Guest Post – The Legal Professional and Alcohol

A friend of mine, who became a good friend and support during my time in Outpatient treatment has written a fantastic article regarding the legal profession and alcohol.

In 2016, the ABA released the most comprehensive study of alcoholism and mental health within the bar to date, and the results were alarming.

My name is Doug, and I’m an alcoholic. …Took me a long time to say those words, together, in a sentence.  And if it wasn’t for a few brave souls who were willing to say those words before me, I doubt I ever would have.

Prior to law school, my drinking career was quite uneventful.  Sure, I got drunk from time to time, but who doesn’t? Alcohol wasn’t part of my routine, and I would go weeks without even thinking about it.  Then, the summer internship after my first year of law school. More specifically, lawyers’ league softball for the summer interns. It was our job to leave work early on Tuesdays, pick up the ice and beer (on the firm’s tab), and get to the softball field before any of the attorneys.  If you didn’t leave work early enough to be there first, they’d give you a hard time. If you ran out of a particular type of beer before the end of the night, they’d give you a hard time. If you didn’t have enough variety, they’d give you a hard time. Needless to say, the most strategic play was to leave work VERY early, get a TON of beer, keep it cold, and hope for the best.  I could handle that. But what about all the leftover beer? Nobody wanted leftover beer from the week before, so I “had” to take it home with me. Didn’t take long to realize the more beer I bought, the more leftover beer, and the more free beer I got to take home. As the summer progressed, I really grew to like my position as a summer intern!

In addition to lawyers’ league softball, it seems like at least once week, if not more, the firm had a social event that revolved around alcohol.  New associate? Let’s drink! Retiring partner? Let’s drink! Win a trial? Let’s drink! Thursday at 4:00? Let’s drink! Alcohol was a fundamental element in the firm’s culture, and I loved it.  My wife, however, did not…

Every time I left the house for a social event, she would say, “don’t drink too much.” I would honestly respond, “I won’t. I’m only going to have a couple beers. Don’t worry.” And that was exactly what I intended to do – stop at two.  But despite having quite a bit of will power in other areas of life, I never stopped at two. Why would I stop? The firm was paying for it, two felt great – three will feel even better, I’m building relationships to get a job offer, the kids are already asleep, and on and on and on until it was very late, I was drunk, and I thought my wife would be asleep. I’d wake up the next morning and be far less present, far less helpful, and some combination of embarrassed, ashamed, and (amazingly) frustrated at my wife.  Why can’t she just relax and let me drink? …And she felt so betrayed. Lied to. Disrespected. After a few years of “I’m only having two,” trust was gone.

But all this wasn’t the firm’s fault.  It wasn’t lawyer’s league softball’s fault.  Ever since my first drink, I always wanted more. I would drink as much as I possibly could without causing any problems.  (Or more accurately, I would drink as much as I thought I could get away with without causing any problems.) If I was afraid someone would judge me for drinking too much, I would stop just short of wherever I assumed the line was.  If we only had $20 to spend on beer, I would drink $20 worth of beer. If I had a big morning, I wouldn’t drink the night before.

While this isn’t how a healthy drinker drinks, I realize it’s also different than how many alcoholics drink.  Many of my friends in AA drank despite consequences like these and even when they don’t want to drink anymore.  Does that mean I’m not a real alcoholic? I don’t think so. It means a higher power was doling out grace. It’s like I  was bowling with the bumpers up. If my higher power hadn’t put the bumpers up, I would have been in the gutter just like what you’d expect out of a real alcoholic. The bottom line is, I would eagerly await then next opportunity to drink, and I would drink as much as I possibly could get away with.  Because of the social circles I ran in and the expectations put on me, I never wound up under a bridge. I never wrecked a car. I never got a DUI. …On one hand I got lucky. On one hand a higher power kept me out of trouble. On one hand I was too afraid of the damage that type of consequence would have on my reputation.  If I didn’t have a great job, great family, and great reputation to keep up, there’s no doubt about it. I would have hit the rock bottom that society expects out of an alcoholic.

So that’s how I drank.  But how do healthy drinkers drink?  I have no idea – if I knew, I would have drank like them.  However, in amazement, I have watched health drinkers drink.  They may have a glass of wine, or they may not. At a special event – an actual special event… like the kind that happens a couple times a year – they MIGHT have two glasses.  But they stop there, because they don’t like the feeling of losing control. They don’t like the buzz. They definitely don’t like the hangover, and since they don’t even enjoy what precedes the hangover, they have absolutely zero reasons to drink more than about one serving per hour (or however much their body can metabolize in an hour).  Inexplicably, healthy drinkers may even leave alcohol in their glasses as they leave a restaurant!

Back to my story.  I graduated law school with great grades, got the job offer I wanted at the top tier firm, bought a house in the right neighborhood, and our girls were off to private school.  No DUIs, no divorces, no wrecks, and no health issues (other than my yet-to-be-recognized alcoholism). On paper, you’d have thought all was well. However, for me, alcoholism was like that disease that grows in the tree, rotting out the inside while branches and leaves continue to give off the impression of health.  Friends and family thought all was well. My wife didn’t even know how bad the internal rot was. She learned to tune out the pain, unmet expectations, and damage. She had no idea how bad the damage was until well after the storm had past.

My drinking continued, and, in some ways, progressed. Over the course of a couple years, I had three pivotal conversations.  The first was with an old friend. As we caught up over lunch, he made the observation that I had no joy. He looked at me a bit bewildered and asked what was going on.  I had no idea, and I wasn’t even sure that he was correct. Part of me was offended by his question. (After all, the leaves and branches indicated all was well.)

The second was with my wife following an unusual amount of whiskey.  She had had enough, and she made her position clear. “Either you get a game plan for your drinking, or I am going to get one for you.”  I didn’t want her staging an intervention or something dramatic like that, so I reached out to my friend, Tom, for advice.

The third key conversation was with Tom. Tom is that rare alcoholic that is passionate about recovery/sobriety, loves AA, and talks about alcoholism with anyone that will listen.  At that time, he had about 28 years of sobriety, and I knew he could help diagnose the problem. I certainly didn’t think I was an alcoholic, but I was willing to learn from his experience.  We had about three hours together, and he asked a million questions. But there was one that changed everything. “Doug, does alcohol cause problems in your life?” Though I didn’t think they were big problems, they were problems, nevertheless.  My wife was hurt and angry, we were spending money that we shouldn’t have spent, and I was rolling the dice behind the wheel. Moreover, I knew that at some point, the alcohol would negatively affect my liver and other organs. So I answered, “yes.”  Without missing a beat, he said, “Then you have a drinking problem. They never get better. They only get worse. In 28 years in the recovery community, I’ve only seen one solution that works in the long run. AA.”

Long story short, I went home, dove in to AA, and my world was dramatically changed for the better.  Within weeks of sobriety, I experienced joy for the first time in years. I looked at my little girls and couldn’t help but experience gratitude and love – feelings I hadn’t felt for them except on rare occasions.  (If you want to hear more about my experience in AA, sobriety, recovery, etc., please feel free to reach out.) In my experience, AA is the coolest club in the world that you never wanted to get in to. People are REAL.  People are VULNERABLE. People love UNCONDITIONALLY. In AA, I learn how to be a true friend, how to trust others, and how to bring struggles into the light. I learn how to be honest. I learn how fortunate I am. And I am constantly reminded that I am not the manager of life.  Life is unmanageable by me, a mere mortal. Though it isn’t always fun, the ego deflation process is a fundamental part of an increase in joy.

As I pressed in to recovery, I developed a much deeper understanding of alcoholism, and I realized a HUGE percentage of the attorneys I knew appeared to be suffering from alcoholism, too.  In 2016, the ABA released the most comprehensive study of alcoholism and mental health within the bar to date, and the results were alarming. In the study, a sample of nearly 13,000 licensed, employed attorneys from 19 states completed surveys which assessed alcohol use, drug use, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. The study revealed that roughly one in five attorneys demonstrate signs of hazardous drinking.  ONE. IN. FIVE.

This is a progressive, fatal diseases.  What if one in five teachers had heart disease? Or one in five nurses had cancer? Alcoholism amongst attorneys is at an epidemic level, but it is largely unrecognized and very few people are ringing the alarm.

Why is this such a problem within our profession? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s not because of long hours, high stress, antagonistic work experiences, difficult clients or anything along those lines. Plenty of folks deal with similar things in other professions.  The best explanation if heard has two parts. First, many of us fear that if we had alcoholism and if the local bar association learned about it, our ability to practice law would be in jeopardy due to the various ethical rules we abide by. We tune out and we hide. Because of this, we don’t get the help we need. Second, many of us are not only naturally wired to challenge the rules, experts, and authorities, we are actually trained to do this.  When the average person is told by a doctor “according to this test, your drinking habits indicate a severe drinking problem” they are concerned and acknowledge the validity of both the test and the doctor’s assessment. The average attorney is likely to hear the same results and say “That test was ridiculous. It was probably written by the same Baptist teetotalers that wrote the 18th Amendment! Everyone would test positive for alcoholism if this is the standard!”  Yet another reason why we don’t get the help we need.

Again, I don’t know all the reasons why alcoholism is so prevalent in our profession, but it is. One in five of us is suffering, and it doesn’t have to be that way.  There is a solution. And for those of us with the disease, there is exponentially more joy in sobriety than there ever will be in the bottom of a bottle. If you want help, feel free to call (316-613-9301) or email (doug@legacylegalllc.com).

-Doug Coe

Doug Coe is an attorney in Wichita, KS.  He owns Legacy Legal, LLC and focuses on Estate Planning and Probate.

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