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Career, Escape and Substance Abuse: Chicken or Egg?

I am a sober person and also a recovering attorney. I struggled for many years with drinking and a lot of it was compounded in law school, and on as I continued to practice law.

But I drank before law school, too.  So which came first?

Chicken or the egg?  Are lawyer-types naturally prone to drug/alcohol abuse OR is the profession a major contributor…. or is it both?

This was a fascinating article that one of my athletes texted me this AM:

“That 2016 report….results showed that about 21% of attorneys were problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggled with mild or more serious drug abuse, and 19 percent struggle with anxiety.”

From someone who is no longer practicing law, I can say that I am equally as spastic, manic and hard-working as I always was… my personality hasn’t changed a lick since leaving law.

The anxiety still exists, but it’s just not directed at the court date or the brief due—but rather, how am I going to make X work, or is this writing deadline really going to be met—I think anxiety may just be a hallmark of my personality.

So do anxious and stressed out people naturally gravitate towards the law?

I think maybe.  But then the article says that law students are one of the healthiest bunches in the world. I can remember that, though. Heading into first year law school and thinking, “This is it! This is me!”

And then I sat in civil procedure on the first day and thought, “Oh holy hell. Run!!”

But I didn’t run. I stayed. And looking back, I am glad I did. Being a lawyer has been amazingly beneficial to my life, and shaped a big part of who I am. I have met amazing people. I am thankful for the education and the hard knocks, for sure.

But I am also glad that I left.

Trust me, I am not knocking the legal profession as a whole.

Thank goodness for it. Thank goodness for those who love it, and do their jobs and well.  I just wasn’t cut out for it, I guess.  Or maybe I just realized that it wasn’t what I wanted.  Or both.

A visit to the Alma Mater with the young Swim Bike Kids in 2011.

My personal hypothesis is that high-functioning and anxious folks might gravitate towards the law because it feels like a powerful profession where things can be controlled:

“If I am a lawyer, then I will be in the driver’s seat.”

Only some of us get into the profession, and it feels like the farthest truth ever.

Especially in litigation, we can feel like we are in a sports car, hanging out the window, going 100 MPH and hoping there’s not a tunnel ahead–but if there is a tunnel ahead, how can we make someone believe that the tunnel really isn’t there…

Whew. It’s a fast-moving and nervous-nelly type profession in some ways.

Which then leads to or compounds substance abuse, depression and more.

According to the article, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than those in other professions.

Why is that??

I don’t know, but I get it.

I drank to relax and sleep night and I was up at o’dark thirty with 4 cups coffee to get myself to do it again.

2011 – 6 years into law practice

When I left the legal profession, I was working in the best possible environment for me–compliance. Even though it had its moments as my boss used to say: “hair on fire moments,” I felt that I could control some of that… with spreadsheets, policies, emails and the like.

I knew when something went wrong, it was likely my fault, and I could fix it or at least get it re-railed. There was more control there, more sense of control, at least.

But other areas of law, I haven’t felt the same.  [I think choice of law may make a difference in this question.]   I sometimes felt like I was spinning out of control.  And how can that not lead to substance abuse and depression?

2011

I remember I argued my first (and only) case in front of the Georgia Court of Appeals.

It was terrifying – there was a lot of money at stake, and it was up to me (ME!??!?!) to make sure I had come up with AND then orally delivered the best argument, while fielding questions from the justices. I was a mess for days, and I drank myself into a state the night before.

Because I was amped beyond belief.

But I went in to the high court, argued my case, and it went amazingly well. It’s one of the few moments in my life where I remember that kind of elation. I walked over to the Governor’s Office where my co-worker knew the Governor’s staff attorney. I sat right down at Governor Deal’s desk and took a picture at the desk, and thought: I rule the world.

I was on CLOUD NINE for days.

But then two days later, I crashed. HARD. I went from the highest point of fear and anxiety to elation, then back down.

Then when the judgment came down weeks later from the Court in our favor, back up I went.

Success. Crash. Success. Failure. Crash. 

I had to get off the roller coaster for my health—and I knew it then.

A few years later, I found a great job within the profession that I liked. And I knew I could have stay there… but I had been on the trajectory to escape for a long time.

Because I knew, with my situation with alcohol, that the law just wasn’t something I could stay in. The risk for me returning to drink was too heavy. The risk for depression was too major.

2017

I knew I had to keep going, find something else, find a way.

How important is career to our sobriety, mental health, physical health?

My answer:

I think it’s far greater than we ever could have imagined in our twenties, when we were starting out, finding our way.

Far, far greater.

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