Alcoholic, Lawyer, and Father - a Toxic Combination

“Let me make my own mistakes.” This is a phrase I often hear from my 16 (almost 17 year-old) step-daughter. It is her justification for making poor decisions. Unfortunately, some of those bad decisions have repercussions that last a life time, and I feel helpless protecting her from the mistakes I have seen others make, and I that I have made myself.

Being a recovering alcoholic, lawyer, father, and step-father is a toxic combination. As an alcoholic, I made all the mistakes, as a lawyer I am aware of the consequences of those mistakes, and as a father and step-father, I am filled with tremendous fear as I see my oldest make many of those same mistakes.

First, as an alcoholic I freely confess to past errors. The disease concept allows me to believe that it was out of my control, but I know that many of the early decisions I made were within my control, and I just made boneheaded decisions. My parents told me about the dangers of drugs from an early age, and I was well aware that alcohol was dangerous too. Still, when I was 14 years old I took the bottle and never looked back until I hit bottom.

Most of my drinking took place when I was the same age as my step-daughter is right now. I hung out with dangerous people, dangerous elements, and took part in dangerous activities. I remember being around cocaine in a trailer with some friends who were thrown out their home at age 17. At the time, it all seemed normal. I remember going to dangerous parts of the city, where stores did not require identification to buy alcohol. We would then go around the corner, where my friends would buy drugs. At the time, it all seemed normal.

During the summer of my senior year of high school, many of my friends were arrested on drug related crimes resulting from one drunken and drug related binge. I was not with them that night. They spent the next several years of their life paying for their crimes. It is still on their record.

I barely got into college, and when I did, I lost complete control with alcohol. I hit bottom when my actions starting really hurting the people around me. I found out later how my drinking and behavior kept my mother up late at night. But what did I know; I was just making my own mistakes.

Second, as a lawyer, I understand that mistakes are not easily forgiven. In some cases, when the infraction is minor, you may get a deferral. However, many infractions are not minor. I have seen all those “it will never happen to me,” happen to good people. Good people, who made bad decisions.

Sometimes the guilt is from the justice system, and sometimes the guilt is internal. How does a person live with killing someone after driving drunk, hitting someone they love, or deal with the consequences of drunken promiscuity? Someone may be able to learn from these mistakes, but they are tough lessons.

Finally, as a father and step-father, I feel I am a poor role model. I am sober. In fact, my children have only known me sober. The oldest knows I am in recovery, and the youngest just knows that I need meetings and I cannot drink the wine at church because it makes me sick.

It is a hard argument to make to tell my oldest to stay away from drugs and alcohol when she knows I did not make that decision at her age. It is a hard argument to make when she sees me now, as a lawyer who has received the forgiveness of most of those I hurt with my drinking.

What my oldest does not see is the lasting impact of my choices. She does not understand that I have spent most of my adult years trying to make up for the educational opportunities I missed when I was drinking. She does not understand how I felt like an outcast for most of my 20’s as I worked on my recovery.

Mostly, what my oldest does not understand is that many people do not get the chance to actually learn from their mistakes. Many people just have to live with their mistakes. In some cases, people die from their mistakes.

I love my step-daughter, and it frightens me every day to see her make the mistakes that I made, knowing that she will live, or possibly die, from the things I could not protect her from. That is the toxic combination of being an alcoholic, lawyer, and a father.