Someone Dimed Me Out!

Once upon a time…..wait, wait. How in the world did I ever get here?

The short answer is, I’m here because somebody, maybe somebody reading this, dimed me out. Threw me under the bus. Lied about me to the authorities. Said I was drunk in court. The truth is, I have never been drunk in court: yet. Never been drunk at the office…yet. Never lost my driver’s license because I’d been driving drunk…yet. Never been disciplined by the bar for an unethical act committed while drinking or drunk…yet.

All those things are true…and yet, if I were to drink alcohol today, I would, in very short order, be drunk. That’s because I am an alcoholic. Drunkenness is my default condition. Once I start, I have to keep going, and if I stop, I won’t stay stopped for long. And the wretched truth of the matter is that as a consequence of that first drink, all those “not yets” and a whole bunch more will come to pass, and I will do incalculable harm to strangers and loved ones alike.

But I digress. To get back to my unfortunate denunciation, it probably occurred sometime in the spring of 1997. As a result, a couple of lawyers showed up in my office right at quitting time on August 3rd, 1997. They probably did not say, “Hi. We’re from the incredibly ironically named State Bar and we are here to help you.” They probably did not say that, but that’s how I remember it. I don’t remember much of the next few minutes after that, but apparently I did not faint, try to jump out the window, or offer them a drink. By the time I realized that they were not there to take immediate possession of my law license, it had become fairly clear that they were practicing lawyers and recovering alcoholics. For some reason, they seemed to think that I might be similarly afflicted. They had no cure to offer for the affliction of a law practice, but insisted that they knew something about how to get alcoholism into remission. They claimed to be the beneficiaries of a simple program of action which anyone, even lawyers, could take if they were willing. This program would allegedly eliminate the need for alcohol to sustain life.

I had my doubts. Then again, I wanted them out of my office, and they appeared to be quite willing to stay in my client chairs until I told them what they wanted to hear. Unsurprisingly, I succumbed to expedience and made a few rash admissions about my drinking history and a few insincere promises about getting an assessment and getting into treatment. I’ll bet they didn’t know I had my fingers crossed the whole time.

But I did stop drinking, again, for the who-knows-how-manyeth time. What happened next was interesting in a clinical way, but most unpleasant. It was obvious that I had to stay stopped, which, based on prior experience, I did not think I could do. It was also obvious that I had to stay stopped for the rest of my life, which was terrifying as well as clearly impossible.

Like most folks who are terrified, I got angry. This began to affect my home life in short order, despite the fact that I had married an exceptionally tolerant woman. By the time she and her daughter had gotten around to telling me, ever so gently, that I had been easier to live with while drunk, I knew something had to change.  So, full of trepidation, I followed the suggestions my visitors had made, and almost immediately began to learn from other alcoholics that there was something I could do about my fear and anger that I would never have thought to try.  I could ask for help from other alcoholics, and receive the help with no strings attached.  As soon as I realized that I could not recover alone, I began to recover in the company of people like the lawyers who visited me on August 3rd, 1997.

When an alcoholic or an addict looks in the mirror, he sees the problem. When he is able to be honest about the problem, he is able to begin to live in the solution. Every part of the solution starts with the word “we.”

The medical experts now call our disease a disease of the brain’s reward system, in which the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a large role.  I don’t pretend to know much about that. What I do know is that we, as lawyers, suffer from alcoholism, other addictions, and clinical depression and anxiety disorders at double to triple the rate experienced by non-lawyers. We, as lawyers, frequently come into contact with colleagues who are afflicted. These are facts, and as Clarence Darrow famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.” Our task is not to deny them or ignore them. Nor is it to attempt, as individuals, to change that which no individual can reasonably expect to change. Rather, it is to accept the facts, which seem to be these. Addiction is real, and so is recovery. The cornerstone of recovery is trust. The alcoholic or addict must trust that his illness can be and will be dealt with effectively and entirely confidentially. His colleagues must trust that their confidences will be kept absolutely inviolate, and that in reporting their concerns they can harm neither themselves nor others.

I was astonished to discover that these things are true, and I have no doubt they will remain true for as long as the Lawyer Assistance Program exists. Incidentally, the program also provides support for lawyers suffering from illnesses which are not addictions. The point is, and I cannot overemphasize this point, that what the LAP does is entirely confidential. And you don’t have to wait for them to show up, like I did. You can make a phone call yourself and change your life enormously for the better.

Now, back to our story. For me, it has been eighteen years since the dime dropped, and I still have no idea who dropped it. That’s a shame, because how many times in your life do you get the chance to thank someone else for saving it? This little essay is simply an attempt to pay it forward, and who knows? It may help someone to live happily ever after.

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