Becoming an Alcoholic in Private – Living in Recovery in Public
After years of drinking I stood on the cusp of losing all the gains I had made in my legal studies and chosen career in government service. With the assistance of friends and relatives already in recovery, my life took a better turn as I got sober and began a recovery process that has held me in good stead for more than 33 years. At a certain point in the recovery process, I came to the realization that staying anonymous in the legal community was not going to be very helpful to the lawyers and judges, the law students and their family members who might benefit from hearing a story of recovery as I had. This article is the story behind that process.
My Path From Addiction to Recovery
Until that turning point, my life was on a steady decline. This decline began slowly and progressed insidiously. Over time, and probably without much notice, I began drinking more and more. At one time, I could drink with friends on a Friday night and maybe even on a Saturday night, but by Monday I would be back into my responsible mode. Then, slowly, the weekend drinking increased and began to creep into weeknights, and eventually I found myself drinking during the day, especially when my responsibilities – law school, studying, single parenting, and showing up for work – became overwhelming.
I had married very young and had a child, but was determined to get an education and make something of my life. As young marriages often do, mine began to unravel and, curiously, while my marriage deteriorated, I found that I had a desire to achieve, in part because I knew that I would have to take care of myself and my young daughter on my own. As my marriage ended, I worked full time in the court system while attending law school at night. In the short span of five years, I had transformed myself from a young dependent housewife into a disciplined, motivated superwoman. I could do anything!
Regardless of my desire to achieve, I continued to drink, and subtly the drinking became a more important part of my days than I realized. I drank to relieve the stress of working, studying, class attendance, child care. The problems such drinking created seemed to pale in comparison to the story I told myself: I was a single working mother who planned to join a noble profession – I was going to be a lawyer, I was on the ladder up, a trailblazer, a woman on fire, a successful woman in the ‘70s.
For certain, my relationships with family and friends became strained and, as time wore on and the drinking took over more of my life, necessary relationships with family and employers were, to say the least, no longer cohesive and often chaotic.
People could not depend on me to show up in a responsible and timely manner. My work and studies began to show a steady decline. Like many with this problem, I was unaware of the damage drinking was doing to my life and relationships.
I found many reasons to blame circumstances and others for needing to drink – for relief, for relaxation, to reduce the stress and fear I was feeling. Through this false sense that I was all right and could handle the drinking and everything else, I couldn’t see the toll my behavior was taking on my family or work responsibilities. It appeared at the time as if I were handling all these responsibilities well.
My life plans underwent a radical change owing to the end of a cherished relationship related to the excessive drinking and the perception that it was other people’s fault that I was so unhappy. I graduated from law school and moved to a new city. I had a variety of legal jobs there, I made new friends, I had a new boyfriend and a renewed relationship with my daughter and, I had hoped, with my drinking. With the new situation, this time, I told myself, I would be able to control when and how much I drank.
When that didn’t happen, I began to recognize that my drinking was out of control. At this point the only thing I thought about throughout the days at work, and nights partying or at home, was my next drink. As more people told me that I could have a problem with drinking, I stopped drinking in public, preferring to spend evenings alone in the privacy of my home where I could drink without facing the consequences of blackouts or unruly emotional outbursts. I felt safer there since I was afraid of where I might end up in a blackout.
By then, I was having a hard time focusing, making good decisions, getting to work on time, or even taking proper care of myself or anyone else . . . unable even to pay attention to my now young teenage daughter. The consequences of failed relationships and now unmanageable responsibilities piled up and became a mountain too high to climb. Unfortunately, this provided many reasons, although not rational ones, to continue drinking.
Increasingly, the shame and fear became overwhelming. Soon I began to have bouts of believing that I’d be better off dead. During my darkest hours of failed relationships, chaotic life circumstances and uncontrolled drinking, I did attempt to end my life. Fortunately, those attempts were not successful.
Friends began to talk to me about the excessive drinking and my erratic behaviors, offering suggestions for help. Seeing a psychiatrist, a psychologist and taking prescribed anti-depressants did not have any effect on the drinking. Many attempts at getting sober, stopping drinking for long periods but using other substances to “take the edge off”, resulted in progressively more unmanageability in my life. After some improvement when I had first stopped drinking, the use of drugs began to take its toll and again I found myself in a morass of unpredictable chaos, my work and relationships began unraveling again.
But then, maybe because the consequences were too much to face, the guilt too much to bear, or death too frightening to stomach, I heard someone speak of recovery and it stirred something deep inside. Miraculously, I was able to not only hear the message but also to surrender to the possibility of sobriety and recovery. This provided the opportunity to change the destructive course I was on and opened up a whole new life to me. A period of detoxification and rehabilitation treatment followed this surrender and I began to walk a different path. This initial period of sobriety was followed by intensive years of attendance at support groups and a sustained period of sobriety while working with others both in and outside the legal profession.
My Role as a Messenger to the Bar
About 12 years into recovery I wrote my story for the ABA Journal. With that publication, I willingly surrendered my anonymity in order to assist my colleagues who were dealing with the disease of addiction. The decision to reveal the details about my own alcoholism and recovery was not an easy one. Some of the ramifications were not easy to deal with, but I do not regret my decision for one moment. After all, those who had the courage to tell their story had brought me to recovery and saved my life. How could I not do the same in hopes that I might help someone in return?
The extreme shame and stigma experienced by lawyers, judges, and law students created a critical urgency to put a face to the problem . . . my face. I was also acutely aware of the role a demanding profession played in this disease.
With the gift of hindsight, I share highlights of my journey as a messenger of recovery. Sharing serves to keep my sobriety strong and may influence those who are at that crossroad of revealing their condition or in the middle of a substance abuse experience and need a word of encouragement and hope.
In 1994, I became a commissioner with the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) through the encouragement of another attorney in long term recovery who was active in CoLAP. It was because of this commission appointment that I first publicly shared my story of addiction and recovery to a group of my peers.
I agreed to speak to a roomful of women bar leaders about CoLAP. It was a last-minute decision and I was left with little time to prepare. I quickly realized that sharing my story would ultimately be the best way to educate them about CoLAP’s mission. I would have to reveal to them that I was an alcoholic. While this decision gave me pause, especially when I saw many of my New York State colleagues in the audience, I knew it was important to show them what a lawyer and a judge in recovery looked like: healthy and successful. Who better to deliver this message? I was one of them, a bar leader who had just completed a year as the vice president of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York and had previously served as the president of my county women’s bar association, but different, possibly, because I had overcome the challenge of active alcoholism and had remained in the legal profession and was now willing to talk about my struggles with this disease.
Following this presentation, I wrote my ABA Journal article. A few years later, I shared my story with the Board of Trustees of the Brooklyn Bar Association and participated in a mock intervention for New York Administrative Judges as well as the Executive Committee of the New York State Bar Association. All of this put my private story on public display but served a critical purpose of demonstrating that recovery works.
Since finding sobriety and then finding the courage to share my story of recovery with those in the legal profession, much has changed with regard to the universal message to legal professionals about these serious issues of addiction and the incidence of mental health issues in our profession. All lawyer assistance programs offer education on how to recognize and intervene when someone is impaired. These educational programs continue to be offered for free or for a very low cost on subjects related to mental illness, addiction, and lawyer well-being. The assistance that the state lawyers assistance programs offer is also free and confidential.
Personally, sobriety afforded me the privilege to serve for more than 17 years as a judge in the Civil, Criminal, Supreme, and Family Courts of New York City and the honor of serving on CoLAP as well as on state and local lawyers-helping-lawyers committees. My committee work on behalf of my colleagues became critical to my own well-being and gave me an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of lawyer assistance.
There are many courageous judges, lawyers, and law students among us who are not only in recovery but have also lent their time and energy to this effort, who have publicly acknowledged their struggles with addiction and mental health problems, and who have maintained their recovery while contributing their formidable skills and talents to the legal profession. The willingness to admit what has happened to us while continuing to demonstrate, through our own professional accomplishments, that a recovering attorney is a responsible member of the profession, as well as the willingness to volunteer to educate our colleagues, has done much not only to reduce the stigma of addiction and mental illness for judges, lawyers and law students, but more importantly, to get effective assistance to those who are suffering and dying every day from these very treatable illnesses.
© 2017 American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. Original essay published in Her Story: Lessons in Success From Lawyers Who Live It (ABA Publishing 2017).