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Alcoholism: Designed For Lawyers

If I had to pick the quintessential malady to fit lawyers it would have to be alcoholism. No other affliction brings together the conditions under which law is practiced and the strengths lawyers have, and builds to such an extraordinary degree upon both the weaknesses of the profession and the strengths of those who are drawn to it.

We start with the conditions under which we practice.  Many of us were attracted to the combative nature of law practice.  But what may initially have seemed like the lofty pull of doing battle for the underdog, can easily become after ten, fifteen or twenty years an extraordinarily stressful environment, where we are constantly looking for others to make a mistake and they are diligently looking for us to slip. Any type of stressful situation, particularly situations of prolonged stress, brings uncomfortable emotional feelings.  Many lawyers learn simply to cut off their emotional feelings, they don’t consciously feel them, and the feelings are repressed in the psyche.  But whether the feelings are felt consciously or not, they are still there; as is the body’s urge to relieve itself of the stress of uncomfortable emotions.  In fact, the more repressed the unwanted feelings are, the stronger the unconscious need is to seek another way of feeling.

Alcohol works.  We learn from our first drink that uncomfortable emotional feelings can be changed by alcohol. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, but the initial effect of alcohol is to elevate the mood, to create an internal feeling of the release of tension. There are several different kinds of alcoholism: including, early onset alcoholism most common among lawyers whose fathers were also alcoholics, and late onset alcoholism, very common among middle age and older lawyers who manage their drinking.  It takes discipline to get through law school and most law students and lawyers, if they are not early onset alcoholics, are able to control their alcohol use by will power for some extended period of time, even after they have crossed the invisible line of addiction and their neurochemistry has changed to send a signal to the brain that alcohol is required.

Alcoholism is defined as a bio/psycho/social/spiritual disease. Alcoholism has certain biological aspects and psychological symptoms with both of these being affected by our social and cultural mores.   Some of these aspects have a chicken and egg quality.  It is hard to tell whether the personality originally had the predisposition of certain alcoholic traits or the traits became a part of the personality after drinking became alcoholic.  Because alcoholism is such a dynamic disease the answer is probably both.  Suffice it to say that whether they were personality traits that predisposed the alcoholism or the results of drinking alcohol, several key personality characteristics of the alcoholic that serve a lawyer so well are the need to control and perfectionism.  It is the nature of the alcoholic ego to try to reach beyond its bounds and control other people, places and things. Such grandiosity can get a lot done and also can create a lot of frustration that needs alcohol to soothe it. Alcoholic lawyers often have incredibly high expectations of themselves and what they should be accomplishing on behalf of their clients.  Alcoholic lawyers have a very hard time losing.  Alcoholic lawyers are often over sensitive.  This is a great source of resentment that can fuel the anger necessary to keep litigation going to wear down the other side.  The phenomenon often talked about these days in programs on professionalism of the rambo lawyer is usually a fine example of the alcoholic personality that runs on anger.  Finally, alcoholic lawyers usually don’t think of themselves as having any of these characteristics, because their own ability to accurately see their own lives is itself impaired by the disease.

At some point the emotional burden of resentment and anger that is expressed in the alcoholic lawyer’s work can only be relieved by having a drink and in fact getting that drink at the end of the day can itself become an obsession.

There is a part of the make-up of most lawyers that could be described as the natural philosopher.  To some extent it is a reflection of both our control needs and our natural curiosity — we want to know what the connections are, we want to control by understanding. One of my best law schoolteachers, who saw law as a service profession, always stressed knowing the facts.  He often admonished that it wasn’t the lawyer who knew the law best, but the lawyer who knew more of the facts, who would ultimately prevail.  Most lawyers have this yearning to understand.  Dr. Dwayne Book, speaking at last year’s FRIENDS Conference, defined spirituality as the process of connection; connection to self, to others and to something beyond and greater than the self.  Many lawyers are interested in finding a connection to a deeper meaning in their lives.  Dr. Carl Jung in his famous letter to Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders, noted that the alcoholic engaged in a misplaced effort to get that connection from a bottle of spirits when he really was longing for a spiritual connection to life.  Most lawyers I know would like to have a connection to what gives life vitality and real meaning i.e. a spiritual connection.  Alcohol offers the lure of providing that connection, albeit a lure that becomes more and more illusory, and finally a complete block.

One of the most striking things in reading about the founding of Alcoholic Anonymous is the fortuity of how several different things came together to provide a formula that could address what up to that time had proven un-addressable a chronic, progressive and (if not arrested) fatal disease of the body, mind and spirit.

Dr. William Silkworth, a pioneer in studying alcoholism, was one of the first physicians to deduce from his study of alcoholics, what would thereafter seem obvious, that alcoholism was a disease two-fold in nature: that it was both a physical allergy and a mental obsession.  As the craving, the physical allergy for alcohol — be it a pattern of daily evening drinking, weekend binges, or episodic drunkenness — becomes more and more ingrained, the mental obsession or delusion drives the person to believe that, despite the often severe consequences of the last drinking episode, no harm will be done by the next drink.  Dr. Silkworth understood that the two primary protectors of health, reason and will, were of no use against this disease.  He shared what he had learned with his patient Bill Wilson.

William James, a Harvard professor, whose younger brother Bob was an alcoholic, undertook a cross cultural study of individuals who had undergone profound psychic changes.  His book The Varieties of Religious Experience describes his research.  What he found was that opportunity for profound psychic change was in fact a crucial part of the cultural life of many different peoples scattered throughout the world and that there were common attributes to this change.  Bill Wilson recognized that the profound type of change described by James was in fact the huge emotional displacement and rearrangement that Jung believed was the only possible chance of recovery for Roland Hazard, an alcoholic he had treated continuously for over a year without success. Somehow a disease that had remained untreatable for centuries, because it generated in the mind self deceptive thinking at the same time it created craving in the body, became treatable because of its very mind-body pervasiveness.  The possibility of profound psychological/spiritual change, what Dr. Jung had speculated was the only hope, offered a solution. And, as they say, the rest is history.  Dr. Jung directed Roland Hazard to the Oxford Group, a religious group experimenting with a practical way to incorporate the opportunity for the profound changes to occur William James surveyed in his study.  Hazard told Ebby Thatcher about the ideas of the Oxford Group who in turn related them to Bill Wilson.   As Bill Wilson well knew, most alcoholics were mad at everyone, including God, and from its very beginning AA eliminated all religious trappings from the spiritual wisdom that underlies it.

Bill Wilson, a stockbroker and Dr. Robert Smith, a physician, were the co-founders of AA.  The third AA member was a lawyer. What AA offers is not for everyone who needs it, but for those who want it. Almost every alcoholic lawyer I know would initially rather have pursued any other alternative, he or she could find, to twelve-step recovery.  One does not easily bend to the idea of undergoing profound change, even one that provides a release from feelings of guilt and depression and a joy associated with a renewed appreciation for the value of life.  But just as the disease of alcoholism suits lawyers, so does recovery.  One of the profound changes of recovery is that personal selfish desires become placed in a more subservient role.  The alcoholic begins to live life in a manner in which thoughts are centered not on what one can get out of life, but on what one can give to others.  Sounds like what my old professor, who stressed knowing all the facts, said this profession was all about.  Alcoholism may be a disease designed for lawyers but so is recovery from it.

– by Don Carroll

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