Stories of Recovery: A 'real alcoholic'

Editor’s note: This is the 12th story in our Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series, featuring attorneys in their own words on how they overcame mental health or substance abuse problems. The State Bar’s TLAP program offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at 1-800-343-8527, and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.

I guess what astounds me the most about my personal struggle with alcohol is that, despite growing up with alcoholism all around me (my dad has been in recovery for 30 years), my impression of a “real alcoholic” was the type Hollywood often portrays: a person, residing under a bridge, with the entire contents of their belongings in a shopping cart. Never did it cross my mind that a “real alcoholic” could live in West Austin, run a successful business, and drive a Jaguar. Well, guess what? They can, and they do.

 

I also hadn’t experienced an awful childhood or any terrible trauma, which I also thought were necessary ingredients that made a “real alcoholic.” I have always had a wonderful and supportive family and group of friends. Both parents attended each dance recital and football game. Every sheet of construction paper I glued pinto beans and pasta onto adorned our family refrigerator. I don’t ever remember feeling unloved or unwanted growing up, not for one second.

What I know now is that alcoholism is a disease that doesn’t take into account race, religion, or income. It matters little how perfect or awful your life was or is. Some of us are predisposed to drink with impunity; others, like me, are not.

My love-hate affair with alcohol began when I was 13. I snuck several swigs of rum from my parents’ liquor cabinet. Here is what I remember most about it: I hated the smell, I hated the taste, and it made me cough. But, in a few minutes, that hamster in the wheel that was my brain quit running. For the first time I could remember, I wasn’t worried about what anyone thought about me. I wasn’t worried about what I made on my chemistry final. I wasn’t worried about anything.

Alcohol allowed me total freedom from my thoughts and insecurities. I was sold.

I continued to drink throughout high school, mainly on weekends. What began as sneaking a few swigs from the parents’ liquor cabinet became a series of elaborate efforts of obtaining alcohol under-age and frequent episodes of blackout drinking. I often think that if I’d spent as much effort and time studying and giving back to society as I did on trying to figure out how to get my hands on some beer for the weekend, I could possibly be a Nobel Prize recipient. Or at the very least, my name would be on the side of a respectable building.

My blackout drinking continued into my college years. As you can imagine, by attending the University of Texas and being a part of the Greek scene, my drinking habits did not seem very different from my cohorts. It felt normal to keep up the habits I had already formed in high school. Missing days of classes to sleep off hangovers was SOP, but I somehow managed to do well enough in my studies to get into UT Law.

My drinking in law school, surprisingly, wasn’t any worse than undergrad. I used this observation later to convince myself that I didn’t have a drinking problem, because clearly, if one had a “problem” it would have surely intensified during the hell that was law school.

Then, I passed the bar. Enter clients, deadlines, a paralyzing fear of failure, and a consistent level of alcohol consumption that would rival any Roman orgy. I can confidently say I was sober fewer days than drunk. The rule of weekend-only drinking was replaced by drinking daily after 12 p.m. If it were not for tolerant and brilliant co-workers swooping in to cover for me and my alcohol-induced mistakes, I have little doubt I would have been disbarred.

The truth was, I was so convinced I was an awful lawyer, and so full of self-loathing for all the destruction and pain my drinking was causing those around me, it got to the point where I didn’t care if I lived or died.

A few years ago on Mother’s Day, after drinking alcohol for nearly eight consecutive hours, I drove home. After veering on and off the road several previous times, my vehicle caught the edge of the road, which sent me hurtling into the rock entryway of a major subdivision. By the grace of God, no one else was involved in the wreck. I realized at that moment that even if I didn’t care if I lived or died, my selfish actions that night, and the countless other nights I chose to drive drunk, put the lives of innocent people at risk.

Days later, after a phone call to the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP) and my doctor, I was admitted into outpatient rehab. I was able to keep my job and get the help I needed at night. My boss never even knew I went. I remember surveying the room of my colleagues. We were teachers, lawyers, janitors, and housewives. We were from every demographic you could imagine, even West Austin.

I have been sober since that fateful Mother’s Day. I know that’s an infant number in the world of sobriety, but I can say with authority, my worst day sober is better than my worst day drunk.
 

Stories of Recovery: Fearing Discovery

Editor’s note: This is the 11th story in our Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series, featuring attorneys in their own words on how they overcame mental health or substance abuse problems. The State Bar’s TLAP program offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at 1-800-343-8527, and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.

I drank my first full beer at age 9. It was decades ago, but I remember it vividly. My parents were having a party and my childhood best friend and I stealthily looted two Coors Lights from the cooler and retreated to a back room. Fearing discovery at any moment, we drank those beers in about three gulps. Even now, I can feel the warmth and comfort that washed over me. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular; I just felt good. I had never known such easy access to a euphoric feeling. It is not an overstatement to say I was hooked on that feeling from that day forward.

On the surface, I had every reason not to be a drug addict and an alcoholic. I came from an upper-middle-class household. My family was loving and attentive. I suffered no abuse and wanted for nothing. Outwardly, I was social and made friends easily. Inside, though, I frequently felt isolated and disconnected from my peers. Drugs and alcohol closed the gap.

By age 12 I was getting drunk and smoking marijuana regularly. Of course, I chose friends who were doing the same thing, so it seemed perfectly normal. We were just kids being kids, or so we thought. I didn’t have to worry about fitting in at social functions; our social functions all revolved around drugs and alcohol and everyone fit in. By high school, I was drunk every weekend, smoking marijuana most nights, and hungrily ingesting any other mind-altering substance I could procure. Unconsciously, I went from trying to find that familiar feeling of warmth and comfort to seeking oblivion. I had plenty of good times. I also had far more than my fair share of shame-filled mornings and confused apologies for something I said or did in the previous night’s abandon.

On the outside, I maintained the appearance of a normal and successful high school student. I was a high achiever — I had to be to have the freedom to drink and use drugs in the way I wanted to. There were hiccups, of course. I got my first DWI at 17, which seemed a terrible inconvenience at the time. A plea deal mandated six months of unsupervised probation and court-ordered counseling. The counselor told me I was an alcoholic (he wasn’t privy to the drug use) and that the only cure was to stop drinking. That notion was unfathomable to me, and I didn’t consider it for an instant. I was heading to college and was doing just fine, never mind that I couldn’t even manage to stop drinking during my probationary period.

By college my life was becoming more and more unmanageable. I was arrested for intoxication three more times, including two more DWIs. This time, I was court-ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Outside of television, it was the first time I’d heard of AA as a place where alcoholics could go to get help. I didn’t attend a single meeting but managed to be successfully discharged from probation anyway. These events did not convince me that I needed to be sober, but they did convince me that any further DWIs would mean serious consequences. The logical solution, it seemed at the time, was to lay off drinking for a while and to instead use other drugs that, while equally intoxicating, produced a less appreciable effect to the outside observer.

That was the insanity of my thinking when I began law school. By that time, although I was finally drinking less, I was physically dependent on drugs to get through the day. Ease and comfort and youthful revelry were distant memories. All that remained was a grim routine of searching high and low to find drugs while hopefully (and frequently not) leaving some time to finish the reading for the next day’s class. Up to that point, even with my addiction staring me in the face, I never wanted to be sober. But by the end of law school, I wanted nothing more than to be free of the constant and compulsive need for drugs. I just couldn’t get there.

I was still trying to manage my own affairs. I was embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. I tried moderating, quitting cold turkey, seeing a doctor for medicinal maintenance. I always ended up high again. My personal relationships and physical condition were cratering. I managed to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam, but with the wreckage I had created there was little chance that the bar would give me a license. I got a job as a law clerk but was still using drugs every day.

The end came after being up for several days using drugs. I was hallucinating and a friend called the police out of concern. Once again, I was taken to jail. When I bonded out the next day, I made two phone calls. The first was to find a fix; the second was to my family for help. I was totally broken, and had finally surrendered. I went to rehab two days later and have not had a drink or drug since.

It goes without saying that my time in rehab changed my life. For the first time since I was 12 I was open to — albeit not completely assured of — the notion that I could live a happy and fulfilling life sober. I was introduced to the 12-step programs of AA and NA (I actually attended this time around). There, I observed other addicts and alcoholics with stories similar to mine who seemed genuinely content. This was not, as I had feared, a venue for lectures and sermons from a staid group of white-knucklers, but a group of recovering addicts and alcoholics who had been to hell and lived to tell about it. They laughed, they cried, and they were honest about what their life was like before and what it was like now. Over time, through that experience, strength, and hope, I have learned how to live sober. I was able to develop a relationship with a higher power of my choosing and to be of service to my fellows.

I have been incredibly fortunate in sobriety. I was able to obtain a probationary, and subsequently a full, license to practice law. I am able to earn a living practicing this profession that I love. I have a beautiful family that has never had to see me as the addict that I was. I have had the great privilege of helping other people struggling with alcoholism and addiction.

To be sure, my life has the same challenges as everyone else’s, but I no longer need to be loaded to face them. While I can’t say exactly what would have happened if I had not finally picked up the phone and made that call for help, I can say unequivocally that it saved my life.
 

 

Stories of Recovery: Living life on life's terms

Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in our Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series, featuring attorneys in their own words on how they have overcome mental health or substance abuse problems. The State Bar’s TLAP program offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at 1-800-343-8527, and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.

The first time I got intentionally drunk was on May 26, 1972. I was 12 years old and woke up that morning to find that my father had died during the night. By that afternoon I had dipped into Dad’s liquor cabinet and I was drunk. For some reason I instinctively knew that alcohol was the balm for the pain that I thought was going to kill me. Please understand that I am not an alcoholic because my father died. Rather, what this illustrates is that alcohol was not my problem, it was my solution—to everything—and THAT was the problem.
 

 

I took my last drink on Sept. 15, 1995. I did not intend my last drink to be a warm, leftover beer in a cheap motel in a distant city. Frankly, I did not intend to ever have a last drink, unless it immediately preceded my last breath. Rather, other people—my spouse, primarily—had enough of my drinking and drug abuse and determined to put a stop to it without asking my permission.

Between May 1972 and September 1995 I spent a lot of time under the influence of mind-altering substances, be it alcohol or drugs and typically both. I was, as the term goes, a garden-variety addict (and that includes alcohol), or, to quote a friend, I was about as unique as a 7-Eleven store. The only difference between my escapades and those of others are the adjectives and adverbs. What I used, where I used, when I used, how I used, and with whom I used are inconsequential. What is important is how I felt inside, and that was utterly miserable. My recollection is that every day from the time I came to until the time I passed out, the mantra running through my brain was “I hate my life.” I had (and by some miracle still have) a loving spouse, three incredible children, a law license, and a growing practice, and I was on the way to achieving the externals that define a successful person of my generation. But I was dying on the inside, and continued to take poison in order to get “well.”

I hinted above that it was the efforts of others that halted the downward spiral. The short story is that when I returned from a “business trip” on the specified day, the priest from our church met me at the airport. His cover story was that my spouse was tied up at the office and with one of the kids, so he volunteered to give me a ride. The priest asked if I minded making a quick stop at the hospital and I assented. What I did not know was that the “quick stop” was so that he could drop me off at the detoxification facility where they were waiting for me. And as for it being quick, that was a relative term, since I did not actually make it home for four months. A week of detox was followed by a stay at a long-term residential treatment facility.

My first contact with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) came during my stay in detox when a friend of mine thankfully took me to a meeting at his office the evening before I went to the treatment facility. And it was in treatment that the Bar’s investigator (who was investigating me, of course) blessedly suggested that I call 800-343-8527 and speak to the nice people at the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP). I made the call in spite of my fears. I don’t actually know what I was afraid of, but at the time I was basically afraid of everything. I cannot remember specifically what the person who took the call told me, but the gist of the conversation was that my personal and professional life was far from over, and in fact was just beginning.

While in treatment I was introduced to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since that time, I have worked the program of recovery and continue to do so. Others, many of them brother and sister lawyers, have helped me and I have helped others. Where I used to be an egomaniac with an inferiority complex—a worthless individual about whom the world revolved—I have been transformed into someone who knows that God is firmly in charge of the universe, including my corner of it, and that there are only two things I really need to know about God: there is one, and it is not me.

We are taught that by practicing the 12 Steps, “our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change” and that is so very, very true. I no longer hate my life, but rather relish every day as an opportunity to be of assistance. Life is now something to be enjoyed.

And one of the greatest joys of this life is to be a volunteer for the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program and work with others in Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. I have had the pleasure of being that person on the phone when someone calls for help. I have been able to visit with lawyers, law students, and sometimes family members of same and offer the same outreaching hand of help that was freely extended to me. I have mourned colleagues who would not or could not embrace recovery, being ever reminded that left untreated addiction is a fatal disease.

I have been given a new life. One that is far better than the one I tried to make for myself. And I have been taught that the only way to enjoy this new life is to live it on life’s terms. Thanks to TLAP and LCL, I can comply with those terms.