Ervin Gonzalez, was a top Miami civil lawyer, beloved partner of the prominent Coral Gables law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, and renowned for not only his charismatic and warm demeanor but as “a trusted, go-to trial attorney.” Despite his stellar reputation and an enviable record of 33 verdicts of at least $1 million or more, Gonzalez committed suicide in June 2017.
At 38, Lisa Smith was living in a bright, beautiful New York City apartment and had a high-powered job at the prestigious Manhattan firm Pillsbury Winthrop. She also drank day and night and turned to cocaine to “straighten up enough” to perform her duties at the firm.
Experts say that Gonzalez and Smith aren’t isolated cases. Not by a long shot.
A Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 professions revealed that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs, while the landmark 2016 American Bar Association (ABA) and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study determined that 28% of licensed, employed lawyers suffer depression. The study also showed that 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety and 21% qualify as problem drinkers.
Attorney Patrick R. Krill, lead author of the ABA/Hazelden study and a recognized authority of addiction and mental health issues in the legal profession, says the data “paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”
Krill points to the impact of the experience of the profession, which begins even before the J.D.’s are awarded. And Smith, now Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and author of the addiction memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, can attest to that, highlighting the very different dynamic of law school. “Instead of being in school with friends, we found ourselves pitted against each other all the time, particularly with the use of the Socratic method,” Smith says. “We were constantly being ranked and there was this sense of ‘my gain is your loss’ that permeated our entire experience. It was a different kind of pressure to succeed and a much more pronounced level of stress than I had previously faced.”
That stress skyrockets when graduates are launched into practice. Smith by her own admission had always done “everything right.” An exemplary high school record lead to admission into Northwestern University. After receiving her B.A., she then went off to the Rutgers School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Law Review, graduated at the top her class, and ultimately landed a job at a prestigious law firm in New York City…along with 90 other highly qualified first-year associates.
“I was a perfectionist, and I always did well. And now [at the firm] I was competing against all of these people whose credentials were equally as good as mine,” she recalls. “It was a very charged, very competitive environment.”
Not to mention demanding. Deadlines, long hours, excessive workloads, and client pressures together make the practice of law one of the most stressful careers.
This unrelenting pressure, Krill notes, puts lawyers at odds with the types of things one does to support mental health, such as rest (actual sleep or downtime for recharging), exercise, and quality social connections.
The tendency to prioritize winning and achievement rather than well-being and happiness also compromises mental health.
Yet, despite the deficit in mental health, lawyers are not feeling sufficiently supported to seek help. According to Whitney Hawkins, a licensed psychotherapist in Miami, the majority of lawyers continue to feel isolated and shameful when they are unable to measure up to unreachable standards in the legal community. “Lawyers are fearful that if they share they’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse they will be seen as incompetent or unable to complete their duties at work,” she says.
Smith concurs. While she has since gone public about her addiction and depression, she only did five days of detox before returning to work. “I was really terrified of the stigma,” she says. “The day I checked into detox, I told work I had a medical emergency and would be out for five days. I knew that because of HIPAA, I could safely be out for five days without a doctor’s notice. Any longer would require that I admit to what was really going on.”
Although Smith had been privately struggling with addiction and depression for 10 years, she was still highly regarded as a respected, trusted, and smart member of the team. “I couldn’t risk becoming someone, who in their eyes, was weak, deficient, and unreliable,” she says.
Today, however, momentum is building around lawyer mental health and well-being, particularly in response to The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which was prompted by the ABA/Hazelden study.
The Path to Lawyer Well-Being is a 72-page report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being that outlines recommendations around what needs to be done in order to address and improve lawyers’ well-being. The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes: “Identifying stakeholders and the role each can play in reducing the toxicity in the legal profession; eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors; emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence; educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues; and taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.”
Since its publication, the report has been carefully reviewed across the country and states are starting to form task forces to roll out recommendations. The Florida Bar, for example, has already launched a new Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness.
Also, last month the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates adopted a resolution “urging bar associations, law schools, lawyer licensing agencies, and legal employers to step up efforts to help attorneys with mental health and substance abuse issues.”
Krill is hopeful. “After decades of refusing to acknowledge our profession’s problem with depression and addiction, we finally seem to be moving in the right direction,” he says. “Truly improving lawyers’ well-being requires long-term culture change. At the end of the day, lawyers are humans. We must focus on their well-being.”
*This is part one of our five-part series on mental health, substance abuse, and wellness in the legal industry. See the rest of the series here.
Kristin Johnson is an executive and corporate communications professional, and founder of KSJ Communications, a communications and public relations firm. She consults with a diverse roster of clients spanning the technology, professional services, financial services, public sector, consumer, and healthcare industries. In addition to Rocket Matter, Johnson writes for various other publications as well.
Lisa is a writer and lawyer in New York City. She is the author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar, her memoir of high-functioning addiction and recovery in the world of New York City corporate law. Her writing has been published in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Refinery29, AfterPartyMagazine.com, and Addiction.com. She has also appeared on Megyn Kelly TODAY and BBC World News discussing alcoholism. Lisa is passionate about breaking the stigma of addiction and mental health issues.
Prior to beginning her more than 15-year legal marketing career, Lisa practiced law in the Corporate Finance group of a leading international firm. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and Rutgers School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Rutgers Law Review. Lisa serves on the Board of Directors of The Writers Room in New York City.
Do you ever feel like you’re not getting enough done? A whole day passes by and you feel like you’ve gotten nothing accomplished? For someone who works from home, this habit can be debilitating. This year I wanted to change the narrative around I’m not being productive enough and tying my worth to my productiveness. How am I doing this? By making more lists of course!
This year I’m writing “got done,” lists in addition to the regular “to-do,” lists and on those lists, I’m writing down stuff I get done every day. It’s been a powerful reminder that I am getting a lot done and I’m getting a lot more done than I thought I was. Additionally, my memory can be crappy when I try and remember what and when I’ve done stuff so I love having these lists to look back on. I also want to keep track of how many books I read this year and which ones. This led me to create a list of my favorite books from 2017. I didn’t make a list last year of everything I read, but I do remember a selection of books that were my favorites. I wanted to share these with you and I plan on a much more comprehensive list for 2018.
I couldn’t put this memoir down! Cat Marnell’s book was brash, shocking, and relatable in every way. Although she’s somewhat controversial in the recovery community, I thoroughly enjoyed her book. Spoiler alert: if you’re looking for the traditional happy ending to an addiction memoir, this one doesn’t exactly have it. Marnell is a tortured soul and weaves a spinning tale. I like most, speed-read to the end dying to know what happens and how Marnell gets sober. But as we know in real life, not everyone gets and stays sober. I loved this book because it was real and honest. I related to Marnell’s body image issues, her rocky relationships with men, and her lifelong desire to be the popular girl at the party.
Wow, we’re so lucky to have writers like Annie Grace in the world. This book needs to be on the shelf of any person who wants to be, or is, sober. The goal of This Naked Mind is to reverse the conditioning in your unconscious mind by educating your conscious mind (a tad confusing right?). By changing your unconscious mind, you change the desire to drink. Without desire, there is no temptation. According to Annie, without temptation, there is no addiction. Warning: this book is research heavy and may include psychological concepts and scientific terms that can be difficult to grasp at first read. But I believe it contains vital information for everyone in recovery. I enjoyed learning about the science of addiction and the concept of “spontaneous sobriety” - how my own sobriety came to be.
Many of you who have been following me for awhile know that I’ve shared my own personal abortion story. I’ve written about it and I’ve shared it on a podcast called the Abortion Diaries. The curator of the podcast, Melissa Madera, shared about this book last year called May Cause Love, and that’s how I found Kassi Underwood and her amazing book. May Cause Love is a memoir and includes Kassi’s journey of healing after her abortion, as well as how she found sobriety. I’m so happy Kassi wrote this book because there are little to no memoirs centered around abortion, and this topic along with sobriety, are incredibly relatable for me and so many other women. I felt like I went on her healing journey with her and for that I am grateful.
Girls Walks Out is another wonderful memoir written by a friend in recovery. Lisa’s story details her life as a high-functioning lawyer deep in her addiction to drugs and alcohol. I was captivated by her words as she tell us about her psych ward visit and journey through treatment. If you’ve ever had a demanding job, lived and worked in the city rush of Manhattan, or have convinced yourself you have it all together while you’re slowly unwinding, this book is for you! I love knowing Lisa found the beauty of recovery and continues to be an advocate for recovery today.
Marianne Williamson is a well-known impactful teacher. She preaches about recovery, spirituality, and political engagement. This is the first of her books that I’ve read, but she has many and I plan on reading more of them. Marianne and Kassi both led me to purchase my own copy of A Course in Miracles - a spiritual text teaching that the greatest "miracle" that one may achieve in one's life is the act of simply gaining a full "awareness of love's presence" in their own life. In A Return to Love, Marianne shares her reflections on A Course in Miracles and talks about how they apply to real life. For so many of us in recovery, we feel like we missed out on the instructions to life. A Return to Love provides a way to look through the lens of life with more love.
If you are an artist of any kind - writer, painter, dancer, sculptor - whatever, you MUST read Big Magic. For those of us who have a craft (in my case writing!) we often put that subject last on our list of things to do. If it’s not earning us money we don’t see the value in making it a priority. I am so guilty of this, I do it with this very blog. Even though I love this blog and I love writing. Big Magic empowers us to be artists and provides useful tips and processes to become more mindful of your craft. I was nodding my head through the entire book!
This one isn’t in the same realm as my normal picks. It’s an old-school dystopian novel originally published in 1985 that came back to life last year after the 2016 election made it relatable again. It has also become a tv series on Hulu. Although this book is fiction and can be shocking and frustrating to read at times, I could not put it down. I wanted to see how it ended and when it was over I gained a renewed sense of motivation to use my voice against injustice, the patriarchy, and demagogues. This book was a selection as part of a resistance book club I was in briefly. I’m glad I read it and I encourage anyone who wants to think critically about our society to do the same.
“Like many who struggle with addiction, my wake-up call came in the form of a series of unfortunate events, each one a neon sign blinking, 'this is a problem,' rather than one single event," says Dani D., 34, who's been sober for seven years. Dani's story echoes that of many alcoholics: The drinking was fun, until it wasn’t. And deciding to get sober? That was hard as hell—but worth it, every day.
“It is so powerful to hear women’s stories of sobriety,” says licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor Beth Kane-Davidson, director of the Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. “It’s dealing with a disorder, just as if you were dealing with diabetes or cardiac issues, and people are much more open these days to saying, ‘This is the disorder I had, this is what I did to recover, and this is how my life is now.’” The more women talk about alcoholism, the easier it becomes for women to get the help and support they need, she says. It's time to end the stigma.
Here, eight women reveal their struggles with alcoholism and how they got—and stayed—sober:
1) ‘It began to feel as if I were living two lives—only one of which I could remember'
"Throughout my teens and twenties, I'd been drinking recklessly and desperately, trying to viciously combat the social anxiety and despair I frequently felt. Alcohol had become my go-to escape, a ticket to a world where I could be more social, more wild, and less weighed down by anxious thoughts. Of course, the temporary highs that I experienced always left me with a patchwork of clues to put together. I'd wake in the mornings wondering what I'd said or done, baffled by how I'd returned home or where I'd woken.
"For years, after each hazy night filled with poor decisions, I'd wake and think to myself, I have to quit drinking, but I never actually imagined doing it. The errors in decision-making started out harmless enough—a public make-out session with a stranger, a sharp-tongued rebuke of a loved one—but the older I got, the more serious the errors became. Business trips turned boozy. Car keys slipped easily into the ignition. It began to feel as if I were living two lives—only one of which I could remember.
"When my alcohol misuse began to impact my work, I knew things had gone too far. When I couldn't keep it to the weekends, when I couldn't keep it to a social activity but instead took to drinking alone to calm my racing mind, I knew I had to seek change. From my doctor, I got the name of a therapist who specialized in addiction issues. It was the first time in my life that a professional had stated clearly—and without an ounce of hesitancy—that I had a problem. Something about that—the expert acknowledging what I'd known to be true for so long—changed the way I saw my alcohol-focused life. Something about the words she used and the hope she had for me made me realize that I didn't have to keep drinking.
"Every day it's a choice—and many days it's not an easy one. But, for me, it's always proven to be the right one. I never wake up with regret. I never wake up wondering where I am or who I might have been the night before. As I often say to those struggling at the beginning of sobriety: It gets easier, but it's never easy. Seven years in and there are still difficult days, but I wouldn't trade them for anything. Sobriety changed every aspect of my life for the better and, had I never given it a try, I never would have known the woman I have come to be.” —Dani D., 34, sober for seven years
2) ‘Sober is the new cool’
“After moving from Texas to Florida at age 15, I was naturally searching for new friends. Drinking seemed to be my ticket into the ‘cool kids’ crew. Mixed with just the right amount of curiosity and boredom, this quickly led to binge drinking and using harder drugs. By the time I was 21, I was addicted to alcohol and cocaine.
"As a result of my substance abuse, I developed anxiety disorder. I would drink to manage my anxiety, unknowingly feeding it at the same time. I tried moderation and rules around drinking, but happy hour somehow always turned into sunrise, and back to the bottle I’d go. Meanwhile, I still managed to work, pay my bills, and even go to the gym, which convinced me that it wasn’t a problem. This continued for many years, until one day I reached a breaking point: I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. The hangovers. The shame and guilt. The anxiety. It had become too heavy to carry.
"After another bender, I dropped to my knees in prayer. I wasn’t a religious person, but I was desperate for a change, a miracle. From that day forward, I never drank or used cocaine again. I simply became willing to do things differently.
"I made a commitment to try sobriety, developed a strong spiritual practice, and eventually found yoga. I decided not to let my relationship with alcohol affect my ability to be social or have fun. I started feeling and looking better—along with my bank account, might I add. After a year, I accepted sobriety as a lifestyle, and I’ve been on a mission ever since to show people that sober is the new cool.” —Carly Benson, 36, sober for nine years
3) ‘I wouldn’t trade all the shit I endured over the years for what I have today'
“As far back as I can remember, I had two elements of mental illness: a low level of constant anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. These chemical imbalances were the perfect breeding ground to foster a binge-drinking problem.
"To quiet my mind and shed my once pervasive ‘nerd’ identity, alcohol was the perfect antidote. I didn’t realize that not everyone partook in underage (and then, of age) drinking—and that my behavior wasn’t considered the norm. As many of my peers in recovery say, first it was fun, then fun with problems, and then just problems. All the ‘peace’ and confidence drinking provided in the moment would be completely erased the next day, as my body and mind would be wrecked by the physical and emotional ravages of the night before. Losing phones, breaking bones, ambulance rides to the hospital for safekeeping. These weren’t normal rites of passage.
"It took a second hospitalization for alcohol poisoning in the course of 1.5 years to finally shake me. I needed help; I needed to get my life on track. But how?
"When I returned to Washington, D.C., after a fateful hospitalization in New York City, I knew I had to reach out for help from a professional. Through my health insurance, I found an intensive outpatient program that I could attend for five weeks, in the evenings, and still work full-time. But I had just turned 24 and didn’t think about quitting in terms of ‘forever.’ Just for now.
"Suffice it to say, ‘just for now’ became months and then years. I learned to face breakups and family deaths and toxic workplaces and falling in love and being an auntie and living on my own without drinking. I wouldn’t trade all the shit I endured over the years for what I have today.” —Laura Silverman, 34, sober for 10 years
4) 'My mom said, 'there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re an alcoholic.''
"After college, I moved to Cancun, Mexico, where I found people who drank and used drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and GHB the same way I did. It got to the point where I would go on days-long cocaine binges, skip work, and barely be able to take care of my day-to-day responsibilities. I even injured myself, breaking my arm and my nose, during blackouts.
"In spring 2012, I met my now-husband, Fernando, and we began dating. He became irritated with my drinking and using habits and was sick of cleaning up after me and taking care of me. He often pointed out that my alcohol issues weren’t normal. In May 2013, I went on a friend’s bachelorette party trip at an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, and I promised Fernando I would control my drinking.
"On the second day, I did what I always ended up doing: I blacked out. I woke up to texts from Fernando saying that we were over and he was sick of my behavior. I was devastated and spent the rest of the weekend drinking and crying. In the airport on the way back to Cancun, I had a breakdown. It was my moment of clarity. I was on the phone with my mom crying and telling her that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My mom said, 'there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re an alcoholic.’
"That statement hit me like a ton of bricks, and I knew in my heart it was true. I made a decision on that day that I would not drink until further notice. I had no idea at that time how long that would be, but I knew I had to try something I’d never tried before, which was cutting out drugs and alcohol completely from my life.
"When I got back to Cancun, I began reading about alcohol use disorder and educated myself on why I drank. I started a blog about my sobriety and began forming connections with others through the online recovery community. A year into my sobriety, I tried 12-step meetings, and I also found meditation and CrossFit to be helpful. Every good thing I have in my life is a direct result of choosing recovery every single day.” — Kelly F., 32, sober for four years
5) 'I awoke after another blackout binge-drinking night and realized that I’d written a suicide letter'
“If you’d met me eight years ago, you may not have guessed I was a high-functioning alcoholic. As a lifelong chameleon, I was adept at diverting your attention in order to hide the fact I was living another side of myself in the shadows. I had a husband and children, a nice home, a career, and an engaging manner to distract you. All the while, I was numbing myself by binge drinking and desperately chasing a joy that somehow I’d never actually found. Outwardly, I was vivacious and self-confident, but inside I felt unworthy and hollow as my behaviors blanketed my soul in a shame I fought to ignore.
"My moment of surrender came when I awoke after another blackout binge-drinking night and realized that I’d written a suicide letter, which I didn’t remember. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I couldn’t predict my drunken behavior anymore. My fear of a life without alcohol and feeling like an outcast was less than my fear of death or harming someone else. Don’t get me wrong—I’d tried many times over the years to moderate or stop drinking, but somehow on February 6, 2010, I was utterly willing to change anything and everything.
"That day, with the support of my husband and sister, I looked up 12-step meetings. Walking through the doors of my first meeting, I began a horrifically difficult journey toward learning to live again. I stepped over the threshold in a cold sweat of fear, with no idea how I’d ever make up for my mistakes or how I’d ever fit in again.
"The good news is that I’ve learned to walk with my chin held high and no secret shadows in my life. I’ve relied upon my family, friends, faith, and that program to help get me where I am today. I now have a flourishing career in a new field and a stronger marriage and friendships, and I found that joy and self-worth I’d been chasing right inside my own self.” —Julie Elsdon-Height, 45, sober for eight years
6) 'It’s about creating a life that's so good, you don't need to numb out from it'
“I don’t have a dramatic rock-bottom story. In fact, not having a rock bottom was one of the things that nearly stopped me from getting sober at all. I had a very fixed idea of what a problem drinker looked like, and I wasn’t it. I was convinced that things weren’t ‘bad enough’ for me to have to quit completely.
"Even at the height of my drinking, I worked out. I ran. I got promoted. On the outside, things certainly looked fine. I was succeeding at work and keeping everything together. I wasn’t pouring vodka on my cornflakes or drinking and driving. But every night, I had this irresistible urge to hit the self-destruct button.
"In April 2013, after a particularly brutal hangover, I looked at the calendar and realized I had exactly six months to go until I turned 30. Suddenly, the idea of taking my problem drinking with me into the next decade seemed incredibly sad and depressing.
"In my previous, half-hearted attempts at quitting, I’d always white-knuckled it by myself and spent the whole time feeling miserable, annoyed, and lost in my own head. This time, I spent a lot of time reading books, listening to podcasts, and trying to educate myself about alcohol and addiction. I started writing a blog and reached out to other sober bloggers. Those small steps made such a difference, as I began to meet people who were sober and—shockingly—really enjoying life!
"I'm nearly five years sober now and I couldn’t be happier. I passionately believe that sobriety shouldn't be about missing out or feeling deprived—it’s about creating a life that's so good, you don't need to numb out from it.” — Kate Bee, 34, sober for four years
7) ‘Who was I when I wasn’t getting wasted?’
“I’ve been on a winding journey trying to find my way in the world since I was 17. As a little girl, I felt different from everyone else. In high school, I was sexually abused and picked on. However, I believe I was born an addict. I started experimenting. Not long after, I became part-time student, full-time connoisseur of alcohol and drugs. I had found my niche, my people, and fervor for life.
"I ended up going in and out of some of the finest rehabs in the country, many of which I walked out of. After a missing person’s report was filed and pleading from my family, I decided to try the treatment route again. Give or take a few years, and I had a brief period of sobriety, but I wasn’t completely honest with myself and others around me.
"One day, I woke up in the hospital after a long and drunken stupor across the country. On the outside, I was a compilation of scars, bruises, and crappy CVS makeup. On the inside, I was broken and scared. Who was I when I wasn’t getting wasted? I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. I was terrified to live and terrified to die. That day, I had my last drink. The emotional bottom that I had hit couldn’t compare to the possessions I had lost and the close calls with death I had encountered. I went to detox and immersed myself into the recovery world that was around me.
"Through time, persistence, and taking a hard look at myself, I have come to find a life that can’t compare to anything I have ever imagined. Today, I have the best of friends and best family, and I’ve had some of the most amazing adventures because I am sober. Unfortunately and fortunately, I’ve had the chance to live two lives, one of deception and one of triumph. Because of that, I have become set free from the chains that once bound me down. I have come to know true happiness, joy, and serenity.” —Tori Skene, 25, sober for one year
8) ‘How could I have a problem if things were going so well?’
“At 38, I had what looked like an enviable life. I worked at a prestigious law firm in New York City, lived in a great apartment, and had a tight set of family and friends. But I also had an awful secret—an alcohol and cocaine addiction that had worsened to the point of drinking and using around the clock. I was what’s known as a high-functioning addict, looking like a relatively normal person to the outside world.
"I had been on a downward spiral for 10 years. At first I only drank at night. Then I started drinking at lunch. I swore I would never drink in the morning—that was for 'real' alcoholics—until the morning I had to drink to steady myself for work. Ultimately, I added cocaine to keep me awake and what I considered alert.
"Finally, one Monday morning on my way to work, I thought I was having a heart attack. Feeling like I might die, I somehow decided to reach out for help and checked into a detox unit. It saved my life. That day, I admitted to my friends and family the secret I’d been carrying for so many years.
"In addition to addiction, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, which I had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I was prescribed an antidepressant to treat my depression appropriately. After leaving detox, I threw myself into recovery. I took the antidepressant religiously. I went to outpatient rehab and immediately started going to 12-step meetings. I became willing to do whatever it took to not pick up a drink. Part of my recovery included writing a memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, about my struggles and journey in sobriety.
"Still, as a lawyer, I feared telling anyone at work about my struggle or even my recovery because of the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health disorders. However, when my memoir was coming out, I had to come clean at work. I was thrilled by the understanding and compassion I received. The process of telling people made me realize that these issues touch everyone, whether it’s through their own experience or those of family or friends. Now I advocate publicly for smashing the stigma I once feared. Today, sobriety has given me a life beyond my wildest dreams, and I could not be more grateful.” —Lisa Smith, 51, sober for 13 years
The morning before I got sober, I downed nearly a bottle of red wine and snorted a few lines of cocaine as part of my regular routine getting ready for work. As I headed to my law firm, I felt sick, afraid, and alone. Now, more than 13 years later, thanks to important recent research and reporting conducted on lawyers, substance abuse, and mental health, I know I was wrong about being alone.
More than 20 years ago, I became an associate at a big New York City firm and almost simultaneously spiraled into alcoholism and drug addiction. I attribute this to my genetic predisposition toward addiction, my then-undiagnosed depressive disorder, and the intense and exhausting demands of my job. Many people can handle the pressures of a 24/7 work-hard-play-hard environment, but I am not one of them.
Though I knew I was in serious trouble for 10 years before I got sober in 2004, the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction in law firms played a significant role in my decision not to seek help. When I finally bottomed out, I was using drugs and alcohol around the clock. Somehow, I never lost a job or even received a negative performance review. My hours were odd, my office was a mess, and I frequently worked from home, but the same could be said for many lawyers who weren’t in the throes of addiction. I checked myself into a hospital for a medicated detoxification only because I thought I might die.
At the end of my stay in the detox unit, it was strongly suggested that I next head to a 28-day rehabilitation facility. I refused to go. I was unwilling to tell my law firm the truth of my illness. As a compromise, I attended outpatient rehab two nights a week. I returned to the office just a week and a day after checking into the hospital. My doctors were rightly concerned about my decision, considering I had just been diagnosed with a chronic brain disease. I have been extremely fortunate to remain sober since checking out of that detox, particularly in this profession.
Aspects of law firm culture beyond work pressures can prove challenging for people contending with substance-abuse issues, even when they are in recovery. Having spent more than 25 years working in law firms, I can count very few events at which alcohol was not served. We use it to entertain clients, form bonds among team members, and blow off steam at the end of the week. Does anyone want to feel left out at those important firm functions? While I am encouraged to see firms starting to examine the free-flowing nature of alcohol at all events, this practice cannot be expected to change overnight.
We need to have structured, consistent, and ongoing conversations about mental health and substance abuse in the legal profession. Attorneys and staff alike need to learn from their first day that there is confidential help available to them, both in the form of firm employee assistance programs (EAPs) and the lawyer assistance committees (LACs) of the bar associations in all 50 states. It is critical for people to know where to go when they feel overwhelmed, are experiencing a challenge in their personal life, or find they are looking to drugs or alcohol for relief and escape.
During the course of my career, I have seen plenty of people in law firms and other professions take leave for surgeries, medical treatments, and, of course, to have kids. Never have I seen anyone take a leave to go to rehab. When I was presented with the opportunity, I feared it would be seen as a weakness, not an illness, in an environment where strength, reliability, and stamina are prized. Now I want to use my voice and my story in any way I can to help break that stigma around addiction. I’d like to see the day that addiction will be treated just like any other medical condition, and the person who finds himself or herself where I was 13 years ago feels comfortable saying, “Yes, thank you; I will accept this help and go away to treatment to get healthy.”
Lisa Smith is a lawyer and a writer based in New York City. Her memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, recounts her descent into and recovery from high-functioning alcoholism and cocaine addiction in major international firms. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and Rutgers School of Law.
Author/attorney Lisa Smith to detail story of addiction and recovery at Dec. 2 solo and small-firm event
In the fall of 2014, Lisa Smith walked into the offices of the New York City law firm where she worked and informed her superiors that she once had a serious alcohol and substance abuse problem, and she was about to talk about it publicly everywhere she could.
Smith had just secured a book deal for her memoir, a harrowing account of her struggles with drinking and addiction while she was working at another law firm. She knew that going public with her story might result in some pushback at work, but she was looking to fight back against the secrecy and stigma that surrounded the legal industry and addiction.
“Some people said to use a pen name,” she recalled. “But I knew if I want to do some good with this and I want to help the next person, I have to own it.”
As it turned out, her law firm gave her their full support. Smith’s book, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, was published last year, and she spends much of her time now talking to lawyers and other audiences about the secret she kept for so long. She’s also the deputy executive director at her firm.
Smith, a New Jersey native and a Rutgers School of Law graduate, will be the lunchtime keynote speaker on Dec. 2 at Proven Practice Management Strategies for Solo and Small-Firm Attorneys, a daylong program to be held at the New Jersey Law Center by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). The day’s agenda is packed with practical tips on subjects like technology tools, social media use, insurance, data security, billing practices, and more. Education credits are available.
Solo and small-firm attorneys comprise the vast majority of New Jersey’s lawyers, and the New Jersey State Bar Association has made programming for that population a priority this year.
As Smith put it, solo and small-firm attorneys “have the whole weight of running the business on their shoulders, in addition to the practice of law, which is stressful enough,” she said. “They also have to be a small business owner.”
A 2016 national study of lawyers surveyed nearly 13,000 practicing attorneys and found that 21 percent of them qualified as problem drinkers. That’s twice the rate of incidence as the general population, according to Smith.
“The profession attracts overachievers, really driven people,” Smith said. “And that can frequently make for people who can get very focused and intense. That kind of intensity can get applied to someone’s drinking, which really ends in trouble.”
Also, the round-the-clock nature of the job can be stressful, “especially if you are a sole practitioner and there’s no one else to back you up. Client demands are 24-7, you’re never disconnected from your device…it is a huge impact.”
And finally, there’s the shame and the stigma. So much so that even when Smith decided to get help, she decided against inpatient rehabilitation because she didn’t want her firm to find out.
She notes that as far as she knows, no one at her old job was aware of her issues. “I was managing to keep up with my work and get everything in and nobody looked at me twice,” she said. There’s a lot of aspects of lawyer life—crazy hours, messy offices—that allow you to hide addiction, she said.
But now she talks about it whenever she can. And she often gets messages from people, via email or social media, asking for advice, asking if they might have a problem. “I respond to everybody,” she said. “It’s really kind of important to me. I do feel like it has helped people.”
New York-based author and attorney Lisa Smith has been clean and sober for a decade. She detailed her drug and alcohol addiction in "Girl Walks Out of a Bar," and in an exclusive essay for Megyn Kelly TODAY, she shares the moment she knew she needed help — and the surprising reaction to her addiction from loved ones.
When I was an active alcoholic and drug addict, secrets were my stock in trade. They were the bricks in the precarious wall I built around myself. If one brick were ever to fall out, the whole wall would crash down and I would be exposed.
The glass of vodka I carefully set on my bedside table each night because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get up without it. The small glass vial of cocaine that I would need partway through my workday slipped into my lipstick case. The bottle of wine I downed alone after a convivial dinner with friends.
These were among the secrets I kept until the day I thought they were going to kill me and I decided I wanted to live.
It was pretty dark stuff for someone who looked put together, happy and successful to the rest of the world. I was a 38-year-old lawyer living in a bright apartment in New York City with a high-powered job at a large, prestigious firm. I had a great family and close friends who loved me. I was also at the tail end of a painful 10-year spiral that had taken me from party girl to full-blown alcoholic and cocaine addict. And I was terrified of being discovered.
In the throes of addiction, the devil I knew, the relentless need to drink and use drugs, felt far safer than the devil I didn’t know: admitting that I had a problem and asking for help. What would people think if they knew that before even taking my coat off after work I would gulp down half an over-sized glass of cheap Chardonnay? Or if they knew I bought cocaine with the casualness of picking up a quart of milk? I was ashamed of the way I lived. Alcoholics were the disheveled people sprawled out in subway stations. Drug addicts were scrawny tweakers wandering around Times Square. I was a smart, strong, and successful professional, at least as far as the world around me could tell. I intended to keep it that way.
Yet on the morning of April 5, 2004, when I thought I was having a heart attack, I somehow chose to tear down my wall of secrets. In a panic, I checked myself into a detox facility at a city psychiatric hospital. I later heard that your bottom is where you stop digging. On that day the shovel was just too heavy for me to lift anymore. The moment I had so feared, revealing my secrets, had arrived. I called my parents, brother and close friends as soon as I made the arrangements to go to treatment.
Their surprise came through the phone loud and clear as I spilled out the truth of a life they had no idea I was living. One of the purposes of my secrets was protection from what I was sure those around me would say. But my assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong.
My family and friends reacted to the news of my addiction with concern, support, and sadness to learn how miserable and sick I was. I didn’t hear anger or accusations. I heard compassion and love. And despite learning that I had kept these secrets from them for so long, they have all shown up for me and held my hand as I’ve worked to get healthy.
I kept my addiction, and my recovery, a secret in my workplace even longer. Law firms can be tough places to work. Strength, dedication, and stamina are critical. After all my hard work to get there, I didn’t want the stigma that unfortunately surrounds addiction to destroy my career.
But again the reaction I received surprised me.
Suddenly, I realized the true reach of these issues. Almost everyone is affected in one way or another, directly or indirectly. Once I was able to tear down my wall of secrets, I could see reality more clearly. Addicts and alcoholics aren’t the stereotypes I thought they were. This disease does not discriminate. I also learned that I didn’t have to do it alone. Asking for help, connecting with and supporting others saved my life. I know how fortunate I have been in my recovery with access to treatment and ongoing care for my addiction. I am grateful for every day I wake up sober.
Now I want to speak up and be there to help the next person who is suffering to tear down his or her wall of secrets before it’s too late.
Allow me to introduce you to an incredibly inspiring person and to preface one of the most influential interviews you will ever read. Lisa is a lawyer, an author, a daughter, a wife, a friend and a recovering alcoholic. She has been clean and sober for more than 10 years and so passionately strives to break the stigma related to drug and alcohol addiction, particularly for corporate professional women – where the typical attitude is work-hard-play-hard. She has recently published her incredible memoir: A Girl Walks Out Of A Bar in which she bravely shares her experience, her journey and her recovery from alcohol and drug addiction in the most raw-honest-and-lay-all-cards-on-the-table-kinda way. She shares the highest of highs and the devastating lows, the struggles and the victories. Her candid memoir is truly as heartbreaking as it is inspiring and whether you’ve been there or not, you will be able to relate, empathise and connect with Lisa. You will be inspired by her courage, as she so frankly shares her story. It will touch you and impact you. I mean, there’s a reason why this book has garnered so much attention, has been featured in The New York Times and is on the Amazon Best Seller list. And this incredible woman deserves all of the accolades and every single ounce of success she receives, because she is such a good human. It’s as plain and simple as that.
Full disclaimer: prior to purchasing maybe cancel all plans because you won’t want to put it down once you start.
Lisa is leading by example and one of those women we all need to learn from. Seriously. The word role model comes to mind. She is kind, she is brave, she is honest, she genuinely loves (and is so passionate about) helping others and she’s simply just doing the best she can, every day she shows up as her best self. And as she takes her recovery one day at a time, she is a magnificent advocate for mental health and for looking after your mind and body. She is all about just being honest: honest with yourself, honest with those around you and honest with life. She knows what it is like to feel isolated, alone and like you must struggle on your own which is why she is the ultimate embodiment of community, she is so generous with her time and she encourages others to do the same. Just by being her, she inspires people to be better humans. And on top of that, she is captain of the cheer squad when it comes to supporting, helping and being kind to the women around you. She is passionate about rooting for each other and rising together. I can tell you this first hand.
I am in awe of this incredible woman, I am inspired by her and I am so thankful for her kindness and support which has effected me in ways she doesn’t even know. Lisa is one of the sweetest, most genuinely kind people on this planet. You know those people that are so innately kind, so inherently sweet and so pure of heart that they can’t be anything but…well this is Lisa. I am sure she belongs in a special club with that title because I truly feel like she is one of those people that would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it – even in an NYC winter, she is THAT kind. And, as I mentioned, Lisa is so beautifully encouraging of anything to do with women supporting women and knows that together, #wegotthis.
No matter what you’re going through, where you’re at and whether you’re currently on an expected or (the oh-so-common-comes-out-of-nowhere-but-trust-it’s-exactly-where-you’re-meant-to-be) unexpected path… there is most definitely something in this interview for you. There are SO many takeaways from Lisa’s wisdom, experience and outlook on life that I quite seriously don’t even know where to start. This is honestly one of my favorite parts of this website because I get so inspired by the incredible women featured, and Lisa is without a shadow of a doubt, no exception. I honestly can’t even tell you what an impact this interview will have on you and once you’ve read this, it will leave you jumping on amazon.com and ordering a copy of her book, because it will leave you wanting more: to know more, to feel more and to be even more inspired. Lisa’s interview is harrowingly honest, incredibly wise and filled with so much inspiration that you will quite possibly need to re-read it multiple times to allow it all to soak in – I can’t even count how many times I have read it and I still find so many takeaways. A reminder to be gentle with ourselves and talk to ourselves with love and positivity. A reminder that life is there to be lived, wholly and vibrantly and that isn’t exclusive to certain people, we are ALL deserving of a full life. A lesson that fear is an emotion (which we so often forget and allow to control us). A reminder to be proud, of who we are and all that we achieve – and to celebrate those achievements. Above all else, it is a beautiful reminder of kindness and community: to look out for one another, to check in with those around us and ask how they’re doing, to ask how we can help, to be kind because you never know what battle someone is facing and to always lead with love. Ultimately, to remember that you are not alone.
And, I haven’t even scratched the surface of all of the pearls of wisdom you are about to discover via Lisa.
Thank you Lisa. Thank you for being brave enough to share a part of you that in turn is helping so many others, thank you for erasing some of the stigma associated with mental health and continuing the conversation, thank you for being passionate about helping others, thank you for shining your light, thank you for being kind and supportive and sweet. This world is most definitely a better place with you in it and thank you, for inspiring me (and all the readers who cast their eyes over your interview). You are an inspiration. Period.
LISA F. SMITH // AUTHOR, LAWYER
How would you describe yourself in one word?
Reaching out… #sheisreachingout
What would you tell your 28-year old self?
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help!” At 28, if I had asked for help and gotten sober, I could have spared myself ten years of a dark spiral into addiction that I wasn’t guaranteed to survive. I would say to my 28-year old self, “You have no idea how incredible life can be if you are present to live it. There are huge possibilities if you work to get healthy.” A big hope I have for the book is that some readers might identify signs of a worsening problem, and hopefully get help at an earlier stage of addiction than I did.
What is your philosophy on life?
This is not a dress rehearsal. It’s my life and I need to do all I can, within my power, to make it what I want it to be. The tricky part is accepting what is “within my power” and what is not.
‘Imagine what the world could look like if each woman making a difference in the world held out her hand to bring the next group of women along with her. The possibilities are endless. But if we tear each other down, no one rises. That’s a nonstarter to me.’
The single best piece of advice you have ever received and how has it shaped you?
“Get up. Get dressed. Get with the program.” This was posted at the detox unit where I got sober. My life was such a mess and I was so sick at that point, I couldn’t imagine doing those three things. But it made sense just to try for them each day in order to reclaim my life. For me, it comes down to just taking the next right action on any given day, showing up for my life and for other people, and keeping things simple. If I do my part as best I can, the rest will take of itself.
In your opinion, what is true strength of character?
Staying true to the things that are important to you and finding a way to help others.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from your journey with addiction and how has it impacted you?
Humility. When I was in the throes of addiction, I thought I was the center of the universe, while hating myself the entire time. I thought I was this unique and wildly complex character, all alone in my head and my addiction. Confronting addiction has taught me that I am not unique. I am special and important in my own way (we all are), but I’m no better or worse than anyone else. I learned to love the aspiration of being “a worker among workers and a friend among friends.”
Do you believe in positive self talk and if so, why?
Absolutely. Only I can set my state of mind at any given time, so if I want positivity, I have to remind myself of all the good that can happen if I believe in myself.
Once, when I was on the brink of doing something important, but felt terrified and inadequate, one of my cousins grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and firmly told me, “You’ve got this.” And she was right. Basically, she was saying I needed to believe in myself. So, whenever I’m about to do something that I find scary or challenging, I tell myself, “I’ve got this.” It sounds simple, but it’s worked every time.
What was your rock bottom moment?
If my rock bottom is the thing that triggered me finally to ask for help with my addiction and check into a hospital to detox, then it was the Monday morning when I was on my way to work, drunk and high, and thought I was having a heart attack or overdose. It turned out to be an anxiety attack. But if my bottom is the low point emotionally that I think back on, it was the day that I couldn’t get out of New York City to see my family when my niece was born. I had been drinking and taking drugs for two days straight and could not put myself together to be there. I was both physically sick and emotionally bankrupt, and I knew it. I couldn’t stand myself. Yet, that wasn’t the day I got sober. A saying I love is, “Your bottom is when you stop digging.”
‘Fear is a four-letter word. It’s not a real thing. It’s an emotion.’
How has your life changed since being in recovery?
It’s changed almost completely, both physically and emotionally. But I’d say the biggest change is that I am no longer filled with the self-doubt, fear and self-loathing that made me believe I didn’t deserve a happy and healthy life. Now I know that we all deserve that. It has inspired me to want to help others to recover and find health and peace in their lives.
Why is self care such a crucial part in living with mental health?
There are certain aspects to living with mental health challenges for which I have to take ultimate responsibility. The world offers so much support and love, but I have to take a decision each day to ask for and accept the help I need. For example, I have to be committed to taking my medication and showing up for a program of recovery. I’m also the only who can tell myself to go to bed at night or eat the right thing because sleep and a healthy diet are two of the things that make me feel better and keep me sober.
Your all-time-hands-down-favorite self love ritual?
Giant naps on the weekends. I’m an early morning person and during the week I spend long days in the office. So, on the weekends, I’ll climb back in bed for big chunks of the late morning and afternoon, reading and sleeping. I do it for hours. I’ve learned not to feel guilty about it, even if it’s a sunny, gorgeous day outside and there are other things to be done. Sleep is critical to my health and sobriety, so I take care of myself as best I can.
Something you don’t tell yourself enough?
That I’m proud of what I have accomplished. Like many women, when someone says something nice to me about my book or the fact that I’m speaking up publicly about it, I’ll answer, “I’ve been lucky.” Yes, I have been lucky, but I’ve also worked really hard for more than 10 years to make this book happen. I have heard that studies show when women are complimented that way, they tend to say something like, “I got lucky,” or “it was nothing,” as if we don’t deserve recognition or didn’t achieve anything important. Men, on the other hand, say, “thank you,” and take the compliment, believing they deserve it. We need to act more like them in that circumstance. We do deserve it.
‘What other people think of me is none of my business. I realized that so much of my self-doubt and fear came from comparing myself to other people. I thought everyone else was prettier, smarter, stronger, and most importantly, more deserving of a good life than me. But really, why? ‘
What characteristics and values do you admire in the women that you surround yourself with or are inspired by?
Passion, curiosity and a commitment to living the best and fullest lives they can. A desire to help the next person who suffers. A desire to remain teachable and continue to learn.
Your thoughts on fear and failure….
I am prone to anxiety attacks, so attempting to do anything difficult will trigger fear in me. I fear that I’ll fail and leave myself in a worse position than I would have been in if I never tried at all. It’s normal. So many people feel it. We learn in recovery that fear is a four-letter word. It’s not a real thing. It’s an emotion. So, with the help of meditation, I have learned to breathe through fear, look at it for what it is, note it and move on in my head, mostly by turning back to my breath. That doesn’t mean it always works, though! I still have periodic anxiety attacks. When I have one, I try to remember that it will pass, just like it has every other time.
When putting together your memoir, were you faced with fear or limitations and how did you overcome them?
Yes! I was terrified. I was writing about the worst version of myself. At that time in life, I was hurting others, and myself, thinking that I had a right to do that. Someone suggested that I “write as if no one is ever going to read my words.” That was an enormous help. And the truth is that I didn’t expect my book to be published. I hoped it would, but I didn’t expect it to be, so it really freed me up to lay bare the facts of my addiction and recovery to the reader. I could write as if you were sitting on the couch next to me and I was telling you my story. Then, when the book was coming out, I got past the fear of people reading about that ugliness by telling myself that the good it could do for the next person suffering made it worth exposing myself. And it has been.
‘You are not alone.’
The best piece of real advice you have for believing in yourself…
“What other people think of me is none of my business.” I realized that so much of my self-doubt and fear came from comparing myself to other people. I thought everyone else was prettier, smarter, stronger, and most importantly, more deserving of a good life than me. But really, why? We all deserve health and happiness. We all are capable of working toward our dreams and loving that journey, even if it ends up somewhere unexpected. If I stop comparing myself to others and worrying about what they will think of me or what I do, I can trust that I am just as worthy of good things as the next person. We all are.
How do you define kindness and how can we, as a collective, make the world a kinder place?
I think of kindness as a sort of selflessness or willingness to help someone who struggles. My friends and I have a saying to live by at a minimum: “Just don’t be a jerk.” If we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider how our words or actions might affect them, we can help, or at least not hurt, other people. If, as a collective, we took our mission past “Just don’t be a jerk,” to “How can I help?” the world could be a much kinder place.
Have you ever been shown an act of kindness you will never forget?
So many I can’t count. I always think of the day I checked into the hospital for detox. None of my friends had known how badly addicted I was when I confessed it to them that day. Three of them left work to come sit with me and talk it through that Monday morning and later five of them were with me at the hospital to help me check in. One of my friends brought me a small stuffed tiger for protection in what did in fact turn out to be a scary detox unit. I still have him. I never would have thought to do that for someone else. There were both big and small acts of kindness that day.
‘Only I can set my state of mind at any given time, so if I want positivity, I have to remind myself of all the good that can happen if I believe in myself.’
Why is it important to check in with one another?
Because there is strength and comfort in knowing that we are not doing this alone. None of us are the first, or unfortunately the last, to struggle with addiction and mental health challenges. The power of talking to someone else who shares your experience and way of thinking is something I never expected.
What advice can you share for anyone suffering in any way, but afraid to ask for help?
You can ask for help that is confidential and judgment-free. There are all kinds of resources out there, including online, where there are people who want to help. And asking for help doesn’t mean you suddenly have to quit drinking forever or become perfect. I’ve been sober for more than 13 years and I have never once said, “I will never drink again.” I just say, “Today, I am choosing not to drink.” If you think of it that way, it’s far less daunting and just as effective.
You are an incredible example of talking about feelings and issues that often have a stigma attached to them. Why is transparency crucial in reducing so many of the stigmas society attaches?
Until the stigma around addiction and mental health issues is broken, there will be many people who suffer silently and don’t get the help they need because of fear that they will be judged. The consequences of that stigma are tragic, both in terms of those who don’t make it out of addiction alive and those who end up living lives so far below their hopes and dreams.
For me, transparency feels in my gut like the right thing and something I have to do. What drives me in life is working to speak up about these issues. That doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone. The stigma is real and many people prefer to maintain anonymity in recovery for any number of good reasons. But I feel like I need to be public and say, “I’m a recovering addict. You can be high functioning, have what looks a ‘great’ life and still be in the midst of a painful addiction.” I think the best way to break the stigma is to talk about addiction and mental health issues and raise awareness of both the problem and the help available. The people I’ve met along this journey have certainly proved to me that everyone – family, friends and the communities of those who live with these issues – are impacted in a huge way. I hope to make it easier for the next person to feel comfortable owning their story.
‘Whenever I’m about to do something that I find scary or challenging, I tell myself, “I’ve got this.” It sounds simple, but it’s worked every time.’
As a collective, why is it integral for girls and women to champion, support and build each other up rather than tearing one another down? (And in what ways can we do so?)
I think there are so many good reasons for this! On a purely selfish level, I like the way helping someone else makes me feel. I find that doing something good for someone else is the same as doing something good for myself. I also feel enormous gratitude for somehow having had the opportunity to survive dozens of situations that should have killed me in my addiction. I feel like I have to give something back to the universe that has been so kind to me today.
Girls and women in particular need to champion and support each other because we still have an enormous way to go in achieving equality to men in so many areas. Not just that, but we understand each other in a distinctly different way. There are incredible women out there forging new paths in all kinds of areas – business, politics, science, social justice and the arts, just to name a few. Imagine what the world could look like if each woman making a difference in the world held out her hand to bring the next group of women along with her. The possibilities are endless. But if we tear each other down, no one rises. That’s a nonstarter to me.
Your ultimate message to young girls and women?
You are not alone. Whatever you’re experiencing, there are people out there who have been through it as well. They want to help you. We do this together.
Your favorite quote that always inspires you?
My favorite quote is, “The more I see, the less I know, the more I like to let it go.” It’s from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song, “Snow (Hey Oh).” Anthony Kiedis, their lead singer is what I like to call my “sober shaman.” He has an amazing story of addiction and recovery. Hence my motto, “If Anthony Kiedis can stay sober, I can stay sober!”
Liv: As this is Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, let’s kick off with a food question: what have you had for breakfast today?
Lisa: Great question! I’ve been dealing with some stomach issues, so for the most part, I’ve cut out gluten and dairy. I had scrambled egg whites, almonds and two mini-muffins from a company that makes gluten-free / dairy-free baked goods. I never miss a meal.
Liv: Moving to your story, you said that using drugs and alcohol was once a way you escaped your insecurity and negativity as a teenager—can you elaborate on that?
Lisa: Yes, and this also goes back to the food issue. By the time I was seven or eight years old, I knew that I felt uncomfortable in my skin. I had these dark feelings and anxiety. I had night terrors. I found that food could ease that and bring me comfort. I didn’t realize that downing a box of Yodels was actually giving me a dopamine hit to the brain. I just felt better. As a result, I became a heavy kid who was teased by the other kids, exacerbating the feelings of insecurity and negativity – and leading to more eating. Once I found that alcohol and drugs could shut out those feelings in an even more complete way, I was off to the races.
Addiction in the Legal Profession
Liv: Using became a means of your coping with the anxiety and stress of an impossible workload as a New York City Corporate Finance Lawyer. In fact, you mentioned in your interview with Allison Micco that 1 in 4/5 lawyers have a drug abuse problem. In your opinion, why do you think drug abuse is so prevalent in this profession and why hasn’t it been addressed? What could law firms do to better support lawyers drowning in addiction?
Lisa: This is actually a giant topic. Thankfully, it’s finally getting more widespread attention. I would refer anyone interested to check out the op-ed piece I wrote on it for The Washington Post. Click here.
Also, The New York Times did a major story on it a couple of weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed and quoted in it–click here
Liv: You said, ‘beneath the façade of success lies the reality of addiction.’, what do you mean by that?
Lisa: I think that means you can’t assume someone doesn’t have a problem just because they’re outwardly succeeding in their career or are surrounded by friends and family. When my family and friends learned of my addiction, they all expressed incredible support, but they wondered how they couldn’t have known. I heard some form of, “but you’ve got this great job where you’re doing well and you have all of these wonderful friends,” a million times. You don’t have to lose your job or get a DUI or overdose to have a problem. Those are the “yets” that can be avoided by getting help before they happen, which they eventually would have to me, maybe as soon as the next day.
Liv: Your using became all-encompassing where you were using alcohol and cocaine around the clock. You mentioned that at this point, you had lost your ability to make choices—what do you mean by that?
Lisa: I mean that my addiction ruled my world. It owned me. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning, my brain was dominated by thoughts of, “When can I drink? When can I next use coke?” My life was structured entirely around feeding that beast. I was somehow able to show up to the office when I needed to (I worked from home A LOT) because that was a matter of survival to get to the next drink or line of coke. I had no ability to get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go for a walk, maybe check out a museum and grab some lunch.” It was just, “when next, when next, what do I have to do to get there?” I had no control. I had to have that first drink and then I had to go wherever it took me. Which was to some pretty awful places.
Liv: You have said that you were predisposed to depression—how did this impact your drug and alcohol use?
Lisa: For me, depression was like this nasty blanket that covered my brain. It was the voice that constantly told me I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough. It measured me up against other people and always judged me to be lacking. Alcohol and drugs didn’t so much make me happy as just shut that awful voice up. I could relax and not feel so self-conscious, sad or unworthy. Some people call alcohol, “liquid courage.” I called it, “liquid indifference.” It made me not care about the things that consumed my brain in a negative way before I drank.
On Getting Sober
Liv: After a decade of abuse, you hosted a self-intervention and made the decision to go to treatment. Your addiction was so advanced that you needed a five day medical detox. What prompted your decision to get help?
Lisa: It happened on a Monday morning after a weekend of drinking and doing coke around the clock. I was dressed and out the door to go to work when I suddenly thought I was having a heart attack. I thought maybe I had finally OD’ed. (Now I realize it was an anxiety attack.) I was so physically sick, puking blood and other things. For some reason that morning, I decided I wanted to live and decided to ask for help. I didn’t set out to say, “I’m quitting drinking today.” I just didn’t want to die.
Liv: Not all people who go into treatment remain sober. What can you attribute your continued sobriety to?
Lisa: So true. I have been so fortunate and I attribute it to three things. 1) When I went into the detox the psychiatrist correctly diagnosed me with major depressive disorder that I had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He put me on an antidepressant that worked for me. That’s highly unusual, getting the right diagnosis and effective medication that works on the first shot; 2) I had an incredible support system of friends and family, an apartment and a job to go back to. I didn’t have to deal with court dates or financial headaches or destroyed relationships in the first days of sobriety, unlike many people; and 3) I was done when I checked in. I was out of gas, just totally spent physically and emotionally. After I initially went in, I could have left, but decided to stay because I wanted to do that. It wasn’t because someone forced me to or I was court-ordered. I wanted it for myself.
Girl Walks Out of a Bar
Liv: You said that in writing your book, you wanted to demonstrate that there is another side to the nightmare of living in addiction. What does the other side look like?
Lisa: Wow. I heard in my recovery program that if I chased it, I could have a life beyond my wildest dreams, and I do. I used to be the kind of drunk who sat on a barstool and slurred, “I’m gonna write a book.” Now I wrote a book, which is still unbelievable to me. The most important thing I’ve been able to do, though, was be at my father’s side from the day he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to the day he died just five and a half weeks later. I showed up, a sober daughter, in a way I never could have imagined when I was drinking and using. But I think it’s important to include in this answer that I still have depression relapses periodically and expect that I always will. It’s taking life on life’s terms a day at a time, to combine two major clichés that happen to be true for me.
Holistic Recovery: How the body recovers from addiction
Liv: Moving on to holistic recovery, and the body, how has your relationship with your body evolved in recovery?
Lisa: I am so much nicer to it! I don’t beat the crap out of it anymore. And I am way more accepting of it than I ever used to be. I still have major hang-ups. For me, it’s hard not to look in the mirror and see the heavy, unhappy teenager looking back at me. I’m still self-conscious about it around other people. But I’m much kinder to myself all around now. I don’t put my self-worth on how I feel about my body on a given day. I did that when I was younger. Now, most days (not all), I can look in the mirror and say, “OK, you thought you’d be dead before 40. All in all, not bad for 51. And if someone disagrees, fuck ‘em.”
Liv: Has your relationship with food changed?
Lisa: Yes, it’s improved. When I was drinking, I would be the person who ordered a salad with dressing on the side and counted every calorie I ate, but drank two bottles of wine. I dropped out of Weight Watchers when I was told I couldn’t use all my points for the day on wine. (A lot of days using coke, I had no desire to eat.) In the first year of sobriety, I said, “If I’m not drinking, I’m going to eat anything I want.” And I did. Lots of pizza, ice cream, chocolate, whatever I wanted. All that mattered was that I didn’t drink. Then over time I realized that the healthier I ate, the better I felt physically, so my habits improved, but I never went back to that crazy restrictive thing I used to do. I’m still careful most of the time because all it takes is a hard look at a chocolate cake and I gain weight. But I can enjoy food in a way I never could before.
Top Five Recovery Tools for Addiction Recovery
Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?
- Twelve step programs (not for everyone, and to each his own, but this is what has worked for me)
- Writing – total catharsis and helps me figure myself out.
- Meditation – I’m not as good about it as I should be, but I find it hugely helpful.
- Staying connected with my fellow sober travellers.
- Gratitude – I can never forget how fortunate I have been and I have to give back to help others.