That Could Have Been Me

I was reading a pretty deep James Joyce biography and found out that his family was affected by drinking, much like I was affected by what happened in my family when I was growing up. James' older brother, Stan, was worried about James' drinking and followed him around for a few weeks. Stan was relieved to learn that James was drunk "only" 4.39 nights a week. Reading this made me chuckle because of my recovery perspective.

I have been in recovery from depression for a number of years. In my recovery process I have been able to deeply acknowledge and look closely at my family of origin issues and the serious dysfunction to which I was exposed in my young life. It is similar to my experience working for a tree service years ago. Twenty years later I walk into a yard and I see limbs that need trimming. Just because I have been removed from my family of origin for decades does not mean I am not still deeply affected by the abuse I endured. It impacts every aspect of my life still today. The difference is that today I look at things through the lens of recovery. The Joyce family is replete with a history of alcoholism and the family’s attempts to cope and survive. It is a fascinating, familiar, and painful read.

Stan, who was not the alcoholic – but the one affected by the family dynamic – didn’t have a twelve step program, didn’t have the benefit of recovery, and couldn’t see the issues right in front of him. His anti-social behaviors and dysfunction got him arrested and he spent time in prison and struggling, just muddling through life as a result. That could have easily been me. Recovery and a 12 Step program have given me a context to work through what happened to me as a child and have improved my reactions and world view. As lawyers we rely on and appreciate rules to solve problems. We learn to “think like lawyers” and as a result I think lawyers may have an advantage in learning to re-train our thinking to avoid self-defeating mindsets and the behaviors that too often result.

In my law practice every day I find it helpful to remind myself to pause. My emotional reactions and symptoms related to PTSD are still very real and are still with me. Things often seem to be going too fast and this triggers my need to control. An overwhelming feeling of unease can flood me and take me away from being present and focused on the moment. I don’t have to run with that reaction today because I have new tools. I can step back from the situation and take a deep breath or many deep breaths. I can talk to a “safe” person about the feeling. It’s a feeling – it’s not a truth. Letting go in this way requires honesty on my part and a willingness to be vulnerable. These are skills I developed over time in recovery.

I am not perfect in dealing with these things, but I let go of the need to be perfect in recovery as much as possible. It is painful to deal with at times. Remembering some of my worst times continues to be difficult. At times I still want to be anywhere but where I actually am (feeling whatever I am feeling), but I am able to make better decisions and to stay out of the ditch more and get out of the ditch more easily.

I have struggled with the idea of a higher power and spirituality in general, but I have found no impediment to working the steps and dealing with my issues. I see the benefits these concepts have provided for lots of people and appreciate it when people doubt these spiritual aspects of the twelve step program. What I want people to know is that recovery is ultimately taking a step back from playing God, from trying to control everything around us. We don’t have to believe in God to be in recovery; we do, however, need to believe that we are not God for the recovery process to take hold.

For lawyers in particular I think that there is hope in that we can use recovery to honestly assess our situation. We can spot issues with recovery in the same way that we spot them to resolve complex legal issues. We practice at it. We get better. We get more confident and become more useful and helpful to others. It works.

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