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.