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A Recovery Story: What Happened and My Life Now

Following is the story of a North Carolina Bar member.  In the spirit of avoiding pride in recovery, it is provided to you anonymously.  

While in my first year of law school my father passed away from hard living and booze. I was terribly angry with him at death too. Not only was there the hurt and pain of days gone by, but he had squandered his once white collar career in his last few years of life, and was nearly destitute at his passing. I felt cheated out of an inheritance and focused on how hurt I was by the whole thing. It was not until sober reflection later that I came to a peace about our relationship, and realized he had lived a very painful life, one that I can choose not to live.  During law school, my four grandparents all passed away, along with my father. This was more fuel for the malaise and drunkenness that had swallowed me like the whale had Jonah.

Part of me felt like my problem was that I was terribly depressed, that no one had ever properly shown me love, and that I had no standard or role model with which to pattern myself. Sure, alcohol was an overarching problem but I never wanted to really see it as my problem, as THE problem. My myopic vision of the world seems so absurd as to be laughable when viewed in hindsight, but it was deadlyserious then. I read books like Pete Hamill’s  A Drinking Life, and Frederick Exeley’s A Fan Note’s, both first-person exposes on the ravages of alcoholism to try to gain insight. Those things never stopped me. I had drunk way too much before, but now it was even worse. I had dropped out for a year, but my ego sent me back to law school. I couldn’t get away with what I use to be able to get away with physically. The hangovers lingered longer and my gastrointestinal system was showing signs of failure with blood in my stool and blood in my vomit. My life had devolved into inebriation nearly all of my waking moments, sparsely interspersed by impromptu naps, others might classify as passing out, and very few meals. I almost always passed out in my clothes, and I almost always reached for a beer first thing after awakening to try to relieve the pain. I did as little as possible to get through school, I went to the police department and learned the criminal system firsthand as a defendant, I went to the emergency room and learned about medicine as a patient, and lost part time jobs.

One day in October of 2001, I looked around at all of this and called a friend who told me what I apparently had been waiting to hear my whole life, that he loved me and wanted me to stop killing myself. His plea was simple and eloquent, and he told me I should stay at his house in Charleston, South Carolina to get back on my feet. This occurred after another bad DWI. I could finally admit something was terribly wrong, that I was an alcoholic and there was only one thing to do, to stop. I was living in a house with no air conditioning in the Deep South in the summer; there was dog excrement, beer cans, garbage and filth all over my home. I worked at a diner, had no money, owed a lot in student loans, did not have cable, did not own a computer, my phone was cut off, and I couldn’t stand myself or anyone else. Not what I had thought would be my fate after law school.  I was at an impasse and finally able to concede that not only was drinking a problem, but it was THE umbrella problem. Without a solution to the drinking problem, there was no solution to any other problems. I was ready to walk away from it and surrender myself to a new lifestyle.  At first, I made reluctant and scared steps away from alcohol and toward what I was not sure of.  It was going to be either suicide or sobriety and either one was preferable to the way I was living.

After law school, I did go to Charleston, South Carolina to live with that friend of mine who had quit drinking and had been so caring over the phone. I only stayed a few months and cooked in a couple of restaurants to stay afloat. While I was there in Charleston, I called the director of the Lawyer Assistance Program in the state where I had been in law school.

The Lawyer Assistance Program visited my law school twice while I was there, and I did not forget what I heard and saw.  I was relieved of a day of note taking in Constitutional Law my first year, and again in my third year, I could relax for a class of Professional Responsibility, but I was also secretly intrigued by what this group had to say. I listened intently as, on both occasions, two lawyers stood up and told this whole roomful of law students how depressed they had gotten, and how difficult life had gotten for them, and how they had recovered. These lawyers were not drinkers, but the LAP director with them mentioned several times that a majority of their work was with legal professionals with substance abuse problems. The LAP director said that if one has a drinking problem, or other problem, it was best to avail oneself of their program now, because, otherwise, one might not being allowed to sit for the Bar exam, or later might face  disbarment.

Because I was in South Carolina, the LAP director referred me to the South Carolina Lawyers Helping Lawyers program.  The director of the South Carolina program told me that North Carolina had a comprehensive Lawyer Assistance Program and that since I had grown up there, I might want to go back.  I took that advice.  One of the first calls I made was to a man named Don Carroll. I told Don some of things that had gone on, that I had quit drinking a couple of months ago and that I wanted to eventually become a member of the North Carolina Bar.  Because of where I was living, he referred me to Ed Ward in Raleigh.

Since first becoming involved with the Lawyer Assistance Program, I have worked closely with the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program in both Charlotte and Raleigh. I worked on my character and fitness to practice law to the point that the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners allowed me to sit for the exam after a character and fitness hearing. This was after three years of being sober.  I have also since seen the first Lawyer Assistance Program director in person at a regional lawyer retreat and was able to thank her in person for the work that her state Lawyer Assistance Program did.

The only problem now was that I had never learned what I needed to learn in law school. While other students were in class or working on the law journal or moot court, I was at home watching re-runs of CHiPs and The Brady Bunch or listening to records, drinking all day. I had to take the Bar exam three times, but did pass on the third attempt. That was a very humbling, but necessary, part of my journey. I had always been egotistical and claimed that test taking was my forte. The third time I took the exam, I knew the answers and I knew I had passed. The Board of Law Examiners concurred in my opinion of my performance and I became licensed to practice law this fall. There were a lot of good people who were very, very helpful through these three attempts at the Bar, many being LAP lawyers and volunteers.

So, here I am at thirty-two years old, recently licensed to practice law, four years sober, and deep in debt. What do I have to share with you from my experiences?

First, it is to illustrate something that I have come to know, that when you sincerely asks for help and wants it, you will find it. I have learned that if you will stand figuratively naked in front of good people, they will help you. Over the past four years, I held two jobs as a paralegal and two free public interest internships.  I did so with my supervisor’s knowledge that I was a recovering alcoholic in each of these situations. These were not people who needed to hire me, but they were compassionate people who went out on a limb and gave me an opportunity.

The men and women who participate in the various meetings and programs of the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program have always been open, kind, helpful and infinitely patient. They did not get me work, spoon feed me, or coddle me. Instead, they told me and showed me the things that they did to put the pieces back together in their professional and personal lives. They shared their experiences and became mentors, friends and confidantes.  They have been the role models that I so yearned for in my earlier life. Many of these folks have graduated from the school of hard knocks, to go on to be, or even continue to be, successful attorneys and judges. These people may work among you and you may not know the story of their experience.  They are to be commended for this difficult and necessary service to their profession, the public interest, themselves, and each other.  They work for free as a service to hurt, ailing, angry, despondent, and addicted people in the North Carolina legal profession.

Other addicted lawyers benefit from recovering lawyers being active in the legal community.  So, too, does the rest of the legal community.  We do not wish to be cloistered in our own “recovery” world, but to be active and vital in all our relationships and pursuits. If one is conscientious and fastidious, on a daily basis, about one’s own mental, spiritual, and physical health, one is fit for all the challenges of this profession.  The diversity and experience a recovered or recovering substance abuser can bring to a situation is dramatic because the recovery that must be undertaken is dramatic, life transforming, and affirmative. This type of experience can touch the lives of everyone who he or she touches, including clients, staff and other lawyers.

Second, this article is meant to shed light on something we can all forget or ignore, that people do change and that a rocky beginning need not make for a rocky ending. People do grow up like I did, and though many end up imprisoned, institutionalized or suicides, or simply very unhappy, not all of us do. Some of us want to have professional careers and use our skills and intellect to build successful careers, and help our clients. Some of us do go on to do these things, and are not throw-aways.

Second chances are possible and they should be celebrated. It is difficult for anyone, myself included, to think that a zebra can change its stripes.  It seemed dangerous to stay in my familial world, and likewise, dangerous to be accepting of the world outside of the physical and conceptual “home” in which I lived. I felt like I was on the outside looking into the world. It appeared my world never changed, mom chain smoked and read novel after novel, rarely emerging to talk to anybody and Dad drank, screamed and cursed anyone and everything he came near, or so it seemed. All I could do was look in at the rest of the world where some people were vibrant and pliable and wonder why. I remember being at church and seeing signs for meetings for families of alcoholics and wondering if I belonged there, and seeing signs for meetings for alcoholics and wondering if my father belonged there, all the while being abashed and embarrassed by these thoughts and feelings. These were fleeting thoughts, not the type of thing I ever mentioned to my parents.

But with very self conscious hard work, tremendous support from the LAP program, divine intervention and luck, change has happened for this author. I am walking, talking evidence that one can be totally broken in their teens and twenties, and go on to live a good life and be a lawyer. I never knew anything but unhappiness for the first twenty eight years of living, but today I can see the blessings of everyday life. Today, proverbial fences have been mended with many.  My mother is now one of my dearest friends, and I have made peace with my father and many others.  People can change.  When one’s body is predisposed to addiction and one is emotionally and spirituality predisposed to addiction, add the substance and addiction floods the person and the effects reach everyone in its wake. It becomes a roaring river, difficult to stop and something that keeps re-adjusting and re-navigating to fit the terrain. The addicted person can do little to stop addiction’s progression when left to his own devices. Not everyone experiences the addictive cycle firsthand, but many do themselves or through family members. It is a bewildering thing to behold, and bewildering to the addict even in his own stupor and torpor.  I have not been rehabilitated, because the prefix “re” presumes that I am going back to or re-gaining something I once had. I had never been happy until the last few years.  This is new. I have gained a life that I never had before.

Lastly, the function of the Bar is to protect the public, therefore the Lawyer Assistance Program plays a unique part in that protective role. The Lawyer Assistance Program mitigates damage to current and future clients by identification, intervention, and service to the lawyer in need.  It provides an opportunity for intervention by peers that serves to protect the public by getting lawyers, law students, and their families the help they need. The most powerful teachers and nurturers are those who have had a similar experience as their target audience – the alcoholic, depressed, or addicted lawyer or law student. The wonderful by-product of all this, is that the people who are helped gain a life out of the whole deal, and are able to give back to the same community that gave to them. The public gains protection, and lawyers and their families gain a fresh sense of the meaning of their own humanity.

The Lawyer Assistance Program of North Carolina has been extremely important in breaking a cycle of misery and defeat, and allowing this author to move onto a legal career filled with promise. They helped me before and after I became licensed. In fact, I know I never would have become licensed but for their help. But for their help, I may not be alive.

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addiction; FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems. 

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