How I Broke Through Denial to Achieve Sobriety

“My problems with the Bar paled in comparison with the illness which was ever so slowly killing me.”

I always felt awkward, different, or inferior. I never felt like I measured up, until I found the magic elixir — alcohol. Alcohol removed my inhibitions and insecurities. It made me feel like I fit in. It provided relief from those feelings of awkwardness. I felt like a witty, intelligent beauty queen, although in reality I was probably anything but witty, intelligent, or beautiful when I was drunk.

I never drank like most people. I remember that one of the very first times I drank I alienated everyone around me. This should have given me a clue that I handled alcohol differently than most people, but I was able to ignore this fact by surrounding myself with people who drank like I did.

I look back on my life and see several times when I made choices, or rather my disease of alcoholism made choices for me, which enabled me to continue drinking alcoholically. The choices included everything from my friends to my divorce.

Alcohol ruled my life, but I could not acknowledge that. To do so would mean I would have to do something about it; I would have to face the dreaded “C” word: Change. I was not ready for that. The thought of living without my crutch was too frightening.

Toward the end of my drinking and drugging career I was in such deep denial that when I was arrested for possession of drugs, I read the newspaper article written about my arrest as saying there was not widespread evidence of drug abuse in my home, when in fact the article quoted the police as saying there was such evidence. My denial was so strong that my disease was able to take the printed word and turn it around, so I could continue to drink and drug with impunity.

A great deal had to happen before I could break through my denial. One would think that a felony arrest would do that, but in my case it did not. I had gone to great lengths in order to hide my disease from the people I encountered in my professional life. In fact, the first time I read Alcoholics Anonymous — the textbook from which AA draws its name — I could only relate to two sentences. An attorney wrote that “[w]henever a situation arose that fast talk wouldn’t explain away, I simply withdrew. In other words, I fired the client before the client fired me.”

Those words really jumped out at me. Even I could not deny that was what I had been doing. I had set up my life so that I could insulate myself from outside interference. Despite the fact that at that time my practice was only part-time, I had a full-time baby sitter for my children and a part-time maid. It was not because I was so busy that I needed this help at home, but rather so that I had the freedom to drink and drug at will.

The night I was arrested, I was taken to a small county jail, where the only lock-up was for men. I was put in a room I had been in earlier in the day — to take a deposition. Although I was still in denial about having a drug problem, the irony of the situation was patently apparent to me. I knew I was in trouble not only with the police, but also with The Florida Bar. For the first time in years, I got on my knees and asked God to help me.

Help was not to come for awhile. Unknown to me, family members telephoned all over the state to see about getting me help. They were told by a woman at one treatment center that an intervention would not work, as I had not lost enough. I still had a beautiful home on the river, a BMW, and two precious children.

Thank God she was wrong — I did not have to lose what I held dear. When help did come, I accepted it in order to save my license, not myself. I did not understand how much trouble I was truly facing and the depth of that trouble. My problems with the Bar paled in comparison with the illness which was ever so slowly killing me.

Understandably, The Florida Bar does not look kindly on attorneys who are arrested for felonies. I was told about an organization called Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. The attorney who was representing me on the criminal charges and my potential suspension from the Bar told me about FLA, and asked if I had read about it in the Bar News. Being too embarrassed to tell him I never read the Bar News (I was too sick to do so), I simply told him no.

I flew to Tampa to meet with my attorney and FLA’s program director at the time, Bill Kilby. My attorney’s plane was late, so I picked up a newspaper and discovered that an acquaintance of mine had been arrested on drug charges. This upset me, so I ran to the bar — despite having vowed to myself that I would not drink before the meeting. By then I could use anything as a reason to drink. If my team won, I’d drink; if my team lost, I’d drink; if my team got rained out, that was good enough.

I remember only two statements that were made by Bill Kilby at that meeting. He said that he had seen me drinking in the airport bar prior to our meeting. He also said, “You don’t look like you’ve taken a drink or a drug in your life.” Of course, that was the statement I focused on, as it spoke directly to my disease and bolstered my denial.

I moved out of the small town in which I had been arrested. In AA, that’s known as a “geographic cure.” However, as they also say, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

The same behavior continued in my new hometown. At the meeting with Bill, I was given a contract to sign. I returned home and filed the contract (along with other important papers with which I was unable to deal) on top of my microwave oven. Finally, Judge Michael J. Han-rahan, one of the original founders of FLA, called me to come into his office and review the contract with him. I was highly insulted by the urine testing clause, so when I met with Mike I talked him into striking the clause from my contract. I did not realize that this clause was there for my protection, and would provide FLA with physical evidence of my rehabilitation.

I got Mike to strike that portion of my contract by telling him that I was already being drug tested as a part of my criminal probation. I had shown my probation officer the FLA contract and, impressed with its thoroughness, she did not require drug testing as a part of my probation. I had become a master manipulator, as do almost all addicts.

It was not until I started attending AA meetings that I realized that although I still had a lot of material possessions, I was spiritually bankrupt. Despite the fact that many of the people in the AA rooms were unemployed or manual laborers, I realized that I did not have a fraction of what many of them had in terms of spirit. Thank God that alcoholism is not contagious, and thank God that sobriety is.

I went into AA only because I was required to by my FLA contract. I was required to attend 90 meetings in my first 90 days, and three meetings a week thereafter for three years. I told myself that I could refrain from all mind-altering substances for three years (another term of my contract), but I certainly could not envision the rest of my life without a drink or a drug.

Although I had heard of not drinking one day at a time, I did not understand the concept. By the time I finished my ninetieth meeting, I found I was going to the meetings because I wanted to, not because I had to.

If I have to have a fatal disease, alcoholism is the one I would choose. The treatment has been physically painless, completely effective, and I have gained wisdom which otherwise I never would have.

I mentioned spirituality. At the first meeting I attended, I read the 12 steps of AA. My first thought was that if everyone followed these steps, the world would be a wonderful place. That opened my mind just a bit, which in my case was no easy task. That, in turn, enabled me to listen — really listen — for the first time in my life. I was able to embrace rather than fight. Up to that point my life had been one long struggle. This is not to say that on occasion I do not still struggle. I do. But I do not struggle as long or as hard now. I now know there is a better way, and I choose to follow that way.

Listening to the wonderful people from all walks of life in AA meetings made me realize that I do not know everything. In fact, I now realize I know next to nothing. I have been told that what really counts is what you learn after you realize that you do not know it all. While I may be very intelligent and a quick learner, I was able to realize that there were some things I had never thought about, let alone learned.

AA has opened up a whole new way of life for me. It has given me rewards and fulfilled me in a manner I never knew was possible. The more insight I have into myself, the better life gets.It keeps growing layer upon layer, and it will continue until I die if I continue practicing the AA program. Like a wise friend once said to me, “[w]e are not well until three days after we die.”

I have discovered that life is about learning. I do not mean book learning, but rather learning about ourselves. Life is also about giving back and sharing these lessons with others who are interested in such a way of life. To my surprise, I have learned that there are people who are not in AA who live this way. No longer is my life about getting high. Today it is about living life as serenely and wisely as possible. This involves simplifying things, especially my wants. I am learning to want what I have, rather than constantly striving to have what I want. What a drastic difference this concept has made in my life. I no longer feel that there is a stigma attached to my disease. When I first came to AA, I would hear people say they were grateful to be recovering alcoholics. I thought they were crazy. But now I too am grateful for what the recovery process has brought to me. There is no shame in being an alcoholic. The only shame is in knowing you or someone else has the disease and not doing something about it.

The writer of this story is a civil trial attorney practicing in North Florida who has been sober for over 11 years.