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.