Washington Lawyer

“A Whole New Way of Life”: The D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program

From Washington Lawyer, March 2005

Illustration by Richard Tuschman

Life is not always easy. The life we plan is not always the life we live. As a result, perfectly ordinary people find themselves trapped by addiction, depression, or chronic pain. All of these conditions are extremely difficult to live through. All can be managed.

The people in these stories are ordinary people, professionals who never thought anything like this would happen to them. Their problems did not just show up on the doorstep one night. They experienced a gradual erosion from bad to worse. One definition of addiction is this three-stage progression: drinking as fun, drinking as fun with problems, and finally drinking as a problem with problems. The people who end up with drinking being a problem with problems can remember when drinking was fun and worked for them the same way it seemed to work for others. Most people who become alcoholic or addicted start for the same reasons others do: to be grown-ups, to have fun, to relieve stress, and to change a mood. They don’t start with an ambition to become alcoholic or addicted.

No one plans on suffering from depression or chronic pain either. In fact, every person with chronic pain started out in acute pain and after accumulating enough time in pain earned that chronic pain diagnosis. Depression, however, can sometimes seem like it came out of nowhere for no real reason. Depression is a medical illness that often requires medical intervention and some talking it through.

The legal profession has a very high incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression. A Johns Hopkins study of 28 professions found that lawyers were 3.6 times more likely to have a depression over the course of a lifetime and had depressive episodes more than any other professional. A Washington State study of 801 lawyers found that 18 percent were problem drinkers and 19 percent had experienced a depression. Some of the lawyers in this study had both a drinking problem and a depression.

The D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Committee recommends that the legal community consider reducing the emphasis on alcohol at firm functions and other events sponsored by various associations of lawyers. The committee has been told that summer associates and young lawyers often feel pressured to drink alcohol to be considered as members of the team. The second half of “working hard, playing hard” often means drinking to excess. The committee suggests that alcohol should not be a part of recruiting and should not be a central part of socializing. Both firms and individual lawyers should make it easy for their colleagues not to drink at a function or a meal.

The following stories are told for the sake of others who might identify with the situations in which these writers found themselves. The stories are all true. If any story seems a bit too familiar to you, please call the free and confidential service of the Lawyer Counseling Program at 202-347-3131.

—Lynn Phillips, Director, D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program


When I quit drinking, I thought it would be the end of life as I knew it. And it was, thank God!

I worked as a journalist after college, but deep down I had always wanted to be a lawyer. My mother still has a picture I drew in sixth grade of myself as the first female attorney general of the United States. (I know, Janet Reno beat me to it.) In my depiction I stand in a courtroom, tough but feminine in a skirt suit, pointing an accusatory finger at some character I dubbed “The Jackal.”

That confident young attorney, however, is not the person who first walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous. On that evening I was a blotchy, bloated mess, barely able to look at myself in the mirror, never mind look someone else in the eye. I appeared, as one friend later confided, “rough.” I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. At night when I got home, I drank.

Beer was my drug of choice—Bud Light, to be exact. That and coffee brandy were my two closest friends at the end. I always identify when I hear people say they holed up in some secret place so they could drink alone in peace. That’s how I liked to drink too. Since I lived alone, it was pretty easy. Late at night, when I had a good buzz going, I liked to stand out on my balcony, smoking and listening to music on my headphones. (I didn’t want to wake up the neighbors!) In my stupor I would gaze at the sky and tell myself everything was okay.

Except it wasn’t. Dragging myself out of bed and off to work in the morning became harder and harder. I can’t tell you the number of times, head pounding with a hangover, I vowed to myself I would not drink that day. And I meant it—until I was driving home after work, and my car would mysteriously take a turn into the parking lot of the liquor store I passed on my way home. “I’ll just have a couple,” I’d tell myself. Of course I never did. And the cycle repeated itself, over and over.

I used to see ads on television for a luxurious-looking treatment center in Newport, Rhode Island, and think, “Oh, I wish I could go there and get away from it all.” Never once did I consider it a “signpost” that I needed help. (How many healthy people fantasize about being institutionalized?) I didn’t go. I worked as the lone staff reporter on a small weekly newspaper, and I figured I was too damn important to miss work. So I kept on.

Finally, after a few years of living this way, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I hated my job, my life, myself. On the advice of a counselor I had been seeing for a few years on and off (i.e., on when I liked what he had to say, off when he suggested I had a drinking problem), I finally went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I didn’t know much about AA or if it would work, but after numerous experiments I had failed to stop drinking on my own, so I was willing to give it a try. Absent this “gift of desperation,” I would not have walked through the door.

I identified with what a woman shared at the beginner’s meeting that night. Afterward, sensing I was new, she followed me out the door and introduced herself. She invited me to go back inside for the regular meeting, which I did. That was over 10 years ago, and thanks to the grace of God and the fellowship of AA, I haven’t found it necessary to pick up a drink since. That woman who reached her hand out to me became my first sponsor, and under her wise, patient, loving guidance, I began to work the 12 steps of recovery. To this day she is a dear friend.

She is also an important role model. When we met, she was taking classes at my alma mater (another reason I identified with her) to get her bachelor’s degree. Going back to school was not my idea of a good time, but I did have other goals that I wanted to achieve. I quit smoking and, a few years and 40 pounds later, I took up running. I even ran some road races. A part of me had yearned for years to run, and now that I didn’t smoke or drink, I was able to do it. One day while I was out running, a thought occurred to me: I want to go to law school.

Actually, I had applied to law school as a senior in college, mostly to appease my mother. Back then I got a decent score on the LSAT, but I had compiled my applications half-heartedly and submitted them at the last minute. With my lackluster undergraduate grade point average—the result of too much partying and not enough studying—it came as no shock that I didn’t get in.

This time, however, I went about the process entirely differently. I planned ahead and got all my paperwork in order, on time. I also wrote a candid personal statement that began with a quote from Helen Keller: “One can never consent to creep when one feels the impulse to soar.” I related this sentiment to both my urge to take up running and my desire to become a lawyer. And even though I scored one point lower on the LSAT, I got in.

At four years sober, I was dismayed to discover how law school social life centered on drinking. On Fridays a classmate would note on the blackboard the time and place of a local happy hour, inviting all to come. At times I felt slightly resentful that I couldn’t join in; it wasn’t fair that they got to go out drinking after class and I couldn’t! But then I would look around the classroom at the new friends I was making and remind myself they wouldn’t be my friends if I was still drinking. If they saw the way I acted when I drank—which could range, unpredictably, from sloppy and maudlin to obnoxious and angry—they’d want nothing to do with me. And I was definitely glad that the person whose drunken antics everyone whispered and laughed about on Mondays wasn’t me. One time an unsuspecting classmate tried to cajole me into going to a bar by saying, “Come on, I’ll introduce you to all the alcoholics.” “No thanks,” I said, “I already know plenty!” I went to an AA meeting instead.

Staying sober enabled me to participate in law school in ways that I hadn’t been able to in college. I made law review, ultimately publishing both a note and a comment. In my third year I balanced my duties as articles editor with representing indigent criminal defendants as a student attorney. Through all this I attained a GPA high enough to graduate in the top 5 percent of my law school class. But my sobriety had to come first, because without that I could do nothing. I went to meetings, asked for help, worked with my sponsor and sponsees, and prayed. A lot!

There is a passage in Alcoholics Anonymous (“the Big Book”) that says, “See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others.” I kept thinking of this line on graduation day, as I waited to go up on stage and accept my law school diploma.

Getting involved with my local lawyers assistance program enhanced my recovery tremendously because it fused my two identities of recovering alcoholic and budding lawyer. While still in law school I joined a lawyers support group, where I befriended other sober attorneys and law students. After a few years I was honored to be asked to join the board of directors. At the time I was clerking for a state supreme court judge, so I needed to clear it with him. He voiced his support for the organization, adding that a lawyer friend of his was a recovering alcoholic. Without thinking, I blurted out, “So am I!” Luckily it was over the phone, so I didn’t see the look on his face. But months later, when I was interviewing for postclerkship jobs, he told me that one prospective employer had called and asked about his confidence in me. He said he told the caller, “I have no doubts about her trustworthiness.” Those words from a supreme court justice meant the world to this recovering drunk.

Recently I moved to Washington to take a dream job as a media attorney—another gift of sobriety. I contacted the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program because I want to stay connected to other lawyers in recovery. The director of the program suggested I become a volunteer, which I gladly agreed to do. Being of service to others not only helps me, it provides an opportunity to give back in some small way all that was freely given to me. Sobriety really is a whole new way of life.

***

How did I first use the services of the Lawyer Counseling Program? I remembered the director from her presentation at the D.C. Bar mandatory course, where she had mentioned the law profession as having one of the highest rates of depression and substance abuse.

I was working as a contract attorney in a temporary position and I wasn’t very happy. As a 39-year-old woman just 18 months out of law school, I was experiencing a lot of job-related frustration, and I couldn’t seem to get much done in my personal life. I was calling in sick regularly—at least a day or two a month. My apartment was a mess, and my social life was practically nonexistent. Things weren’t the way I thought they’d be when I graduated from law school.

I’d done some research and knew I was experiencing some of the symptoms most often identified as depression related. I had also been dealing with chronic pain for almost 10 years, which was interfering with my sleep. Sometimes I would wake up in predawn hours and be unable to go back to sleep. I couldn’t turn off my brain. My thoughts kept churning, and it wasn’t uncommon to finally fall asleep just before the alarm went off. Instead of jumping out of bed, I’d keep hitting the sleep switch and avoid getting up until I knew I had to, or I’d be late to work. Doing the most basic chores, such as laundry or grocery shopping, felt overwhelming. I had trouble concentrating and couldn’t get my act together. It wasn’t unusual for me to come home from work on a Friday and not get dressed or leave my apartment all weekend. I’d spend the days on the couch—sort of sleeping and watching television, with a few breaks to eat. I was overweight and craved junk food—cookies, and especially ice cream. I cried easily and felt sorry for myself. Sleep was a welcome escape, especially since I was always tired from my awake times during the night.

My life-changing process started with a phone call. The director at the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program answered when I made that first call, and she scheduled a time for me to come in and meet with her. Her office is in the same building as the D.C. Bar, but on a different floor, so I didn’t worry about running into someone I knew. She was very easy to talk to and didn’t raise an eyebrow or seem surprised by anything I confided. The initial meeting lasted an hour and also included the counselor asking questions about my medical history and what I was experiencing.

Within a short time, the director said I had a mild depression and referred me to a psychiatrist. He confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed an antidepressant. The first medication worked to some extent, but it had some undesirable side effects. The second medication worked much better, and the only side effect I’ve had is a dry throat. It took time for the antidepressant to work, but it did work.

The LCP director also recognized things I described as being classic for a seasonal component to my depression (seasonal affective disorder, or SAD) and suggested that I ask my psychiatrist about light therapy. He agreed and I began light therapy. My primary symptoms were extreme irritability, an unusual awareness of the changing times of sunrise and sunset, and a feeling of loss, of “entering into darkness,” in the fall. In the spring I’d feel agitated—what can best be described as an “irritable euphoria.” I began using a light box for 15 to 30 minutes per day while eating breakfast, and I’d adjust the length of time depending on the season and how I felt. As with the antidepressant, evaluating the impact of light therapy is very subjective, but I notice subtle changes when I’m running late and only do 5 or 10 minutes, instead of the full time. The counselor also stressed the importance of getting out during the day and walking, because exercise and exposure to natural daylight are helpful in alleviating depression.

As a result of talking with the LCP director and taking positive actions to deal with my depression, my life gradually began to get better. My perception of things went from gray and blah to colorful and positive. The best way I can describe the improvement is to say that I was gradually able to see things from the perspective of the glass as half full, instead of always half empty. I was much less irritable, tired, and judgmental. Other positive things include improved self-esteem and improved attendance at work. I began to enjoy little things again—something silly like wandering around Target and looking at the merchandise on the shelves, just for the fun of it. Instead of experiencing anxious, racing thoughts all the time, I’m able to enjoy the moment, without thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

I began dating again, scheduled some social activities, and made new friends. I began applying for permanent jobs and cleaned up my apartment. Daily life activities are so much easier to do. I joined Weight Watchers and lost 47 pounds. I no longer want to escape to the couch and sleep all the time.

As a result of treating my depression, I felt good enough about myself that I was no longer willing to endure chronic pain. I felt empowered to find a doctor who was able to diagnose the cause of my chronic pain and correct it with an outpatient surgical procedure. What a difference that made! For the first time in years, I’m now able to sleep without waking up in pain several times during the night.

I also realized that depression is something that I need to cope with on an ongoing basis. I’ll also continue to be sensitive to changes in seasons and the resulting changes in light that cause me to feel down at various times during the year. I now know that part of my depression is cyclical and that I have the coping skills to get through those down times.

As I look back, I think that my decision to call the Lawyer Counseling Program was one of the most important decisions I ever made. Meeting with the director put into motion a series of changes that have made a dramatic and positive difference in my life. If anyone has any doubts about using the Lawyer Counseling Program, I’d encourage him or her to make that first phone call. You have nothing to lose (except your problems!) and a great deal to gain. I’m very glad that I did.

***

Achieving the status that comes with being a successful Washington lawyer can do a lot to erase a painful past, but alcohol can put you right back where you started.

I grew up in a working-class shack where the roof leaked onto my bed when it rained. My father was long gone, so my mother had to single-handedly raise three children, one of whom was blind.

I thought getting a law degree meant shedding forever the poverty and harsh circumstances of my youth. I shopped at Bloomingdale’s and dined at nice restaurants favorably reviewed in the Washington Post. I drank cabernet sauvignon and single-malt scotch. I was a family man with a lovely wife and two young children. I thought I had achieved the American dream.

I’ll never forget how surprised I was to find out that I could not stop hiding scotch bottles in the top right-hand drawer of my desk. Then, after the breakup of my small law partnership, it became even easier to shut my office door and enjoy a couple of sips right out of the bottle. With the first nips, I would feel nice and relaxed talking with clients and other lawyers, but by the end of the day I would be wishing that people would just leave me alone. On the way home, I would stop by the liquor store to reward myself for enduring another hard day at work.

Things got really bad for me during the recession of the early 1990s. I was working alone and felt myself losing contact with the mainstream of my profession. During one of the coldest Decembers I can remember, the office where I rented space held its annual holiday party. I went to the party at 5 expecting to leave by 6 so that I could attend a recital at my son’s school. As the hours passed, I convinced myself that it was better for my son and my family that I stay at the party and continue to drink. I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe I’ll get some business here.” By 11 I was passed out on my desk in an alcoholic blackout. I woke up well after midnight and started a long seven-mile trek home on the icy, snow-covered streets of the District.

I came to on the floor of my living room. My face was bloody and my body sore from repeatedly falling down during my journey home. My wife said nothing as she left for work. Shamefully, I hid from my children as they went off to school. My life had come full circle. Instead of being a good, loving father, I had disappeared, and was actually hiding from my kids.

That morning I called Alcoholics Anonymous. I went to my first meeting and was fortunate to realize that there was another way of living. Shortly thereafter, I called the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program and made good use of this resource. Trying to rebuild a law practice while recovering from alcoholism is not easy, but with time my practice began to grow again. Today, with almost a decade of sobriety, I find myself a leader, able to give back to my family and community in ways that I had never imagined.

I had to learn that all the advanced degrees and professional accolades don’t mean a thing if you lack the courage to honestly face yourself.

***

I should have had a clue about my alcoholism when I got drunk while preparing for my first moot court appearance during law school. I got so drunk that I don’t remember confessing to my sister how scared and intimidated I felt as I headed toward the courtroom. Nor do I remember what I said at oral argument or even how I drove myself home afterward. What I do remember is that I insulted the judicial panel and embarrassed my cocounsel, and that absolutely nobody confronted me about my drunkenness.

I was older than most of my fellow law students when this embarrassment occurred, with a successful husband and two young children. I had grown up in a loving home reared by parents who didn’t drink and had no experience with any form of excess, particularly alcoholism. Years later, when I finally realized I had a “drinking problem,” I didn’t feel there was anyone I could ask for help. As my alcoholism intensified, I grew increasingly ashamed, unaware that I had a disease, not a moral problem.

After graduation I got a prestigious first job in private practice. Several other equally desirable positions followed. I made a point of never drinking at work, but there were countless exceptions to my rule. Besides attending Friday afternoon “happy hours” and receptions for clients and distinguished office guests, I did a lot of traveling. The minibars in my hotels were always well stocked, and I justified nights of binge drinking as well-earned relaxation after long work hours. I once had a government job in a building with a ground-floor liquor store, so I never had to worry about my supply at home.

I never lost a job because of my alcoholism, but over the years it took a personal and professional toll. I could no longer get a good night’s sleep, and when I woke up drunk—which occurred with increasing frequency—I had to remember where the wastebaskets were located in the subway stations on my commute, just in case I had to stop and vomit. My marriage ended, my children left home, and I eventually found myself doing most of my drinking alone. I couldn’t afford to humiliate myself in public.

My honesty during an annual physical in my early fifties prompted a doctor to suggest that I attend Alcoholics Anonymous, but I didn’t go. A year later, when I took my first real vacation in several years, I had a wonderful time and drank surprisingly little. On the way home, however, the plane experienced engine failure twice. Safely on the ground, I spent the night in an elegant hotel with a free minibar, and I drank myself senseless.

I arrived home chastened, badly hung over, and grateful for a second chance at life. For several days I drank nothing alcoholic, but I panicked because I knew I couldn’t “stay stopped” by myself. In desperation I called the only recovering alcoholic I knew. This lawyer and former colleague quietly but firmly convinced me that I had nothing to lose by trying AA. This time I followed the suggestion, and I’ve kept coming back ever since. It’s been over five years since I had what I hope will be my last drinks. (I never had just one.)

One of AA’s big surprises is that not only has it taught me about my disease and how not to drink; it has helped me learn how to live. With a support group and the guidance of a 12-step recovery program, I can confront daily anxieties without fear or shame. Today, for me, “surrender” doesn’t mean capitulation, but rather knowing that, as an alcoholic, I can’t ever drink again, under any circumstances. By acknowledging my powerlessness over alcohol, I can finally put my life in order.

I wish I had known about the D.C. Bar’s Lawyer Counseling Program because it might have shortened my long drinking career. As a volunteer, I’ve come to appreciate the value of peer group recovery. Lawyers routinely confront stress, anxiety, loneliness, and challenges to their self-esteem. The temptations to relieve such conditions through substance abuse are great, and it’s often possible to do so without risking economic ruin or professional disgrace. Sometimes, even when we realize we need help, it’s difficult to know where to turn. The Lawyer Counseling Program is there to help solve that dilemma.

***

I didn’t drink in high school, and not much in college. I tried drugs once and didn’t like them. I fell into a great job doing policy research for the White House on a civil service salary. I got promotions about as fast as possible, started on a master’s and got straight As, bought an old house and began to restore it. I was active in my church and had an active social life, going dancing (and drinking) every weekend.

I found that when I came home from work with a budget to be reviewed, or a briefing paper to edit, or a term paper to write, a drink would help me unwind, and a second or third would keep me going without stopping for dinner. On the weekends I would have a beer for lunch and keep working, and drinking.

Slowly, it all began to slip away—except the drinking. I quit getting promotions and good grades, quit going to church and dating, quit working on the house. Administrations changed, and the program I was working on was abolished. I wasn’t the guy people wanted to work for them any longer, and I tried consulting. My hands shook too badly to type until I had a morning drink, and then another, and then I couldn’t write a cogent proposal. I ended up sitting alone in that house, unemployable, listening to the rain drip onto the dining table.

Some friends made me admit what I already knew, that I was an alcoholic. First I went to the D.C. government’s detox, which didn’t take. Then I went to the family doctor, who recommended a rehab. The second detox saved my liver. The rehab saved my sanity and sent me to Alcoholics Anonymous, which saved my soul.

I was asked to come back to the rehab as an aftercare counselor. I’ve been elected to three terms as a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner, and helped found a homeless program that now includes a rehab program and wrap-around services. I’m active in AA, and had one committed relationship, now amicably ended. I finished that house (now worth 20 times what I paid for it because I also worked on the neighborhood). I finished the master’s (with honors), and have consulted for some of the leading high-tech firms and agencies in the country. I serve on the Bar’s Lawyer Counseling Committee, and was recently selected as an officer on a new recovery service providers’ association.

Working on my recovery has provided a framework for physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial health. It has given me a clear understanding of who I am and what I should do and a deep reservoir of confidence and serenity that was so lacking in that waterlogged dining room.

If you think you might have a problem, you probably do. Pick up the phone and give the Lawyer Counseling Program a call. Speaking from experience, I know doing so just might save your life, your sanity, your soul.