Is Addiction A Choice?

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.


Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at brian@addictedlawyer.com.

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