Never Alone: Addiction, Recovery and Community
“Striving for perfection, hiding our real self from others, or putting on a false face keeps up separate and alone. But in the act of admitting our pain and suffering, we open up to a community.”
– Therese Jacobs-Stewart from “Mindfulness and the 12 Steps”
Let me just say – I love lawyers. I love the passion, intelligence, tenacity, brilliance, skepticism, integrity, and verbosity (I could, of course, go on). It has been a tremendous privilege and pleasure for me to travel across New York in the last five years presenting lawyer training programs on mindfulness, meditation, empowerment, leadership and women’s issues. Yet nothing has left such a lasting impression on me as my opportunities to present mindfulness and other techniques to lawyers in recovery – a community within our community. To be among lawyers who have faced addiction and made the choice to live clean and sober is to bear witness to that wondrous combination of humility, strength, wisdom, acceptance, compassion, and not a little bit of laughter.
For me, being in the rooms with lawyers in recovery is like coming home – hearing phrases like “one day at a time” and the serenity prayer (with its emphasis on strength, discernment and acceptance) is like being at my mom’s kitchen table. My childhood home was filled with these messages and the library shelves were lined with books on recovery, empowerment, and wellness.
It was not until my early teens when I learned that the meeting my dad got up for each Saturday morning was the weekly gathering of a 12-step group and was a cornerstone of his sobriety;1 that the inspirational books were part of his recovery process; that when his phone rang, and he mouthed to my mom, “I have to take this,” it was someone in real trouble on the other end.
It was not until my college years that I understood the power of addiction and the power of the fellowship that caused my dad to take phone calls day or night.
And it was not until my years as a young lawyer that I saw addiction take root in my friends, peers and colleagues. Whenever I have the opportunity to sit with a fellowship of recovering lawyers, it is always inspiring, uplifting, transformational – and beautifully familiar.
Yet even with my heightened sensitivity to the perils of addiction, I was enormously affected early in my career by the impact of alcohol on a colleague before we were even 30. I remember viscerally being a young attorney with all the pressures, deadlines, and expectations that entry into the profession carries. I found solace in my fellow young lawyers as we would commiserate in a form of negative bonding around the daily management of the toils of practice on the bottom rung. Sometimes that bonding was gathering after work or on the weekends with drinks but it was never anything over which I was particularly concerned. We each seemed to be appropriate, understood limits, and acted accordingly.
It was not until much later that I realized the reason I was not concerned – my friend’s alcoholism had taken root away from the small group gatherings and was happening at home. Every single sign was present that he was struggling – decreased personal self-care, forgetfulness, timeliness, and questionable judgment. I knew he was a brilliant, dedicated young attorney but I felt voiceless and powerless to say the one thing that needed to be said – “I see you struggling and I want to help.” It seems so incredibly simple to me now and I often wonder if things would have been different if I had found my courage to be the friend and colleague he deserved.
After my early experience, I decided that I would make every effort I could to help lawyers find ways to support and care for one another in the path to personal and professional wellbeing. I began to get involved with the New York State Lawyer Assistance Program and advocate strongly for an increased focus on overall attorney well-being – addiction, stress management, and mental health. As I began to learn all I could about how addiction and mental health issues uniquely affect lawyers, it became increasingly clear that education about the pressures of practice, the impacts on the individual, and maladaptive coping mechanisms was woefully lacking.
Author and lawyer Lisa F. Smith noted the following when discussing her life in recovery in her memoir Girl Walks Out of a Bar:
Twenty-five years ago when I started practicing law [I was never] educated about . . . the risk that lawyers run of becoming alcoholics, and what you can do about it [and] that there is confidential help out there . . . It was news to me years later, when I found out there were lawyers assistance programs at the state bar level, at the national bar level, and at the city bar level, [made up] of lawyers who are there to help other lawyers who are in trouble. That should be something that lawyers learn about the same time they’re learning where the library is and how to overnight a package to a client . . . One thing that is lacking . . . is a session on the fact that lawyers frequently run into mental health issues, depression, anxiety and then frequently this leads to substance abuse. Alcohol being far and away the number one.2
More recently, I have seen a shift toward greater awareness. I recall vividly the moment two years ago when I congratulated a recent law school graduate on her admission day at the Appellate Division. With a concerned and lowered voice, she asked, “I am excited, but I looked through the packet I was given, and it’s full of helplines for depression, addiction, and suicide. Is there something I wasn’t told?” While it may be the first she was hearing of the higher rates of substance abuse and mental health conditions, the data has been around for some time.
Recently, a Hazelton Betty Ford study found that (1) 20.6 percent of lawyers screened positive for alcohol-dependent drinking (higher among men and younger attorneys); (2) 28 percent of lawyers suffer from depression (higher among men); (3) 19 percent of lawyers struggle with anxiety (higher among women); and (4) 23 percent of lawyers experience significant stress.3
At the NYSBA Annual Meeting in January, my co-presenter, Kerry Murray O’Hara, PysD and I laid out our premise that lawyers are predisposed to higher than average rates of addiction and other mental health issues as a result of “a perfect storm” of “certain traits which cause stress and burnout, then are trained into anticipatory anxiety (professional worriers) which is known to be suboptimal psychology, and then are potentially stigmatized and perceived as weak when the burden becomes too much.
Rather than seek professional help, many lawyers withdraw from peers, friends and family, or engage in ‘maladaptive coping behaviors’ such as self-medicating with alcohol and other substances. In essence, the contributing factors to a lawyer’s unhappiness coupled with the resistance to seek help may lead to the higher than average levels of problem drinking and substance abuse according to the most recent research.”4
In fact, the American Bar Association’s 2017 Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing included the list of reasons why lawyers are so help-averse, including: “(1) failure to recognize symptoms; (2) not knowing how to identify or access appropriate treatment or believing it to be a hassle to do so; (3) a culture’s negative attitude about such conditions; (4) fear of adverse reactions by others whose opinions are important; (5) feeling ashamed; (6) viewing help-seeking as a sign of weakness, having a strong preference for self-reliance, and/or having a tendency toward perfectionism; (7) fear of career repercussions; (8) concerns about confidentiality; (9) uncertainty about the quality of organizationally-provided therapists or otherwise doubting that treatment will be effective; and (10) lack of time in busy schedules.”5
As awareness grows and efforts are made to shift a help-resistant profession,6 the time I spend with lawyers in recovery is incredibly refreshing, fulfilling and inspires me with such hope. Each and every lawyer I have met through Lawyer Assistance Programs, Lawyers Helping Lawyers or as Chair of the Saratoga County Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Committee has taken the profound and courageous step in asking for help. Many will bravely tell their stories of the moment when they knew their lives had become unmanageable due to alcohol or drugs. They also will tell me about how they received help and about being welcomed into a community of fellowship from those who had walked the path to sobriety before them.
One lawyer shared with me that he was a senior litigation partner at a prestigious law firm but was terrified of the courtroom. He drank larger and larger amounts of alcohol to help him cope with the levels of anxiety that he experienced whenever he was prepping for or in trial. As he continued to rely on alcohol more and more, other areas of his life began to unravel – his health, his marriage, his relationship with his children, and his work. One Monday morning, he awoke to find that he had passed out reviewing deposition transcripts and forgot to set his alarm. He was foggy and disheveled and late for court. He began to feel pains in his chest as his mind raced to figure out how we was going to explain his tardiness, his appearance and his ill health to the judge and his client. On the way to the courthouse, he decided that he could not live another day as he had for the last several years. He contacted another lawyer he knew was in recovery and asked him what to do. His colleague drove to his home that evening and brought him to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He has been sober since that day and he tells me of how his life has shifted in unbelievable ways – as a happier self and professional.
Another lawyer shared with me that his journey of recovery had taught him to not take things personally and that has enabled to him to experience incidents in the courtroom in a completely different way. He said, “Prior to recovery, I was the maddest person in the courtroom and every ruling that didn’t go my way was because the judge had it out for me. I was short-tempered and a bit of a hothead. I would drink after court to blow off the stress of the day, only to wake up the next day more tired and irritable. After entering into recovery, I learned that I didn’t have to take everything so personally. I could go easier on myself.”
Still another lawyer shared with me the impact on him from a colleague’s recent suicide. For the better part of two years, he had looked in on a lawyer he knew had been struggling with mental health and addiction issues. He had repeatedly facilitated and participated in interventions on her behalf with local health care professionals, her family, and others when things looked bleak. She had stabilized many times and he had great hopes for her continued success. He knew from his own family experience that each day was a challenge for his friend but that she continued to practice law and give tremendously to her community. And yet, the day came when he had to share with the legal community the news of her suicide. He remarked to me, “We don’t do enough for each other. We all think we are the only one. We need to be good to each other and see that we all struggle and have challenges.”
A few years ago, I had a dream come true when my dad and I co-presented “Mindfulness and the 12 Steps” at a weekend retreat for lawyers in recovery. It was easy for me to see that this “community within the legal community” is one of mutual respect, love and tolerance. Anyone who asks for help receives it – no judgment, no questions asked. I remarked to the group that they exemplify the key principles that create a sense of community, belonging and well-being – a template for a profession in need.
While I understand that recovery comes in many forms and that 12-step programs are but one path, I offer these stories as part of my personal journey and the journeys of those who have courageously shared their stories with me for this article.
As the Chair of the newly formed Attorney Wellbeing Committee for the NYSBA, it is my singular hope that we continue to support access to resources and assistance to lawyers struggling with addiction and mental health challenges in any form. We can also apply the core principles of community, belonging and well-being to the entire profession – taking lawyers from striving to thriving.
With those words in mind, I will offer one of my favorite quotes from the Persian poet, Rumi: “There is a community of the spirit . . . open your hands if you want to be held.” If any of this writing speaks to you, please know that there is a community of the spirit with open hands stretched out to help. You are never, ever alone.
1. For those who wonder about my father’s anonymity in recovery, he has reviewed this article and given me permission to share the story. I am proud to say that he is Barry Levine, founder and Board President for the Capital District Recovery Center (CDRC) on Colvin Avenue in Albany which opened this year and has the mission “to provide a safe and accessible space for people seeking recovery from addictions by offering a one-stop location for 12-step recovery meetings, recovery supports, and programs for self-improvement, and spiritual growth.” He has shared his recovery journey as part of the process to found and open CDRC – a journey which is fast approaching three decades. I am honored to serve as volunteer legal counsel to the Board of CDRC.
2. Olds, Dorri, The Lawyer Setting the Bar for Recovery, The Fix, June 8, 2016. https://www.thefix.com/lawyers-rate-high-alcoholism.
3. Krill, Patrick R. JD, LLM; Johnson, Ryan MA; Albert Linda MSSW. The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Journal of Addiction Medicine. Vol. 10, Issue 1, January/February 2016. (Additional statistics include: social anxiety (16.1 percent), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (12.5 percent), panic disorder (8 percent), and bipolar disorder (2.4 percent), suicidal thought at one time in career (11.5 percent), self-injurious behaviors (2.9 percent), and prior suicide attempt (0.7 percent).
4. Coreno, Libby and O’Hara, Kerry, Attorney Wellness: The Science of Stress and the Road to Well-Being, NYSBA Journal, October 2018, Vol. 90, No. 8. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
5. The Path to Lawyer Wellbeing: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. The Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing, American Bar Association, August 2017, p. 13.
6. Ciobanu, Terrell, Out of the Darkness: Overcoming Depression Among Lawyers, American Bar Association, GP Solo, March/April 2015, noting a 2004 study of lawyers recovering from mental illness determined that the two greatest factors in failing to seek treatment was the belief that “they could handle it on their own” and that discovery of treatment would stigmatizing to their reputation.