I remember it clearly. I had been a practicing attorney for five years. Life could not have been better. I was working for a well-known and highly-respected litigation law firm. Each year was more successful, financially, than the last. I was single and living an unencumbered lifestyle in Chicago.
I was in the office one Saturday and opened up one of the many association journals. This one had a story of recovery from a member of the Lawyers’ Assistance Program. While I had been an active and, some would say extreme, drinker since my high school days, I was sure I was not an alcoholic. Alcoholics, of course, don’t have the successes I was having so young in my career. So, I began reading the story of this alcoholic with the curiosity of a passing motorist at a car accident.
I read about a history of social drinking that sometimes went “too far.” I read about personal and professional successes celebrated with drinking. I read about personal and professional failures mourned with drinking. I read about alcohol starting out as a social and manageable part of this person’s life but, at some point, it turning on him.
I read about his lying to his family, friends, partners, and co-workers. I read about his routine of driving his car to work on a regular basis so he could stop by liquor stores in the Loop on his way home to have something to drink in the car. It started as just a once in a while thing that soon turned into an everyday habit. I read about his destroyed personal and professional relationships. I read about a smart, successful professional who had been turned into a lying, cheating, failure who was so depressed he wanted to die. I then read about how he got better and found recovery through the Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
I remember finishing that article thinking, “I am sure glad I am not THATguy!” Sure, I enjoyed drinking and could find a reason almost any day “to have a few,” but THAT guy made some dumb mistakes. He wasn’t strong enough to stop. He didn’t have the will power to control his drinking. I was entirely confident in my ability to control my drinking (not that I would ever have to). In fact, I had just finished a trial where I had gone two weeks without having a single drink.
Over the course of the next 14 years, my life went on. I found more excuses to drink. Victories had to be celebrated; losses had to be mourned; clients had to be entertained; appearances had to be made at social events; and office morale had to be kept up with trips to the lobby bar. Small lies had to be told to cover up for a dumb mistake. A mistake that could happen to anyone. The small lies needed to be covered up so more lies ensued. At some point, it just became easier to lie to family, friends, colleagues, and clients. It was okay to tell a lie because I would just go back and fix it tomorrow – or so I rationalized.
As the lies grew, so did my drinking. If I drank at the end of every day then I wouldn’t have to face the evening thinking about those lies. I could just escape. And, for me, escape was always better. Rather than going out publicly and drinking, it just became easier to drink alone. That way no one could bother me about how much I drank. Who wants to drink alone in a bar? It was much easier to just drink in my car as I drove home to my wife and kids in the suburbs every night. That is when I found myself stopping at the local Loop liquor stores to get a bottle for the drive home.
Finally, 14 years after reading that story of recovery, I had done just about everything the author himself had done. I had one left to go: becoming so depressed I wanted to die. I nailed that one in October of 2010 when, with the lies, guilt, and depression so thick it was like a constant, hundred pound weight, on my back, I came home from work and told my wife I would rather be dead than continue on. I just did not know how to do it. Trust me, it takes a lot of depression, self-loathing, and self-abuse to finally sit down in front of your wife (with three little kids in the house) and admit that you just want to die. After 14 years, I had become THAT guy!
What I never understood in the last few years of my active disease is that
- I am not alone;
- there is no shame in suffering from the disease of alcoholism (or addiction or mental illness); and
- life can get better if you allow it to.
The night I admitted my disease to my wife I was sure my life was over. I was sure, even if I got sober, I would have no family, no friends, no career, and I would be miserable. Once again, however, I was wrong.
Almost three years into sobriety I have so much more than I ever had. I have a wife and children who can trust me and respect me. I have true friends who can rely on me and on whom I rely. I have an active legal career of which I am proud. And I have an acceptance and peacefulness that always escaped me. I know who I am…I am THAT guy.
The only advice I can give to anyone who thinks he/she might have a problem is allow yourself to get help. Don’t wait. Don’t think it will get better on its own. Don’t believe you are different and unique. The rooms of LAP and AA and recovery centers and jails and morgues are filled with people who are no different than you. The sooner you accept this, the sooner it is you will seek help. Instead of being a sign of weakness, the act of seeking help is, in fact, the single strongest and bravest thing you will ever do.