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Recovery as a Process

In September 2005 I was driving down I-95 to a Florida treatment center for what I believed would be a 90-day stay in beautiful South Florida. I really did not know much about where I was going or what I was going to do, but Ed Ward of the North Carolina Lawyers Assistance Program had suggested it would be helpful. Since I needed short-term relocation, I decided to give it a try.

I knew I had problems, but I thought they were the result of bad luck, mostly caused by the misunderstanding or envy and jealousy of others. I believed that such a happy, caring person had been a victim of titanic struggles with cosmic forces that opposed my success. Certainly, I did not connect either my childhood and adult traumas or my 39 years of excessive drinking with the cause of any of the disasters that regularly befell me. I only knew that I was not an alcoholic because I was sure that I could quit drinking (and start again) whenever I chose to do so. Ironically, I was still unaware that my life was unmanageable although everyone around me already knew the truth.

Within 24 hours of my arrival at the treatment center’s residential campus, I read a paper from their website provided to me by my wife (I had not bothered to download it). It focused on the successful treatment of dual diagnoses—alcohol, other drugs, mental illnesses, and other conditions. After my third reading to ensure that I fully understood it, I began to rethink my position, since so much of the material related to my experiences. Maybe I did have a drinking problem (not alcoholism), which could be related to the adversity I had been experiencing. Perhaps the therapists at this facility might be able to provide me some insight and guidance. Instead of just being present (which I had already planned to be in my most attorney-type approach), I decided to participate in the treatment process to see if my life would improve. I had no idea that my decision would turn out to be nothing short of life changing.

With clinical help during the treatment process, I explored how my life had become unmanageable. In short, I concluded that I drank too much for too long for reasons that I had never understood or even acknowledged. As I processed undiagnosed problems in the safety of individual and group sessions with others who had similar circumstances, I discovered suppressed feelings with regard to abandonment because of a seriously ill sibling, family secrets, sexual abuse from a female cousin and others outside my family, and life-threatening circumstances other than combat in war. Self-medication with increasing amounts of alcohol, rage, and denial even when confronted with the truth had helped create my fear and avoidance that was deeply rooted in my being. To dull the pain, I drank alcohol through college, more heavily during 13 years in the navy as a destroyer and a JAG officer, and even more heavily in civilian life as a successful attorney.

Since drinking was always associated with success (and I was all about success), I was not facing my traumas and the addiction associated with them. I did not even know I had them. Yet there were warning signs. Irrational anger, which escalated into quiet and open rage, betrayal, and resentment, were integral parts of my life. For instance, I was not ashore for three minutes after each of my military tours in Vietnam before I felt the rage. Once I cut short leave with my family after being gone for almost a year and left early to go to my next duty station because I was quietly enraged at perceived slights. Unable to recognize such negative effects of my drug of choice, I eventually became withdrawn, untrusting, and hypersensitive. Since I knew little about post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of war experiences and other traumas, I never considered it as a problem for me until I went to treatment. Therefore, I always turned to alcohol to calm my nerves and to keep me the jovial person I was meant to be instead of seeking the support of professionals, family, or close friends.

Unaware that my drinking had always failed me in solving my problems, I did not believe that it impaired my personal and professional judgment. My health suffered when I was diagnosed late in life with bipolar illness and took my lithium sporadically, often chugging it down with a drink. My self-medication with alcohol still allowed irrational fears, thoughts, and actions to control my life. As a result, I became very narcissistic so everything had to be done my way on my (often very fuzzy) timeline. Feeling abandoned by my wife and replaced by my children, I did not honor my marriage and family. Even though I “had it all”—four bright, loving children and a faithful, beautiful wife who tried desperately to smooth over my increasingly erratic public and private performances—I did not form healthy relationships within my family. Having had a higher than top-secret clearance, I became very secretive about my every action and absorbed all confidences as my personal secrets. I trusted no one.

Such dysfunctional behaviors spilled over into social relationships filled with ingratiating words and a sense of isolation. Although I prided myself on my open-mindedness and fairness, I was at first secretly and then openly critical and judgmental of others without taking responsibility for my actions. Mostly I lived in a world by myself, often in my head, with me as the center of my universe. Eventually, my anti-social personality emerged when societal norms such as following traffic laws, responding to phone calls, opening mail, and paying bills no longer applied to me. Without the structure of the navy plan of the day, which helped sustain me for 13 years, I lost direction and became engulfed in debt.

In addition, my PTSD symptoms (that I did not know that I had) were growing—emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, depression, and most significant, the re-experiencing of traumatic events as if I was there. When I suffered from alcoholic blackouts, I tried to smooth over things I did not remember by convincing others, who did not have as strong a memory as I, that their memories were incorrect. The truth was, however, that I was not handling the traumas very well. My behavior under the influence created major problems at home and at work. The illnesses of untreated alcoholism, PTSD, and bi-polar nearly killed me and almost caused me to lose my family.

Because I was deceiving myself and did not know it, I was in a desperate situation. Ed Ward’s belief that I was worth getting help steered me in the direction of a treatment center that provided me with confidence and a scholarship to tackle the enormous challenge of a 60-year-old man who should have been dead from the abuse he had inflicted upon himself. While there something wonderful happened. As I became increasingly exposed to the recovery community, I began to feel hope based on treatment modes, experiences of others, and the resurgence of personal power in sobriety. I also was reacquainted with everything from authenticity to financial responsibility. My health improved, my bipolar condition stabilized with my medication cut in half, and I regained the experience of having fun without substance interference. Perhaps one of the most important things I grew to understand and accept is that alcoholism and other substance abuse are diseases that can be treated with a number of approaches.

Separate from the treatment center, but a vital part of my recovery program, was my introduction and full participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Although I had attended several meetings with a disdainful approach before I went to treatment, each time I had assured myself that I did not belong there. This time, however, I welcomed the approach of open meetings with a variety of people full of gratitude for each sober day of their lives. They welcomed me into a 12-step program without pressure. Soon I had acquired a sponsor with the wisdom and experience of 27 years of sobriety. I found myself looking forward to meetings and eager to do service for the first time in many years. Mostly I felt free from the constraints of alcohol as I focused on recovery as a process one day at a time.

Another aspect of the treatment program was my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome. When I learned that PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation not necessarily restricted to combat, I began to explore the sources of my troubles. This experience led to counseling that continues to help me deal with intrusive, upsetting memories of events, flashbacks, nightmares, and intense distress with physical reactions to reminders of events (e.g., pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, and sweating). Because I am able to access more and more of the aspects of and feelings involved in the traumas, I no longer avoid all activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that may remind me of them. A resurgence of interest in activities and life in general; less isolation, detachment, and emotional numbness; and a more positive outlook on the future have been the result. Therefore, I sleep better and rarely suffer from irritability, anger, and rage outbursts, or jumpiness from being easily startled. Without constant hyper vigilance, I can concentrate on what is important and discern what is not.

Since treatment, all of my problems have not disappeared, but the recovery process has enabled me to deal with them in a much more mature, reasonable, and, when appropriate, collaborative manner. For instance, the effects of substance abuse, PTSD, and untreated mental illness on an individual and a family are devastating. “I am only hurting myself” is the most damaging delusion I ever had. Because I told myself that lie and believed it for so long, I will never fully know nor fully understand the extent of the damage I inflicted on my family. That we are reunited fills me with enormous gratitude. I try not to focus on the loss of time, but instead to concentrate on the present joy as I learn to help myself and to deal with others in a non-manipulative way. I work every day to be a kinder, more considerate, other-centered, honest, and empathetic person. If I feel that some symptoms may be returning, I have the tools to handle them, as well as the support of AA, my family, therapy, and the LAP. Most important, I have learned that constant vigilance is still required. Without doing my part, all the assistance in the world is useless.

As attorneys we are very fortunate to have the Lawyers Assistance Program to help guide us into and through this process of realization and recovery because self awareness is difficult when a person is under the influence of a substance. Because of this assistance, my life is no longer unmanageable. Since going to treatment in 2005, I am in recovery and work as a volunteer with the Lawyers Assistance Program. I am pleased to say that everything in my life is better and nothing is worse.

This article is written by a LAP participant and is presented anonymously in the spirit of 12-step programs. If you would like to communicate with the author, please email Don Carroll at nclap@bellsouth.net and he will forward your message. 

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers which helps lawyers address problems of stress, depression, addiction, or other problems that may lead to impairing a lawyer’s ability to practice. For more information, go to www.nclap.org or call toll-free: Don Carroll (1-800-720-7257), Towanda Garner (1-877-570-0991), or Ed Ward (1-877-627-3743). 

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