Saturday, October 24, 2009

Drunk Lawyers

Lawyers are required as a part of licensure to attend continuing legal education and report attendance of at least 24 hours including several hours of alcohol and substance abuse classes. These sessions are usually followed by cocktails. I saw this video and parts 2 through 4 at a seminar. As funny as it is, on one level, it causes me no end of pain.

When I started drinking, it had nothing to do with stress--but, the drinking sure caused a lot of stress. Unlike the lawyer in the video, I never figured out how to get my drunk ass back into the courtroom. I had to quit drinking just to function, not only as a lawyer but also as a human being--which I did 23 years ago. Alcoholism is a mental illness, one symptom of which is the physical and mental compulsion to drink too much.

I'm grateful that I don't have alcohol to blame for being a Bad Lawyer. Like you, I'm sure, I've seen too many lives destroyed, too many children harmed, too many good minds wasted by alcohol and drugs.

My friend Carter was a brilliant lost soul. Like me, ethnically: trailer-white-trash--like me he pulled himself out of the cultural and family limitations and put himself through college and law school. He claimed his father (long dead from a drug overdose) was a jazz drummer for a early version of the Dave Brubeck quartet. Carter's mother abandoned him to relatives, who found him unmanageable put him in an orphanage. I met Carter at Big State University--Carter was my graduate assistant instructor in Philosophy. He was just so full of shit--one of those communist-poseurs that you met on campuses in the late Viet Nam War era. Hindsight tells me that a lot of those guys were using antiwar activism as a way to get high and get laid.

I saw Carter again many years after college in Our Big City. It had become pretty evident to me that getting sober was a pretty good plan of action consequently I was attending AA lunch meetings with a lot of other professionals at a downtown church. One afternoon a senior-guy that I looked up to approached and asked me to "sponsor" Carter--that was nearly 20 years ago. Against all odds Carter put together long periods of sobriety; off and on we practiced law together. In the last few years of his life we became pretty close. Carter wanted what he thought I had: a house, wife, brats, things that seemed "normal." Both Carter and his fiancée, were struggling with relapse, I did not know. Which goes to show how powerful the disease is--how did I not know, HOW? I knew he was sick but I thought it was heart disease, smoking, diabetes,--then I knew he was relapsing. One afternoon several years ago while Carter was recuperating from heart surgery I got a call that a neighbor who found him dead. He died of a heroin overdose. I miss him so much.

Carter had many wonderful observations that prove true in my own life. He used to tell the story of the two Bar Flies, sitting side-by-side at the bar, one turned to the other saying: "I think you shit your pants," the other without moving from the barstool, says, "yeah, I know," the first Bar Fly says, "why don't you go into the bathroom and clean up," his friend says, "I'm not through, yet." Carter said that you reach your bottom long before you yourself will admit it, you choose to keep going down. I wish it were that simple.

I miss you, Carter.


  1. Moving story. I know a couple of people like that, from the old days. I mean I did know them--they're dead now, too. I've only been sober for 2 1/2 years, but it has really made the world jump out in living color. Academics is alcohol-drenched, too--it's romantic, don't you know, to get drunk and recite poetry while you try to get a glimpse of some grad student's cleavage. I never drank at those parties--but I was so alienated by the spectacle that I went home after and drank alone. After I became a Bad Professor (you have to be one, or they can't fire you), I drank more. Then I decided that wasn't how I wanted my particular story to end. Good for you, Bad Lawyer.

  2. No, good for you Bad Professor. I've been thinking a lot about AA and the early days when I clung to meetings. I actually was on the speaking circuit for some years, and I chaired regular meeting as well as the assistance to lawyers committee of the Bar Association. I don't embrace orthodoxy in much and my natural inclination is not adopt recovery as self-definition. I intend no criticism of those who find relief in a closer identification with recovery. I do embrace the Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith mythos. I've been to the physical locations where they report the occurrence of epiphanies; and, I met many of the "old timers" who were first generation and second generation AAs. I spent the afternoon on the road,and I'm pretty tired as I write--let's agree to continue this discussion?

  3. Yes, let's--you have so many interesting thoughts that seem to echo my own, and who doesn't like to hear a smart person say the things they've been trying to sort out in their own muddled way? I too have left meetings (not AA--WFS) because I have trouble living by aphorisms and coercive self-help mantras about positive thinking (have you read Barbara Ehrenreich's book on this? It's awesome). But I do give myself pats on the back periodically for giving up something I really really liked. Albeit for not good reasons.

  4. I have not read Barbara Ehrenreich's book on "recovery," although I greatly admire her writing and speaking on economic and feminist issues.

    One of the problems that I've had with the so-called recovery-movement is hardly the ideas, it's the execution of ideas and the secondary language that built up around the 12 step programs. Subversive by nature, I reject all orthodoxy--but, to be honest don't all alcoholics at least claim to do the same? Before I "got sober" I resisted cultish "brain washing" --truly, if any brain and personality needed a great deal of washing and for that matter restructuring, mine did.

    For all of my talk, I admit that my experience from the outset, from the very first AA meeting, I got "it." I had the epiphany, Angels with harps, the blinding light and all that. For a long time after "sobriety" I experienced the "pink cloud." Even though after 24 years I still chafe at the culture group certitude.

    The founding narrative of AA is awesome in the truest possible sense of the word "awesome." I can visualize Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, in part because they were contemporaries of my maternal grandparents who died from alcoholism.

    I've been to Dr. Bob's house a small Cape Cod Cottage in Akron, I've been to the Mayflower Hotel lobby where Bill Wilson aching for a drink instead called an Akron Episcopal minister, the Rev. Tunks, who introduced Bill Wilson to Bob Smith at the Seiberling (Mrs Seiberling was married into the Firestone Tire fortune) estate gatehouse at Stan Hywett Hall in Akron. In the early years of my recovery I spoke as the "lead" speaker at many of the locations where the founders established meetings in and around Cleveland and Akron. While I have fallen away from active participation, for me at least AA participation has been one of those activities where people you first knew in AA remain friends and acquaintances.

    There are so many good experiences mixed in with the less good since sobriety, and getting older has made my retrospective less Manichean. I am still capable of a complete sense of wonder at everything that came before and awe at what came after. After I stopped drinking it was real easy to believe that the hard part was over--what a joke. My "Blawg" documents that self-delusion. Still had I continued to drink there would have been no Bad Lawyer Blawg, no Bad Lawyer stories, no Bad Lawyer.

    Strange as it might seem, the Bad Lawyer may be the best person I've ever been. Oh, as a lawyer I did some very cool things and I have had amazing experiences--but until I objectively became a Bad Lawyer I did not slow down for one moment to contemplate the meaning of all that has happened. For some strange reason, I have premonitions of possibilities I never would not have considered. If you've been anywhere near where I've been in my alcoholism and bad-ness--you know without me saying it how dystopic and tenuous my outlook was.

    One more day.

  5. I think anyone who can overcome something as all-consuming as an addiction (to anything) should be commended--but yes, I hear you about the whole sobriety culture. I actually tried AA and couldn't deal--not because I wasn't ready to quit, but b/c I found it a peculiarly masculine subculture--I know there are women's meetings, but it wasn't about the sex/gender of the participants--it was about structure and ideology. BUT--I know many people, one of whom is family, who owe their sobriety and (thus) their lives to AA. For me, though, the whole supreme being-I-am-powerless thing wasn't helpful. As a victim of Catholic education and a woman who felt powerless much of her (young) life, it didn't make sense to go somewhere and be told what I feared all along--that yet something else had complete control of me! And I didn't need to feel shame--I needed to feel good, and empowered, and strong, and move on into the future. And, most of all, I didn't want to talk about how I felt being drunk. I just didn't want to feel that way anymore. I wanted to erase drinking from my life and my routine. Completely. WFS was good that way--but ultimately I'm just not a group person. They asked me after I'd been sober for a year if I wanted to be a moderator--and, although I've been a teacher most of my adult life, I couldn't think of anything I was less suited to do! I admire you for being so altruistic and collectively-minded--because that's what it takes.

    I think I know what you mean about the Bad Lawyer being your best self--although I wonder if this contemplative period--the one we both seem to be in--isn't as much an effect of age (50's) as experience.

    Oh, the Ehrenreich book is about positive thinking, not recovery. It's called "Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America."

    Well, anyway--thanks for sharing all that.

    Let's email next time--I always have a hard time finding this post...