Everyone In My Law Firm Knows I’m Sober (and I Don’t Care)


The morning I decided to check myself into a psychiatric hospital for a medicated detox, my biggest fear wasn’t that I had no idea what I’d find behind the doors of its locked-down unit. It wasn’t telling my friends and family about the ‘round-the-clock alcohol and cocaine addiction I had been hiding. It wasn’t even the idea that I might not be able to drink again. No, my biggest fear was that my law firm would find out that I had a substance use problem.

I was terrified of the stigma surrounding addiction in the office. As in so many other industries, in law firms, alcoholism and addiction are too frequently viewed as weaknesses or moral failings. I’d heard people in the workplace make fun of “drunks” and worse. On top of that, big firms have historically had a dangerous “work hard/play hard” ethic. It’s a bullshit way of telling employees, “Don’t just work 70 hours a week. Also spend a chunk of your personal time bonding over drinks with your colleagues and clients.” In the bar telling war stories until 2 a.m.? Great. See you at 9 a.m. sharp and be ready to work yet another 12-hour-plus day.

This lifestyle is somehow not expected to take a toll on your physical or mental health, either. If you can’t handle it and you show cracks, you probably just can’t cut it. It’s not the job—it’s you. And the worst part about stigmatizing addiction and mental health challenges is that it discourages people from getting critical, life-saving help when they’re struggling.

In the bar telling war stories until 2 a.m.? Great. See you at 9 a.m. sharp and be ready to work yet another 12-hour-plus day.

I spent five days in the hospital and then went straight back to work, refusing longer inpatient treatment because I was too afraid to tell my firm I needed to go away for a month. Of course, if I’d needed surgery or treatment for another physical problem, I wouldn’t have thought twice. But go out for a month to go to rehab? I’d never seen it done before, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the first to do it.

Upon my return to the office, I made up a lie about why I’d been out the week before. I gladly accepted compliments from coworkers about how much better I looked. “Yes!” I wanted to answer. “Isn’t it amazing what can happen when you stop ingesting wine by the double bottle and cocaine quite possibly cut with laundry detergent?” But, somehow, the timing wasn’t right for that.

I was working on the administrative side of the law firm, having switched out of practicing law several years earlier when it became incompatible with my drinking. One or the other had to go and, at that time, it wasn’t going to be alcohol. No longer representing clients, I’d felt liberated in my drinking. I never would’ve guessed that one day I’d feel liberated in kicking booze to the curb instead.

I changed jobs after about a year sober. I kept my sobriety to myself, sharing it with only a handful of colleagues to whom I grew close over the years at my new firm. It was my business and no one else’s. Then, a couple years ago, when I had the opportunity to publish my book, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, about my downward spiral and eventual recovery, I took it. But it meant going public with my story, so I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best at work.

A lot of people in my office knew that I wrote in my spare time, but few knew what I wrote about. I started visiting my colleagues’ offices, knocking on their doors and sticking my head in. “Hey,” I would say, “I wanted to let you know that my book is being published.” When that was met with congratulations and excitement, I would walk in, shut the office door and say, “Now, let me tell you what it’s about….”

The responses I received were revelatory. I expected stunned silence or open discomfort, but I was wrong. Yes, I got a lot of questions, ranging from, “How long ago did that happen?” to “Did you ever get arrested?”

But I also got overwhelming understanding and compassion. Several times, before I could even get my story out, a colleague would interrupt me to talk about their friend or their cousin or their law school roommate. It quickly became apparent when I spoke about my substance use and mental health challenges that no one was hearing about these issues for the first time. Many had one degree of separation from someone who struggled. Who knew?

I heard things like, “You could have told us,” and “We would have wanted to help you.”

What was most eye opening, though, was hearing from former colleagues at the firm I’d been at when I bottomed out. I feared their reactions more than any others’. I’d been drunk and high in the office. I’d carried cocaine in the office. What would they think when they read about it? I assumed best case, I’d never hear from them; worst case, they’d lambaste me publicly in response to the story.

Once again, I assumed wrong. Of course, I don’t know how every individual personally reacted, but the people who reached out to me were incredible. I heard things like, “You could have told us,” and “We would have wanted to help you.”

Still, no one was more surprised than me when they invited me to visit the firm and tell my story to their attorneys and staff. They wanted to raise awareness and hopefully prevent others from going through a similar experience alone. I was terrified, but mostly grateful and honored, the day I spoke.

My decision to open up in the office does not mean I would recommend anyone else do the same. Getting sober is an intensely personal decision. Sharing that information with others is equally personal. Particularly in early recovery, when sobriety is at its most fragile, there’s no need to fill everyone in and add additional pressure to your decision not to drink. That’s how I had handled it for ten years, straight up to the point at which if I didn’t tell them, they might learn about it on a trip to their local bookstore. I had to get ahead of the story.

Then after my book came out, it took me a while to process the fact that several of my colleagues had actually read it. There were now senior partners in my firm who knew the raw details: my breast reduction; the bad sex I had in college; that special evening I fell off a bar stool moving in to kiss an unreceptive guy on a blind date. They saw it all.

But they also saw me pick myself up. They saw me ask for help and receive it. They saw me finding gratitude in little things, like learning how to put on pajamas and go to sleep at night instead of passing out, which had been my practice for years. They saw me show up, one day after the next, for my sobriety, for my job and for my life.

I have chosen to shout from the rooftops about my addiction and recovery. It’s certainly not for everyone. But over the last few years, two things have become crystal clear to me. First, the stigma surrounding these issues in the workplace must be smashed if we want people to get appropriate help. And second, our colleagues and friends may be more ready than ever—and certainly more ready than I ever expected—to offer that help and support us along the way.

Was I Ready for Sober Sex?


At one o’clock on a Sunday morning in 2005, I sped west toward Salt Lake City in a rented Ford Fiesta on Route I-80, escaping my friend’s wedding at a Park City yoga studio. I gripped the wheel as if it were a waterski handle. A pitch black sky surrounded me and I swore the car was on two wheels going around the tightest hairpin turns I’d ever encountered. I was 39 years old and had lived in New York City for 15 years. The closest I usually came to driving was standing in the front car of a subway train. That evening, however, called for drastic measures: I was following home the stop-in-the-street sexy French chef I met at the wedding.

It was my first “sober anniversary,” marking one year since I had used cocaine or alcohol. For the first time, I had navigated a wedding reception without so much as a sip of champagne or an ounce of regret. This next part of the evening, however, came with the highest degree of difficulty. My recovery program had strongly suggested waiting a year before entering into a new “relationship.” Sex with strangers had never been included in my definition of that term, but people in recovery thought otherwise. I had listened to their advice and kept my pants on.

When I first heard talk of a celibate year, though, I had bristled. Seriously? I was supposed to give up alcohol, drugs, and a year of sex? That was an awfully tall order. I decided at first to reserve judgment on whether to follow this particular suggestion. But to my surprise, I found in the early, most fragile days of recovery, getting naked with someone new while stone cold sober was unimaginable, downright scary. A whole host of new and tricky things called “feelings” started showing up in all facets of my life. Ten years of daily drinking had allowed me to shut them out so effectively that not even watching “The Way We Were,” my Achilles heel of movies, could make me cry. If I ever felt emotional or the least bit unhappy, a quick dry martini or three could fix that. Without the booze and cocaine, suddenly I was weeping at television commercials. These were confusing days. I had my hands full just figuring out how to avoid melting down when there was a line at the dry cleaner on Saturday morning. It was unlikely my fledgling sobriety could survive a ride on the emotional rollercoaster of a new relationship, or even a one-night stand.

But after a year spent healing and living a life that restored my self-esteem, I had reached a point where I could see sex possibly happening, albeit in an extremely dark room. Addiction had robbed me of the belief that I deserved anything clean and happy in life. It was the voice in my head that started telling me how awful I was from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning. By the end, self-loathing and desperation to shut the voice up led me to do anything necessary to continue drinking and using drugs all day while hiding it from everyone around me. I may somehow have been managing to do well at my big law firm job, but a high-functioning alcoholic and addict is still an alcoholic and addict first and foremost.

Over time, I had begun to like the person I saw in the mirror in the morning, something I never expected. I even thought I had something to offer other people, other than picking up the bar tab. I also missed having sex.

My friend Randi, the bride, must have sensed I was ready to hang up my chastity belt. At her Park City wedding, she seated me next to Pierre, a French chef. He was a six-foot plus stunner with electric blue eyes and better cheekbones than mine. I pictured him stepping out of a Moncler skiwear photo shoot, jauntily removing tinted goggles. I instantly berated myself for wearing a pink sequined Betsey Johnson dress instead of my standard pre-sobriety head-to-toe black. The dress that screamed “happy” to me in the store dressing room instead screamed “toddler beauty pageant” to me at the wedding.

Despite my questionable fashion choice, Pierre was immediately flirtatious and, in response, I was immediately petrified. How did people connect without drinking to relax? I was traumatized when he dragged me out onto the dance floor and started moving like he knew what he has doing. The jumping and fist pumping I performed at Red Hot Chili Peppers concerts could not help me in this situation. Who dances at a wedding, or anywhere else for that matter, without drinking?

After mercifully guiding me off the dance floor, Pierre attempted some conversation. Clueless, I decided to pretend I was someone charming and interesting despite not guzzling an Absolut Citron between sentences. I had learned in recovery that acting “as if” I could do something was a good way to face a new challenge. For example, I had learned to act “as if” I was someone who felt comfortable and competent in the office. When I was drinking and using drugs, I had felt like a fraud at work, just moments from being discovered and fired. After immersing myself in recovery for 12 months, I felt like I belonged at the conference room tables in my office high above Times Square.

Somehow, this approach worked in the romantic realm that night as well. Pierre turned out to be funny and thoughtful, two of my favorite traits. I acted impressed when he used a dessert spoon, a salt shaker and a votive candle to map out how much closer to the airport I would be the next day if I left from his house instead of the condo I had planned to crash at with four other women. In the true spirit of a one-night stand, we were both planning my morning departure before we left the wedding. Now this was familiar territory. My heart started to race and I fought back a sudden urge to kiss him on the spot. I remembered what it felt like to want to connect physically with an exciting new person.

But despite my enthusiasm, the idea of sober sex, whether with a serious boyfriend or a near-perfect stranger, seemed so intimate, so personal — and, therefore, so terrifying. Randi talked me through the reasons Pierre was the ideal partner for the inevitable first time. She identified three of them, specifically: 1) he was ridiculously attractive, 2) I would never have to see him again, and 3) he barely spoke English. I really could not ask for anything more. It was time to reactivate myself from the waist down.

A short time later, I was alternating between keeping my five-inch heels on and trying to drive barefoot. Neither was going well. I was sweating in a way no air conditioning could fix. As I struggled to keep Pierre’s taillights in view on the six-lane highway, a barrage of thoughts raced through my brain. What if I lost him? What if I didn’t? Why didn’t I bother to get a bikini wax before this trip? If I made it to his house and I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m., would I have enough time to shower and then likely get lost on my way to the airport for my 7:00 flight back to New York? Cell phone alarms were not a default then and I worried about whether Pierre might have two alarm clocks, so I could feel comfortably backed up. Missing my flight was not an option. Sobriety had gifted me with a fantastic new job and I needed to be there on time Monday morning.

I turned on the car radio and stabbed at the buttons. I stumbled upon the Rolling Stones’, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” one of my favorites. At the end of the song, the DJ came on. Just as I was about to switch the station he said, “Daylight savings time tonight. Don’t forget to move your clocks ahead one hour.” Wait, what? It was daylight savings time? If the DJ hadn’t said it, I never would have known. I wouldn’t have changed the alarm clock at Pierre’s house. I would have overslept and missed my flight. Thank you, DJ. Thank you. I took this happenstance as a sign from the universe, one I was meant to follow. I hit the gas.

When we finally got to Pierre’s driveway, my nervousness and sweating didn’t stop, but any ideas about changing my mind and finding a nearby motel were gone. As he carried my bags to the second floor, he said in heavily accented English, “I have three bedrooms here. If you would be more comfortable not sleeping in my room, you can use one of the others.”

“Oh, no. I’m sleeping with you, thanks,” I said way too quickly. Discussions of alternative sleeping arrangements had never been part of the deal in my pre-sobriety situations. My stomach churned with anxiety and anticipation. Did I seem too eager? Not eager enough? Was there lipstick on my teeth? Could I sneak in two more Altoids when he used the bathroom? Is this how sober people all feel when they’re with someone new?

Just when I thought my brain would never quiet down, Pierre kissed me. He pressed me up against the wall in the hallway and kissed me like he knew me. All of a sudden I was right there, in the moment. The stress and panicky thoughts slipped away. Almost instantly, I realized I didn’t even have to act “as if” I were someone who knew how to handle this situation. I could just relax and be my sober self.

When Saying No to a Boozy Work Event Isn’t an Option


Handling an alcohol-laden work event is tricky in recovery. Lisa Smith, author of 'Girl Walks Out of a Bar,' shares her strategies for attending boozy work events in sobriety.

Before I got sober, I liked to think that I was the life of the party. At a work conference, retreat, or even just a meeting with a cocktail reception to follow, I would watch the clock and count the minutes until the bar opened. The closer it got to cocktail hour, the more impatient I was for the time to tick by.

Once I finally had a glass of vodka or wine in my hand, I felt both relieved and emboldened. I believed that when I heckled my colleagues into drinking more and faster, they liked it. They must have found my stories funny, even when I recounted them in a slurred and too-loud voice, right?

It wasn’t until I sobered up that I realized, while some people might have thought I was fun to be around, many others likely found me somewhere on the scale between annoying and completely inappropriate. It certainly wasn’t the look I had been going for.

I have a lot of gratitude around the fact that I don’t have to live like that anymore. But, of course, everyone else doesn’t stop drinking when we get sober. Navigating the brand new waters of nonalcoholic options at work parties and dinners felt like learning a new language.

Here are a few things I do to help me handle work festivities sober.

1. Arrive With Your Head In A Good Place

Over time, being around a crowd of people drinking at a party gets easier, but even once you’re used to it, it’s smart to take care of yourself before the cocktails start flowing. If you can greet the situation with as much peace as possible in your head, you’re halfway there. For me, this means making sure to get to a meeting the day of the dinner or party, talking to more sober friends, and trying to keep my prayer and meditation routine on track. The best defense can be a good offense.

Another good way to prepare is to think about HALT: if it can at all be avoided (and of course plenty of times it can’t), don’t go to the event feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

This can be easier said than done. For me, hunger is the worst. If I’m hungry, I’m a beast. Maybe I go overboard on this, but if I’m going to a dinner I know is going to be long and full of people pouring booze, I eat beforehand. I’d rather not say, “no, thank you,” in the voice of Darth Vader when the wine is being poured for the third time and I haven’t had anything to eat yet. I also keep snacks in my bag at all times. Not only do I have something to munch on at the ready, but also I have comfort in the fact that if the pangs start, I’m covered. It helps me avoid becoming obsessed with when we’re going to be served. The fewer obsessions, the better.

2. Remember You’re Not Alone

Despite the fact that I would have argued vehemently to the contrary before sobering up, there’s a strong chance you will not be the only person skipping the booze at a work party. For example, someone might be on medication. In early sobriety I told the people I used to drink with – the only ones who asked – that taking medication was the reason I wasn’t drinking. It had the benefit of being true; I have been on antidepressants since I entered detox in 2004. They are not supposed to mixed with alcohol.

Someone might be training for race or on a specific diet or doing something like Dry January or maybe it’s a Tuesday night and they just don’t want to drink tonight. Much to my surprise, there are in fact people who don’t equate work events with being compelled to drink. Especially at a large function, even if you don’t see them, just remembering you’re not the only one can be comforting.

3. Have An Exit Strategy

Here’s a fun fact I learned in sobriety: some people actually show up late to cocktail parties and leave early. I had no idea. But in all seriousness, having a good idea of when and how you would like the night to end can help. My mental plan might be something like, “Cocktails start at 6:00, and so I’ll show up at 6:30. I’m going to be back in my hotel room (or on my way home) at 8:00. Then I’m going to relax, watch ‘Law & Order’ reruns and get a good night’s sleep.” For me, standing in the middle of a group of people who are drinking is less unpleasant when I can hear the theme song to “Law & Order” in my head.

When it’s time to hit the road, a simple, “I need to get going,” is all anyone needs to hear. No apologies for leaving at an appropriate, yet still early time. The words, “Good night,” are a complete sentence.

Of course, even the best-laid plans can easily be derailed. But having a blueprint for the evening can make it less stressful. And as one of my favorite sayings goes, you will never wake up in the morning regretting the fact that you did not drink the night before.

Taking It on the Road: Tips for Sober Business Travelers


Traveling for business?
Tips on how to stay sober from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

Only a few weeks after I got sober, I had to travel for a work conference. I would be ejected from my newly established recovery cocoon in New York City and parachuted like a first time skydiver into the great unknown of San Francisco four days. I was terrified.

Until I crashed out from alcohol and cocaine, drinking was, not surprisingly, a big part of my work trips. Drinking commenced at the airport the moment I passed through security. (I had convinced myself I was a “nervous flyer” and needed multiple drinks to relax me.) Drinking continued as soon as possible after I boarded the plane. I always bought two drinks at a time because, really, who knows when row 25 would be served again? As I handed over my credit card, I would give the flight attendant a tight smile. “Nervous flyer,” I would say, lest he think of me as some kind of drunk.

“Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking?

And, of course, once on the ground in another city, all bets were off. Isn’t a work trip a party at heart? It was time to put that work hard/play hard ethic into practice. I would push through my hangovers at the hotel gym in the morning, drink vats of coffee to power through the workday, and count the minutes until the cocktail party or happy hour began. Unfailingly, that set off a long evening of imbibing, which quite possibly included saying regrettable things to colleagues that would make me feel sick the next day.

Huh. Now that I put it that way, it doesn’t sound like such a great party. But it was the only way I knew. Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking? I had to attend the happy hours and the dinners. Was I really supposed to not drink alcohol at those kinds of events?  

I needed advice. So, I asked around and got suggestions. They helped immensely. I won’t pretend the first trip was easy, but it did end up being more manageable than I expected.

Here are a few ideas to help you stay sober on the road:

1. Plan ahead and bring your tools.

Ask yourself, “What helps me at home that I can recreate there?” One helpful thing is to call the hotel and ask in advance to have all alcohol removed from the room. At home, I don’t sleep two feet away from wine and vodka – why should I do that just because I’m in a hotel? Hotels get this request all the time for any number of reasons. They’ve heard it before, they don’t ask questions, and they’re happy to do it.

If you belong to 12-step or other support groups, research where nearby meetings are and pack any literature or meditation books you use. Figure out beforehand when you might exercise, where you can get coffee in the morning, or how else to recreate any part of your sober routine that’s important to you.


2. Leave yourself extra time.

Travel is stressful enough without feeling as if you might miss your flight or train. Pre-sobriety, I would leave for the airport early so I could start drinking. In sobriety, I learned to leave for the airport early so there was no need to panic if I hit traffic or a seemingly endless line at security.


3. Stay connected.

Your phone is your friend. Before you go, load it up with the numbers of people to whom you can reach out if the going gets tricky. Also load up on apps and online resources. It’s nice to know they’re at your fingertips. If you're a member of Workit Health, let your coach know about your trip so they can help you prepare.


4. Navigate the social events.

Almost invariably, business trips involve cocktail parties, dinners, or other events that include alcohol. It’s likely you’ll need to attend at least some of them. I have learned never to go to these events hungry, even the dinners, because if I’m hungry, I’m irritable and uncomfortable. I don’t stuff myself in advance, but I do my best to get on solid footing. If possible, I arrive late and leave early, something that, if alcohol were being served, would have been unimaginable before I got sober.

“Like so many other things in recovery, after your first sober work trip, the next ones aren’t as daunting.

Also, one of the most surprising things I’ve learned on work trips is that not all of my colleagues drink. And it’s not because they’re all in recovery. Back when I was leading the party charge, I managed to not notice the people who were sipping club soda or skipping after dinner drinks at the bar because they wanted to get up early for the gym, or because alcohol doesn’t agree with them, or because they prefer Diet Coke. Who knew such people existed? Now I take comfort in not being the only one passing on the wine. In fact, I realize that many people who push others to drink are trying to feel better themselves about their own drinking. I’m grateful not to play that role anymore.


Like so many other things in recovery, after your first sober work trip, the next ones aren’t as daunting. You may not look forward to them, but you can come home proud, with no hangovers and no regrets. And that never gets old.

Back to Work: Tips for Office Life in Early Recovery


How can you stay sober during the transition back to work?
Tips from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

Sitting on my flimsy cot at the psychiatric hospital on the fifth and final day of my detox from alcohol and cocaine, I looked at the doctor in the chair at the foot of my bed and shook my head. “No,” I said. I sounded like a two-year old refusing to eat my peas, but I was actually a 38-year old lawyer refusing to take my doctor’s strong recommendation that I head straight to an inpatient rehab for at least 28 days. I would only agree to attend intensive outpatient treatment at night.

Forgoing inpatient rehab, my doctor stressed, put me at needless risk while my recovery was at its most fragile. I’ve always been a rule follower, so why did I ignore this directive? One reason: I feared the stigma of addiction in the workplace, which for me was a law firm.

As far as my colleagues knew, I had been out that week to deal with a “stomach issue.” If I were to stay out for longer than five days I would need to produce a doctor’s note and possibly consider a leave of absence. I wasn’t willing to do that.

When I left the office the previous Friday afternoon, my co-workers viewed me as a smart, hard-working, reliable member of the team. Sure, many of them had seen me drink a lot – some of them had sat on the barstool next to mine. But somehow I had kept my spiraling addiction under wraps. If I went away for a month, I was afraid the reason for my absence would spill out and I would be viewed as weak, defective, and even untrustworthy upon my return. I was determined to keep my personal reality out of my professional life.  

But how to do that? (It’s worth noting, 14 years later, I would strongly suggest to someone sitting on a hospital cot that they decide differently than I did and go to inpatient treatment.) Based on my experience, whether your colleagues know about your recovery or not, I have a few suggestions for re-entry into the workplace.


1. First Things First.

When I got sober, I was told anything I put in front of my recovery I would lose. That’s still true today. The most important thing I do on a daily basis is not pick up a drink or a drug. There are plenty of times I feel just “too busy” at work to break for a recovery meeting or other action essential to my mental health. A big project is due, so I feel the need to work late and skip my meeting. A colleague invites me to breakfast and I feel like I should accept, even though it means I won’t get to the gym, when regular exercise helps keep my depression at bay.

To counter these thoughts, I remember that just about every time I’ve heard a story of relapse, it had included the fact that the person’s recovery had taken a back seat. Of course, there may be people who can stay sober without prioritizing it above all else. I’m confident I’m not one of those people and I’m not interested in any experiments to confirm that fact.


2. Your Recovery is Your Business, No One Else’s.

Getting and staying sober is an incredibly personal decision. No one is “entitled” to know your story. I had no intention of relapsing, but what if I did? I was afraid sharing the fact of my addiction early on with my colleagues would add pressure, so I kept quiet.

Everyone’s story is different, though. For many, what brought us to recovery involved a situation in the workplace. I would still make the same suggestion. What you decide to share and with whom you decide you to share it (beyond those who unavoidably know) is entirely your decision.


3. “No,” Is a Complete Sentence.

Upon my return, I had no idea what to say to my work friends whom I liked, trusted, and often joined for drinks. So, I chalked up my new seltzer-and-cranberry-juice habit to “being on medication.” People nodded understandingly and no one questioned me further. In fact, I was taking antidepressants and instructed not to drink, so the truth did the trick.

When other people at cocktail parties or work dinners asked me, “Aren’t you drinking tonight?” I learned to answer, “No.” If they looked at me as if I had just spat in their Chardonnay, I would follow up with, “I’m just not drinking tonight.” I was pleasantly surprised at how often the conversation ended there. It turns out most people aren’t the way I was before I got sober, heckling and pressuring other people into drinking. I learned that others care a whole lot less about the beverage in my hand than I had ever imagined.

After detox, I realized I needed to chase sobriety every bit as much as I had chased drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t something I could do alone, but it also wasn’t something that had to involve people from the office.

In fact, the connections I made with my work colleagues, as a present, fully engaged team member grew stronger. So what if I missed some work lunches, skipped some cocktail parties, and ducked out earlier than usual for recovery meetings? There has never been a day those choices haven’t been worth it.

The Reality of High-Functioning Substance Abuse Among Lawyers


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.

How One Woman Secretly Battled Addiction — and the Moment She Knew She Needed Help


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.

3 Key Tips for Dating in Recovery


When I got sober I followed my 12-step sponsor’s advice and didn’t date for the first year. I understood the suggestion that if you enter recovery in a relationship, stay in it unless it’s threatening your sobriety, and if you enter recovery single, stay that way. It made sense to me. There was no need to jump on the emotional roller coaster of trying to meet new potential romantic partners and starting to date in the first year.

Then came my sober anniversary and I was officially let loose into the wilds of dating. I was terrified. At the end of my using, I couldn’t even take my dry cleaning across the street without a drink. How was I supposed to go on a date?

I worked with my sponsor and approached dating with three key 12-step principles:

  1. Rigorous honesty. No, this did not mean that I had to announce to every guy I went out with that I was in recovery. Getting sober is an extremely personal decision and I didn’t think I had to share it with everyone I met for coffee. A simple “I’m not drinking tonight” is completely honest. If someone reacted poorly, it was a good indication that they might not be right for me.
  2. First things first. Like many alcoholics and addicts, I can use pretty much anything (food, exercise, shopping) as a drug. I had to be very careful not to use every new guy I met that way. I could not put anything or anyone before my sobriety or I would risk losing it. Sure, rearranging my 12-step meeting schedule to work around seeing someone was OK, but just skipping meetings to pursue a new guy was not.
  3. One day (or one date) at a time. Before I got sober, I was often planning the wedding before I even knew if there’d be a second date. In sobriety, I learned to apply to dating the “just for today” mantra I applied to not drinking. It was shockingly effective. If I could stay in the moment, I could avoid the often-unrealistic expectations I had put on new relationships before I got sober.

This is not to say that dating in sobriety is easy. But I did find that for the first time in my life, I had some actual tools and approaches that would help me keep an appropriate perspective on new situations.

Also, one of the very best things that sobriety did for me was teach me to value and respect myself. I no longer hated the person I saw in the mirror. I considered myself worthy of a relationship with a healthy person who would treat me with the care and kindness I had come to believe I deserved.

Sobriety gives us choices. No one can make me feel any particular way without my permission. It was liberating to feel that it was OK if someone wasn’t interested in me. Not everything was about me. As long as I didn’t pick up a drink, the next day, and the next date, had the potential to be the best ever.

GOP health plan risky for mental health, addiction progress


In this March 16, 2017, photo, Jose Luis Guzman, from the Department of Public Health, looks for discarded hypodermic needles on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.(Photo: Paul Chinn, AP)

House Republicans’ Affordable Care Act replacement plan would dramatically change who is eligible for free or low-cost health coverage, which critics fear could drastically slash mental health and addiction coverage, which many people got for the first time under the law.

USA TODAY hosted a Facebook Live with Linda Rosenberg, CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health and Samuel Hedgepeth, who was able to get treatment for his mental health and substance abuse disorders through the expansion of Medicaid in Maryland. Hedgepeth, who served 10 years in prison for drug-fueled firearm charges, has been sober for seven months thanks to medication and treatment. Rosenberg says the cuts to Medicaid that would result from enactment of the American Health Care Act would lead to more overdose deaths and higher costs due to incarceration and emergency room visits. 

Linda Rosenberg is CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health. She will be the featured expert on a USA TODAY Facebook Live on March 22, 2017, at 1 pm. (Photo: Mike Busada)

Mental health and addiction treatment is among the 10 essential benefits plans purchased on the ACA exchanges must cover and the requirement also includes the plans for Medicaid recipients who gained coverage under the  ACA’s expansion of Medicaid.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated recently the earlier version of the American Health Care Act being considered this week in Congress would reduce the number of people with Medicaid by 14 million in 10 years. Under changes released Monday night, states could require able-bodied Medicaid recipients without dependents to work beginning in October. States also could receive Medicaid funding as a lump sum instead of a per capita allotment. The revised bill also would repeal taxes on the wealthy, the insurance industry and others in 2017 instead of 2018.

Medicaid is the single largest payer of mental health and addiction treatment services in the country, paying 25% of all mental health and 20% of all addiction care.

“Many will instead end up homeless, in jail or dead,” says Rosenberg.

Lisa Smith, whose recently published memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, chronicles her former substance abuse, says the proposed cuts to Medicaid coverage and ACA subsidies ” will make life worse or impossible for many people who suffer.”

To those who say, “no one is ever denied care,”  she says her addictions masked depressive disorder, which required far more treatment than an emergency room could provide.

Lisa Smith is the author of the memoir “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” which chronicles her struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction and depression. (Photo: Rod Goodman)

By the time she entered treatment about 13 years ago, she was bleeding internally and needed alcohol to go to sleep and alcohol and cocaine to get up in the morning.

“I would not have survived if I did not have access to treatment at the time,” says the Manhattan lawyer who now works in legal marketing.

Smith, who has also written about the effectiveness of medication for her depressive disorder, says she tried to go off her antidepressant about 18 months after getting sober, but called her therapist and said she was just days away from drinking again.

“I firmly believe that if i wasn’t getting continuing care and the medication to stay sober, I would relapse into alcoholism and would be dead,” says Smith.

While limiting Medicaid services for childless adults may adversely affect people who have mental health and/or substance abuse issues, former Republican Senate Finance Committee aide Christopher Condeluci  notes that no matter what the House decides, Medicaid coverage would still be available if a person’s condition is considered a disability.  He also believes that it would require an act of Congress — not Health and Human Services action — to get rid of the mental health and addiction coverage on its own.

“Also, exceptions could be put into the law which could allow childless adults with these conditions to qualify for Medicaid services if, for example, they enroll in certain programs, like a substance abuse rehabilitation program or some sort of counseling for mental health-related conditions,” says Condeluci. “There are ways to provide assistance to this population.”

On Tuesday, the Urban Institute released a new report that found the limited allotment of federal Medicaid contributions per enrollee as proposed in the AHCA could cut $734 billion in federal and state Medicaid spending between 2019 and 2028.

In Ohio, which has been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis, Gov. John Kasich’s administration projected the state would have to raise its spending by $7.8 billion over eight years to keep its expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. And if the state repealed its expansion, 750,000 people would lose Medicaid, most of whom would end up uninsured. Ohio also projects that its overall Medicaid program would exceed its per capita cap allotments by 2025, forcing the state to cover all costs above the cap or curtail services to children, seniors, and people with disabilities, according to a state roundup out this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.