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Recovery in Law School – An interview with SK. (Part 1)

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is every bit as concerned for law students — it just didn’t fit in our name. All law students in Massachusetts are entitled to use our free and confidential services, and are welcomed at all of our Recovery Meetings across the state. Find our Law Student FAQ here, further Resources here, and a 3-Step Survival Guide here.

SK is a 3L law student in the greater Boston area. She graciously agreed to share some of her story with us and to tell us more about Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist path to addiction recovery.

LCL: You have shared with me that you have been in recovery for just over a year. Can you tell us about your journey toward sobriety and what influenced you to seek help?

SK: To say that I didn’t see sobriety coming would be an understatement. I had no idea that this path would ever be a part of my life, so I was kind of blindsided to be honest. My brother is an alcoholic who’s been in recovery since 2010. When he quit drinking, I secretly thought “good thing I’m not an alcoholic, I can’t imagine life without drinking.” Years later when I had a “moment of clarity” in 2016 and saw that I needed to stop drinking, completely, forever, it felt more like a discovery of something that had been true all along, rather than a decision. It was like looking at someone else’s life and being able to see so clearly—I realized “holy crap I am one of those people. I have to stop drinking.”

The short answer to this question is I reached a point where I completely hated my life and was beyond tired of existing. Every morning when I woke up, I wished I had died in my sleep. I didn’t actively want to kill myself, I just wanted to die so the suffering would end. Every morning when I had to face the day all I could think was “I can’t do this again.” It took me a long time to realize that alcohol was physically causing much of this despair and mental agony. I thought drinking was the only thing keeping me sane and functioning. The only way I knew how to have fun and connect with people socially was to have alcohol be the central focus. I had built my life to revolve around drinking and I didn’t know anyone that didn’t drink. But my hangovers began to get worse and worse. I had my first panic attack during 1L year, and eventually basic things like eating and sleeping became nearly impossible. As hard as it was to imagine a life without booze, I knew on some level that was the only solution left. I had tried everything else.

I started drinking when I was 14 and it slowly increased over the years. Once I turned 21 and graduated from college, drinking was this socially encouraged thing that sophisticated adults did and I was happy to oblige. By the time I started law school, I had probably been a daily drinker for several years but I didn’t find this alarming because so was everyone else that I knew and hung out with. I had also used drugs on and off, dealt with disordered eating, overexercising, overspending, oversleeping, and toxic relationships. I can see, looking back, that these things all stem from the same place, but I didn’t know any of this before sobriety. Alcohol just became my favorite vice because it was legal and socially acceptable and ubiquitous. I built my identity around being a craft beer connoisseur and the girl who was always down to party, any day and every day.

In the Spring of 1L year after our Contracts exam, I went out with classmates to celebrate and stayed out drinking all afternoon and all night. I remember waking up the next day, thinking “This is going to be the hangover that kills me. There’s got to be a better way to live.” I decided to take the summer off from drinking (something I’d done before) so I just stopped cold turkey for 90 days to reset. When I started drinking again, it was probably only a week or two until I had this moment of clarity.

I had stumbled on the memoir of an alcoholic, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp and I read it one day, extremely hungover, in one sitting. I was captivated. I was probably sitting there with my jaw hanging open, thinking, “this woman stole my life!” It hit me like a ton of bricks all at once—you are an alcoholic and you have to quit drinking. Forever. No rationalizing, no justifying, no negotiating. It was simply an indisputable fact. Without realizing it, I had been trying for years to “drink normally” and not take it too far. All of a sudden, I knew in my bones that moderation was never going to be something I could achieve. So I spent a few months mourning this news, drinking way more than I ever had, suffering ever-worse physical side effects, and mentally preparing to quit. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into; I couldn’t begin to imagine: what do people do besides drink? I didn’t have a plan for how to do it either—but I kept reassuring myself that I had just quit for 90 days, so it couldn’t be that hard. Well, it turns out it’s been the hardest year of my life but I also know without a doubt that it’s the best decision I have ever made. I’ve always had this feeling that I was waiting for my life to start and now I can see, in a way, I was. Nothing else was ever going to stick until I got this drinking thing under control. After a long enough period of suffering and countless attempts at “normalcy,” I realized controlling it actually meant abstaining entirely.

In the end I think my journey toward sobriety was long and winding, and sometimes I feel like “wow I must be an idiot or super oblivious to not have noticed the warning signs sooner!” But as they say, “it takes what it takes” and I wasn’t ready until I was ready. My body got to a point where it wasn’t handling alcohol the way it used to and I am thankful for those terrible physical side effects and the panic attacks because they really got my attention. I would say to anyone reading this: you don’t have to wait until it gets “bad enough” to seek help, or to start exploring ways to stop. The label of “alcoholic” or “drug addict” is entirely irrelevant—if your drinking or drug use is causing you suffering, in any capacity, it counts. It’s legitimate. Your life deserves your attention. It takes tremendous courage to question the way you’re living, and it’s been my experience that only good things have come from that inquiry.

LCL: Did the stress of law school contribute to your substance use? Do you have any recommendations to law students as to how they might manage their stress better? Do you have any recommendations to law schools as to what they could do to encourage a healthier environment in law school?

SK: I don’t think so. It was more of a perfect storm, my tendency to cope with life using alcohol and the drastic uptick in stress that comes with 1L year, but I don’t think law school was a major factor in my hitting bottom. The timing was more of a coincidence. When I was looking at law schools, current students all said the same thing about stress: find what works for you and manage it in the ways you already do: exercise, quiet time, play with your pets, go out in nature, talk to loved ones, etc. It just so happens I’ve always leaned heavily on the crutch of drinking and I certainly found plenty of drinking buddies in my classmates. But if you are the kind of person who drinks or uses drugs to manage stress, there’s a good chance your substance use will increase during law school. I think there’s a bit of a revolution happening in the health/wellness fields right now, where things like “self-care”, mindfulness and meditation, and healthy lifestyles are seen as trendy or more mainstream, and I think that’s a good thing. Some law schools have jumped on this bandwagon somewhat and I think encouraging students to prioritize the fundamentals of health, nourishing food, physical activity, and getting enough sleep is a great place to start. Instead of framing it as what not to do, I think it can be more effective to encourage more positive behaviors to crowd out the not so healthy ones.

LCL: Many law students we speak with have expressed concern about getting help with substance use and mental health issues because of a concern surrounding the character and fitness portion of the bar application. Can you speak to that concern and how you see your sobriety in terms of your character and fitness to be a lawyer?

SK: I was also worried about this but I quickly realized that my sobriety and my well-being are so much bigger than law school, passing the bar exam, or getting a job at a top firm. If I didn’t get sober eventually I would have killed myself, so being worried about law school or future career repercussions seemed petty in the face of that and did not factor into my decision. That being said, anyone who is worried about their substance use or mental health should not wait until things are really dire and out of control to seek help.

I think the character and fitness portion of the bar application is trying to determine whether you are a trustworthy, stable individual who can make sound decisions, handle client funds responsibly, tell the truth, reliably show up as an advocate for your clients, etc. Being an addict or alcoholic or suffering from an untreated mental health issue definitely inhibits your ability to do those things. It does not, however, make you a weak or lesser person who is somehow culpable for these “moral failings”. It does not define who you are. Your screw-ups are just a symptom of the underlying affliction.

I think the BBO is concerned about lawyers making terrible choices, who may lie, steal, or avoid taking responsibility for their actions, but just as much they are interested in supporting happy, healthy, thriving attorneys succeed in their careers. I think that’s the aim of the C&F portion. Once the substance abuse or mental health issue is properly treated, it has very little bearing on someone’s ability to be an effective lawyer. I don’t feel any less capable of being a great attorney because I’m an alcoholic, but I am incredibly grateful that I confronted this issue now before things had a chance to get worse.

LCL: Many people in recovery struggle with the question of whether to remain anonymous in their sobriety or to be open about it. Can you talk a little about the pros and cons of each decision from the perspective of a law student?

SK: I can definitely relate to this predicament. I want to be open about my recovery because I am proud of the fact that I decided to make this huge shift and I’m inspired by the myriad benefits I’ve seen come into my life in sobriety. So many things I thought to be true turned out to be just deeply entrenched beliefs that actually aren’t facts as much as cultural conditioning. I have had fun at parties and concerts and weddings sober, and I have been on a date sober and not fainted from nervousness. When I turn down a drink the person often just says “Oh ok” instead of “What?! Why?! You must be crazy! Everyone’s drinking.”

At the same time, I know there is stigma surrounding substance abuse and it’s something that many people prefer not to talk about. I’ve heard many law school friends exclaim “I can’t wait to get drunk tonight!” or “This is why lawyers drink” in response to some stressor or challenging situation. I’ve wondered about potential employers Googling my name and finding out I’m an alcoholic, whether that would matter, and how I’d never know either way. I thought about other law students, questioning their drinking or drug use, and being a little bit less scared to seek help because they’re not the only law student to ever do so.

I hope that the stigma surrounding addiction is lessening in the broader society, and in the legal profession specifically, albeit maybe more slowly. I hope someday we can view addiction and mental illness as just another ailment needing treatment, like cancer or diabetes. Regardless of whether someone chooses anonymity, I think the crucial ingredient in healing from an addiction is a willingness to do things differently. It’s like a spark, a tiny almost imperceptible mental shift, thinking that maybe there is another way to approach life. Once you see it, you can never go back. At first, I was terrified and literally could not imagine what my life would look like without drinking. I still don’t know how it’s going to shape up or what it’s going to be like to be a sober practicing attorney. But I do know it will be 1,000 times better than the life I was living before, and for now, that’s good enough.


SK interviewed by Shawn Healy, Ph.D.

Part 2 is here.

CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns | Law Students | Uncategorized

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