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Eyes on the Prize

I’m 10 years old and just won enough money performing in a group at a talent show to buy the toy I’d had my eye on for months. This is how the story of my first regret begins. The show, put on by my religious community, was aimed at raising money for a capital project. Others in my performance group decided to donate their winnings back to the capital project, and I was in a pickle. I wanted that toy so badly, but I wanted to look good in front others even more. My brother, who was also in our winning group, pulled me aside and told me I’d regret it if I donated the money. Sure, it was a nice thing to do, but he knew I had plans for the winnings. He had plans, too, and he was going to keep his money. But for me, image was everything. So I donated my winnings and later that month I stole my brother’s money and bought the toy I wanted.

That was me dead sober — two years before I would have my first drink.

Sometimes it feels easy to blame the shameful things in my life on alcohol – I am an alcoholic, after all. But the truth is, I was trying to run the show to look good and get exactly what I wanted since way before alcohol entered my life. It’s important for me to remember that, because as hard as it was to stop drinking, the only way for me to stay stopped is if I treat the root of my problem – me and my selfish and self-centered tendencies.

By the time I arrived at the foot of the twelve steps – 24 years after that talent show — I was a daily drinker. I needed the morning drink and I needed to continue drinking throughout the day. I was putting a fifth of vodka inside me every day and had been for the better part of 10 years. And the only reason I sought help when I did was because the trouble got too big and the people at home had become too angry. I wasn’t ready to stop. I was no more willing to put the drink away than I was ready to stop trying to control everything in my life. That’s why my twelve-step recovery journey included five years of stumbling over the first step.

Those five years of relapse were like hell. It was a repeating pattern of keeping away from a drink, watching work and relationships slightly improve, and then going out to celebrate that improvement with a drink – or worse, going out to the bar because the improvement didn’t fill the emptiness I felt inside. The partners at my law firm didn’t know what to do with me. One month I was the model associate. Then came months or years where I was an unreliable and untrustworthy drain on the practice. Improvement was better than consequences, sure, but people being a little happier with me at home and at work was never enough to fill the emptiness inside. It didn’t change the crazy in my head or that nagging feeling that life simply didn’t feel worth living.

As I think back, I realize that the DWIs, eventually getting fired, and even the dissolution of my marriage were never the heaviest tolls on me. The heaviest toll was the feeling that life was a burden to me, and I was a burden on others. Unlike the jarring, acute consequences that happen and slowly dissipate, the heaviest toll feels like a slow burn that will never go away.

I eventually went to treatment and, as I was leaving, got connected with LAP. I started going to the Monday night meetings in Raleigh and signed a contract for monitoring and testing. There were plenty of supports put into place, and plenty of accountability measures. But I was still trying to figure out how to stay sober using my brain, trying to control all the pieces in my life. That never worked for very long, so predictably I went back to the only place I could find a little bit of relief – even if it was momentary. I now was having to work overtime trying to control all the pieces of my life. I’d stay sober Mondays until after the LAP meeting and then go on a bender that lasted until Thursday. And I’d try to time the system that flagged me once or twice a month for urine testing. Most times, I had the pattern figured out and was able to stop drinking for four days prior to testing. That ensured a clean result. Some days, the system threw me a curve ball and I’d get flagged for testing while I was still drinking. So I’d drink a ton of water because I knew I could make the test come back “diluted” – “diluted” isn’t a clean test, but it’s better than failing. It meant I was too hydrated at the time of the test and that bought me three days to sober up before I had to test again.

It was a chaotic existence trying to manage all of that, while managing work and hiding my drinking from family and figuring out how to show up for my kids – if at all.

If I’m honest, I think I had the energy to keep doing that for many more years if that was required. Lawyers have an incredible capacity for enduring stress and chaos. But I was becoming disillusioned with the futility of brief relief from a drink – a relief that either gave way to depression after too many or regret the next morning. My bottom came in the spring of 2017. It was the night of my second DWI, which came almost five years to the day of my first. I realized that nothing had changed in my life. Five years had passed, and they felt wasted because I had absolutely nothing good to show for them. My life was slipping away, and I truly was living just to drink. Every ounce of strategy and intellectual study I had mustered didn’t get me sober and couldn’t make me happy. I was defeated. And in that moment of clarity, I realized I could never “will” myself into sobriety or happiness. The only people who drank like me that I saw actually look and feel and live better, were alcoholics who showed up, surrendered, listened and worked the twelve steps.

I decided to tell myself to shut up every single time I thought I knew something, and I worked with a sponsor who took me through the steps in a matter of months. I fellowshipped and hit meetings – I grew to love spending time with friends in my twelve-step program, as well as LAP. People say all the time that if an alcoholic or addict drinks or drugs, they could die. And that’s true. But when I say that my life depended on working the twelve steps, I mean that my shot at living any kind of life worth living depended on it. It wasn’t until I had a spiritual experience as the result of working the steps that I understood what it truly meant to live. What it meant to have peace. What it meant to feel useful. What it meant to experience self-esteem by doing estimable things.

Today, I am sober and happy at the same time, a miracle I never thought could happen. And it’s a magical feeling. It’s incredible how things that used to feel small or frivolous are some of the most gratifying parts of my life. That feeling of usefulness sustains me, and the ability to show up for others is a constant source of gratitude. All that time that I spent in LAP pretending to be sober and dodging urine testing – I was so busy covering the tracks behind me that I didn’t see the set of steps laid out before me. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have found a recovery community, a special fellowship who not only understood how hard it is to live in self, but also the unique challenges of doing that as a lawyer. There’s a special comradery that exists among us in LAP. I’m grateful – for my sobriety, for LAP, and for all of you who are leading the way for law students, lawyers, and judges who need help like I did.

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