A Friend in Deed: Lawyer Counseling Program
In their professional lives lawyers face an enormous amount of stress. They work long days, face hard deadlines, worry about billable hours, take cases on contingency, are under pressure to bring in business, and are forced into adversarial roles on a daily basis.
For centuries drugs and alcohol have been used by people to help them cope with stress. Lawyers are no different. Given the incredibly demanding nature of the profession, it is hardly surprising that an estimated 15 to 18 percent of practicing attorneys cope with drug- and alcohol-related problems at some point in their careers.
No one picks up his or her first drink with the intention of becoming an alcoholic. Unfortunately, however, for a significant portion of the population "social drinking" evolves into an addictive compulsion. The same is true of "recreational" and, on occasion, therapeutic drug use.
Despite the obvious negative consequences-such as hangovers, social embarrassments, family problems, drunk driving arrests, and occasionally diminished job performance-alcoholics and addicts continue to drink and drug. They live in a state of denial, using addictive substances to feel normal enough to get through the day.
Though individual alcoholics and drug addicts are all different, the course of their addictions is not. Alcoholism and drug addiction are chronic illnesses; they get worse over time; they can be fatal.
Yet every alcoholic and every drug addict has hope. The course of an addiction can be halted through abstinence from the substance and a program of recovery to prevent relapse. By making a commitment to a clean and sober lifestyle, careers can be rebuilt and broken lives can be made whole.
Facing the truth that drugs or alcohol has become a threat to your career, your family, and your life takes enormous courage. In the pages that follow five courageous lawyers share their personal stories of drug and alcohol addiction. They do so with the hope that one or two readers might recognize something of themselves, find inspiration, and summon the courage to seek the help they need.
To provide that help the D.C. Bar Lawyer
Counseling Program provides professional assistance to lawyers, judges,
and law students who are struggling with drug and alcohol problems.
Clients who seek counseling are seen free of charge, and all inquiries
are kept strictly confidential. If you have any questions, desire additional
information, or would like to schedule an appointment, call the Lawyer
Counseling Program at 202-347-3131.
I was lucky. My drinking did not ruin my legal career, but it was a close call.
I began drinking heavily in college. My last two years, I would study from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and I’d drink from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. After a few disastrous drunks on bourbon and scotch, I became a beer drinker. Since the alcohol content was lower, I could control the effects better. I usually drank between 8 and 10 beers a night.
By the time I was in law school, 12 to 15 beers a night had become common. As part of the law school physical, a doctor asked me how much I drank. I admitted to a six-pack a day. She told me I had a problem, but I let it pass.
In law school I continued my college schedule for the first two years: work hard day and night; reserve the last two hours for drinking. At the end of my second year, I decided it was time to grow up and put the frivolity aside. I decided to get married and give up the daily drinking.
My restricted drinking, which was confined to weekends, lasted for my last year of law school and my first year of work. Then I eased back into my old pattern: work 10 or 12 hours each day, drink for two hours at night.
My career was doing fine. I had become a government litigator. Through some good luck, I advanced a grade a year for four years and was promoted to supervisor. I learned a tremendous amount, and I loved the work.
But my drinking continued to progress. There were mornings when I couldn’t remember all or part of what had happened the night before. There were social situations where I acted out: I’d get belligerent, or amorous with a woman, or would simply pass out.
In order to prevent such episodes from recurring, I started drinking by myself, in bars and at home. Since my wife couldn’t stand watching me get drunk, I’d drink for hours at a time in a rarely used staircase in our apartment building. There were concrete stairs, four concrete walls, and a bare lightbulb. I could drink safely and in peace.
Inevitably, drinking encroached upon my work. I started missing occasional Mondays. Sometimes I’d drink in the morning to still my shakes. I showed up for work pretty drunk one day, but one of my friends got me to leave before anyone noticed.
Once, when I went out of town to make a presentation to a law school class, I got drunk the night before, got in a fight in a bar, and ended up jailed in the drunk tanks over night. I was sprung the next morning by my local contact, just in time to make the law school class.
Back at home, I left a bar one night in a blackout and woke up the next morning on a stranger’s lawn, minus my wallet and my watch.
One Wednesday in May I had an oral argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver. This was fortuitous because one of my brothers was getting married in Vail the preceding weekend. I remember arriving in Vail and starting to drink there, but I can only recall fragments of the next few days: some of the wedding ceremony, less of the reception, riding in a car to Denver in a snowstorm, checking into my hotel, having an argument with local counsel on the telephone.
I awoke at 3 a.m. in my hotel room on the day of my argument. There was a half-case of beer in the room. The argument was at 9 a.m. I felt bad enough to start drinking, but knew that if I did I would miss the argument. I prepared as best I could, and I had one beer at 8 a.m. to moderate my shakes. Then I gave the argument. It was barely passable.
Word of this episode, probably from local counsel, got back to Washington. But I was lucky. My boss was distracted with other matters, and we won the case. But I was scared enough about the possibility of doing real and permanent damage to my career that I knew I had to do something. I knew I had to get help.
Having seen Days of Wine and Roses, I called Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The people there started me on the road to recovery. It was not a smooth road, and it took several years-not to stop drinking, but to stay stopped.
It will soon be 24 years since I had my last drink. I would not trade any one of those years for the years in which I was drinking.
Come What May
Mostly, I tried not to notice how much I was drinking. And if I thought you had an opinion of my drinking, I lost you fast.
It all began 10 years before, when my mother died. I was 27. Like any true grief-stricken Irish woman, I drank to noble excess. But when my mourning was over, I couldn’t stop drinking.
Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Until then willpower had been my best friend. To achieve any goal which interested me, I made a plan, put it into action, and ipso facto got the desired result. Now, for the first time, exerting my will had no effect on my actions.
Every day, for the next 10 years, I would drink until I passed out. (And as I passed out, I would be fighting to pour more booze down my throat.) Earlier that evening I would think, "This is killing me. Tomorrow, come what may, for one day only, I won’t drink. Anyone can do that."
The next day would begin with the usual moderate hangover and an exhilarating sense of going to battle. "I will not drink today!" This resolution would continue all day, until around two o’clock, when a new resolution would creep into my brain. I deserved a drink, a drink I had to have.
By quitting time I felt nothing in the world could get in the way of my getting drunk. I would tear home, in a foul, urgent mood, grab my glass, and pour in the scotch. Midway through the second or third refill, I would look at my drink and think, "This is killing me. Tomorrow, come what may, I won’t drink."
So it went. The toil on my self-esteem was horrendous. I took out my feelings of self-loathing on the innocent, especially the taxi cab drivers and dry cleaning establishments. I moved to Washington, but my drinking problem came with me. I thought I couldn’t fall asleep without a drink. Somewhere I saw a list of 10 questions to diagnose problem drinking. Since one question did not apply to me ("Do you ever take a drink in the mornings?"), I figured I was off the hook.
Finally, one day at work the FM station we all listened to featured an interview with Dr. Sue Bailey about treating alcoholism. She really seemed to understand the drinking game from the inside. I liked her very much. I began to see her several times a week.
I never mentioned my drinking. Just like my daily resolution to quit, I would swear to myself that at our next session, come what may, I would bring up the topic, or pantomime drinking, or hold up a picture of a bottle with the classic "XXX" on the label. But I never did.
Time was running out for me. I no longer stayed passed out all night. Sometimes I would find myself drinking as the sun came up. Though I might tell myself I enjoyed the robust color scotch added to my orange juice, inwardly I felt as if I were collapsing.
I got into law school. This was a fulfillment of a dream. Now my life should be perfect. My drinking continued without pause or change.
Dr. Bailey went on vacation. One night at the end of August, I began to write her a letter as I sat on my bed, drinking. First I told her I had a problem that I wanted to bring up for a long time and would certainly mention next time I saw her. I continued drinking. An hour later, after writing a proposal of marriage to a long-lost boyfriend, I turned over the first letter and wrote, "It’s about my drinking." I told her how much I had been drinking and for how long. Then I mailed it.
At our next session she told me, "I’ll help you all I can, but if you want to get the best help there is, and it doesn’t cost a penny, you’ll go to AA."
That was 16 years ago. Sixteen wonderful years without a drink and with lots and lots of AA. Life is fun, I work hard, and can look the world in the eye.
My friends mostly find it very puzzling, and at work almost no one knows that I am an alcoholic, but that’s okay. I know I am an alcoholic. And oddly enough, as long as I stay active in AA, I think that is the source of my greatest strength. From the first night, I could fall asleep without a drink.
Sitting on Top of the World
I was sitting on top of the world. I had recently graduated from law school, near the very top of my class, and received an offer from a prestigious law firm, making more money than I ever thought possible. I had everything that I needed to be happy. Or so I thought.
What I soon discovered was that neither the career nor the money fulfilled me. Feeling disillusioned, I turned to the one thing that had never let me down: drugs.
I had started experimenting with drugs in high school. Always extremely shy, I wanted desperately to be a part of the in crowd, and drugs were my way in. I didn’t realize that it would take nearly 20 years for me to get out.
By the age of 16, I had progressed very quickly from smoking pot to shooting heroin and cocaine. For years I secretly abused drugs in what I thought was a controlled manner. I know now that I was an addict from the very start. Getting "bent" became my primary purpose in life.
Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school and get into college. While in college, and later in law school, I almost completely stopped using drugs, except for the occasional beer and joint. I didn’t know, however, that the disease of addiction was progressing even though I wasn’t using very much.
After passing the bar on my first attempt, it appeared that I was destined for success. But as the pressure of my high-power legal job, and the struggles of everyday life, increased, I again turned to drugs, specifically cocaine.
Cocaine became the sustaining presence in my life. It gave me everything that the career and the money could not. It made me feel complete, fulfilled, and secure. Temporarily.
I was still practicing and, so I thought, successfully concealing my drug use from others. I lived a double life: officer of the court by day and dope-fiend by night. There was one problem: I could not hide from myself, and this double life began to take its toll. I needed more and more coke to abate the feelings of shame associated with my secret lifestyle.
Gradually, my two lives began to meet and the inner turmoil became more visible in the outer workings of my life. I was frequently late for work and often failed to show up at all. I was also unreliable when it came to keeping other types of commitments. It became obvious to those close to me that I had developed some kind of "problem."
The law firm eventually fired me. This produced even more shame.
More and more often, I would shut myself off from contact and communication with the outside world, preferring to sit alone in my apartment for days at a time using cocaine. It was, to say the least, a horrible existence.
One night, during an extended binge, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that if I continued to live this way that I would die this way. I now believe that in that moment I was touched by the grace of God.
The next day I made arrangements to obtain help from my drug addiction, and shortly thereafter entered a 28-day in-patient drug treatment program. I wish that I could say that I never used drugs again, but that was not to be the case. However, I can in all honesty say that it was never the same. I struggled with drug addiction for another eight months, but the seed of recovery had been planted.
While in treatment, I had been introduced to the 12-step recovery programs. I also found a sponsor, someone to guide me through the 12-step process. When I was finally ready to surrender, I began, with the help of my sponsor, to practice the principles that are incorporated in the steps and to undertake the very difficult task of reconstructing my life. Fortunately, I somehow had been able to avoid involvement with the judicial system and bar counsel, and had gotten a position with another firm, but there was still a lot of work to do.
The single most important thing that I did was to start attending 12-step meetings on an almost daily basis. There I discovered people from all walks of life who felt exactly like I did. Some were lawyers, others were doctors, and many more represented the various professions which exist in a city like Washington. We all had one thing in common: our utter powerlessness over drugs and alcohol. With the support of members of the various 12-step groups, and through the process of "working" the 12 steps, I have, one day at a time, not used drugs or alcohol in nearly 10 years.
Through the years I’ve learned a lot about me and what makes me tick. I’ve also learned how to remain free from the vicious lifestyle of drug addiction, and I can honestly say that my life is better than it has ever been. I’m still practicing law, and still struggling with life on life’s terms, but thanks to the 12-step recovery, I’m staying clean.
Recovery has blessed me in many ways. The most rewarding has been the opportunity to help others who are fighting to overcome an addiction. One of the ways which I have been of service has been as a volunteer with the Lawyer Counseling Program (LCP). For years, through the LCP, I have made myself available to work with lawyers who needed to talk to someone with whom they could identify and who understood their struggle. I have been a mentor, a sponsor, and a friend.
Many of the lawyers with whom I have worked are now leading happy, successful lives and practicing law. I take no credit for any of their success. I am, however, eternally grateful that through my own recovery I could be used as an instrument to carry the message of hope. I urge any lawyer who needs help to contact the LCP.
Lawyer or Bag Lady?
In my third year of law school, I was confronted with the choice of becoming either a lawyer or a bag lady. If I wanted to be a lawyer, I would have to stop drinking.
Alcohol had begun to affect my mind. I studied in the evening, usually while drinking, and then couldn’t remember anything in the morning. I still looked pretty good. I was on law review and close to the top of my class. I had second interviews lined up with a number of prestigious law firms. Before I went to one interview, I had a drink, and I knew that was not the right thing to do. (That firm did not invite me back.) I was afraid that I would do it again. The fear of getting drunk during a job interview lunch and the fear of losing my mind finally propelled me into Alcoholics Anonymous.
There is no explanation for my compulsive drinking other than the disease of alcoholism. I was raised in reasonably functional middle-class family and had a happy childhood. We belonged to a nondrinking church and, as a young teenager, I vowed never to touch alcohol. Yet, one day when I was 17, without giving it any thought, I had a glass of wine. I didn’t like the taste. I didn’t feel different. I didn’t have a burning desire for more.
I went to college in a dry town, and for the next few years I rarely drank at all and almost never to excess. Then one night at a party, without giving it any thought, I had two or three shots of whiskey in rapid succession, and in less than five minutes I couldn’t stand up. I don’t know how I got home. When I came to, everything was spinning. I threw up. My head throbbed. I felt terrible. I astutely realized that I was really drunk. By this standard I was never really drunk again. Tipsy maybe, a little too much to drink, but not really drunk.
I moved to Washington, got a job on the Hill, and was plunged into the excitement and exhilaration of being at the heart of government, in the center of power. I met people who were famous. And I drank with them. I came to see drinking, and myself while drinking, as sophisticated, grown up, worldly. I ignored the embarrassing and humiliating incidents that detracted from this image.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I slid downhill. Over the course of several years, the occasional drink became a half quart of whisky every day, along with beer, wine, brandy-whatever else was at hand. I was a chronic drunk driver and used to practice how I would explain to the police officer that although I was legally drunk, I was not really drunk. But I was never stopped.
My social life dwindled to almost nothing. By this time I was in law school. I attributed my isolation to my taxing schedule.
I remember reading about a test by which one of the armed services measured alcoholism, something like drinking more than a gallon of alcohol a month. That couldn’t be right, I thought, I drink more than that a week and I’m not an alcoholic. Then one day a test in a advice column caught my eye. It was something along the lines of "If, when you start drinking, you have little control over how much you drink, you are probably an alcoholic."
Suddenly, I knew. I knew because of the long string of broken promises I’d made to myself that I would not have a drink that day or I would not have one until five o’clock, or I would only have one. I was an alcoholic.
Rational thinking is not a hallmark of alcoholism. I knew I was an alcoholic because I could not control my drinking, and yet I harbored the illusion that I could figure out how to control my drinking so that I would not be an alcoholic and therefore could continue to drink. Because of this, it was a year or more later when I first called AA. I have not had a drink since and have not wanted a drink since.
In the midst of what often seems like a frenetically busy schedule, I got to several AA meetings a week. I find more wisdom, solace, honesty, equality, and peace of mine there than in any other place, but I go mostly because I want to stay sober. As a result, I have had a successful and rewarding career.
I have been richly blessed in my personal life. I have been able to weather the inevitable storms with some degree of serenity. And I have been able to be of service to others.
I have seen scores of lawyers get clean and sober. But I have also seen a few who have not made the choice in time and have destroyed their lives, their health, their families, their careers, and any potential for happiness. I am grateful I’m not a bag lady.
In 1985 I was confronted with my alcoholism for the first time. My new wife pointed out to me that perhaps I was drinking too much and that it was affecting me adversely.
I tried AA briefly, but decided it was not for me. Having lost my job, then my home, I tried a geographic cure, moving abroad. My wife left me after a year there, and I proceeded to try to drink myself to death. That didn’t work and, in a rare lucid moment, I decided to return to the U.S. to seek help. I came back to Washington, jobless, penniless, but not entirely hopeless.
I knew a lot of people here and formed a network of friends to serve as my safety net, living first with one, then with the other. I thought I could stop drinking if I just exerted willpower. I couldn’t.
I had heard about the Lawyer Counseling Program but was clueless about its function. I thought they might be able to refer me to an alcoholism doctor, so I dropped by, embarrassed, unsure, scared. Suzanne Makepeace, who at that time was the director, put me at ease, gave me the test, and assured me there was a way out.
Because of my intense desire to stop the horrible downward spiral I was in, we at first agreed that I would try outpatient treatment. I formed a social compact with my network of friends and with Suzanne Makepeace: if I stayed sober, fine; if I drank, I was to go into a full blown 28-day treatment program.
I went into the outpatient program with great enthusiasm, studying everything with my usual intellectual zeal to know. I read everything available about alcoholism. I was a walking encyclopedia, knowing it in the head, but not in the heart. AA was still "them," and I made a science of comparing out: I was not like the others in AA because X, Y, or Z.
I got a sponsor and started to do some modest pieces of legal work here and there. The day came six months later when I drank. Fortunately I called my sponsor, my network, and Suzanne and told everyone I had collapsed and needed to go into treatment. They put the miracle machine into gear, and within 36 hours I was headed to Suburban Hospital, the Lawyer Counseling Program having arranged a loan from its revolving fund to help me get into treatment. (I had no insurance.)
I got out of treatment, lived in an Oxford House, worked at Suburban’s rehab center two nights a week, went to AA every day, and stayed alcohol-free. Things picked up. I did steady and lucrative legal work, got a place to live, paid back my Lawyer Counseling Program loan, and got a life.
But I didn’t get AA. I had been warned in treatment that the hardest cases are doctors, lawyers, the clergy, and professors: highly educated people who have to know and understand everything, who may be unable to accept simple truths and miracles in their lives because they do not fully understand them, and who are incapable of being honest with themselves. In other words, me.
After several years in the program, dry but not sober, I relapsed. There followed several more years during which I put AA into a pigeonhole in my life, dutifully going for an hour a day, reading another hour, then doing everything else 22 hours a day. I finally stopped talking honestly with my sponsor, stopped reading the literature, stopped going to meetings, and relapsed big time.
I went into treatment again and finally surrendered. This time it was different; I listened and followed suggestions. I finally, really admitted that I was totally powerless over alcohol, but saw that there was a way, if I would and could surrender my self-will.
I had a real epiphany while at Fellowship Hall, and immediately began to feel genuine spiritual growth, an awakening where there had been a vast wasteland for years. I even began to feel and understand some of my emotions. Miracle.
When I got back to Washington, Lynn Phillips and Frank Hampton started the long and sometimes difficult process of helping me put the pieces back together. The big difference now is that I have surrendered to the program and that I have adopted the AA Way of Life. It is working.