey of honesty about where I am in my addictions, eating disorder, and depression. Without my father however, there is no honesty. Only continued hiding from the truth.
My father, veteran of the Pacific campaign in World War II and the Korean War. The middle of three sons like me. A bond with his two brothers that was instilled by his father. He and his older brother Marty, operated a “trim shop” in Pittsburgh putting on convertible tops and reupholstering seats in cars from the end of the Korean War until Marty’s death from cancer in 1999. It was often like a bad marriage but there was that bond of brothers. His younger brother Larry would become a renowned academic and author.
I stand outside my father’s apartment door. Walking distance from my home. Walking distances from my two brothers homes. Over a thousand miles from where we grew up, decades later. This was no accident. It was the bond of family and brotherhood he instilled in his three sons. The bond that was instilled with him and his brothers. Growing up, we would constantly hear him say:
“Mark, Jeff, and Brian, wherever you go in life, never allow yourselves to grow apart. Always love each other. Never be afraid to tell the other you love him. Always call each other. Always be there in difficult times. There is nothing more important than your bond as brothers. As my sons.”
I now stand at his door. I am beaten. I can not do it alone I need my family. I need my father. He is now in his eighties. He does not deserve such a burden. To feel his son’s lifetime of pain. Pain hidden from him over a lifetime so not to feel his disappointment. I stand there… I stand there… I finally knock. “Come on in, Brian! So great to see you!” As usual, he offers me his seat on the couch. He asks me if I need anything to eat. I need to talk. He knows something is wrong. A father knows. He sits down next to me on the couch. I am crying. In an hour, I unload decades of pain. Things I had kept from my him because I loved him. Because I did not want to burden him. Because I did not want to see his disappointment in me. I did not want to see his pain over my failures in life.
He held me. He cried with me. Then he said the one thing that defined everything he had taught his sons growing up.
“Brian, I love you. Move in with me and we will get through this together.”
My father, Norton, of the greatest generation. My father gave me the greatest gift. The gift of a father talking to his 13-year-old son and letting him know he is loved. At forty-six years old, sitting on that couch, I was that 13-year-old boy. My father had allowed me to take another step in recovery. The gift of finally allowing myself to be loved. The gift he had instilled in all of his sons so many years earlier in loving and supporting each other. The gift of family. That day, my father helped redefine my future. That day, my dad saved my life.
Every family situation is different but there are commonalities in how addiction issues can be approached. I reached out to Dr. David Henderson for some advice. In addition to the advice he gives, be sure to take care of you! Self care is vital when dealing with family addiction issues.
Keep the conversation going – When someone is in denial about their addiction, the last thing they want is to be confronted about it. In order to avoid conflict, many family members and friends will avoid talking about the ways in which the addiction is destroying their loved-one and their relationships. But keeping quiet only makes the problem grow worse. It is important for family members to speak up regularly, continually addressing the problem in a nonjudgmental but firm way. Don’t let your loved one’s abuse of a substance become an abuse of your rights as well.
Determine the nonnegotiables and enforce them – Let’s face it, you really can’t force someone to change if he or she doesn’t want to. However, you can decide not to take part in their decisions by setting firm boundaries and refusing to accommodated for their addiction in your daily life. This may sound easy, but it is very challenging, especially if you don’t know your own nonnegotiables. Compromise is important in any relationship, but we all have limits. What are yours? Knowing your limits and standing by them will keep you from making emotional decisions in the moment, decisions that might actually be more harmful to your loved-one in the long run, even if they ease the pain in the short term.
Never give up hope – Recovery is a process. It is a bumpy road often fraught with relapses, but with the right tools and support, successful recovery is possible. You must never give up hope that your loved-one can recovery. Encourage them and encourage yourself with the hope. Avoid judgment. Avoid shaming. Hold on to your belief in redemption and wait expectantly for that change.
Michelle is a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, Florida. Her sobriety date is July 21, 2015. She says, “I didn’t begin drinking until I was 20 years old. I first drank when I was 16. I got wasted on the beach with a bunch of friends and spent the next two days sick in bed. From 20 until 29 years old, I would drink socially. I would black out occasionally, getting drunk on the weekends which progressed to weekday nights. I never drank at home or alone until after law school.”
Michelle spent most of law school drinking, getting high on ecstasy, and dancing to bumble-gum techno in the clubs of Ybor City which is a suburb of Tampa, Florida. Despite this, she was lucky to be able to sit in class and listen and retain what she was taught. She says:
Looking back, if not for the alcohol and drugs, I could have been in the top tier of my class and obtained a great-paying job right out of school, however when I graduated, I ended up becoming a public defender and fell in love with criminal defense. I out-grew the ecstasy once I graduated.
In Michelle’s younger days as an assistant public defender, she didn’t show up to court or work drunk or high, but there were many days she was hung over from the night before. She says, “I always knew better than to drink or drug before big hearings or trials, but can recall days at the court house feeling like death because of my party ways.”
When Michelle was 29 years old, she was arrested for a DUI. The state reduced it to a reckless driving in exchange for a ton of community service hours. She says:
From that point until I quit drinking, I began drinking to excess, and drinking when I was alone. I didn’t consume alcohol every day, but I used drugs most days. I began using Xanax and cocaine in my early 30s and would often drink, take Xanax, or drink and do cocaine. Anytime I went out I had either Xanax or coke in my purse and would mix it with alcohol.
In February 2012, Michelle was involved in a traffic crash. She left the scene and after some investigation, the local police department closed the case due to the driver of her vehicle not being identified. In 2013, the case was reopened by the state attorney. The state investigated the crash and subsequently charged Michelle with a third-degree felony of leaving the scene with injuries. The state filed formal charges in May 2013. Michelle says, “By this point I had given up Xanax (I quit taking it sometime in March 2013). I was, however, still abusing alcohol and cocaine.”
At this point, the Florida Bar became involved because Michelle had a felony pending. The bar case was on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case. In January 2015, the felony was dismissed, but the state bar went forward on the disciplinary action arising out of the accident. Michelle entered into a voluntary contract with Florida Lawyers Assistance Program and was able to negotiate a 60-day suspension followed by three years of probation. The felony dismissal was ultimately overturned on appeal. Michelle pleaded no contest and received a withhold of adjudication and probation. Michelle says:
On July 21, 2015, I stopped drinking and using cocaine cold turkey because my bar license meant more to me than drugs or alcohol. My life has been so much better since them. I dealt with closing my law practice during the suspension and survived. My practice is going well. I currently attend AA meetings twice per week. I don’t share very often, and my shares are usually related to my tardiness or procrastination issues. I have been actively working on my timelines issues, but I am a work in progress.
For Michelle, recovery has also included a newfound love of running races. She says:
I’m not fast and I don’t train, but I love to sign up and run long-distance races. Recovery is also keeping my bullshit in check. Staying out of my head and hustling. Recovery is not dwelling on the bad crap but learning from those mistakes and making sure I don’t repeat them. Through it all I found a deeper passion and love for criminal defense and fighting for justice. I still enjoy going out dancing, but not like I used to. Today, most of my dancing happens at home or in my car. Sober dancing is the best. Recovery is continuing.
I am one of many lawyers who struggle with clinical depression. I say “many” because according to 2016 Hazelden Betty Ford/ABA study, 28 percent of attorneys report mild or higher levels of depression, which is much higher than the general population. Another recent study found that law students are also struggling at rates higher than normal. Think about those numbers the next time you are in a room of lawyers. Take a look around. Odds are good that someone you know in that room is struggling and may not have told anyone.
I often get asked whether my depression stemmed from my addiction issues. When my problem drinking and addiction to cocaine were front and center, it was difficult to separate the depression from the substance use. I vividly remember that horrendous day in July of 2005, when my two brothers, alerted that I was in a suicidal state of mind, came into my home. I had a .45 automatic on my nightstand. Drugs and alcohol were everywhere. As we left the house to take me to a local psychiatric facility, I heard my younger brother say that I needed treatment for addiction. My older brother said that it was the depression that was the issue. They were both right. While the issues were certainly intertwined before I went into recovery, there is no question that for me they also exist independently with the clinical depression setting in long before alcohol and drugs became problems, dating back to my early teen years.
My mental state as a teenager, in part, would probably be diagnosed today as clinical depression, although I was not diagnosed with it then. It was a different era, and my parents would never have thought to seek help for me. Depression and mental illness in general were not as widely discussed as they are today and not concepts your average Baby Boomer teen in suburban Pennsylvania would’ve been comfortable raising with parents, friends, or teachers. Depression was something that was supposed to be handled in private. In silence. In loneliness, so you didn’t spread your “sadness” to others. That is how I experienced depression for many decades. As something shameful and secretive.
Today, almost 11 years into my recovery from drugs and alcohol, I still must manage the depression with both therapy and medication. Would I rather it not be that way? Of course. May it always be that way? Possibly. That’s okay as well. Depression is NOT a choice.
Perhaps if the awareness of mental health that exists today had existed when I was a teen, someone might have reached out earlier. For instance, when I began to self-isolate for long stretches of time — my solace was my bedroom where I would spend many hours alone, playing my favorite board game, Strat-O-Matic Baseball, with the family dog at my side. Or when seemingly pleasurable things — a trip to the amusement park with my grandmother, a nice word from a friend — would often leave me unmoved. The inability to articulate what I was feeling. But perhaps awareness alone wouldn’t have been enough. Even though there’s seemingly greater awareness of depression today, it can still be difficult for friends and family to discern the signs of depression or other mental-health struggles in our loved ones and legal colleagues. It can be just as difficult to acknowledge our own depression in a profession that discourages sharing of feelings as weakness and something to just “get over” or “pull ourselves out of.” Depression does not work that way.
As we go into the holiday season, please keep in mind that this this can be the most difficult time of year for many struggling with depression and other mental-health issues. If you are struggling, please remember that your local Lawyer Assistance Program is not just about addiction. They are also there to help with depression and other mental-health issues. If you are a law student, in many states, the LAP is also there for you. If not that, reach out to your Dean of Students.
Finally, no degree, training, or education is required to use the one gift we all have. The ability to empathize and simply ask someone if they are feeling okay and let them know you are there to support them. It’s not a comfortable conversation and easier to say nothing, but it could be one the moment the person is ready to share their struggle.
I am a lawyer dealing with clinical depression. Every day I take my medication. Every week I see a psychiatrist. I allow myself to be vulnerable in sharing my past and present in a safe setting. I am not ashamed of either. I hope you won’t be either. Talking helps.
If you are are lawyer or law student struggling with depression, here is an excellent blog on the topic.
I regularly feature inspirational stories from lawyers and law students in recovery. Chad Anderson is a lawyer practicing in Tempe, Arizona. He has been in long-term recovery from alcohol since 1999.
“I started drinking at age 15 and drank steadily more from there. I lived a fairly functional drunken college life, but eventually couldn’t keep it under control. Like many alcoholics, I thought a geographic change would be just what was needed to drink like a normal person so I decided to attend law school about as far away from civilization as possible. The problem, however, was me, and I didn’t leave me behind”
During law school I drank more and more, and it really started to become a problem. Legal studies did not come as easily as undergrad, and my grades declined. In January of my second year, I had a crappy offer to take over the practice of one of my home town lawyers which I took because my crappy grades would not have gotten me anything else.
I returned to my hometown and put my name on the ballot for the County Attorney’s Office against an unpopular incumbent. More voters decided they would rather elect an inexperienced drunk than the incumbent, so I eked out a 36-vote upset.
When I took office in January 1999, I was drinking so much I was blacking out three-to-five nights every week. I knew I hated living like that, but had no idea how to change it. Life was a mess and I was barely holding it together.
On Saturday night, February 20, 1999, I went out drinking with a friend in a neighboring town, and on the way home got stopped by a state trooper just outside my jurisdiction. I had 12 beers and 18 scotches in me, so I failed the breath test miserably. A 3 a.m. call to a judge got me released from jail but not out of trouble, and by Sunday afternoon the story of my arrest had gone public. An elected prosecutor getting arrested for drunk driving is big news on a slow day in 1999, when local radio, TV, and newspapers were still the main sources for news. My story was the lead on TV news at 5, 6, AND 10. I felt humiliated, but finally realized I had to get help. As a prosecutor, I sent people to treatment as part of my job, so I knew where to call.
Monday morning I had to be in court — not as a defendant, but as the county prosecutor. The judge wanted to see me in chambers, and he had the newspaper spread out on his desk with the story of my arrest on the front page. He bluntly asked what I intended to do, and I told him I had contacted a treatment center that could admit me the next day. His simple response was, “That is the ONLY answer (emphasis his) you could give me.” He then sent me home and canceled my court appearances that week.
Before my arrest, I did not know anybody who attended AA meetings, or at least never heard anyone talk about AA meetings. Without anything to correct my perception, I had imagined them to be gloomy, boring ordeals, with shabby men sitting along the walls hoping nobody would recognize them. I had no idea what AA was really like, but was sure I didn’t want any part of it. I wish somebody had broken their public silence to set me straight about what sobriety was and why I needed it.
During treatment, I went out to my first 12-step meeting where I heard stories from other alcoholics who had struggled but no longer drank. Some were even people I knew, but all were people I respected. They gave me hope, and I knew I wanted to be like them — happy, not drinking, and living productive lives.
I went to more meetings after that, and the more meetings I attended, the more I learned, the better I felt about myself, and the more I wanted to share my experience, strength, and hope. Life started looking a lot better, too. My recovery was just as public as my arrest, and the local papers interviewed me about how I was staying sober instead of how I was still facing serious jail time for my drunk-driving offense. Getting a couple of high-profile convictions and working on a popular county ordinance boosted my public image as elected county attorney before having to face the consequences of my actions, and more and more people were telling me I was doing the right thing.
As a result of the arrest, I pleaded guilty as charged and was convicted of drunk driving. I resigned my office as county attorney but ran for my own empty seat and won the special election with almost 70% of the vote, getting put right back in office. The people of my county knew I was a recovering alcoholic, but they believed in me and supported me in greater numbers than I ever imagined. I owe a great debt to all those who have helped me through these 18-plus years, and that election was one of my humblest moments. Honest, open, and hardworking was the way to go.
I will proudly tell my story to anyone who will listen. I will hold myself out as a recovering alcoholic to everyone I know. I will be honest when asked about having a drink, explaining I do not drink because I’m a recovering alcoholic. I will identify myself in public so that the still-suffering alcoholic may come across me and want to hear more about the promises of sobriety. I will engage anyone who is curious with honesty and openness about my experience with alcohol and how I’ve come to not take a drink since that night in February 1999. If there is anyone in my life who is remotely curious about how to stop drinking and enjoy a better life, I believe I am going to attract that person to a program sooner because of how I do not remain an anonymous alcoholic.
On November 11th, a Dallas County Assistant District Attorney was fired after an alcohol fueled confrontation with an Uber Driver. The driver recorded part of the confrontation. It’s not the first time that such a confrontation has made national news. Who can forget the Miami doctor who found herself front page news and was fired in similar circumstances.
As I have watched the facts and controversy unfold , I have done some reflecting on my past. Particularly all the negative events in which being intoxicated played a direct role, but which there could have been positive lessons that were not realized at that time. Those times when drinking changed me from a generally nice and laid-back person (at least I think so) to one of the biggest assholes in Dallas. It was a regular occurrence.
When we are in the middle of problem drinking, self-awareness can be elusive. It is often more about avoiding the consequences and feelings that would allow us to do a sober self-examination. Avoiding accountability. A scenario played out countless times around the world. In reading her story, I see myself before I went into recovery.
I remember a particular weekend during the summer of 1997. I had gone to Pacific Beach, California, with some friends. One night while there, I was so intoxicated that I was unable to give the cab driver (well before the era of Uber and Google Maps) coherent directions to the place I was staying. He asked me to get out. I refused. I began arguing with him. Berating him for being an idiot in not understanding my drunken gibberish.
I had become the “angry drunk.” He stopped the cab and demanded I get out or he would call the police. I did get out. I puked on the side of the road and staggered away. To this day, I have no idea how I made it home.
The next morning, there was no self-reflection. As I told my friends the story between trips to the bathroom to vomit as a result of the hangover and attendant spinning room, it was all about how the cab driver had been an idiot. Not my fault. I had no clue that I had a drinking problem. That awareness would not come for another 10 years of negative events related to my drinking and drug use. Loss of my career as a lawyer, failed marriages, etc. I had also previously been to jail for a DWI, but no lesson had been learned. As I listened to the audio of this district attorney berating this Uber driver, I was listening to my voice all those years ago berating a cab driver. I wish I could find and apologize to him as part of my 12-step amends.
As to this assistant district attorney, regardless of whether termination was an appropriate sanction to fit the incident (there are diverging opinions on that), or the “he said/she said” aspects, this is not the first time alcohol has played a part in someone losing a job and won’t be the last.
When someone gets past trying to save his/her job, deflection, and denial (which is pretty normal in these things), one can only hope there is some serious reflection on the real primary trigger. The drinking. While this may be the exception, in my extensive anecdotal experience and observations these things are generally not a one-off. The consequences change but the song often remains the same. Of course, anecdotes are not data, and this may indeed be the one and only time this person will ever be in this horrible situation. I don’t know her. I don’t know her drinking habits beyond what’s reported in this incident.
Even if it is a one-off however, when being intoxicated on any level changes who a person is to a “angry drunk,” it bears reflection on the decision to drink at all. Some of the nicest people I have known sober have turned into the worst possible versions of themselves intoxicated. I know people who would not be considered frequency-based problem drinkers (or binge drinkers) but have chosen not to drink at all because becoming intoxicated changes them for the much worse, and once that line is crossed, it’s like a freight train headed for the nearest consequence.
From my perspective as both a lawyer and a recovery advocate, the Uber driver’s release of her personal information, disparate employment treatment, and Dallas County politics are all distractions from the primary issue. Jobs come and go. Problem drinking (if at play here) is generally progressive. More incidents, more lost jobs, and worse. Get that figured out above all. In a profession with a problem drinking rate of over 35 percent for lawyers in her age group, we owe it to ourselves to get it figured out.
I was recently asked what has disappointed me the most as an addiction and recovery awareness advocate. Without out a doubt, it is the number of people in and out of the legal profession who view addiction as a choice and moral failing. A illustration of why it is not is the first time I used cocaine and instantly became addicted to it.
It was summer 1987. My first year out of law school. I was in the downstairs bathroom of one of the nicest hotels in Dallas, befitting my outward status and appearance as a young attorney. Shiny marble, mouthwash, breath mints, and the ultimate bonus, a toilet door that closed completely so no one could see in. With the bathroom attendant standing just outside my door handing out towels and mints, I carefully laid out three lines of cocaine given to me by the drug dealer I was introduced to twenty minutes earlier. I had seen cocaine once before as a teenager but did not try it. I had been told that cocaine was used at Pitt Law within certain cliques but as someone who kept primary to himself, was never exposed to to it.
I rolled up a twenty-dollar bill and bent over the white Kohler commode. The three white lines looked harmless, and my only hesitation was the grime, germs, and undoubtedly the past drug residue from previous guys like me.
Then I went for it. As the cocaine began its journey up the rolled bill to change the course of my life, I had a thought. I thought about a man I’d never met. I thought about Lenny Bias. Lenny was a first round draft pick of the NBA Boston Celtics in 1986. Lenny was a “can’t miss” future NBA prospect. He died of a cocaine overdose two days after being the second overall pick in the draft — it caused a deadly arrhythmia. No warning. No second chance. Just dead. It occurred to me in that moment that I had no idea what I was putting in my nose any more than Lenny did. That could never happen to me.
I opened the stall door, walked over to the faucet, washed the residue off my hands, swigged a mini-cup of generic mouthwash, flipped the attendant a 5-spot, took a mint, and pushed open the restroom doors to exit into my new kingdom, at least for as long as the high lasted.
I was on the apex of a feeling I had never experienced before. A feeling I loved and knew immediately I had to have again, and again, and again. This is what I’ve been looking for all my life, I thought. I finally felt like I was in control, and I walked confidently through the dim light of the already addicted, the non-addicted, the weekend coke kings, big-haired beauties, doctors, lawyers, students, and fellow 30k millionaires. I was now up for the battle. The King of Dallas. Nothing could stop me as long as I felt that way. In that moment, in that bathroom, I was instantly addicted. Not necessarily in the sense of physical dependence, but in immediate psychological dependence — I instantly felt I couldn’t survive if I didn’t try to maintain such a wonderful feeling.
Cocaine had the power to make all my anxieties seem trivial, and made the formerly impossible, possible. It was like the drug made my problems go away, if only for the brief period of the high. It made me a “super lawyer.” But of course, my self-medication was only papering over deeper issues, not resolving them. Coke didn’t help me focus in my career. Doing cocaine in the bathroom or in my closed office of the law firm I worked at did not make me a better lawyer. It just helped me “recover” from the hangover from the night before and not lose self-confidence despite poor performance. Coke didn’t cure my depression; it only masked it for a short time. It did not help me take control of my life; it just offered the illusion of control, work focus, and self-acceptance as things slowly but surely spiraled downward.
Looking back at that night that changed the course of my life, two things are clear. First, the initial decision to snort that first line, while influenced by pre-existing mental health issues, was of course, a choice. That is not clinical addiction. That is a singular action. If I had done that line, and decided it was not for me, I would not have been an addict. That’s not what happened. A psychological process instantly began. Later, as my usage increased, a biological process. That is addiction. I had to have that feeling again and again. Did I know right from wrong? Of course. Did I care? No. Did I eventually realize I was destroying my life? Yes. Did I care? Yes. Could I stop? No. Addiction overpowered my rational thought process to that extent. Clinical research and limitless anecdotal evidence tells us that my experience is not unique in that regard. Yes, choices are made that lead to addiction but the disease, in itself, is not a choice. It is defined as a disease by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
You can’t change where you have been. Only where you are going. Evaluate your options moving forward. Addiction is not a choice. Recovery is.