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The Addictive Personality and the Legal Profession

One of the questions I get asked over and over in meetings with local bars across the state is, “Are lawyers really that much more likely to become alcoholics or drug addicts?” Or, said another way, are lawyers more apt than others to contract addictive disease? The statistics for the general population reflect that approximately 10% of the population is or will be afflicted with alcoholism or other chemical dependency disease. Statistical evidence among the legal profession indicates that as many as 18-20% of us will suffer from some type of chemical dependency addictive disease during our years of practice.

Is there a kind of personality that is more likely than not to become addicted? If so, what is the nature of the addictive personality? Is there more than one type of addictive personality? If so, what addictive personality types are drawn to the legal profession?

In the psychological and medical literature, there is considerable controversy about whether there is such a thing as an addictive personality separate and apart from the neurophysiology that makes up the addictive disease of chemical dependency. There are basic physiological differences between chemically dependent addictions and other addictions, which do not involve the use of a mood-altering substance, such as gambling or sex addictions. While the physiological differences set chemical dependency disease apart from other addictive disease, there is also much overlap. Recent research suggests that the addictive personality is not just a psychological concept or psychological component of a physical disease, but relates to ways in which the limbic system of the mid-brain operates differently for addictive individuals. Bottom line, the evidence indicates there is such a thing as the addictive personality.

Does the practice of law draw to it particular personality types which may be more prone to addiction, both in the sense of chemical dependency as well as the broader sense of nonchemical addictions? In talking about personality types it is important to understand that we all have many ways of being. But often one or two particular ways of being and interacting with the external world tend to dominate. For example we all tend to be either introverts or extroverts, but there are times when the extrovert can be very introverted and vice versa. In addiction to such things as introversion or extroversion, psychology has been able to describe and classify in a logical and systematic way predominate ways of being—what we call personalities.

We know that a certain type of personality tends to be drawn to being a jet pilot, another different type to nursing or teaching, and correspondingly we also find that certain personality types are drawn to law. I would like to focus on two particular types that are drawn to law and look at the nature of these types to ascertain their susceptibility to addictive personality traits.

These two are the romantic-idealist personality and the judge personality. I choose these two because of their relation to law. Law is a profession of ideals, of concepts that have supremacy, one over the other. Law is also a profession of discrimination, where the ability to judge and weigh differences, and to do that well and fairly, are at the heart of our legal system.

Lawyers are often drawn into the profession by their longing to help bring about justice, to help affect a vision of an ideal world. As one grows he or she develops a personal vision of how life ought to be. A person incorporates family beliefs and ways of living, ideas from the history of our country, from one’s religion and from our culture generally to develop this personal ideal vision. This is an absolutely essential task of maturing. But as the psyche develops most people are also able to come to terms with holding both an ideal vision and also living fully in a real world with all its not so ideal problems. For the romantic-idealist the desire to live in his ideal world is more urgent and may in fact possess his life, reducing ordinary existence to the futility of insatiable longing. When this occurs the romanticized ideal has become an addiction.

This romantic aspect is not just a powerful personal aspect of our psyches, but it’s also a strong force in our culture. We romanticize the lives of pop stars and athletes; and it is big business to get young kids to pay to watch young men and women act out on stage in song and dramatic appearance the pain of their own insatiable addictive longing. The widespread use of addictive chemicals by these individuals is no coincidence. The language of these addict pop stars is either overly romantic; or, having given into the futility of their overly romanticized views, the opposite, nihilistic and cynical.

What happens to these young pop stars also happens to young lawyers in their attitude about the profession. If their personalities are dominated by an overly idealistic view of what the law can achieve, they inevitably become frustrated with their careers as lawyers because the romantically longed for ideal is never achieved. When this happens romanticism degenerates into a cynical life-denying resentment. The addictive romantic then refuses to live in the tension of the real human world and must find escape in some chemical or other addictive behavior. The romantic idealist tends to have a very acute sensitive feeling for life. He often feels the weight of injustice in a profound way. These wonderful caring characteristics become addictive when the romantic-idealistic becomes inflated, feels that he or she brings justice or that he or she is personally responsible for what happens to a client. Then the desire to achieve the ideal becomes obsessive-compulsive. And inevitably this overly responsible side of the personality, this high achieving going-for-the-ideal notion of who one is as a lawyer must have some compensation, must be freed in some way. Drinking alcohol enables the romantic to forget all about all of the burdens, tensions and responsibilities he has taken on in his idealistic quest. And not only does drinking provide this instinctual kind of relief, it also provides the feeling of ecstasy, of union and completion, the hoped for fulfillment that seems to lie behind the idealistic drive.

One may not be able to create justice in one’s day-to-day practice, but at least one can achieve union with the divine ideal for a few fleeting moments in the euphoria of alcohol or drugs. If one is caught in the romantic illusion, if one is burned out on law, one must find a way to escape from the cynicism and resentment that represent the romantic’s acute disappointment with life. Life is then bearable only through the regular use of some mood altering chemical or other addictive behavior.

The irony then for the romantic-idealist is that his most positive aspect, his drive to create good, to make things better, often felt as a desire to perform perfectly, will unless transformed set him or her up for addiction. The extra generous gift that the romantic idealist has of sensitivity and desire to do good gives this person a greater likelihood of having an addictive personality. In chemical addiction the mood altering substance always becomes the end to which all else is sacrificed. In nonchemical addictive romantic-idealism, the corresponding substance is the passion to merge with the ideal as in sexual addiction. Addicts in giving themselves over to alcohol, drugs, power or idealism are trying to escape the conflicts and tensions of life. They are unable to live in the tension, the paradox of opposites that is the human condition. The addict’s tendency is to live in the extremes: either idealism and perfection or despair and cynicism.

The addicted romantic fails to endure and suffer the tension of the need for an ideal vision even in an imperfect human existence. The addiction of the romantic idealist is really an expression of our desire for divine justice. Only when this desire is understood symbolically, when one can understand one’s own powerlessness in achieving this goal, can the addiction be transformed. When the romantic is able to endure the tension of his ideals in the real world without succumbing to a chemical substitute then he or she will make an enormously creative and important contribution to the profession.

Let us look next at another personality type, that of the judge. Classic literature distills and crystallizes certain human characteristics. One of the most effective portraits of the judge-type is found in Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Death of Ivan Lllych. The story of Ivan Illych illustrates a rigid self-justifying personality who when confronted with a trauma in his own life hopes that the pressures and routines of going to court will destroy his own personal pain. He struggles mightily to deny and to protest his “sickness.” Transformation in the story comes when he descends into the abyss of his own suffering, experiences his own powerlessness and vulnerability and surrenders to the mystery of his suffering as a human being. In this way he lets go of the rigid internal judge that controls his personality.

We see a similar judge figure in Camus’s The Fall. In this story we encounter the judge, Jean-Bapiste Clamence, who wants to look good and be above it all. He has a perfect personality, a proper appearance, and a charming manner. All of which tend to hide his arrogance and his judgment of all others as inferior, particularly women. He happens to pass by a woman who appears to be committing suicide by drowning. Hurrying on in a self-righteous manner he rejects the opportunity to assist her, to seek to prevent her suicide. As time passes he becomes haunted by his failure to reach out to help another human being. He strives to avoid judgment of himself by judging others first. In so doing he avoids his own guilt by trying to make others feel guiltier.

In Camus’s story, since the judge neither believes in love nor forgiveness, there is never any transformation or redemption. In the end of the story there is a suggestion that Clamence understands that if he had a second chance he would have acted differently, but for him a second chance is too risky. A second chance would allow for the possibility of loss of control. While painting a rather dark picture, this story shows clearly the denied transformational resource in the personality, the inability to feel sufficiently to help the woman on the brink of suicide. Later it is compounded by Clamence’s ongoing failure to act upon his recognition of his inability to reach out to this woman. Clamence’s story has an exact parallel among alcoholics and other chemical dependents who die from their disease. These individuals rationally understand they are drinking themselves to death. But they are unable to give up their rigid control, to have hope, to accept the risk that help must come from outside of themselves. Even though an alcoholic’s life is obviously out of control, the rigid inability to accept this and give up the illusion of personal control makes death from chemical dependence disease inevitable, a tragic end like Clamence’s.

In portraying Clamence’s negative attitude toward women, Camus is using the symbol of woman as representative of certain characteristics that are not gender specific but are found in everyone. Clamence cannot treat this woman with equity. It is the judge’s inability to access the part of his personality which would show mercy that allows the rigid controlling judge aspect of the personality to dominate his life in an addictive fashion. To surrender, to admit one’s powerlessness is ultimately a devotional, spiritual act.

The judge in Camus’s novel was never able to surrender to his own vulnerability and powerlessness in the human relational aspects of his life. For Ivan Illych his surrender to his equitable aspect (to use the metaphor of our profession) accounts for his transformation and what allows for the legal and equitable qualities in him to come to exist in a healthy pattern. Dr. Ted Clark, one of North Carolina’s pioneers in treating chemical dependency says, “If there is any hallmark of the addictive personality, it is in the area of doing things to excess or not at all.” The judge addictive personality is one in which the legal qualities of judging are not informed by equitable qualities of humanness. The personality of Clamence is at an extreme all legal qualities of objectivity, discrimination and critical perception. These are all wonderful and necessary qualities for a judge, but may form a rigid overcontrolling personality when lacking the normal counterbalancing equitable qualities. What this suggests is that an individual whose personality qualities are either all legal or all equitable may become an addictive personality.

In the practice of law and in the task of judgment, the legal qualities of discrimination, to ascertain what the facts are, is extremely important; but in making those judgments equitable aspects are necessary for justice to be achieved. This process can perhaps best be seen in the central image of our profession, that of justice. Our symbol for justice may also be seen as a symbol for wholeness of personality. Interestingly, justice is personified as a feminine figure, as Athena, the goddess of justice. She is often depicted as a statue of a seated woman sitting in a hall of justice or as a statue atop the courthouse. We see this in the Henderson County courthouse where Athena, symbolizing justice, literally stands over all the legal proceedings that occur below. Athena in her right hand holds a large unsheathed sword. This sword symbolizes the quality of differentiation, of being able to cut away fiction from fact. In her left hand she holds the scales of justice, two pans connected by a horizontal rod. This imagery suggests openness to the duality of the human condition, both our spiritual and material existence. In Camus’s story Clamence was not able to balance the material need of the woman against his own spiritual emptiness. In other words the intuitive wisdom that holds the two pans, that balances them together is equitable in nature, more a discrimination of feeling rather than discrimination of thought. Both qualities must be accessed for justice to be done. A judge must do equity as well as follow the law.

This symbol of the legal profession also suggests what are the qualities of personality necessary for the judge dominated addictive personality to be transformed. For wholeness of personality as well as for justice to be served, Athena suggests the way out. Addiction by the judge dominated personality is manifest in the need to control, to control others, to control all aspects of his or her life. In order to accept his or her own humanity, the naked sword can be seen as representing the way to cut through denial, the illusion of control and the false images given by addiction. The legal weapon of discrimination is needed to meet life responsibly and the sword implies the necessity of sacrifice for this to occur. Indeed for recovery to occur the alcoholic must sacrifice dependency on the mood-altering substance that controls his or her life. The judge personality must sacrifice the need to control; for the romantic-idealist unconscious innocence must be sacrificed. The burden of judgment is the assumption of responsibility for the good and evil that one causes in one’s life. One no longer blames others.

This attitude of projecting blame on others that the addictive person is so apt at, seeing the devil in one’s parent, spouse or law partner, falls when one sees the beam in one’s own eye. To do this one must face one’s own human vulnerability. This means sacrificing an idealized image of one’s self as always right or virtuous. It is the sword that symbolizes this discrimination and sacrifice. The central truth of the addict’s life is the necessity of putting sobriety first. But the addict who only acts out the imagery of this one part of the symbol of justice is often referred to as the dry drunk. Real sobriety occurs when the attitude of the receptivity and flexibility of the scales is also incorporated into the personality. The cups of the scales receive and weigh the experiences of life, and this quality of balancing is where new ways of being and understanding are created.

The task for us as lawyers is to be able to relate to the personality of the judge within us all in a way that prevents our judge aspect from being a tyrant. As a profession we are no doubt drawn from the judging personality type more strongly than other groups. The healthy part of this aspect is central to the greatness of the profession, but its dominance of the personality is also an open door to addiction. This great open doorway is the potential for involving us in addictive behavior, whether nonchemical addictive behavior such as gambling addiction, sex addiction, workaholism; or a chemically based addictive behavior such as alcohol, amphetamine or cocaine use. When only part of the qualities of the figure of justice are present in the judging portion of the personality, the possibility of addiction may be overwhelming. For us then the key to keeping all of the qualities seen in the image of justice in our lives is the balancing of justice’s legal and equitable qualities and a willingness to surrender to our universal human condition.

One of the most interesting aspects of the figure of justice atop the Henderson County Courthouse is that, unlike most representations of justice, she is not blindfolded. What this suggests is very important to us as a profession. Her unobstructed vision suggests that individually and as a profession we are now able to have awareness of these different aspects of justice and of our own personalities. We are able to be conscious of who and what we are. Without consciousness one is doomed to be controlled by the addiction’s obsession. If you tend to have a romantic-idealist or a judging personality, I hope you will be proud of the positive aspects of these personality types, and truly appreciate the gifts contained in them. At the same time, be aware of the greater possibility of addictive disease should one of these ways of being come to dominate, understanding that addictive disease is not always confined to its most insidious and lethal aspects chemically dependent addictive disease.

One final caveat in understanding the danger to the quality of one’s life from the addictive personality one begins to think in psychological terms. A risk is that one will then think that the most effective treatment for addiction is psychological. It is not. Psychological theories and neuropharmachology offer ways to understand the risk to becoming addicted, how the onset of addiction occurs in the brain, and the nature of addiction. These theories help explain what is happening. Understanding these theories when there is a tendency toward addiction in the personality is a way to avoid addiction before it occurs, not a way to treat it once there is the onset of addiction. Because addiction is a brain disease and is characterized by distorted thinking, treatment modalities which would rely primarily on psychological cognitive methods are inherently flawed. Such approaches often amount to little more than spreading germs, rather than an antibiotic, on an open cut. This seems to be especially true for those persons who become chemically addicted, perhaps because of the particularly powerful way in which the ingested chemicals affect the limbic system in the brain and distort the thinking process. It is readily understandable then that the most effective treatment programs for chemical addiction are not based on thinking or cognitive understanding. The most effective treatment for chemical dependency is based upon principles of action found in the model of recovery developed sixty years ago in Alcoholics Anonymous.

– by Don Carroll

From, The North Carolina State Bar Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring 1996

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