When Religion And Recovery Collide

There are two major 12-step based groups for alcohol. One is, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous. The other is Celebrate Recovery, which is Christian based. In order to comply with the “11th Tradition” (which I find both outdated and ridiculous, but that’s for another time), I will simply state that I am not in Celebrate Recovery. You can draw your conclusions about my recovery program from there.

June 2007: Two months into my sobriety. Sitting at a table at the normal Sunday morning post 12-step meeting gathering at the Corner Bakery. I’m angry. Agitated. Combative. Worried. I have no interest in the “spiritual” aspect of 12-step, which to me feels more like pure religious indoctrination, even if there is no specific faith to it.  It feels like it suffocates me in every meeting. Everyone joining hands to recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer to close each meeting (I stay silent during its recitation.) Talk of God. Talk of the “god of my understanding.”  Is there a difference? Read the Big Book. Work the Steps. It will all become clear to you. It sounds like jargon to me. I have to remember that even in 12-step, people are still people. There are competing views of what spirituality means. To some, it is inextricably tied to religious beliefs. There’s talk from a few in the groups about how no one can get sober if they don’t believe in God. My blood pressure goes up. I look at the clock, then the door. Talk of how the chapter in the Big Book entitled “We Agnostics” will make everything clear does not soothe me.  I don’t want to be told about any “god of my understanding” as a necessity to getting sober. It makes me feel sometimes as if 12-step isn’t right for me. But I have to look at the upside, and the upside is that I am two months sober. I can’t remember the last time I strung together two months without a drink. I try to focus on that. I focus on the support of my family and girlfriend who had stuck with me, despite the brutal betrayal of her trust.  I have to focus on the support of the group itself, of people who have been through some of the same things I’ve been through, and who have the power to make me feel less alone in my struggle.

The coffee is ordered. I’m sitting with two old timers. Let’s call them Zed and Emma. They have well over 50 years of sobriety between them. Zed also happens to be an attorney and retired judge with a very long and successful career. As I start to dig into my vegetarian omelet, Zed walks over to me and says in a near whisper, “Brian, Emma and I would like to speak to you privately.”

“Sure, let’s sit over here away from the group.”

Emma says, “Brian, if you want to stay sober, you need to accept god into your life.”

Cue the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. My body temperature rises, my temples pulse. The room is cool, but all of a sudden I’m sweating as if I’ve just done a couple of lines of blow.

“I’m not going to say that, Emma. It’s not what I believe. I’ve made that very clear in group.”

Zed says, “Brian, yes, you have, but you need to read and study the Big Book. Read the chapter entitled ‘We Agnostics.’ Brian, you’re a lawyer correct? So am I. Let’s approach this from a legal standpoint.”

“What does my being an attorney have to do with my belief or lack of belief in god? It’s no one’s business but mine.”

Brian, you understand how to logically approach things, and I’m telling you logically you need to acknowledge a god, any god. Just pick something, anything, and then say, ‘. . . otherwise known as god.’”

I swivel my head side to side to see if anyone else is catching this and wonder if I’m on some type of hidden camera reality show.

“I’ll consider it. Please feel free to finish my breakfast. Have a good day.”

There are certain moments in the trajectory of my addiction descent and recovery that I’ll always remember. The moment the bullies physically assaulted me because of my heavy weight and tore my pants off. That moment in the parking lot the psychiatric hospital when I decided that I was probably going to die and was going to lose my family if I did not take that first step toward recovery. The moment when two people who truly insisted that a belief in god was necessary to have long-term sobriety tried to shove religion down my throat as a prerequisite to recovery. It was a moment that felt like a threat to my whole plan of recovery, since 12-step was seeming like maybe an imperfect fit. But it was an important moment, because I pressed on anyway. Eventually finding a place in the room where I was able to calmly tune out that part and make recovery my own despite attempts of others to conform me to their version of recovery at a time when I was at my most vulnerable and in pain.

To be clear, that story is a criticism of the approach of two people, not 12-step. Recovery programs are programs of people, and when you’re interacting in recovery groups, regardless of type, there will be all kinds of personalities and agendas beyond just getting sober. Sides of the street become blurred and some cross over to tell others what your recovery should be without being asked, instead of working their own side of the street.

I get setbacks, and I understand dropping out from recovery programs. Whether it’s some self-righteous person in the 12-step group, the 12-step philosophy and mantra, family discord, stress, trauma, there is always a reason to not stay sober. It’s what happened in that moment when I could have used it as a reason to quit that defined me. I don’t go to that group anymore, but I did keep going back. Of course there are those whose religious faith is of extreme importance in their recovery, in and out of 12-step. There are those who find it a huge stumbling block and hypocritical.  Let there be no mistake, in my opinion. AA is a religious program.  I frankly don’t see how a group can recite the Lord’s Prayer and say it’s not religious with a straight face, but many do find ways to breach that type of institutional intellectual dishonesty. To be fair, there are secular AA groups in some cities such as Dallas, but it’s not a position endorsed by the organization which has been accused of de-listing such meetings. A position seemingly more concerned with protecting the mantra than improving the outcomes. I am a humanist. I will continue to attend meetings. I will not join with the group in reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity prayer. It’s how I live and pay it forward that matters to me, not dogma handed down over 70 years.  My anecdotes are not science, but regardless, recovery must evolve. I hope one day 12-step will evolve with it, at a minimum, by doing away with the intellectual dishonesty that at least anecdotally, I know has driven people out of the program and kept some looking for recovery from going in. Religious conflict has a way of doing that. “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” or “look how many they help” are not justifications for stagnancy. Look at the numbers of people dying from both alcohol and opiates. We should always be looking for ways to improve outcomes. Every moment. Every minute. Every second. 12-step included.



Realizing Your Dreams In Recovery

If you would have asked me as an 18-year-old what my dreams and aspirations were as I walked out the doors of Mt. Lebanon High School in 1979, they would have been rooted in pain and loneliness. To one day hold the hand of a girl who liked me. To have my first kiss. To be someone who was not painfully shy and withdrawn. To go someplace where I would be accepted and not bullied.

If you would have asked me my dreams and aspirations as a 22-year-old graduating from Penn State and heading to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, much of it would be the same. Kiss a girl. Go on a date. Lose my virginity. Run a marathon or two. I had little vision of my future beyond what was at the tip of my any nose at any particular moment. None of my dreams involved being a successful law student and lawyer. I was already an alcoholic, also dealing with both exercise and traditional bulimia. Life was about day-to-day survival. It was not the future.

At age 27, after moving to Dallas and doing my first line of cocaine, visions of my present and future became influenced by drug addiction. Cocaine gave the feelings of being handsome and successful with a bright future.  Of course, my real life was much more painful and different. It was therefore logical to me to do as much cocaine as I could and get drunk often to maintain the illusion — or delusion — of my present and future as it goes.

In July of 2005, I had no vision of my future. There was only a black hole. I decided to end my life.  Fortunately, family and friends knew something was wrong and intervened.

On April 8, 2007, as I took my first steps into sobriety, my perspective on my present and future possibilities slowly began to change. At first, the future was simply getting through the day without drinking or doing a line. Going to my weekly therapy to deal with the co-occurring mental-health issues and a childhood I was running away from.

As I began to string together day after day of sobriety and therapy, the pinhole of sunlight in the tunnel to my future grew larger and larger. I began to see the meaning of loving myself, dealing with life on life’s terms, and allowing myself to be loved. I began to slowly embrace a future of possibilities. I began to write. A journal. My blog. Expressive writing filled with the release of anger. Even then, however, I never envisioned the possibility of being a published author. As I began to realize the power of expressive writing in both my recovery and letting others know that they are not alone in their pain, the first thoughts of one day writing a book entered my mind.

Today, I sit here, having achieved that dream. A dream that would have never occurred without long-term recovery.  For the second time in my life, I am an author.  Last week, my book, “The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow, & Redemption” (affiliate link) was released.

I was able to convince both a literary agent and a traditional publisher that my book was a worthy risk.  It was not an easy sell. Addiction and mental health awareness in the legal profession is for the most part a taboo, niche topic despite the fact that a recent study found that we suffer from problem drinking at a rate three to five times the rate of the general public, with similarly high rates of depression and anxiety. Law students did not fare much better in another study.

The Addicted Lawyer is a culmination of much reflection on my life as a law student and lawyer dealing with those issues. I, however, wanted it to be more than just my story. I reached out to other law students and lawyers who have struggled and found their way to long-term recovery. I reflected on those I know who did not make it.  I talked to those in the legal profession whose job it is to both help lawyers and law students recover and deal with the consequences that often come with substance use.

More than anything, the Addicted Lawyer is about redemption.  My redemption. The ability for all to find recovery and redemption, even if the consequences require a re-defining of our hopes and dreams.  Not long ago, I saw an advertisement in the Texas Bar Journal for a keynote I am giving about my journey at the State Bar Conference this week. There was a time I wondered if I would appear in the list of suspended and disbarred in the journal. Full circle. Redemption.  I am no longer the Addicted Lawyer. I am a lawyer, a person, in long-term recovery.  In recovery, all is possible.


Xanax Memories

medication medicine pills drugsYears of accumulated change in shoe box. Susan B. Anthony Dollars. Fifty-cent pieces. My first-day desire chip taken from “John G.” sobbing, powerless, and broken. My one and five-year sobriety chips. Worn, corroded pennies, nickels, and dimes.

A box of memories. Memories of bouncing a basketball while I stole quarters from my father’s change jar as a teen so he would not hear me. Memories of pouring water into the whisky bottles so he wouldn’t know I was siphoning his liquor cabinet. Memories of hiding my cocaine and black-market Xanax in this very box buried beneath the loose change. An almost nightly combination punctuated by the once sickening, 6 a.m. sounds of the blue-bird’s and robin’s wake up songs after being up all night.  Fragmented memories and dreams.

Read the rest on my column at Above The Law.

Xanax Memories


Being A Feeler In A Profession Of Thinkers

depressed lawyerLawyers and law students, at least anecdotally, often seem to be driven, Type-A personalities who might in some ways be at higher risk for addictive behaviors. Perhaps the ways we fit the lawyer “type” has something to do with propensity for mental health issues and addiction. Or maybe sometimes it’s the way we don’t fit in that matters. I certainly felt more stress through the years from the ways I wasn’t a typical lawyer than the ways that I was.  While I never felt particularly stressed from the desire to excel either in law school or as a lawyer, I was stressed because I was miserable for other reasons. I’d chosen an occupation for all the wrong reasons that had no relation to who I was as a person.

Read the rest on my weekly column at Above The Law

http://abovethelaw.com/2017/04/being-a-feeler-in-a-profession-of-thinkers/

Reflecting On 10 Years Of Sobriety

Sobriety highway signI will celebrate my 10th year of sobriety on April 8, 2017.  While I generally take my sobriety one day at time, I am 99.999 percent certain I am going to still be sober on April 8, so you are getting this a few days early.

On April 6, 2007, however, my thoughts were not of even one day of sobriety. My expectation was that I was going to be able to party two days straight because my girlfriend of just over a year had left town for the weekend. She knew nothing about my heavy alcohol and illicit drug use or my underlying mental health issues dating back to childhood.  In addition to my J.D., I had a Ph.D. in wearing whatever mask of respectability I needed for periods long enough to fool those who needed to be fooled. My friends. My family. My clients. The lawyers I worked with.  My significant other.

Read the rest on my column at Above The Law

Reflecting On 10 Years Of Sobriety


Let’s Talk About Self-Harm

failed bar exam sad lawyerI recently came across a study that found that a quarter of young men ages 16-24 turn to self-harm to cope with depression, anxiety, and stress — a trio of mental health issues that can define many a law student and lawyer experience. Especially the first year of law school in which the average age of a law student is 24 years old.

I was not able to find any data on the number of law students, either male or female, who either had engaged in self harm or are currently self-harming. I can tell you anecdotally that I was one of those self-harming law students and then lawyer. Something that until 2013 I had buried deep within my subconscious of shame and stigma.

Read the rest on my column at Above The Law.

Let’s Talk About Self Harm


Is Alcoholics Anonymous For You?

April 2007. I walk up to the door of the building where area Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings are held. My family is pushing hard for in-patient treatment but I refuse. My psychiatrist feels that a trip here is the first step to long-term sobriety. Lucky for me, the building is right next to his office. If it hadn’t been convenient, I might have just made excuses to not go at all. For an addict, excuses are often more plentiful than reasons for recovery. The present is more important than the future — the present of the high.

After pacing around outside the doorway for a long time, I finally peer down the long hallway into the room where people are gathering. I’m afraid of being recognized. My ego is still paramount in my worries. “I’m a lawyer. There are no lawyers in in AA or treatment. My one client left needs me!”

My mind flashes back to one of my favorite childhood movies, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I suddenly imagine that as soon as I enter the meeting room, I’ll be carried away by a team of chanting Oompa Loompas determined to punish me for my bad habits. I have no desire to meet the Oompa Loompas on the other side of that door.

I finally walk down the hall into the meeting room, and I can smell the fumes of stale cigarette smoke and day-old coffee. My eyes lock onto the 1950s tile floor, ingrained with the dirt of countless feet. There are other people milling around in room. Are these the people with whom I was supposed to share my darkest secrets? Would I be made fun of, teased, or insulted? Who are these people? Skid row bums? That’s my perception of AA. I think of Nick Cage’s character, Ben, living in the sleazy “no-tell motel” as he drinks himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. Dick Van Dyke’s character, Charlie, drunk, alone on the beach with no future in The Morning After.

 Deep breath. Don’t look around. Eyes down at the floor. That fixed point. Watch the feet move forward. One baby step at a time to a waiting chair. It’s the way I’m able to accomplish things in life. It’s how I was able to finish eight marathons. Facing any difficult task, my best self is that part of me that can place one foot in front of the other until a goal is accomplished. Don’t look left. Don’t look right. Don’t think about the finish line. I sit down. I listen. I cry. At the end of the meeting, I take a desire chip. The most important journey in my life begins.

As you have probably figured out, I got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. I know I am irritating some who believe we should not talk publicly about being in AA. I believe we should be empowered to share all aspects of our personal journey if we choose to. I find it perplexing that we as attorneys in recovery, who spend our lives engaged in critical thought and using data, will exclude AA from that process as if there is some magical healing power to not discussing both its benefits and flaws when there is no empirical data to support the notion that talking publicly about being in AA, then relapsing publicly, will cause someone to not enter the program.

Certain aspects of AA have worked for me to date. I completely disregard other aspects. The sober connections I found in group were, and are, important to me. The people. The stories that tell me I am not alone. I, however, have never been as keen on the spiritual aspects and certain rituals of the program. I have no interest in saying the lords prayer to close a meeting so I don’t join in.  That’s just me. You may like that. You may need that. Those issues however, have never been a deterrent to me in my program like they are for some who reject AA as their mode of recovery.

In speaking to law students and other lawyers about recovery, while some embrace the program, some would rather find others ways to long-term sobriety and have. Through their church. Through non-12-step-based programs such as Smart Recovery. Through both 12-step-based and non-12-step-based residential treatment. Through collegiate recovery programs. Through informal local attorney support groups. I know a few lawyers who have gotten sober on their own, although I would never recommend that path to start. There are many paths to recovery available today that were not available in 1935 when AA was founded.  AA has also not been my only mode of therapy. I have been seeing a psychiatrist for over a decade. I take anti-depressant medication daily. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) have been important in my recovery. Let’s not lose sight of the goal: To be a person in long-term recovery regardless of the path chosen. The most important decision of your life should be one of reflection and critical thought. It’s your journey. If it’s AA, that’s great. If it’s another path, get on it. Recovery awaits.

*The 11th tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous(AA) states, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.  I acknowledge that discussing my personal AA participation may run contrary to that tradition. I however, have been completely open and honest in the public realm about all aspects of my recovery since my first year of sobriety. I have received both criticism and support during that time. To suddenly change now would be disingenuous to what I believe and have always believed about rigorous honesty and self-determination when it comes to personal anonymity and the need for public critical discussion about every mode of recovery. Your choice may be different and I have the utmost respect for that.  Please don’t email me recitations of the 11th tradition. I obviously know what it says. Thank you

*

 

 

  1. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance.html
  2. http://collegiaterecovery.org/programs/
  3. http://www.aa.org/
  4. http://www.smartrecovery.org/
  5. http://www.celebraterecovery.com/

Law Schools Empowering Student Recovery

Wooden signpost with two opposite arrows over clear blue sky, Addiction and Life signs, Choice conceptual imageI thought it would be nice to every now and then, feature a law school taking proactive steps to make sure the student body is empowered to seek help for problematic drinking, drug use and other mental health issues. The first school is the Southern Illinois University School of Law (SIU Law).

I reached out to Dean and Professor of Law, Cynthia Fountaine with some questions. If you would like your school to be profiled, feel free to reach out to me with the proper contact information.

BC: What steps does SIU Law take to empower students who may be struggling with alcohol, substance use and other mental health issues to come forward and get help?

CF: SIU Law has taken many steps to ensure that students feel supported and empowered to get the help they need. As a first line of contact, students are encouraged to speak with whomever they feel most comfortable speaking to—whether that is the Dean of Students, the Associate Dean, a faculty member, or me. My door and the doors of my faculty and staff are always open to students.

Read the rest at my column on Above The Law

Law Schools Empowering Student Recovery


A Letter To My Thirteen-Year-Old Self

Unhappy schoolboy walking alone in school corridorI break my initial and on-going recovery from drugs, alcohol and eating disorders into two basic parts. Dealing with where I am and dealing with how I got there.

The dealing with the present was of course initially getting sober and now focuses on staying sober. That began with twelve-step. There was also psychiatric treatment and numerous types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). I continue to see a psychiatrist to this day. There also was (and still is) medication to deal with clinical depression and body dysmorphic disorder.

The hardest part of my recovery however was facing the past, specifically my childhood.

Read the rest on my column at Above The Law.

A Letter To My 13-Year-Old Self


The Death Of A Lawyer And The Power Of Relapse

Brian Loncar

Brian Loncar

While I am saddened on a daily basis by deaths resulting from drug overdoses as we deal with an unprecedented heroin and prescription opiate addiction crisis, it is rare that my faith in my own long-term recovery plan gets shaken. That does not mean I don’t try to stay present in my recovery and adjust when necessary, but there are basic, core recovery maintenance principals that work for me on a daily basis.

Two weeks ago however, one of those “shaking” moment occurred. A headline in the Dallas Morning News:

“Attorney Brian ‘Strong Arm’ Loncar Death Ruled Accidental Cocaine Overdose

Read the rest on my column on Above The Law.

The Death Of A Lawyer And The Power Of Relapse