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A Recovery Story: An Honest Appraisal

The stories of fellow alcoholics are the fresh minted coins of survival. You pass yours to the next person in the hope he or she will see a gleam of their own life and find the treasure of recovery. This is the story of a woman PALS member offered anonymously in that tradition.  Call PALS at 1-800-720-PALS.

Seeing double while editing footnotes for a Bluebook exercise was troublesome. I was in my second semester of law school, and I knew my problem with alcohol had not been abated by the academic challenge. The intended one glass of wine before I started my homework turned into a bottle. I completed the exercise by closing one eye, squinting at the computer screen, and trying to bluff my way through. The Bluebook exercise was completed, but I never did write the article for Law Review; drinking was more important to me.

I started law school when I was 35. I had my public motives for attending law school, and the secret motives. Publicly I wanted to have greater career autonomy. Secretly I hoped I would become so immersed in law study, that I would not want to drink anymore. Only after I achieved some time in sobriety could I admit to myself the secret motives for pursuing a law degree. Those motives included getting even with anyone whoever slighted me in the past, I’d show them who was smarter; having socially desirable academic credentials in hopes that others would desire me, so I might start to like myself; and fleeing from a destructive romantic relationship.

My drinking had been a problem long before I enrolled in law school. I drank in high school and college, and had fun most of the time. I did drink more than my friends, and prided myself in my ability to hold my liquor. Marriage to a drinking companion was predictable. We partied hard with others who drank as much as we did. Like many women, I was in a relationship with a man who drank along with me. A marriage counselor was the first person who asked me if I thought I had a problem with alcohol. I answered as honestly as I could, “I don’t know.” I could see my husband’s drinking problem, but I could not yet admit my own. We agreed to divorce. I was simultaneously relieved to be freed from my impaired husband, and panicked because I was clueless over what I wanted to accomplish in my life.

For a brief period, I did controlled drinking. But within a few months, I was drinking on almost a daily basis. Slowly, I began to admit to myself that I had an alcohol problem.

I struggled with the competitive work world. On the outside I looked reasonably good, living life as a “functional” alcoholic. I was employed, had no debts, met my social obligations. On the inside I was wracked with fear. Fear that I really was not competent, fear that I would never measure up, fear that I would never have enough, of anything. My goal in life was to get whatever others had, plus some more for comfort. Envy and pride motivated all my decisions. I believed my access to the upper echelons of management were blocked because of either my ethnic background or my gender. I never imagined that my attitude was holding me back. Instead I blamed others.

Changing geography often seemed a surefire way to get ahead and leave my troubles behind. I moved on average every 18 months anywhere from 60 to 600 miles. I hoped that with each move, I would find happiness. With each move, the initial novelty of the place would wear off, and the hollowness of my relationships with others would become obvious. I did the only thing I knew to do, I drank more.

Self loathing and a feeling that I was significantly less than others developed. I knew I could not stop drinking once I started, so I usually drank alone. My circle of friends and acquaintances became significantly smaller.

The summer after my second year of law school, I had an argument with a family member. The dispute had nothing to do with alcohol, but everything to do with who I had become. I feared I had caused irrevocable harm to the relationship. I went on a binge and discovered I could barely get sober enough to get to my summer job. I feared my employer would fire me and I would suffer financial ruin.

I knew that Alcoholics Anonymous was successful for many problem drinkers. My father is a recovering alcoholic and has been continuously sober since I was two years old. I knew that AA worked for him. I had read Alcoholics Anonymous, while drunk, and it made little sense to me. Rather, I tried self help books, brief psychotherapy (during which I never revealed the extend of my drinking), changing jobs, changing relationships, changing my looks. None of these changed my alcohol problem. I was terrified that I was damaging my health. My hands shook most of the time, my face was bloated and I could not make eye contact with myself in the mirror. I reached a point where I was so low, thought so little of myself, that I did not care if I was labeled an alcoholic. I needed help. In desperation I turned to AA.

After attending AA for some time, I have learned to approach my life differently. AA has not taught me any tricks. AA has taught me that I have the disease of addiction. I react to situations and conditions in a predictable way. I am chiefly motivated by fear. In efforts to avoid dealing with my fear, I turn to alcohol, relationships, food, shopping, gambling, or some other compulsive behavior. Avoiding responsibility for my emotions has been a lifelong pattern for me. Left untreated, I will use all my cunning and skill to avoid confronting my fears. Working a recovery program, such as AA, was a new way to address the fears I had used alcohol to keep at bay.

Being in a recovery program means that I must be honest. Shortly after starting AA, I discovered three of my classmates “all women” were also self-admitted alcoholics. The first time I saw one of these classmates in an AA meeting, I barely contained my impulse to flee. She saw me across the room and smiled reassuringly. She talked with me for hours about how she was completing her law studies while working her recovery program. During my last year in law school, just seeing one of those classmates provided me with invaluable strength and support. After 11 months of sobriety, I encountered another honesty challenge. In applying to take the bar, I had to complete a character and fitness questionnaire. There was no record of me labeled as an alcoholic. I had not been admitted to any treatment centers, never had a DWI, never been diagnosed by a physician, never been dismissed from a job due to my alcohol problem. With much trepidation I answered the Bar Examiners’ questions honestly. Much to my surprise, the only response I received from the Bar was an introduction to the Bar’s attorney assistance program. The Bar Examiners sanctioned my practicing law, provided I pass the bar exam. Despite the physical damage I had inflicted upon my body, including my brain cells, I passed.

When I was a struggling new lawyer I again used the recovery principles of AA. Financial and competence fears were my daily companions. After much soul searching, praying, and consulting with trusted advisors, I decided to leave law practice and return to a former profession. Being sober gave me the chance to conduct an honest appraisal of my situation. When I was still drinking, my pride would prohibit me from quitting anything. Someday I may use my legal training, but today is not the day.

I do not know why AA works. Profound understanding and acceptance happens when one person suffering from an addiction reaches out to another addict. When I first started AA, I attended daily hour long meetings. Today, I attend meetings two or three times a week. Meetings are the medicine I use to treat my addiction. Each AA member must decide for herself how frequently she attends meetings, and what suggestions she will follow. During my first year of sobriety, I feared that my sponsor in AA would make unrealistic and absurd suggestions to me. My fears were unfounded. Each of the suggestions made to me by AA members have helped me develop objective and realistic expectations of my life’s challenges.

Today, I am content, my financial and competence fears are quieted. I try as I can to be of service to my fellow humans. I volunteer with PALS, because I hope to pass on, especially to others struggling alcoholic women lawyers, some of the hope that was so freely given to me.

Campbell Law Observer, Volume 20, Number 8

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