Anonymity or Disclosure? The Choice I Made about My Alcoholism

Vol. 32 No. 3

By

Hon. Sarah L. Krauss is a retired Acting Supreme Court Justice, Kings County, New York.

After years of drinking, I stood on the cusp of losing all the gains I had made in my legal studies and chosen career in government service. With the assistance of friends and relatives already in recovery, my life took a better turn as I got sober and began a recovery process that has held me in good stead for more than 32 years. By the 12th year in my recovery process, circumstances developed that provided an opportunity to speak out publicly about this addiction and my journey into recovery. Although some prejudice and bias certainly existed in the legal profession at that time, I decided the risk was worth this leap into a more public disclosure of the pitfalls of drinking to excess as well as the possibility of recovering and of having a successful legal career despite this history of impairment.

My Path from Addiction to Recovery

Until the turning point that led me to sobriety, my life was on a fast decline. This decline began slowly and progressed insidiously. Over time and probably without much notice, I began drinking more and more. At one time, I could drink with friends on a Friday night and maybe even on a Saturday night, but by Monday I would be back into my responsible mode. Then, slowly, the weekend drinking increased and began to creep into weeknights, and eventually I found myself drinking during the day, especially when my responsibilities—law school, single parenting, showing up for work—became overwhelming.

For certain, my relationships with family and friends became strained and, as time wore on and the drinking took over more of my life, necessary relationships with family and employers were, to say the least, no longer cohesive and were often chaotic. People could not depend on me to show up in a responsible and timely manner.

I found many reasons to blame circumstances and others for needing to drink—for relief, for relaxation, to reduce the stress and fear I was feeling. Through this false sense that I was all right and could handle the drinking and everything else, I couldn’t see the toll my behavior was taking on my family or work responsibilities. It appeared at the time as if I were handling all these responsibilities well. I most definitely lost sight of anything healthy or rational. My life plans underwent a radical change owing to the excessive drinking, the damage it was creating, and the perception that it was other people’s fault that I was so unhappy. At this point the only thing I thought about throughout the days at work, evenings in law school, and nights partying or at home was my next drink.

By then, I was having a hard time focusing, making good decisions, getting to work or to class on time, or even taking proper care of myself or anyone else . . . even my own child. The consequences of failed relationships and now unmanageable responsibilities piled up and became a mountain too high to climb. Unfortunately, this provided many good, although not rational, reasons to continue drinking.

Increasingly, the shame and fear became overwhelming. Soon I believed I’d be better off dead.

But then, maybe because the consequences were too much to face, the guilt too much to bear, or death too frightening to stomach, I heard someone speak of recovery and it stirred something deep inside. Miraculously, I was able not only to hear the message but to surrender to the possibility of sobriety and recovery. This provided the opportunity to change the destructive course I was on and opened up a whole new life to me.

My Role as a Messenger to the Bar

About 12 years into recovery I wrote my story for the ABA Journal. With that publication, I willingly surrendered my anonymity in order to assist my colleagues who were dealing with the disease of addiction. The decision to reveal the details about my own alcoholism and recovery was not an easy one. Some of the ramifications were not easy to deal with, but I do not regret my decision for one moment. After all, those who had the courage to tell their story had brought me to recovery and saved my life. How could I not do the same in hopes that I might help someone in return?

The extreme shame and stigma experienced by lawyers, judges, and law students created a critical urgency to put a face to the problem . . . my face. I was also acutely aware of the role a demanding profession played in my disease.

With the gift of hindsight, I share highlights of my journey as a messenger of recovery. Sharing serves to keep my sobriety strong and may influence those who are at that crossroad of revealing their condition or in the middle of a substance abuse experience and need a word of encouragement and hope.

In 1994 I became a commissioner with the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP). It was because of this commission appointment that I first publicly shared my story of addiction and recovery to a group of my peers.

I agreed to speak to a roomful of women bar leaders about CoLAP. It was a last-minute decision, and I was left with little time to prepare. I quickly realized that sharing my story would ultimately be the best way to educate them about CoLAP’s mission. I would have to reveal to them that I was an alcoholic. While this decision gave me pause, especially when I saw many of my New York State colleagues in the audience, I knew it was important to show them what a lawyer and a judge in recovery looked like: healthy and successful. Who better to deliver this message? I was one of them, a bar leader who had just completed a year as vice president of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York.

Following this presentation, I wrote my ABA Journal article. A few years later, I shared my story with the Board of Trustees of the Brooklyn Bar Association and participated in a mock intervention for New York Administrative Judges as well as the Executive Committee of the New York State Bar Association. All of this put my private story on public display but served a critical purpose of demonstrating that recovery works.

Since finding sobriety and then finding the courage to share my story of recovery with the legal profession, much has changed with regard to the universal message to the legal professionals about these serious issues of addiction and the incidence of mental health issues in our profession. All lawyer assistance programs offer education on how to recognize and intervene when someone is impaired. These educational programs continue to be offered for free or for a very low cost on subjects related to mental illness, addiction, and lawyer well-being.

Personally, sobriety afforded me the privilege to serve for more than 17 years as a judge in the Civil, Criminal, Supreme, and Family Courts of New York State and the honor of serving on CoLAP and state and local lawyers-helping-lawyers committees. My committee work on behalf of my colleagues became critical to my own well-being and gave me an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of the lawyer assistance transition to addressing mental health problems in addition to addiction, with a greater outreach to all legal professionals and a higher priority by bar leaders.

In closing, I commend all the courageous judges, lawyers, and law students who have lent their time and energy to this effort, who have publicly acknowledged their struggles with addiction and mental health problems, and who have maintained their recovery while contributing their formidable skills and talents to the legal profession. The willingness to admit what has happened to us while continuing to demonstrate, through our own professional accomplishments, that a recovering attorney is a responsible member of the profession, as well as the willingness to volunteer to educate our colleagues, has done much not only to reduce the stigma of addiction and mental illness for lawyers and judges, but more importantly, to get effective assistance to those who are suffering and dying every day from these very treatable illnesses.

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