A View From the Bench

A View from the Bench

This article is written anonymously, in accordance with the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, of which the writer is a member.

I am a circuit judge and I have been on the bench for more than 15 years, the last 12 of which have been sober. I come by my alcoholism naturally. My father’s father and my father were both alcoholics. All of my brothers are also alcoholics. I started drinking in high school and from the start it has always been because I liked the effect. I am an introvert and alcohol made me into an instant extrovert. Although I loved the effect, I loathed the hangovers I always got the next day when I drank to excess. I was lucky during my drinking years in that I never got a DUI, was arrested, or involved in any real trouble.

After I graduated from law school, I spent time as an assistant state attorney before going into private practice. As the years passed, I began to rely more and more on alcohol. I would not attend social functions unless there was alcohol. I also always needed a few drinks to take the edge off before leaving the house for the function. Every working day at 5 p.m. I would send my secretary down the street for a six-pack of beer and by the time I arrived home, I was ready to get into the vodka and tonic. The weekends were made for drinking because I could nurse my Saturday and Sunday morning hangovers with beer. Alcohol was my hobby and I did not enjoy doing anything in my free time without it.

A judgeship came open and I talked about running for it with my partner, who felt I had a good chance to win if I would lay off the booze during the race. I took his advice and not only decided to quit, but vowed never to drink again. I was also trying to prove to myself that I was not an alcoholic and that life could be lived without alcohol.It worked and I easily won the election. On election night, as I listened to the returns on the radio along with my supporters, I felt I deserved to celebrate. One drink was too many, but not enough. I drank myself into a blackout. A blackout is not a pass- out. It is the experience where your brain goes on vacation only to return the next day to learn of all the crazy things your body did the night before. I remember having one of the worst hangovers that next morning, when awakened by a call from the chief judge congratulating me on my stunning victory. I also remember thinking I would never get drunk again. I had given up alcohol before and I could do it again. This time I was swearing off for good. And I meant it! I have always had a lot of willpower and could do anything I put my mind to; I was putting my mind to it this time.

A few months later, I was off to my first judge’s conference with a fellow judge. When we arrived, we had lunch with some of our colleagues. Everyone was having a beer with lunch. Not to feel out of place, I had one too. Again one was too many, but not enough. That one beer took me right back to where I had left off with my last drunk. I do not remember very much of that conference, other than spending it hung over with a lot of guilt for once again drinking.

Now that I realized I was not going to give up alcohol I had to have rules about my drinking, because I was now a judge. That meant I could never drink and drive, so when I would go out and drink, someone else had to drive. It also meant that I could not go to bars, because someone might see me drinking in a public place. The solution was to drink at home and never start drinking before arriving home from work. Also, I would limit the amount I drank on week nights to avoid hangovers. This was controlled drinking. There were, however, exceptions, and there were a few days I administered justice with a hangover.

My younger brother was having his own alcohol problems about this time and he went into in-patient treatment. As a result of my brother’s treatment, my father decided it was time for him to go into treatment also. My father pointed out to me that I too may have a problem. Being a judge, who likes to control everything, I agreed I might have a problem, but I had it under control. After all, I was now a controlled drinker. He gave me a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and suggested that I read it. If I did not read it for myself, I may want to read it as a judge to obtain knowledge of this organization that judges liked to send drunks to. It sat on my bookshelf for over a year. My last drunk was at a social function more than 12 years ago. Again, one was too many, but not enough. The hangover was predictable along with the blackout. The next day my best friend since childhood, who had never questioned my drinking before, told me I had a problem. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Just learning what I had said and done the night before suggested I really did have a problem. I again swore off booze forever, and this time I did something different.I picked up the copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and read it from cover to cover. Somewhere in that book I read my story. That book motivated me to want to experience a few of those AA meetings. The problem was that I was a judge and there was no way I could go to the meetings I was sending drunks to.

My solution was to go to a few meetings as a judge, who was there only to observe what this AA program was about. I did not go as a recovering alcoholic because no one could know this judge was an alcoholic. I later learned I was on a dry drunk. The only thing I had done was to take the alcohol out of my life, and I was failing to put something back in its place. That something an alcoholic needs, I later learned, was the AA program. I was, however, saving the world by sending every drunk that appeared in front of me to those AA meetings.

One day I got a phone call from an attorney friend who was again having a problem with his alcoholism. He talked to me about again going into an inpatient treatment facility. Being the expert I was, I told him he did not need to repeat treatment, but that he needed to go to AA. Treatment had previously already taught him everything he needed to know about his problem. He just needed to go to AA meetings and apply what they had taught him. He agreed and asked me to take him to a meeting that very night. I made up some excuse, because I was not going to AA meetings and I certainly did not want him to know that. So I called my father, who picked him up and took him to his first AA meeting. Well, this attorney really got into this AA stuff and started going to a lot of meetings. In fact he did over 90 meetings in 90 days. This lawyer made me feel like a hypocrite. Although I was sober, I did not have what he had because I was still on my dry drunk. I had just been reelected, without opposition, so I decided I did not have to worry about my public image. I could risk going to a few of the same meetings he was going to. I wanted the kind of sobriety he had found. Those few meetings turned into many and then I started going to AA meetings because I truly wanted to. They were changing my life. They put back into my life what alcohol had taken out.

Since that attorney’s phone call, I have been able to help other judges and attorneys that needed help. I was able to help one judge by simply giving him a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. I was asked by Florida Lawyers Assistance to help another judge with an intervention. It was not successful. I at least got the judge to take a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Maybe someday he will hit bottom, as I did, after being sick and tired of being sick and tired. That attorney and I started a Florida Lawyers Assistance group for recovering alcoholic attorneys. We meet every week for our Lawyers’ AA group. I act as a monitor for two recovering attorneys going through the Florida Lawyers Assistance program. When I got sober, I did not even know there was such an organization as Florida Lawyers Assistance. Had I known, I am sure I would not have stayed on that dry drunk as long as I did.

I believe the alcoholic lawyer should be treated the same as the nonalcoholic lawyer.He or she should not be reported to the bar just because they are an alcoholic. The rule regulating professional misconduct deals with reporting behavior that raises a substantial question of incompetence or inability to practice. If a lawyer does something that is a violation, then the duty is to report. In the 13 years I have been a judge, I have only had to perform this unpleasant task once. I do believe that a fellow lawyer or judge who suspects that a lawyer has a problem has a moral duty at least to talk to the individual. If they do not have the expertise to handle the task of talking to the alcoholic, he or she can find help by simply calling the Florida Lawyers Assistance hotline, 800-282-8981. Florida Lawyers Assistance will then contact the individual by sending a letter advising of the services available if the individual wants help. Sixty percent of the cases Florida Lawyers Assistance handles are voluntary cases in which there is no bar involvement. I talked to a lawyer once who I suspected had a drug problem that caused him to show up routinely late for court, especially on Monday mornings. Having no real proof other than hearsay, I advised him of the services available through Florida Lawyers Assistance. I told him I did not know if what I had heard was true, but if he had a drug problem help was available. He did not take the advice. His luck ran out when he was arrested later for his drug use. He did it the hard way by doing jail time and losing his license to practice. He is now getting the help he needed through Florida Lawyers Assistance, and there is hope he may practice again.

If we, as attorneys and judges, do not get help for the alcoholic attorney, the problem will not go away. Alcoholism is a progressive disease that only gets worse if untreated. I have lived this first hand by swearing off drinking only to drinkagain and going right back to where I left off the last time I drank. Many of us do not want to get involved. Not to get involved is to enable the alcoholic to continue in his disease.

Help is available if you want it. It can be as simple as calling AA or the Florida Lawyers Assistance hotline. I can tell you that since I became a recovering alcoholic, my worst day sober has been better than my best day drunk.