Beware of the addiction trap

“The morning before I got sober, my breakfast consisted of nearly a bottle of red wine and a few thick lines of cocaine. I got dressed, checked my teeth for lipstick and my nose for stray coke, put my laptop in its case and picked up the paper on the way out to work at my law firm. I felt sick, afraid and completely alone. I know now that I was wrong about the alone part.”

Lisa F. Smith, writing for the Washington Post.

No, she was not alone.

Many lawyers struggle with addiction because of the stress of the work and the long, demanding hours. The numbers are alarming. In her story, Smith noted how one study showed that 21 percent of lawyers had drinking problems.

For lawyers under 30, it was even higher, at nearly 32 percent.

Smith recounted how easy it was to fall into this trap while working as a young associate for a New York law firm:

“When I was 25 years old with the ink still drying on my law degree, the work-hard/play-hard environment of a top law firm was intoxicating, literally. Everyone drank. Being able to hold your liquor was a badge of honor, especially for women. Long days in the office turned into long nights in the bars and clubs.”

But she soon spiraled into full-blown addiction, using drugs and alcohol daily. Now sober, she found that to be a struggle as well because the law firm culture is not necessarily supportive of what’s considered to be a sign of personal failure.

“I had seen many people take medical and parental leaves over the years. For the most part, upon their return, they seemed to pick up where they had left off. But taking a leave to go to rehab? I had never seen it done and wasn’t going to be the first to find out what would happen after coming back.”

She has since gone public and wrote a well-received book about her journey, called “Girl Walks Out of a Bar.”

Her courage is remarkable — and needed, given how so many lawyers are susceptible to traveling down this agonizing path. And some don’t make it out alive.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, writing for the New York Times, recounted the death of her ex-husband Peter, a lawyer who died from a bacterial infection he got from using drugs intravenously.

“Of all the heartbreaking details of his story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”

She came up with this observation of Peter’s descent:

“Human beings are physically and emotionally complex, so there is no simple answer as to why Peter began abusing drugs. But as a picture of his struggle took shape before my eyes, so did another one: The further I probed, the more apparent it became that drug abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden.”

Some believe that the descent begins early, in law school. Many law students, facing stress to succeed in their studies, begin using drugs and alcohol and continue to do so when they embark on their careers. It’s not just the jobs that are causing stress, observers say.

Writing for the ABA Journal, patent attorney John Miranda suggests that young lawyers may tend to over-indulge for a number of reasons: “Millennials have faced heavy student loan burdens, due to (in my opinion) exorbitant tuition increases in recent years, along with a rough job market, with many young people taking years to find a steady job in their field.” 

He also notes how alcohol abuse is not limited to men. Women attorneys are drinking as much as their male counterparts.

How can young lawyers avoid the addiction trap? For one, lawyers need to understand how they can be prone to anxiety and depression, given the demands of the profession. Those disorders can lead to substance abuse because drugs and alcohol provide temporary relief. People use them to self-medicate.

Smith, the attorney who wrote “Girl Walks out of Bar,” suffered from major depressive disorder, which led to her addiction.

The good news is that there is more awareness that lawyers face these stresses, and the stigma appears to be easing. The first thing to do, experts say, is to seek professional help if you’re a lawyer facing anxiety, depression or drug and alcohol addiction.

“Professionals and doctors may prescribe certain actions to address your problem and which may bring about major changes in the way you function and feel,” notes the paper, “Ten Tips for Lawyers Dealing with Stress, Mental Health, and Substance Use Issues,” produced by the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program.

Additionally, unlike in the past, there are more resources available to lawyers facing such troubles. State bar associations offer assistance programs that are free and confidential.

The California State Bar notes the importance of confidentiality:  

“We know that it is often difficult to reach out for help during difficult times, especially if it’s about a private matter. Rest assured. We promise confidentiality – we release no information about your participation in the program without your knowledge or consent.”

The ABA has a directory of lawyer assistance programs on its website.

So, yes, there is help.

The hard part — if history is a guide — is asking for it.