Oregon State Bar members share their stories of dependency and addiction — and recovery
By Melody Finnemore – for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin
“Elaine” was born into a family of alcoholics and watched her father, also an attorney, battle the disease for many years while growing up in the Midwest. “My father had a lot of great intentions that never seemed to happen until he got sober when I was 14,” says the Portland attorney.
“I was desperately afraid I would have problems with alcohol, so it wasn’t until I was 18, the legal age in my state, and a freshman in college that I started drinking,” she adds. “I took to it like a duck to water. I was a daily drinker almost immediately.”
A self-described perfectionist, she maintained strong grades throughout college though she drank on a regular basis. Her drinking grew steadily worse as she completed her first year of law school, while working at a law firm during the day and taking law courses at night.
“For the first time in my life, I wasn’t the smartest one in the room, and that scared me,” she says. “I was a functional alcoholic. I kept up and got good marks, but inside I was falling apart. I felt like alcohol was the glue that held my life together at that point, and I was afraid I couldn’t stop drinking or, if I did, that my life would fall apart.”
She turned to her father who, by that time, had been sober for nine years. He advised her to join Alcoholics Anonymous. She initially entered a 30-day, outpatient treatment program and joined a state lawyer recovery group modeled after the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) of lawyers concerned for lawyers. She attended a meeting each week and stayed sober for a couple of years. She began drinking again after her life got better and she convinced herself it hadn’t really been that bad.
Elaine graduated from law school in 1982 and married her first husband the following year. She moved to join her husband in New Orleans, which she called a “drinker’s paradise.” There her drinking worsened.
“I held it together for about six months, but the loneliness of leaving my family to move to a new city where there was a completely different culture was too much,” she says.
A move to Portland proved no easier. She was in another new city with no friends. Her drinking was causing problems in her marriage. And she was hit with another emotional blow when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in early 1985.
“She was concerned about me, but I kept the truth from her because I didn’t want her to worry,” she says. “The six weeks after she died were the most difficult time of my life. She was my closest friend.”
The decision to sober up for good came during an evening soon after that. She remembers drinking wine out of a box at the kitchen table and arguing with her former husband. When she went into the bathroom to clean their cat’s litter box, she found her father’s A.A. sobriety medallion, which he always carried in his pocket, behind the litter box. She can only surmise that the medallion accidentally fell off the bathroom counter during her father’s visit shortly after her mother’s death.
After reading the serenity prayer on the back of the coin, she says, “I just looked up and said to Mom in heaven, ‘I give up. I’ll get sober again.’” She sought help through OAAP 21 years ago and has remained sober ever since.
“Since then, I’ve put my life back together. I divorced in 1988 and remarried in 1994. I have a thriving law practice and the respect of my colleagues. My life is full, and I can weather the ups and downs of life with grace,” she says.
In her professional life, clients often seek her help for legal difficulties that may go hand in hand with drug and alcohol problems of their own. When appropriate, she shares her battle against alcoholism with clients. “I will share with a client that I know what it’s like to hit rock bottom and that life can get better when you face your problems,” she says.
In addition, she serves as an A.A. sponsor for others struggling with alcohol addiction. “It makes it all worth it. A.A. allows you to take your worst experiences and share them with others to show you’ve been there and to offer hope,” she says.
She says the key to maintaining her sobriety is to deal in a constructive way with the emotions that led to drinking, such as a compulsive need for achievement and perfection, into healthier channels such as running, golf, work and volunteer work, as long as she doesn’t overdo those, too.
She believes that she is genetically different than non-alcoholic drinkers and therefore can never safely use alcohol again regardless of how long she is sober or how well she functions.
“I continue to go to A.A. meetings because I’ve seen too many times what can happen to people who don’t go. I don’t ever want to drink again. Besides, I like meetings — it’s a place to stay honest with myself about my alcoholism and have a chance to help others. I’ll do whatever it takes so I never drink again.”
COMMITTING TO SOBRIETY
Susan Gerber also began drinking in high school, although alcohol was not part of her conservative, Jewish upbringing.
“My brother and I say everyday that we have the best two parents on the planet – it was like the Brady Bunch. There was never a drop of alcohol in the house,” she says. “I always felt different, though, so I had my first Miller Genuine Draft and felt funny and more comfortable. I started drinking to get drunk every time.”
Gerber continued to drink through college, law school and private practice as a trial lawyer. The problem grew worse when she accepted a job as an assistant district attorney in Chicago.
“It’s so stressful and disgusting, because you see so many victims who have had horrible things done to them,” she says. “It was the biggest relief to drive home and have a beer to take the edge off.”
Gerber says her decision to quit drinking wasn’t instigated by any external crisis. Like so many alcoholics, however, she suffered a shattering crash at rock bottom.
“Nothing horrible went wrong. I didn’t have any DUIs or anything like that. It just eventually got to the point where I felt what they call utter and complete demoralization,” she says. “You look in the mirror and hate yourself, and you just want to die. I’d gotten to that point where I thought I’d rather kill myself than live the way I was one more day. I didn’t like who I was or how I was treating my family or my co-workers.”
Gerber joined A.A., where the newfound clarity that came with being sober gave her some perspective on her life. She realized she wasn’t happy with her work as a private practice attorney. After three years of sobriety, she decided to quit her job, sell her house and volunteer for the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI). The program promotes a worldwide exchange of ideas and programs that include training for foreign lawyers and other professionals.
As part of the program, Gerber moved to Albania for a year to teach law students there how to serve as lawyers and judges, preserve civil rights and recognize the downfalls of corruption.
“It was a really depressing experience, but an amazing experience,” she says, adding she lived without a phone and only occasional access to the Internet. “It was very spiritual not having contact with a lot of other people.”
Upon returning to the United States, Gerber obtained her license to practice in Oregon in 1999 and began working for the state’s Department of Justice in 2001. Now an assistant attorney general for DOJ’s trial division and sober for eight years, Gerber attends three or four A.A. meetings each week and sponsors two other members. Her commitment to the recovery program is essential to her sobriety, she says.
“The longer you remain sober, life becomes more routine, and when it’s routine it’s easy to become complacent. Your memory goes and you begin to think, ‘Okay, maybe I can drink like other people,’” Gerber says. “Helping other people helps me out of myself. It’s literally the one thing that keeps me sober.”
WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY: SELF-ESTEEM
Like many boomers, “Mark” grew up in an atmosphere where drugs and alcohol were readily available. Drinking was perceived as a positive pastime in his family even though several generations of his male relatives had battled alcoholism.
“My father took care of our family, and I think he was a pretty typical businessman for the 1950s. He drank socially, and when I was nine or ten he would give me an occasional beer,” he says. “I started drinking more in high school as well as smoking pot and doing other drugs that were prevalent during the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
While attending law school at Willamette University, Mark drank and smoked pot daily. He quit smoking pot gradually, finding it interfered with his legal practice. He continued to drink, however, and was involved in an alcohol-related accident in the early ’80s.
“I was fortunate that one of the paramedics convinced me to take a ride in the ambulance to have my broken arm looked at because it stalled off the police,” he says. “I would have had a DUII because I’d had five martinis.”
Despite the near miss with the police and potentially more tragic consequences, he continued to drink through the termination of his legal partnership and the birth of two children in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“Through all of that the drinking just steadily progressed, and there are parts of that time that I’m not at all proud of because I did some pretty shameful things,” he says. “Why it took so long to reach out and get help, I don’t know. It’s the nature of the disease, I guess. My wife asked me time and time again, ‘Don’t you think you should get some help?’”
He found excuses not to get help or face the problem head on. Instead, he focused on managing his practice, and says working as a sole practitioner actually enabled his drinking because he didn’t have to answer to other partners. In addition, chronic anxiety added to the problem.
“I’m a nail biter to this day, and alcohol always took the anxiety off. When the drinking gets out of hand, alcohol not only eliminates the anxiety but, over time, exacerbates it,” he says. “Over time it goes from drinking to feel good to drinking so you don’t feel so bad.”
He sought help through OAAP in 1992, intending to get his drinking under control but not necessarily stop.
“With time I realized I needed to stop altogether, because my mental and physical health were deteriorating quickly,” he says. “Drinking took more than my health, and recovery has given me more than just not drinking. My drinking took something that no amount of money could buy — my self-esteem. Recovery has restored this and more.”
He now serves as a sponsor for others in recovery and works with impaired attorneys through other bar programs. He continues to attend several support meetings each week. “I did most of my daily drinking at lunch, so I find lunch meetings work well for me,” he says.
Though it took time to rebuild his economic stability, he found that many other aspects of his life improved dramatically soon after he made the commitment to stay sober.
“There’s been a lot of family growth and changes in that time. There have been some really wonderful gifts that have come out of being sober,” he says. “Besides having my health restored, I have grown emotionally. I have found joy in living and a sense of who I am. My life has purpose, and I find satisfaction in what I do. I am convinced that today I am a better father, a better lawyer and a better member of my community.”
He advises others who feel they have dependency problems to reach out for help so they, too, can regain what they may have lost along the way.
“I do not doubt for one minute that anyone who has lost control of their drinking can have everything I have received and more, if they are willing to ask for help,” he says. “If you think you have a drinking problem and need help, please pick up the phone. It is a call that will save your life.”
SHATTERING THE DENIAL
Ted Grove has faced addiction nearly every day for the last 11 years in his role as a Columbia County Circuit Court judge. Raised in the Midwest, Grove started drinking as a teen. He began drinking heavily with his older teammates when he joined the Des Moines Rugby Club while still in high school.
“I was a daily drinker and sometimes a binge drinker. By the time I was 21 I would say there weren’t many days I didn’t drink, and once or twice a week I drank a lot,” he says.
Grove attended law school at Lewis & Clark College, where his drinking continued. He graduated in 1978, but worked in the woods as a tree planter and logger for a couple of years after graduating while some legal issues were resolved.
“I would get drunk and get belligerent. I would upset people and law enforcement would cuff me and take me away,” he says.
He had marital and physical problems by the time he was 30. Still, he refused to admit that alcohol was controlling his life.
“Basically, you function in life for the continued right to drink. You tell yourself that as long as you’re able to make it work, you don’t really have a problem,” he says. “After one substantial drunk, my wife warned that she wouldn’t be around much longer. It was pretty clear that alcohol was kicking my butt.”
Grove contacted Don Muccigrosso at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program in 1982, but admits the initial effort was half-hearted. “I called Muccigrosso to show my wife I was serious about quitting drinking. I immediately regretted it and, as the day progressed, I was planning my first after-work drink,” he says. “Just before 5 p.m., Don called and asked me to meet him.”
Grove started attending OAAP and other recovery meetings outside of the small Columbia County town where he lived and practiced law.
“Like most alcoholics, we have this myth or perception that other people don’t realize how much we drink or how big of a problem it is,” he says. “It wasn’t long before I recognized that I needed to get involved in meetings in my community.”
Grove says he quickly gave up on the notion of anonymity in a small, rural community. As a circuit judge, he has openly shared his story from the bench.
“Over the years you touch an amazing number of families, whether for good or not,” he says, noting 85 percent of the people in his court system battle chemical dependency problems. “I am still active in the recovery community, attending open meetings and have held hands during the closing prayer with people I’ve sent to prison, mothers who have had their parental rights terminated and parents whose children I’ve sent to prison. I’m always surprised that I feel no anger from them.”
At 53 years old, Grove has been sober for 23 years and now serves as a mentor for others in recovery. The experience benefits him as much as those he sponsors, he says.
“It causes you to reconnect with the program at a more basic level because you try to assist someone who is new to the recovery process. It reminds you of the problems, experiences and insecurities you felt during the early stages of recovery,” he says.
His job also brings the issue front and center on a near daily basis. “I have these people who come before me who are suffering from the same disease of addiction, so it’s a bit of a 12-step call on a daily basis for me.”
His message to other recovering alcoholics is simple: Everything you lose when you’re drinking is restored to you in your sobriety.
“It’s an amazing transition when you think of it. One day you’re drinking yourself to death and the next you’re not taking a drink at all and are taking the first steps as a recovering alcoholic,” he says. “It’s all about letting people know there is life after recovery and it’s a damned good life.”
THE DANGER OF CROSS-ADDICTION
Heroin was the drug of choice for “James,” an Oregon attorney who has practiced law for nearly 20 years at some of the most well-known law firms along the West Coast.
James’ drug abuse began in the early 1970s when he was a seventh grader and started smoking pot. “It was so prevalent and easy to obtain, and it was accepted. In the crowd I ran around in, it was pretty much the social norm,” he says. “I’ve probably used about every drug that’s been available at some point in my life until I got into recovery.”
While he experimented with LSD, cocaine and other drugs, James didn’t begin drinking until college. Then, he would binge on beer during the weekends. He continued to drink, smoke pot and use other drugs throughout law school and during the start of his legal career. A job with a high-profile firm on the West Coast exacerbated his drinking problem.
“It was common to go out after work and share war stories and drink,” he says. “It came from the top, and I think partners need to realize they have a tremendous influence over the younger associates who want to succeed in the firm.”
James says his addictive personality eventually led him to try heroin, which at first was inexpensive, pure and easy to obtain.
“It was a very solitary practice for me. I never used that drug with anybody else,” he says. “The reason it was a good fit for me, if you could call it that, was because it was an instant stress reliever. And unless you knew what to look for, you wouldn’t know I was high because it was odorless and it didn’t make me doze off or look stoned.
“However, the whole process of getting, using and functioning made me one of the busiest, hurried persons I knew,” James adds.
Initially he smoked it during the evenings to relax after a long day at work. It wasn’t long before he did heroin in the mornings before work and during his lunch breaks.
“It escalated quite rapidly. Inevitably – and it is inevitable that this will happen with this drug – I used more and more and took greater risks to obtain it,” he says.
James eventually was arrested for possession of heroin and placed in a diversion program. He relapsed and, thanks to the skills of his defense lawyer, was allowed back into the diversion program.
“I had no life, and I was chained to buying and using that drug. I had to feed my habit,” he says. “It eventually resulted in the loss of my marriage and, while I never received a complaint from a client, I actually took myself out of practice for a couple of years.”
James stopped smoking heroin six years ago when his connections dried up and he could no longer obtain it. He replaced heroin with alcohol and found the impact on his life was just as negative.
“That’s the danger of cross-addiction. For an addict, and I consider alcoholics to be addicts, any drug can start the cycle again,” he says. “I gave myself permission to use alcohol and cigarettes, and the result was just as disastrous.”
James sought help after realizing that he eventually was going to do great harm to somebody else or himself. He entered a recovery program and has been clean and sober for several years. James moved to Portland, remarried and now has a young child. His legal career is thriving, yet there are no more 15-hour work days, and he is able to enjoy time with his family. James continues to be active in the recovery community and has sponsored other recovering addicts.
“I attend several meetings every week and I probably will for the rest of my life, and it’s not a burden. In fact, any time I start to think it’s a burden I know it’s time to get to a meeting,” he says.
RECLAIMING HER DIGNITY
“Joan” has battled a series of addictions ranging from gambling to smoking crack. She began experimenting with alcohol and pot in high school. Her use in college escalated to drinking binges that lasted entire weekends.
Several years later she began her insidious battle with cocaine. “I’d been out drinking when someone passed me a crack pipe, and without hesitation, I took a hit. I was hooked instantly. I found what I had been searching for my entire life – complete escape — in seconds.” She would chase that first euphoric feeling for many years.
Joan was living a double life — law student by day, junkie by night. She ventured into the worst areas of town to feed her addiction, noting, finding that she actually starting feeling comfortable in crack houses.
“Although I wasn’t a daily user, it affected me on a daily basis. Trying to keep up the façade to hide my addiction was exhausting. I entered into a self-induced schizophrenic state when I used; nothing mattered more to me than getting that next hit,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Joan’s increased drug use to cause problems. Her class attendance dropped. She was so stressed about a final exam that she had to get stoned to take the test.
She also fell behind in her rent and faced phone and electricity disconnections.
After graduation Joan prepared to take the Oregon bar exam. Although she didn’t jump right back into using cocaine, she reports that drinking and smoking pot took priority over attending bar review classes. She failed the exam and was soon smoking crack again. Within weeks her addiction was in full force
“The first time it occurred to me that I might have a problem was when I saw a T.V. program with a toothless heroin addict who was sharing how her addiction led to homelessness and prostitution. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that could be me,’” Joan says. (But, that epiphany evaporated as soon as the next craving hit.)
She finally asked for help after being threatened at knife-point by a dealer. “My sister pleaded with me to tell her what was wrong. Fortunately, she caught me in a moment of sheer panic and desperation, and I confessed,” Joan recalls. “I called a recovering alcoholic attorney I knew, and he took me to my first 12-step meeting at the OAAP.”
Over the next five and a half years Joan dutifully attended meetings, but she couldn’t accumulate more than several months of continuous sobriety. “I’d go 30 or 60 days, start feeling better, and the next thing I knew I had a beer in my hand — and from there it was a short road to the crack house,” she says. “I understood that smoking crack was a problem, but just couldn’t grasp the idea that I couldn’t drink alcohol. I couldn’t use any mind-altering substance without suffering severe consequences.”
Next, Joan attended inpatient treatment, but that still wasn’t enough. She used several more times before she would hit bottom. The end of her use came when she was living with some friends and smoking crack in their basement. She was car-less and unemployed. “It was 3 a.m., I was out of dope and down to my last $50. Panicked, I thought that if I could just take one more good hit, I’d be able to figure everything out,” she says. “All I could do was pace back and forth and watch the clock. At 5 a.m., I headed out to catch the first bus of the day to purchase more drugs.”
Joan says that as she headed back to the basement with her new stash, she was extremely paranoid. “I was sure I was being watched and followed. But then I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I’d get arrested and go to jail. That calmed me down. Crack cocaine had become more important to me than my freedom. I had hit bottom.”
She checked herself into an intensive, outpatient treatment program and has slowly pieced her life back together. She attends recovery meetings almost daily and works with other alcoholics and addicts in recovery. She worked various low paying jobs for a couple of years before joining a law firm as a paralegal for the past year.
Although Joan passed the Oregon bar exam several years ago, she withdrew her previous application to work on strengthening her recovery. She re-took the exam in the summer of 2006. “I just didn’t want to rush into re-applying for admission; my sobriety had finally become more important to me than having to re-take the bar exam,” she says. In October, Joan will have been clean and sober for three years.
“Sobriety allows me to reclaim my dignity on a daily basis. The constant feeling of impending doom has been replaced by hope. I finally really believe I will get to practice law someday,” Joan says exuberantly.
She feels that she owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the OAAP staff as well as the other OAAP support group members, noting: “Without their love and support I would not have made it.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-based freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor to the Oregon State Bar Bulletin.