It was about 14 years ago that I had a court appearance that I was extremely anxious about. I remember getting myself together in my tiny apartment after an all-night bender. The only thing that would calm me down before court was another drink. One drink turned into about two or three more, and then I was back to my usual state of numbness at 8am which of course meant much less anxiety and fear about court.
Somehow, I managed to get myself to the courthouse where I stood in the assigned courtroom, about 30 minutes late, among 50 other lawyers with cases waiting to be called. I ran into another lawyer with whom I had some cases against in the past. We knew each other enough that we made some small talk in the packed courtroom waiting for our cases to be called. I remember her horror once I began talking and she got a whiff of my breath. In fact, she raised her voice and exclaimed, “Oh my, someone in here smells so strongly of alcohol. Do you smell that?” I was amazed at my ability to respond so quickly with such a good lie, telling her it had to be the acetone nail polish remover I had used right before leaving that morning for the courthouse. She bought my lie, or at least pretended to. I had once again gotten myself out of yet another potentially “career-affecting” situation that day.
I have no memory of how that court appearance went, but I can assume it went like the rest of them during those days, just getting by with minimal effort believing that I had everyone around me fooled. But the most important part for me (and it was only about me) was that I was able to significantly mask any emotion – the fear, anxiety, insecurity – any sort of uncomfortable feeling that became associated with this highly demanding career I had found myself in. This behavior continued for another few years, despite the several job losses, financial ruin, and damaged personal and professional relationships that followed.
I don’t recall receiving any notices from the State Bar suggesting that I seek help. I was never aware that confidential support programs for alcoholics, addicts, or individuals with mental health issues existed. I wish I had known. I was a rock-bottom alcoholic that allowed the disease to take basically everything from me – except for the alcohol. That was one thing I protected with all of my being, because without that, I was terrified of life. I entered alcohol treatment in 2011 at the demand of my parents. I had nothing left other than a job that paid significantly less than my first job out of law school that I had lost about 18 months before. I was about to lose this job anyway. I was 30, living with my parents after losing my apartment. I had no money, few friends, and the trust of no one.
The choice was made simple for me: go to rehab for 30 days or get kicked out of my parents’ home. I begrudgingly chose the former, convincing myself that alcohol would be there for me once the 30 days were over, and that I would just hide it better afterwards. My life changed in that rehab. Since the staff determined that I was not fit to “live life on life’s terms” after the 30 days, they recommended I stay a few more months and then transition to a sober living community after that. Because I had learned in those 30 days that I was too sick mentally to make choices for myself and I had “dried out” to the extent that I was no longer physically withdrawing from alcohol, I gave into their suggestions and stayed.
At that point, rehab became a much-needed break from the “real world,” an opportunity to learn things about myself I did not know, and a place where I was surrounded by other alcoholics with similar personal and professional histories. While it took months for me to accept that I had a disease that made my life completely unmanageable, one that meant I had a physical allergy to alcohol with no cure but absolute abstinence, I finally understood that all I had to do was make a daily decision not to drink. It was a program centered on managing the condition of alcoholism “one day at a time.” That was something I could do. I learned about my triggers, my defects of character and how to look at my behavior and make needed changes in myself and the ways I approached situations.
Over the course of many months, I began to see myself becoming a better person, a capable person, possibly the person I was in the years before I began drinking alcoholically. And I liked that person. I have been sober – one day at a time – for 10 years now. I live a life today filled with hope, confidence, and serenity. In sobriety, I have learned to [mostly] love my career as an attorney, to accept that while I may not be good at everything, I am great at certain aspects of the job, and push myself to be better at the things I am not. I am content in not knowing everything there is to know and have learned ways to handle situations that make me anxious or fearful. I ride out being uncomfortable, because it’s temporary and a part of life. I have suffered loss and sadness in sobriety, and I have learned how to handle those things sober. I have celebrated career accomplishments and the most incredible personal joys without taking a drink. I
urge anyone who can relate to any aspect of my story to consider asking for help. The Lawyer Assistance program is a resource available specifically for attorneys struggling with mental health, addiction, and other personal problems. It is free and confidentially. All that is required is a little bit of willingness to start. The payoff is more than you could ever have dreamed.
If you have a story that you want to share anonymously, please contact Lisa Caplan, Director of the Lawyer Assistance Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.