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Recovery Success Stories

Jim, California

To almost any outside observer in 1980, I was sitting on top of the world.  Maybe not a very big world, but one that a lot of us know.  I was 28 years old, a very successful solo practitioner with a practice growing beyond my wildest dreams, and a “hometown boy” to boot.  Single, living in a beautiful new home, and driving a 450 SL Mercedes, I had money in the bank, clients knocking on my door, and all the external trappings of a successful young professional.  On the inside, however, things were different.  I felt lonely in a crowd much of the time. I felt like the roll was being called somewhere I was supposed to be, but I was in the wrong place trying to maintain control of a world I did not create. I wished I could let someone know how I felt, but what would that person think?  I concluded that I was just missing something, something I would find and add to my life to be complete.

Now it is more than ten years later; a beautiful day outside threatens to distract me from putting words to my story, my life.  But a man who helped to save my life says I might help others by doing so.  “Pass it on,” he reminds me.  The roll is being called again here and now.  The problem with “before and after” pictures is that they do not communicate the intense experiences in between, the essence of life.  My own “after” photo would show a little less hair and a few more lines and wrinkles.  I would not show the pain accompanying the loss of what I had including my license to practice law.  It would not show my struggle for self-respect once I was stripped, in a very public and humiliating way, of those external trappings I mentioned.  For that matter, neither would it show the joy and childlike happiness coming with freedom from addiction, nor the soul-deep assurance that I no longer have to drink or use any mood- or mind-altering chemicals to feel OK about myself and the world.  I am the only one who can tell this story from the inside out.

It has now been more than five years since I got sober, 60-plus months since I hesitantly stepped into a treatment center for drug and alcohol dependence.  I was not pleased to be there.  By December 1984, my life was a shambles – personally, professionally, financially, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and in any other way one might gauge oneself.  I was morally bankrupt.  I was financially bankrupt.  I had no future.  My future was behind me.  I was also more frightened than I had ever been in my life because I knew if I was to continue to draw breath, it would have to be sober breath.  I was pretty sure that was impossible.

After all, I was a smart guy.  I looked around at the people present and immediately perceived that they were not nearly as intelligent as me.  If I had not been able to figure out how to stop, how to keep the numberless promises I had made to myself and others, what could these people have to offer me?  I would just have to die this way, and the only prayer I knew asked for it to happen soon.  Indeed, there were times when the hope of dying used to keep me alive.

It sounds unbelievable, but even then I still did not have a clue what was really wrong.  I did not regard drugs and alcohol as the problem; my life was the problem, and drugs and alcohol were the solution.  The damn thing was that even they had stopped working for me.  Still, the only time I felt worse than when drinking or using was when I wasn’t.  Everything else in my life had become relatively unimportant compared to finding something to shut off the bewildering pain of my existence.

I know now that I was and am an alcoholic.  Not only was I addicted to alcohol, I was addicted to cocaine, marijuana, and anything else that would sufficiently alter reality for me.  Of all these, alcohol is the most sinister because it is so sneaky and slow.  It is also such a mainstay in our culture that its acceptance provides a cover behind which most alcoholics breed a strain of denial immune from almost all known forms of attack.  I say “almost” because of my own personal experience.

We have a saying in recovery – “You can’t con a con, and an alcoholic can’t con another alcoholic.”  Those other people showed me our sameness.  They did it by talking as openly and honestly as their humanness would allow, about themselves and their experiences in life.  The ones who had been clean and sober for some time told me what sobriety was like for them.  It was better than my life, and I came to want what they had.  However, I couldn’t buy it; I had to abstain and I had to change almost everything about me.  I had to be willing to grow up and out of myself (at over 30 years of age).  I had to be willing to face up to my past with honesty and courage, and I had to do it every day for the rest of my life.  Happily, our lives only come one day at a time.

I learned that I was not a bad or weak person.  I was simply dealing with something I couldn’t control.  My alcoholism had been accelerated greatly by “cocainism.”  This alluring powder, which had at first made me everything I wanted to be and wasn’t, is one of the most addictive and dangerous substances known to man – the only one, in fact, that laboratory animals will self-ingest until death.  I did not know that when I started.  We all know it now, yet it continues to be one of the most frequently abused of all drugs.  Is it because users are stupid?  No. It is because cocaine makes addicts out of users.  It lies to them and tells them they are different.  “You won’t lie, cheat, steal, or die a horrible and premature death.”  But you will, unless you recover.  For the alcoholic/addict there are only those two choices; it’s just that simple.

I have now found what I had been looking for so desperately in 1980.  It did not come in a baggie, pill bottle, gin bottle, or beer can, but it got me where I am today.  It was letting people know how I feel.  Understanding that life is to be lived on its own terms – that is reality.  Knowing that we are all pretty much alike, and that I can do what others have done, finally fixed some of my internal trappings, and I am grateful to be here.

If anyone reading this understands these feelings or relates to this story, or if you or anyone you know is depending on drugs (including alcohol) to cope with life, know that it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you are suffering, get help.  If you know someone who is suffering, insist they get help.  You may save more than a career.  Lives are at stake.

With the advent of the women’s movement, public drinking by women became more popular, as did the development of drinking patterns similar to those of men.  It has, however, been proved that the disease of alcoholism progresses faster in women than men due to certain physiological differences.  Aside from the speed of progression of the disease, the following story by a female lawyer could just as easily describe a man’s drinking and recovery experience.

A Woman’s Fight With Alcohol – Kathleen, Chicago

In New England, where I grew up, I seldom saw anybody drink alcohol.  We lived in a picture-book town with houses dating back to the 1700s, lush countryside dotted with lovely lakes, and scenic mountains.  My father was the minister of the Protestant church and my mother taught in the local grade school.  I enjoyed school and had many friends.  I mention this because it is a common misconception that one must come from a so-called “dysfunctional family” to develop the disease of alcoholism.  This is not true.  People from good backgrounds who consider themselves generally satisfied with life can develop this disease.  Because alcoholism results from a biological defect in the way an individual processes alcohol, it can develop in anyone with a certain genetic predisposition.  I believe I was born with a body that processes alcohol differently from a normal drinker’s.  I believe this in part because my siblings, who have had vastly different experiences in their adult lives, were diagnosed as alcoholics within one year of my diagnosis.

In the mid-1960s I first tasted alcohol.  At a college party I asked a friend if I could have some of his gin.  I asked how much would get me drunk, and he marked off a hefty portion on the bottle and showed me how to mix it with a soft drink.  The soft drink made it sweet, and I didn’t think I could drink enough if I kept missing it, so I poured the gin into a glass and drank it straight.  I liked the flavor and drank rapidly with no difficulty.

The very first night I drank, I experienced many signs of things to come.  I could not remember portions of the evening.  I now believe that blackouts are an almost certain indication of alcoholism.  I apparently had the capacity to consume large quantities of alcohol.  I know now that many alcoholics are able to drink greater quantities and to actually hold their liquor better than non-alcoholics.  I suffered a tremendous hangover and vowed not to put myself through such misery again.  Unfortunately, broken vows of abstinence characterized my 20 years of drinking.  I would frequently awaken at night with what I describe as “cottonmouth” and a splitting headache, and I would go through the house and pour all the alcohol down the sink.  Somehow, though, I would find myself writing “wine” on the shopping list the next day.

As a criminal defense attorney with a solo practice, I have represented many alcoholics.  It was always easy for me to distinguish myself from my poor unfortunate clients.  I believed that they were alcoholics because they drank for the wrong reasons.  I had heard that alcoholics drank to hide from pain, escape from their emotions, or cover their inadequacies.  I considered myself upbeat, and I drank to celebrate life’s little victories.  I was a respected and accomplished lawyer, so I had victories to celebrate.  For many years, I avoided drinking over painful experiences, believing that this would prevent me from developing the disease of alcoholism.  In the end, I drank for good reasons, for bad reasons, and mostly, for no particular reason at all.  As my disease slowly crept up on me, I found myself drinking when I had no particular desire to do so.  The way I thought of it was that it was simply time to have another drink.  I now know that this is probably fairly accurate, since I was becoming physiologically addicted to the substance, and it was indeed time for my body to take in its next dose.

I began to develop physical symptoms of alcoholism without recognizing the source of my problems.  I suffered from chronic insomnia that I attributed to my stressful career.  I would awaken at night in a cold sweat, sheets drenched and mouth parched.  I would toss and turn, unable to stop thinking about cases and clients.  I would watch TV in the middle of the night, trying to lull myself back to sleep.  I would doze again for an hour or so, then drag myself out of bed, exhausted before my day had even begun.  Much to my surprise, the insomnia has stopped completely since I no longer drink.  I began to develop a bloated and puffy appearance.  I was retaining fluids and did not know why.  I had chronic digestive upset.  I developed the art of applying eye makeup by looking only at the circumference, so that I could avoid seeing the yellowing bloodshot eyes that looked back from the mirror.  I never developed the habit of taking drinks in the morning, nor of drinking during the workday, but I suffered tremendous hangovers that lasted until noon.  I did not call them “hangovers,” or I would have had to acknowledge a possible alcohol problem.  I told myself I felt a little rocky.  I would tell myself I would not drink that night, but almost always I would begin drinking again at the end of the day.  I often drank until I passed out.  I renamed it “dozing.”

About six months before I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, I found myself calling my doctor and asking her whether she might consider prescribing Antabuse to help curb my drinking.  I told her that I used to quit drinking whenever I wanted, but that lately I didn’t seem to be able to stop.  For some reason I did not recognize this call for help as any clue that I might be an alcoholic.  It is impossible for me to understand now how I could have missed the obvious signs, but I believe that denial is so deeply rooted that an addicted person will be the last to see the problem.  This ensures that the person will continue to feed the addiction, which is, after all, what a physiologically addicted person needs to keep doing.

At the end of my drinking career, I was still able to practice law, but I made a bad career move.  I am sure that the decision to join forces with another practicing alcoholic attorney was no coincidence.  The combination was totally unworkable.  I knew I did not want to become as “bad” as he was.  One night I found myself drinking a beer and telling myself that I was already drunk, so why finish it?  I had a brief blackout, then found myself at the refrigerator reaching for another.  I was drinking compulsively.  The next morning I was unable to read even the Sunday funnies.  I made another one of my repeated vows to quit.  By chance, that was my last drinking bout.

Two weeks later, my iron-willed decision still with me, I clearly recognized my disastrous career move, and I quit the law office.  With no practice, alone in a new city, I was desperate and panicky.  I called an old friend who suggested I go to an AA meeting.  I told him I’d try anything, but that since I was not an alcoholic, it didn’t seem the right place.  After all, I had quit drinking on my own (yet again).  He said that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking and that the people there would help reinforce my decision.

The next morning I called AA and was guided to my first meeting.  I was told to ignore all the “soupy God talk” and just take advantage of the parts I found helpful.  I have more or less been doing that ever since.  My favorite AA meeting begins and ends with no prayers and is attended by the most colorful mixture of malcontents, geniuses, and idiots with whom I have ever had the pleasure to associate.  Every one has said something that has helped me to identify myself as an alcoholic and supported me in my decision to stop drinking.  I know that I am an alcoholic and that I cannot ever safely drink.

I choose to go only to meetings where cigarette smoking is not permitted.  More and more, such meetings exist.  At first I attended meetings daily, and now, more than three and a half years later, I attend two to three meetings a week.  Some of these are sponsored by our own attorney assistance program.  I find it helpful to identify with alcoholic lawyers and judges.  I also find it helpful to identify with convicts, the mentally ill, and the homeless, because I am able to see that the AA program can be effective at helping anybody stay sober and gradually make improvements in their lives, no matter what other problems they face.  AA is a community of supportive people who talk about their experiences in a way that gives me hope that I may never again have to suffer from this life-threatening disease.

Permission to reprint by the authors and the American Bar Association acknowledged.  This article was originally published in GPSolo, Volume 18, No. 5, July/August 2001.

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