This month I will celebrate two important one-year anniversaries. I had my last alcoholic beverage on June 23, 1992. I was also arrested for driving while intoxicated.
After work, tow lawyers in my office and my law clerk and I went to a local restaurant to go over case lists and plan our work for the next month. I had "a few" glasses of wine. Four hours later, I was arrested in the driveway of my home by an off-duty police officer who had followed me for several miles.
Though the circumstances of the arrest were strange, the fact was inescapable. I got behind the wheel of a car and drove myself home when I was under the influence of alcohol. I did something that I find totally unacceptable. I violated my own principles. It didn't take long for me to figure out why.
I am an alcoholic. I had a disease that will kill me – if I let it. Some of you do, too. Perhaps many of you. Alcoholism could justifiably be called the occupational disease of trial lawyers. We live on the edge. The stress we feel is imposed not so much by internal factors as by external one over which we have precious little control. People depend on us to be strong, all-knowing, and all-powerful. We know, in the secret places of our hearts, that we are not any of those things. We are scared.
I was great at diagnosing this disease in others. In myself, I didn't see the signs. Maybe I felt a little doubt now and then, but that was easily put aside. After all, I drank only wine, only occasionally (or at least not every day), rarely suffered from a hangover (good genes), didn't miss work, and was very careful not to drive.
I was a binge drinker. I knew my limit. I just exceeded it regularly. Plenty of my close friends never even saw me drink, let alone get drunk.
But a couple of people mentioned that I ought to ease up. Another had the courage to suggest that I had a problem. My husband sent me mixed messages. My children talked to each other, but not their "invincible" mother. And I drank blithely on, certain that I, of all people, was OK.
My arrest was on the front page of the statewide paper and at the top of the broadcast news. I immediately issued a statement in which I acknowledged responsibility for my conduct, apologized for the embarrassment I caused family and friends, and expressed relief that no one was harmed. But that did nothing to stop the avalanche of coverage.
The gratuitous cruelty of the news overage still shuns me. The outpouring of love and support that resulted still warms me. The most unusual call was from a military figure whom I had prosecuted during my term as a U.S attorney. He said simply, "Hang in there. This too shall pass, and I'm one who ought to know." And he was right.
I have laugh at my conceit. What made me think that this disease skipped a generation? How could I ignore the multiple risk factors? How could a smart person be so drunk? It's easy. It requires no effort to ignore a problem. What require effort is to acknowledge it for what it is and change it.
Maybe you out there with this disease will be luckier than I was. Maybe you will stop when your friends and family tell you, you should. Maybe you will have a doctor who identifies your disease and insists you treat it in the only possible way: total abstinence. Maybe you will read this and see some of your own behavior and decide to get sober.
Or maybe you won't. If you don't, there is one certainty. You will die too soon – in a car crash, of liver disease, in a fall down the stairs. You will hurt yourself – or even worse, someone else.
The night I was arrested was the only time in my life that I have wanted to die. Many things far worse have happened to me. I lost a cherished friend to leukemia. My husband spent nearly two months in intensive care in a hospital. I had a bout with cancer myself. But those things were not my fault. Drinking and driving was my fault.
When I stopped drinking, I thought everyone would notice and ask why. Few notice, and they knew why. They were discreet enough to keep my problem private. I was not ready to publicly acknowledge my disease until now – not out of embarrassment but out of a concern for my credibility and that of this association, which I represent and love.
I was well informed about alcoholism. Family members have it. Many friends have it. I know it's part genetic, part chemical, and totally involuntary. I didn't know the most important thing I needed to know; I have it.
If you drink you might have a problem with alcohol, you probably do. Take action to help yourself. The members of ATLA's Substance Abuse Committee are available to help – confidentially – at any time. Most state bar associations also have Lawyers Helping Lawyers committees. There is a group called Women for Sobriety headquartered in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The Alcoholics Anonymous phone line is always open.
Many people – especially trial lawyers, who are trained to be tough – think that to acknowledge a problem is to show weakness. The truth is that it takes strength to face our personal demons. Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't wait for an arrest – or a tragedy – to acknowledge that you need assistance. Summon the courage to ask for it now.