November 01, 2018 Feature

A Story of Recovery

By Laurie J. Besden

“Hi, Laurie, it’s Bill. Just sending you my blessings and good wishes. I hope to hear from you sometime. I am doing well, very well. Thank you. Bye.”

Although to many people the above transcription of a voice mail message I received on May 24, 2018, at 5:36 PM would seem ordinary, this message is anything but ordinary to me. And it’s a message I will cherish for the rest of my life.

To understand why the voice mail is so meaningful to me, you need the backstory.

“Bill” is the Honorable William R. Carpenter, Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. I am “Laurie,” a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Bill’s comment that he is “doing well, very well” refers to a stroke he suffered in the spring of 2018. Bill called me after my mom, Roberta Besden, and my rescue Staffordshire Terrier, Amazing (half of the Amazing and Grace dog duo), visited him during his stay at a rehabilitation facility.

What isn’t clear from anything above is that Bill sentenced me to incarceration in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility for 11 and a half months commencing on January 29, 2004, as a result of my fifth arrest, four of which were felony prescription fraud cases. While imposing a sentence according to the criminal sentencing guidelines, Bill sentenced me to the option of a new life. His sentence unequivocally saved my life.

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a home of privilege (beach home in Margate, New Jersey; overnight camps; convertibles), where education was the primary focus—so much so that my family paid for all of my (and my physician sister’s) educations. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, in three and a half years with a 3.97 GPA, I was off to law school despite always wanting to be a cosmetologist.

I attended Penn State Dickinson Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In my third year of law school, I was in a car accident that introduced Vicodin into my life. That initial prescription set off the fire of active addiction that I couldn’t put out until my freedom was taken from me on January 29, 2004. On that same day, J. David Farrell, a Montgomery County lawyer in long-term recovery and a volunteer with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania, presented himself in person at the prison and brought me the message of recovery sharing his experience, strength, and hope.

Although I passed the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bar exams in 1999, I was taking three 10 mg tablets of Vicodin an hour to get through the exams. My addiction followed me to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, where I served as a law clerk for Justice Frank J. Montemuro, a former justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

When my “doctor” in Texas who was conducting phone consultations with me under my nine identities was suspended, I had a 40-pill-a-day habit just to function. Then I became the doctor calling in my own prescriptions and fueled my addiction through 2004. Add cocaine. After 5 arrests, 29 car accidents, 3 rehabilitation facilities, and 3 incarcerations, I was finally sentenced to the “option of a new life” by Bill.

After I served a year in prison, David Farrell helped me find a job as a paralegal. He also connected me with other lawyers in recovery in Montgomery County and community support groups for drugs and alcohol. And I became a volunteer for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

In 2005, I reported my convictions (four years late) to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board and New Jersey Office of Ethics and entered a three-year suspension on both of my law licenses. After continuous sobriety and filing for reinstatement, I was reinstated to the practice of law in Pennsylvania (2009) and New Jersey (2010) by a power much greater than me.

I am now the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania (LCL) because, quite frankly, I am the product we sell. There is hope. There is help. Launched in 1988, LCL is a lawyer, judge, and law student assistance program in Pennsylvania. Most states have a similar program. Simply put, these programs are the confidential, safe, and supportive resource to combat the astoundingly high prevalence rates of substance use and mental health disorders in the legal profession.

The greatest barrier to people reaching out for support is the stigma associated with substance use and mental health disorders, which truly is just an illusion. LCL spends a great deal of time and resources on education to help break down the barrier of stigma. I don’t look like an addict, but, then again, what does an addict look like? I share my story of addiction and recovery, both in and out of the legal profession, to let people know that substance use and mental health disorders do not discriminate, but neither does recovery.

Recovery has given me the opportunity to pay it forward personally—whether it is taking a recovery meeting to the local prison, sharing my story with high school students and drug court graduations, taking my rescue dog (Amazing) to volunteer with dementia residents, or volunteering as a dog walker at the Humane Society of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania).

If the cards were fair, I wouldn’t be alive. The greatest gift of recovery is simply waking up each day with a blank canvas and painting it with vibrant opportunities by paying forward the gift of life that was so freely given and shared with me.

And now, through my recovery, I can be Bill’s friend, in both respects.

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By Laurie J. Besden

Laurie J. Besden, Esq., a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, serves as the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers—Pennsylvania (LCL-PA, Inc.). LCL-PA, Inc., is the confidential lawyer, judge, and law student assistance program for the state of Pennsylvania assisting individuals struggling with substance use and/or mental health disorders.