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A Recovery Story: Then Something Astonishing Happened

I was always able to get by on my brains and wits, so the drinking in high school and later in college wasn’t an obstacle to making it through.  Of course, I wasted my brains by doing as little as possible academically, had a good time, and finished college with “gentlemans.”  Looking back on it now, I see that my drinking was in part a way to cope with my social and emotional immaturity, and the college fraternity life was a mixture of insecurity and use of alcohol for comfort and escape. But I didn’t stand out in that crowd—daily drinking and frequent inebriation were condoned, although much of my drinking was more withdrawn and personal.  It was at this time, about my junior year in college, that I began to think of and even to call my nightly drinking “taking my medicine”.  I thought I needed it to sleep. I really needed it to feel less anxious, more comfortable, if only for a little while.

Because of a high score on the LSAT, I got into a good law school. After the first semester, I began to realize that I could make it through law school without too much sweat and the last 2 years of law school were a steady retreat into doing as little as possible at school and engaging in useless pastimes.  I continued to “take my medicine” every night, and I think subconsciously this became the most important part of my day.  All my anxieties about school (I seldom went to class, didn’t know from day to day if I was in trouble, and had to borrow notes for the exams), or other issues in my life, would be smoothed out for a time when I drank. I did not drink to oblivion, but I did drink enough every single night to be legally drunk, I am sure.  It did not occur to me that this was any cause for concern.

I got a responsible job out of law school, and did well there.  My private life was isolated. Although I had an apartment, a roommate, and some friends, I went to second-tier bars every night to drink alone in freedom.  This lasted five years doing well at work, but with opportunities for a fulfilling private life traded for the private time with alcohol.  Still, I did not see that there was anything wrong.

Along the way, I began to date and then married a hometown girl, and we made a good life and had a daughter.   My wife drank too, but not in the way that I did, I depended on that nightly time with my friend the bottle.  It was now 10 years out of law school, and aside from wasted personal time and an unrecognized sick dependence on the nightly booze, there were no serious consequences from my drinking. Once my wife had a serious illness for months, which necessitated my in-laws moving in to help care for her and our daughter.  I helped at home till late at night, then retreated to my room where I drank straight liquor fast until I was tight then went to bed to get some sleep for the next day.  This went on for weeks, and I had to sneak the empty bottles to the trash occasionally.  I didn’t think anything was odd about this.

I went to work for a statewide organization, and eventually became the organization’s general counsel and chief lobbyist in the state legislature.  There was a lot of responsibility and public exposure.  Also a lot of opportunities for drinking. I felt important, and there was either a reception or a private function every night that could be “obligatory” if I wanted it to be. On weekends, I usually found it easy to drink, beginning in the morning with a screwdriver or bloody mary.    It was about this time that my drinking got out of hand (of course my drinking up to this point was far from normal).  I crossed that invisible line that makes drinking not only a central part of your life, but also a necessary part that crowds out all other considerations.  I began to wake up with the dry heaves, and needed a drink to get going.  I began to have the shakes.  Picking up a pen or eating soup was embarrassing.  I had become physically addicted to alcohol, and needed to have it to avoid physical symptoms of withdrawal.  A rational person would address the problem rather than go to the lengths I did to treat the symptoms (which meant drinking).  But I was not rational at this point about alcohol—all my energy was devoted to “successfully” drinking while functioning at a high level.

I attempted “maintenance drinking” (although I didn’t know the term at that time).  That meant starting drinking in the morning and continuing through the day, without anyone knowing it by my behavior or odor.  A fool’s mission.  My wife had put significant pressure on my drinking at home, and I had to go to great lengths to hide booze in the house or drink quickly elsewhere and hide any sign of it.  I would go out at dinnertime to get a “takeout” at certain restaurants, and gulp double shots at the bar to the consternation of those present.  For a while I kept pint bottles hidden around the neighborhood and I would “take a walk” at night.  But the bottles started disappearing, I’m sure because my neighbors spotted me. On weekdays, I started the day “inconspicuously” buying wine at a grocery store on the way to work and drinking half the bottle hot behind the shopping center.  Two hours later, I needed a drink badly.  I found excuses to leave work and race to the liquor store for a pint.  I nursed it the best I could through the day in the car and disposed of the bottle before going home.  Then I discovered plastic minibottles.  I could carry several in my suit with no rattles, which I could down as needed in a bathroom or around a corner.  I bought suits based on the number of inside pockets they had.  Occasionally I checked into a hotel room near the legislative building so I could have a few minutes during the day to drink and compose myself.  A business day trip with others to New York was a nightmare of shakes, minibottles, breath mints and sweat. A statewide series of one-on-one debates with a legislator on an important issue was a story of long solo drives, controlled intoxication, and poor performances. Once I arrived at a legislative pig picking in a cab to avoid a DWI, but had the driver drive right up to the pig. I was forced (to avoid losing my job) by an important legislator to seek out and apologize to someone he said I had insulted in front of the governor at a party (I had no memory of the episode).  I wasn’t fooling anyone except myself.

My wife and brother (a physician) arranged for me to go to a 28-day rehab program in Pinehurst.  I insisted on “facing this alone”, which meant I was free to drink as I drove to Pinehurst and have a “last meal” at the Pinehurst Hotel with lots of martinis and wine.  The waiter asked for my credit card before he put in my order. When I finally arrived at the hospital, they took one look at me and told me to come back when I was serious.

I made it back home, and my poor wife and brother spent all night arranging admission to a local treatment hospital the next day.  Again, I drove myself there about noon, after a few drinks on top of what was left in my system from the night before.  A mile from the treatment center, a cab driver motioned me into a parking lot, where we were soon joined by a police car.

The cabbie had spotted my drunk driving and radioed the cops.  So I finally had my DWI on the way to a treatment center.   After my wife made my bail, I was taken to the treatment center.  My inflated ego called the most important criminal lawyer in town, who surprisingly actually came to the treatment center.  Months later I ignominiously plead guilty with his junior partner as my lawyer not much anyone can do with a Breathalyzer reading of .32.

I was a good student at the treatment center, I studied the AA materials they gave me, participated in the group sessions, and did a lot of thinking.  Not enough.  I was drunk within a month of my release (I convinced myself that a few drinks would help me with a public presentation I had to make).  The knowledge and supposed self-awareness I had gained in treatment was as a puff of smoke against the insanity of the urge to take “just one drink”.  Of course, one drink wasn’t enough, and the few weeks of sobriety had only made me more susceptible to the mental and physical effects of alcohol.

I drank more than ever before, and less “successfully”.  I still had my job, and I went to another treatment center for a month, and stayed sober for 3 months after that.  Then for no plausible reason, I began drinking “secretly” again.  My wife and brother had had enough, and I woke up one Sunday afternoon in my own bed with 2 deputies standing over me with commitment papers.  I was taken in handcuffs to the marked car in my own driveway with neighbors looking on.  At the psychiatric hospital waiting to be admitted with the deputies, I ran out the door and through the parking lot, thinking I could live in the woods and get to ATM machines. The female deputy easily caught me.  I stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a few days, and then I went to another treatment center (by the way, the relative ambience of treatment centers goes down with each new admission, I went from 4 star to unrated).

My employer finally gave up and fired me. When I returned from the hospital and drank again, my wife finally asked me to leave the house.  I got $10,000 cash on a credit card, got drunk, and drove to the to the airport for the “next flight out” (luckily, it was 1:00 AM), then to the bus station for the “next bus out” (what an easy robbery target), and then to the coast where I holed up in a hotel for several days.  My insane thinking and behavior almost resulted in the loss of the $10,000 and an arrest.  After a few days, I made it back to my city, got a grandiose apartment with furniture rented over the phone, and settled into a nightmare existence of constant drinking. I was free at last to drink as I pleased, but was actually a prisoner in the apartment.  I only drove to get liquor as necessary, and was not presentable otherwise. I was afraid to take a shower for fear of falling while alone (I had heard that William Holden had died drunk that way).  Occasionally I would venture out to McDonalds a few blocks away to get food I didn’t really want (I lost 30 pounds in the last year).  Once I went there for a takeout early in the evening, and was shocked to be told at the window that they didn’t have french fries at 6:00 AM.  I thought it was dusk, not dawn.

Twice I had someone take me to the county alcohol treatment center, when I was frightened enough at my existence. The center was full of drug addicts sent there by the courts. I was tested and had sessions with a psychologist, who told me I was a “late stage alcoholic” with brain function deficit from drinking. He recommended a work camp for alcoholics in Georgia for at least six months. I was forty years old, with no job, home, or money. I had participated in AA for three years, and thought I was just one of those people who couldn’t make AA work for them.

Then something astonishing happened.  It was Christmas Eve in the county treatment center.  I got on my knees beside my cot and turned my will and my life over to God, as AA teaches.  I had done this before, but not at the depth of this prayer.  I stopped analyzing AA and my life, or praying for things as I thought they should be, but simply that God take over. I got off my knees, and in that moment was confident and peaceful for the first time in years.  I knew with 100% certainty that I was relieved of the alcohol problem, if I kept close to the program of AA. That was fifteen years ago, and I have not had a drink or any temptation to drink since that moment when I rose from my knees. No struggle or fear. Call it a miracle, or some deep psychological shift, or anything you want, it’s unimportant for me to understand how it happened, except that it resulted from a complete admission of powerlessness and a leap of faith.  Faith in the program of AA and God, as I understand him. Most alcoholics or addicts have less identifiable moments of release from their addiction, but their successes are just as powerful.  AA members will understand this.  For others, it is a reason to hope.

As for my life in the last fifteen years, it has been wonderful. From the depths of despair, I have enjoyed a very successful professional career, and a satisfying family and social life. I participate in AA and PALS. For anyone who feels hopeless or frustrated in his or her struggle with alcohol or other drugs, remember that there is someone a lot like you who, in the blink of an eye in a county treatment center, was inexplicably given the gift of new life more wonderful than the original.

The preceding personal story of a North Carolina lawyer is presented anonymously in the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous, which seeks to avoid pride in recovery.

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addictions:  FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems.  For more information go to http://www.nclap.org/ or call toll free at 1-800-720-7257 or  1-877-627-3743.

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