Volume 18, Number 5
July/August 2001

Getting On with It: Recovery Success Stories

By Donald Muccigrosso and Donna L. Spilis

Alcoholism is a primary, progressive, chronic, and ultimately fatal disease that knows no social or economic barriers. There is no cure for alcoholism, but there can be a happy and contented life for the recovering alcoholic. The disease does not discriminate against small, medium, or large firm lawyers. Solo practitioners who suffer from alcoholism are more apt to have their problem go unnoticed by the legal community longer than lawyers who practice with other lawyers. They do not have the benefit of early identification of the symptoms of addiction by a caring, concerned partner or associate. Unless the solo belongs to an association of lawyers, where social activities are involved, no one may recognize that he or she has a problem.

The problem of alcoholism is very real for many solos. Susann Makepeace, a certified addictions counselor and former director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Washington, D.C., says that one-third of the clients she saw with addiction problems are solo practitioners. In some cases they were self-referrals. In other instances, referrals came from family members, a disciplinary agency, the courts, or other lawyers.

The secretary and other support staff tend to enable the lawyer to continue drinking under the misconception that they are protecting him. In addition, there is always the fear that if they report their boss, they will be terminated. However, their early intervention can provide the opportunity for arresting the disease and saving a life. This will also alert the attorney that his drinking is no longer a secret.

If you or someone you know can identify with any of the situations related in the following stories, be assured that help is available.

Learning the Truth Too Late-Jim, California

To almost any outside observer in 1980, I was sitting on top of the world. Maybe not a very big world, but one that a lot of us know. I was 28 years old, a very successful solo practitioner with a practice growing beyond my wildest dreams, and a "hometown boy" to boot. Single, living in a beautiful new home, and driving a 450 SL Mercedes, I had money in the bank, clients knocking on my door, and all the external trappings of a successful young professional. On the inside, however, things were different. I felt lonely in a crowd much of the time. I felt like the roll was being called somewhere I was supposed to be, but I was in the wrong place trying to maintain control of a world I did not create. I wished I could let someone know how I felt, but what would that person think? I concluded that I was just missing something...something I would find and add to my life to be complete.

Now it is more than ten years later; a beautiful day outside threatens to distract me from putting words to my story, my life. But a man who helped to save my life says I might help others by doing so. "Pass it on," he reminds me. The roll is being called again here and now. The problem with "before and after" pictures is that they do not communicate the intense experiences in between, the essence of life. My own "after" photo would show a little less hair and a few more lines and wrinkles. It would not show the pain accompanying the loss of what I had, including my license to practice law. It would not show my struggle for self-respect once I was stripped, in a very public and humiliating way, of those external trappings I mentioned. For that matter, neither would it show the joy and childlike happiness coming with freedom from addiction, nor the soul-deep assurance that I no longer have to drink or use any mood- or mind-altering chemical to feel OK about myself and the world. I am the only one who can tell this story from the inside out.

It has now been more than five years since I got sober, 60-plus months since I hesitantly stepped into a treatment center for drug and alcohol dependence. I was not pleased to be there. By December 1984, my life was a shambles-personally, professionally, financially, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and in any other way one might gauge oneself. I was morally bankrupt. I was financially bankrupt. I had no future. My future was behind me. I was also more frightened than I had ever been in my life because I knew if I was to continue to draw breath, it would have to be sober breath. I was pretty sure that was impossible.

After all, I was a smart guy. I looked around at the people present and immediately perceived that they were not nearly as intelligent as me. If I had not been able to figure out how to stop, how to keep the numberless promises I had made to myself and others, what could these people have to offer me? I would just have to die this way, and the only prayer I knew asked for it to happen soon. Indeed, there were times when the hope of dying used to keep me alive. It sounds unbelievable, but even then I still did not have a clue what was really wrong. I did not regard drugs and alcohol as the problem; my life was the problem, and drugs and alcohol were the solution. The damn thing was that even they had stopped working for me. Still, the only time I felt worse than when drinking or using was when I wasn't. Everything else in my life had become relatively unimportant compared to finding something to shut off the bewildering pain of my existence.

I know now that I was and am an alcoholic. Not only was I addicted to alcohol, I was addicted to cocaine, marijuana, and anything else that would sufficiently alter reality for me. Of all these, alcohol is the most sinister because it is so sneaky and slow. It is also such a mainstay in our culture that its acceptance provides a cover behind which most alcoholics breed a strain of denial immune from almost all known forms of attack. I say "almost" because of my own personal experience.

We have a saying in recovery-"You can't con a con, and an alcoholic can't con another alcoholic." Those other people showed me our sameness. They did it by talking as openly and honestly as their humanness would allow, about themselves and their experiences in life. The ones who had been clean and sober for some time told me what sobriety was like for them. It was better than my life, and I came to want what they had. However, I couldn't buy it; I had to abstain and I had to change almost everything about me. I had to be willing to grow up and out of myself (at over 30 years of age). I had to be willing to face up to my past with honesty and courage, and I had to do it every day for the rest of my life. Happily, our lives only come one day at a time.

I learned that I was not a bad or weak person. I was simply dealing with something I couldn't control. My alcoholism had been accelerated greatly by "cocainism." This alluring powder, which had at first made me everything I wanted to be and wasn't, is one of the most addictive and dangerous substances known to man-the only one, in fact, that laboratory animals will self-ingest until death. I did not know that when I started. We all know it now, yet it continues to be one of the most frequently abused of all drugs. Is it because users are stupid? No. It is because cocaine makes addicts out of users. It lies to them and tells them they are different. "You won't lie, cheat, steal, or die a horrible and premature death." But you will, unless you recover. For the alcoholic/addict there are only those two choices; it's just that simple.

I have now found what I had been looking for so desperately in 1980. It did not come in a baggie, pill bottle, gin bottle, or beer can, but it got me where I am today. It was letting people know how I feel. Understanding that life is to be lived on its own terms-that is reality. Knowing that we are all pretty much alike, and that I can do what others have done, finally fixed some of my internal trappings, and I am grateful to be here. If anyone reading this understands these feelings or relates to this story, or if you or anyone you know is depending on drugs (including alcohol) to cope with life, know that it doesn't have to be that way. If you are suffering, get help. If you know someone who is suffering, insist they get help. You may save more than a career. Lives are at stake.

With the advent of the women's movement, public drinking by women became more popular, as did the development of drinking patterns similar to those of men. It has, however, been proved that the disease of alcoholism progresses faster in women than men due to certain physiological differences. Aside from the speed of progression of the disease, the following story by a female lawyer could just as easily describe a man's drinking and recovery experience.

A Woman's Fight with Alcohol-Kathleen, Chicago

In New England, where I grew up, I seldom saw anybody drink alcohol. We lived in a picture-book town with houses dating back to the 1700s, lush countryside dotted with lovely lakes, and scenic mountains. My father was the minister of the Protestant church and my mother taught in the local grade school. I enjoyed school and had many friends. I mention this because it is a common misconception that one must come from a so-called "dysfunctional family" to develop the disease of alcoholism. This is not true. People from good backgrounds who consider themselves generally satisfied with life can develop this disease. Because alcoholism results from a biological defect in the way an individual processes alcohol, it can develop in anyone with a certain genetic predisposition. I believe I was born with a body that processes alcohol differently from a normal drinker's. I believe this in part because my siblings, who have had vastly different experiences in their adult lives, were diagnosed as alcoholics within one year of my diagnosis.

In the mid-1960s I first tasted alcohol. At a college party I asked a friend if I could have some of his gin. I asked how much would get me drunk, and he marked off a hefty portion on the bottle and showed me how to mix it with a soft drink. The soft drink made it sweet, and I didn't think I could drink enough if I kept mixing it, so I poured the gin into a glass and drank it straight. I liked the flavor and drank rapidly with no difficulty.

The very first night I drank, I experienced many signs of things to come. I could not remember portions of the evening. I now believe that blackouts are an almost certain indication of alcoholism. I apparently had the capacity to consume large quantities of alcohol. I know now that many alcoholics are able to drink greater quantities and to actually hold their liquor better than non-alcoholics. I suffered a tremendous hangover and vowed not to put myself through such misery again. Unfortunately, broken vows of abstinence characterized my 20 years of drinking. I would frequently awaken at night with what I describe as "cottonmouth" and a splitting headache, and I would go through the house and pour all the alcohol down the sink. Somehow, though, I would find myself writing "wine" on the shopping list the next day.

As a criminal defense attorney with a solo practice, I have represented many alcoholics. It was always easy for me to distinguish myself from my poor unfortunate clients. I believed that they were alcoholics because they drank for the wrong reasons. I had heard that alcoholics drank to hide from pain, escape from their emotions, or cover their inadequacies. I considered myself upbeat, and I drank to celebrate life's little victories. I was a respected and accomplished lawyer, so I had victories to celebrate. For many years, I avoided drinking over painful experiences, believing that this would prevent me from developing the disease of alcoholism. In the end, I drank for good reasons, for bad reasons, and mostly, for no particular reason at all. As my disease slowly crept up on me, I found myself drinking when I had no particular desire to do so. The way I thought of it was that it was simply time to have another drink. I now know that this is probably fairly accurate, since I was becoming physiologically addicted to the substance, and it was indeed time for my body to take in its next dose.

I began to develop physical symptoms of alcoholism without recognizing the source of my problems. I suffered from chronic insomnia that I attributed to my stressful career. I would awaken at night in a cold sweat, sheets drenched and mouth parched. I would toss and turn, unable to stop thinking about cases and clients. I would watch TV in the middle of the night, trying to lull myself back to sleep. I would doze again for an hour or so, then drag myself out of bed, exhausted before my day had even begun. Much to my surprise, the insomnia has stopped completely since I no longer drink. I began to develop a bloated and puffy appearance. I was retaining fluids and did not know why. I had chronic digestive upset. I developed the art of applying eye makeup by looking only at the circumference, so that I could avoid seeing the yellowing bloodshot eyes that looked back from the mirror. I never developed the habit of taking drinks in the morning, nor of drinking during the workday, but I suffered tremendous hangovers that lasted until noon. I did not call them "hangovers," or I would have had to acknowledge a possible alcohol problem. I told myself I felt a little rocky. I would tell myself I would not drink that night, but almost always I would begin drinking again at the end of the day. I often drank until I passed out. I renamed it "dozing."

About six months before I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, I found myself calling my doctor and asking her whether she might consider prescribing Antabuse to help curb my drinking. I told her that I used to quit drinking whenever I wanted, but that lately I didn't seem to be able to stop. For some reason I did not recognize this call for help as any clue that I might be an alcoholic. It is impossible for me to understand now how I could have missed the obvious signs, but I believe that denial is so deeply rooted that an addicted person will be the last to see the problem. This ensures that the person will continue to feed the addiction, which is, after all, what a physiologically addicted person needs to keep doing. At the end of my drinking career, I was still able to practice law, but I made a bad career move. I am sure that the decision to join forces with another practicing alcoholic attorney was no coincidence. The combination was totally unworkable. I knew I did not want to become as "bad" as he was. One night I found myself drinking a beer and telling myself that I was already drunk, so why finish it? I had a brief blackout, then found myself at the refrigerator reaching for another. I was drinking compulsively. The next morning I was unable to get out of bed. That day I was unable to read even the Sunday funnies. I made another one of my repeated vows to quit. By chance, that was my last drinking bout.

Two weeks later, my iron-willed decision still with me, I clearly recognized my disastrous career move, and I quit the law office. With no practice, alone in a new city, I was desperate and panicky. I called an old friend who suggested I go to an AA meeting. I told him I'd try anything, but that since I was not an alcoholic, it didn't seem the right place. After all, I had quit drinking on my own (yet again). He said that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking and that the people there would help reinforce my decision.

The next morning I called AA and was guided to my first meeting. I was told to ignore all the "soupy God talk" and just take advantage of the parts I found helpful. I have more or less been doing that ever since. My favorite AA meeting begins and ends with no prayers and is attended by the most colorful mixture of malcontents, geniuses, and idiots with whom I have ever had the pleasure to associate. Every one has said something that has helped me to identify myself as an alcoholic and supported me in my decision to stop drinking. I know that I am an alcoholic and that I cannot ever safely drink.

I choose to go only to meetings where cigarette smoking is not permitted. More and more, such meetings exist. At first I attended meetings daily, and now, more than three and a half years later, I attend two to three meetings a week. Some of these are sponsored by our own attorney assistance program. I find it helpful to identify with alcoholic lawyers and judges. I also find it helpful to identify with convicts, the mentally ill, and the homeless, because I am able to see that the AA program can be effective at helping anybody stay sober and gradually make improvements in their lives, no matter what other problems they face. AA is a community of supportive people who talk about their experiences in a way that gives me hope that I may never again have to suffer from this life-threatening disease.

Alcohol has always been the drug of choice for chemically dependent people. In the sixties, marijuana became more popular with young people as a way to rebel against their parents' alcohol consumption. They believed marijuana was a non-addictive drug, but unfortunately it has turned out to be the gateway drug to cocaine. Statistics show that 92 percent of all cocaine users have used marijuana first. Mark's story of cocaine addiction is one familiar to many solo practitioners.

My Story-Mark, Oregon

Two years after I started my solo law practice, I was in trouble with the bar, the target of a law enforcement investigation, divorced, thousands of dollars in debt, and seriously addicted to cocaine. How had this happened?

From a business standpoint, I made all the right moves. I read all the "how to" books on starting up a solo practice, leased office space on a work-for-rent basis, appropriately advertised the fact that there was a new criminal lawyer in town, and, in general, laid a solid foundation for a good solo law practice.

Almost from the beginning, money started pouring into the practice, more money than I had ever made before. A few lucky breaks put me on some high-profile criminal cases, and I quickly went from the new kid in town to a recognized name in the criminal defense community. Within a year, I went from a starving law student to a hotshot with a Porsche. My reputation soared along with my bank account. With these wonderful benefits, though, came more responsibility than I had ever shouldered. I had experienced responsibility before, but this was different. As an army officer, I had plenty of responsibility, but I had sergeants to help me and superior officers to advise and direct me. This time, however, I was alone. Just me and my responsibilities. I felt enormous pressure. These people, my clients, were placing their lives in my hands. I had to perform. I had to get results. I had to win. The workload increased and the pace maddened. Soon, I was working almost every night until 10 or 11, and taking work home on weekends. My wife watched me grow irritable and distant. My God, how could I keep up this pace?

Toward the end of my second year, I discovered methamphetamine. A criminal client had come to my office and, when I bemoaned the fact that I was going to be working on a brief all night, she gave me about half an ounce of meth. She told me that a few lines would keep me going all night. Wow! A new lawyer tool! I could be super-lawyer! My opponents at the DA's office would only work 8 to 5, but I, super-lawyer, could work around the clock! And so it began. Line by line, day by day, I sank into a hell from which I barely escaped.

Over the coming months, I was able to work virtually around the clock, day after day. I began turning in 20- and 30- page briefs in support of even the most mundane motion to suppress. Yes, I was super-lawyer, all right. But I was coming apart at the seams. My wife, whom I would see every two or three days when I went home, began to view me as a monster. She was right: I had become evil, crude, paranoid, and constantly deceitful. It was as though I was possessed. My style in court had gone from that of a "good ol' country lawyer" to one of antagonistic confrontationalist. Finally, I began neglecting my clients as I spent more and more time seeking out and using my drug. By that point I had discovered free-base cocaine, and I was either snorting meth or smoking coke several times a day. I would take breaks in trials to go to the men's room and snort a line or two. I would spend my lunch hour smoking crack cocaine. And every night, as I began my brief writing, I lit the pipe, again and again.

For several months, I lived in a hell that I find difficult to describe to those who have never experienced drug addiction. Every waking moment was tortured, frantic, and insane. I was quickly becoming broke, paranoid, and impotent. All I had dreamed of-money, reputation, family, a home-was being converted to cash, exchanged for cocaine, and then smoked or snorted away. My wife kicked me out of the house, forcing me to live in my office. The bar complaints came next. I became the target of a law-enforcement investigation. I became financially destitute. I knew I had a problem and needed help. I had tried quitting cocaine before, but had failed miserably.

Finally, one night, I sat alone in my office, which by now looked more like a frat house on a Sunday morning than a law office: empty beer bottles scattered about, burnt matches laying on the floor, and dirty clothes piled in corners. I began to cry. Again, I find it difficult to describe the emptiness I felt. I was alone, ruined, and pathetic. I had wanted to be a fine criminal lawyer when I grew up, but instead I was a broke, divorced, hunted cocaine addict. I began to pray. I hadn't prayed in a long time, but I prayed that night. I asked God to help me do what I was quite incapable of doing myself.

I remembered seeing ads in the local lawyer's magazine, something like: "Drug Problem? There is confidential help for lawyers with drug problems. Call....." I rifled through the mess on my desk until I found the magazine and turned the pages until I found the ad. I called the number. On the other end of the line was a man whom all know in this state for his work with alcoholic and addicted lawyers. I told him about my problems with the bar. He told me that cocaine was my problem. I told him about my marital problems. He told me cocaine was my problem. I told him about my problem with the police. He told me cocaine was my problem. I told him how messy my life had become, and he told me cocaine was my problem. What he didn't tell me was that he had already received several referrals about me from other lawyers, judges, and, I suspect, the bar. He was right, my problem was cocaine. I asked for help.

I expected him to come rescue me. Instead, he told me to go to sleep, don't use any cocaine that night, and to come to a certain location the next day for a meeting of the lawyers' group of Cocaine Anonymous. I showed up the next day and met with several lawyers who had walked through and out of the hell in which I found myself. I was amazed at how many lawyers attended these meetings. Not just criminal lawyers, not just young lawyers, and not just solo practitioners. There were older lawyers, civil lawyers, and lawyers from the big firms. I felt like I fit in. I kept coming back, again and again, to these meetings.

With time and sobriety, my life was put back together and all I had lost was recovered. I haven't had to use dope for more than three years and my life is better today than it ever was. I still go to those lawyers' meetings of Cocaine Anonymous, but now I am one of those who walked through and out of the hell that brings the newcomers into our meetings. I try, whenever I can, to give back a little of the support I received in such abundance. I am profoundly grateful that my prayer of desperation was answered, and that I was able to turn to the ad in the local lawyer's magazine. Today, I have two good friends working for me as associates in my successful law office, am happily married, and I am enjoying life more than ever. I believe in salvation.

Many lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload, and the tendency to have a drink at the end of the day to relax or "escape" from daily problems is prevalent in the legal community. If the lawyer or judge has the progressive disease of addiction, this drink can lead to many drinks, and many more reasons to drink, which can then lead to other chemicals-legal and illegal. The following story about one judge's struggle with addiction is a clear indication of the progression of the disease.

Lawyer, Judge, Alcoholic-Jon, Oregon

I couldn't be an alcoholic, I thought. I'm an attorney and judge, for heaven's sake. But surrendering to that bitter truth was necessary for me to live.

The hereditary nature of the disease of alcoholism-the "ism" part of the disease-was in my genes. Being raised in an alcoholic home affected my behavior long before I took my first drink. I still remember that first drink: the smell, the color, the taste, and, yes, that magical feeling, that forbidden fruit of intoxication. I have never been the same since. Through high school, I was the one who could drink more, stay up longer, and never appear to be very drunk. I didn't know that high tolerance and great capacity were early symptoms of the disease. In the armed service, those endless hours of forced piano lessons my mother had put me through finally paid off. I was a piano player in the officers' club for four years. Everyone always buys the piano player a drink, or two, or 20, so I stayed drunk for four years. I got married, had two kids, got out of the service, and went to college.

My wife and I fought such horrible fights that she drove me to drink night after night-or so I kept telling myself and anyone else who would listen. After college there was a move north to attend law school; my wife and I were still fighting and I was drinking more and more, because of her, of course. After three years, by some miracle or mistake on the part of the bar examiners, I found myself with a license to practice law.

I started as a prosecutor in a small county and quickly found lawyers just like me in a bar, who drank the way I liked to drink-hard, fast, and long, with a lot of BS between the drinks. Every night, I'd drive 40 miles home, drunk, with a bottle of ten-high bourbon in my lap to sip so I'd stay awake. I'd get home, have a screaming match with my wife, pass out, come to in the morning, and do it all over again the next day.

Ten years before I got to the attorney support group, the real horror started. I left my first wife one night after a bloody battle. Someone suggested my problems might be the result of drinking too much. "Well," I said, "if you think that, I'll just quit." But I couldn't. I remember the terror, the hole in the very center of my being, that abject loneliness. Six psychiatrists later, and with a new-found addiction to any mood-altering drug I could find (courtesy of my psychiatrist and my disease), I found myself taking 20 tablets of methamphetamine in the morning to wake up, martinis for lunch, 20 ten-milligram Valiums in the afternoon, bourbon after work, and four or five codeine tablets to finally pass out at night. Day after day I'd get up and do it all over again.

I still managed to get my work done, trials tried, and clients appeased, but with increasing difficulty. My second marriage came at about the same time as a local judgeship. By this time I was taking Antabuse (used to discourage the alcoholic from drinking by causing severe nausea when alcohol is consumed after ingesting this drug) periodically, swearing off every other month, and doing anything else I could think of to be a normal drinker. Despite these efforts, I would always drink again, and each time I went back it was worse.

I became known as the easiest-sentencing judge around. I believe I was so soft because I knew I should be standing at the defense table. I was a fraud, weak, and desperately afraid. In desperation, my wife called the bar's Professional Liability Fund Loss Prevention (PLF) office to get help. It took my wife, family, office staff, and the PLF attorney nine months to get me into a treatment center. I remember feeling that first sense of relief; deep down I knew something was finally going to be done about the way I drank.

In the center I learned I had a physiological disease. With the help of others like me, and a 12-step program, I could live a happy, joyous life, free from booze and drugs. Part of the process was to surrender my innermost self to the care of a power greater than myself. For without that total surrender-giving up my self-centered activities-the compulsion to drink would never leave me. I surrendered because I was tired, sick, and desperately wanted out of the suicidal horror of the drunken merry-go-round I was on.

While in the center, I joined the Attorney's Support Group here in Oregon and I now regularly attend many other support meetings. My life is now full and happy. I no longer have that desperate feeling of loneliness I had all my life. I wouldn't trade one day of sobriety shared with my wife and family for anything else in the world.

I truly believe the same can happen to others. Alcoholics are chosen people, given a gift of power, a power so great it can literally stop a disease in its tracks. This power is so strong it can actually heal bodies, minds, and spirits. That power is found in one drunk helping another.

It is important to understand that not all lawyers make it into recovery. The above success stories have something in common. These lawyers reached out for help, recognizing that their lives had become unmanageable. This is a critical step in the recovery process. In the field of addiction, it is referred to as "hitting bottom." Recent studies have indicated that early identification of the problem of addiction to any mind-altering chemical (including alcohol) can "raise the bottom up," so to speak, before the attorney loses family, friends, and business.

Donald Muccigrosso retired as program director for the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program on March 1, 1999, and is currently consulting with other lawyer assistance programs in the continued development of their programs and retreats. Donna L. Spilis is the staff director for the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. This article is adapted from "Salvation for Solos: Help for Recovery from Addiction," by Donald Muccigrosso and Donna Spilis, a chapter in Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo Lawyer, 2d ed. (ABA Section of Law Practice Management, 1994). Reprinted by permission.

The author of this article has granted permission for reproduction of the text of this article for classroom use in an institution of higher learning and for use by not-for-profit organizations, provided that such use is for informational, non-commercial purposes only and any reproduction of the article or portion thereof acknowledges original publication in this issue of GPSolo, citing volume, issue, and date, and includes the title of the article, the name of the author, and the legend "Reprinted by permission of the American Bar Association."

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