News

Finding a New Normal After Addiction

By Thai Phi Le

May 17, 2017

This is part of a series of profiles of people who have struggled with addiction and were able to get help through the D.C. Bar's Lawyer Assistance Program. Through our LAP, the Bar offers free, confidential services to lawyers, judges, and law students dealing with issues that are interfering with their personal and professional lives.


addiction

There were leftover beers scattered outside the house as the picnic came to a close. Linda* remembers rounding up the cups and bottles and polishing them off—a little bit of everything that everyone else was having at the party. She was in elementary school.

Another mom stood there appalled, scolding her. For Linda, the mother’s reaction is a distinct childhood memory. For the first time, she thought, “Oh, maybe this was not normal. But I didn’t have a gauge for normal. I grew up in an alcoholic home. It was like the Wild West. There was no law and order in that home. Everybody fended for themselves.”

Linda’s mom was often sick and periodically hospitalized with different ailments, while her father frequently traveled for work. At a moment’s notice, she and her older brother would be shuffled off to other people’s homes. “It was always a lot of chaos. You never knew one day to the next what was going to happen,” she said. “It was just total disorder and unmanageability.”

But all the turmoil was stuffed behind closed doors, and Linda’s family was an expert in image control. “We were the perfect people,” she recalled. Her family lived in their fancy home, driving their luxury cars down the streets of their affluent neighborhood. They wore designer clothes, went to the best schools in the area, and traveled the world.

By her senior year of high school, Linda consistently brought home straight A’s, won awards, and excelled in sports. “On the inside, everything was so disorganized. I went to great lengths to present a different picture,” she said. Her effort paid off when she was accepted to an Ivy League university.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Take Over

Accustomed to very few rules already, college ushered in an era of completely unchecked impulses for Linda. There was always an excuse to drink, whether she was rewarding herself for finishing a tough assignment or acing a test, or if she were at a football game. She’d have one because it was the beginning of the weekend—meaning a Thursday night for her. Hard day? Crack open a can. Why drink a regular-sized beer when you can drink a 40-ounce bottle? “I pretty much became a daily drinker there,” she said. “I didn’t realize that I drank alcoholically in college until I got sober.”

During her sophomore year, Linda was randomly assigned to the same dorm suite as the school’s baseball team. As the only woman, she said she took on the role of nurturing sister, ordering extra food for them or picking up their groceries while she was as the store. “I had absolutely endeared myself to them,” she said.

These close relationships allowed Linda to live a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde life. She was put together on the outside, but things could turn quickly, especially when drinking. “I could go to fraternity parties or basically wherever I wanted, act with impunity, and get away with it. If anyone came after me they would have player 1, 2, 3, and 4 and all their cousins and brothers after them. So, I did that,” she said. “I really acted in a way that was irresponsible and selfish.”

In her junior year, Linda joined a fraternity after a friend joked that because she was always hanging out with them that she might as well pledge. “I was like, game on. I was always that way. I’ll see you and raise your bet,” Linda said. “I know now that they don’t ask light drinkers to pledge a fraternity, especially if you’re a girl.”

Despite her drinking habits, Linda continued to wear the mask she’d kept on since she was a little girl. “I was your type A overachiever. I looked like a Brooks Brothers catalog. I had the best grades. I was in all the right activities,” she said. “I was always harder, faster, stronger than everyone else. I did that so people would overlook things. They wouldn’t question me.” As she graduated college, she had an acceptance letter from an elite law school in one hand and a drink in the other.

A ‘Full-Blown Alcoholic’

Law school brought sanctioned daily drinking as Linda made her way from one recruiting event to another. “We would get these law firms and businesses throwing these ridiculous, over-the-top parties any night of the week at the place of [our] choice. It was open bar,” she said. “We were wined, dined, and recruited.”

Everything revolved around alcohol—study groups, nights off, parties. She once arranged a slew of kegs for an academic activity with the law journal, “not the kind of activity [for which] you would normally need a keg party.” Someone quipped that that seemed strange, but Linda saw nothing wrong with it.

As the pressures of law school intensified, Linda started drinking alone frequently. The more demanding her course load, the more she drank. “I became a full-blown alcoholic.” But once again, there were no consequences. She maintained her grades and received an offer from a prestigious firm upon graduation.

Linda went full throttle at work, putting in long hours on hard cases. “I was very high functioning,” she said, even as she drank all day at CLEs, client meetings, lunches, networking groups, “rubber chicken” dinners, black-tie events, and evening cocktails in the office’s conference room. “That was just the culture. It was very accepted,” Linda said. Not everyone would participate, but “I found the crew in the office. We always find each other.”

Linda says it wasn’t uncommon to go to somebody’s office to drop off a letter about a case and find them passed out, face down at their desk. She wasn’t an unusual case, Linda said. Her secretary once casually told her she might want some gum after a few cocktails at lunch. “We worked hard and partied hard. We figured it was our reward,” she said.

The hours, though, were beginning to creep up on her as she took on more assignments, and it eventually became a 24/7 job. It was a perfect storm. Between her work and alcoholism, her life had become very small. After a long day at work, getting a drink was her first priority the minute her house door would swing open. When she’d rise out of bed in the morning, she’d head to the kitchen and finish whatever she didn’t drink the night before. Linda described her life as “drink, sleep, drink, go to work, rinse, repeat.” What had started as a coping mechanism was now a necessity.

For a long time, her typical overachieving pattern continued as she excelled at her job. “I had the nicest clothes, pocketbooks, and shoes. I was groomed to the nines. I was waxed and tweezed. I always got the best and hardest cases. On the outside, nobody would see what a mess I was,” Linda said. “On the inside, I was losing it.”

But soon even the outside began to crumble. She couldn’t pay her bills, not because she couldn’t afford it, but because she couldn’t get herself organized enough to send in payments. Going to the grocery store was considered a “major event” for Linda, so she just chose to avoid the hassle and not go. Linda had become so isolated she decided it was time to leave her current life to work at a different firm in a different city.

A Change in Scenery Only Changes the Backdrop

In her new city, Linda fell into the same habits with the same law firm crew. She’d travel for work, drinking at the airports, in planes, and clearing out the hotel minibars. After one work trip, she woke up, polished off a glass of whisky, and headed to the local Starbucks. A police officer pulled her over. As he spoke with her, Linda continually waved her fresh coffee around, hoping he’d smell that instead of her breath. “I got away with it,” Linda said. “[But] things like that were starting to happen to me.”

There were times she’d try to stop drinking, limiting the amount of alcohol she could have each day. “Always by Tuesday, I’d have next Sunday’s amount of drinks.” She switched from liquor to beer and wine. She had already tried a change in scenery. Nothing worked.

Then she began experiencing major anxiety and having panic attacks. “I was just gripped with fear,” remembered Linda. “I couldn’t maintain the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde anymore. They were going to bleed into each other too much.”

While preparing for a high-profile trial, Linda, for the first time ever, didn’t believe she would rise to the occasion and that she was on a path to getting fired. “I felt like I was consumed with this doom and gloom and was going to fall over the edge of the cliff and there was a bottomless abyss there,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was going to land, but I was going to lose everything unless I got control of myself and the situation. So, I went to the [D.C. Bar’s] Lawyer Assistance Program.”

‘A Dry Drunk’

One Monday, Linda dialed the Lawyer Assistance Program [LAP], a free and confidential service offered by the D.C. Bar to law students, lawyers, and judges to help them with problems that interfere with their personal or professional lives.

Staff told her about a lawyers’ Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after work. “I went to that meeting and said I was an alcoholic,” recalled Linda. “I haven’t had a drink since then, which is a miracle.”

But Linda only went through the motions. She didn’t read the literature. She didn’t get a sponsor. She didn’t work on any of the steps they gave her. She went to meetings, but arrived late and left early. “I only came to AA to stop drinking,” she said. “For a while, I was a dry drunk. I didn’t follow what I was supposed to.”

Then she lost her job during the financial downturn. She called her temporary sponsor and that person told her to come to a meeting to share her thoughts. And she did. “It was the first time I cried in a meeting. It was the first time I let people see the Mr. Hyde in me. I let my emotions show,” Linda said. “[Previously,] if you asked me how I was, I’d say, ‘Oh, great!’ even if I just wanted to die inside.”

After that meeting, Linda fully immersed herself into the program, attending AA three times a day. She read the pamphlets and followed through on the 12-Step Program. “At the time [when I lost my job], I thought it was the worst thing that could happen to me. Then I realized it actually turned out to be a great thing,” she said. “Instead of being a dry drunk, I was actually becoming what a friend of mine calls a grown-up sober lady.”

Linda is now more than 10 years sober. She works as a volunteer with LAP, helping other attorneys who are new to sobriety. She continues to go to AA meetings three to four times a week.

Linda remembers how, when she was drinking, she would see people who had their lives together and would think that she could never do it, but now she says her life is full. The accolades and activities she used to mask her problem for all those years no longer hide the chaos. Today, under Linda’s façade is a grown-up sober lady.

*Real name withheld to protect her privacy.

 

Getting Help

Millions of Americans suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, stress, and emotional problems. The D.C. Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program is a free and confidential program that helps lawyers, judges, and law students deal with these issues to live more productive, happy lives. The program provides: 

  • Confidential telephone access to trained professional counselors; 
  • Assessment and referral to appropriate treatment programs; 
  • Counseling; and 
  • Volunteers who have experienced the same problems and successfully faced them. 

Alcoholism, drug abuse, stress, and emotional problems are progressive illnesses. The earlier they are detected and treated, the easier the road to recovery can be. In addition, there is a free mental health support group that meets the second Tuesday of every month.  

You can call the program’s private number at 202-347-3131.