As a clinical psychologist serving the legal community in Massachusetts, I see firsthand how stigma prevents so many from seeking the support that they need. As many in the lawyer well-being movement are aware, the rate of substance use disorders among practicing attorneys is twice the rate of the general population (20.6 percent among lawyers), and the No. 1 barrier for getting the help that lawyers need is “not wanting others to find out they needed help” (“The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, 2016). The fear of “what might happen if others know” can often feel more uncomfortable than the actual burden with which we are struggling. This is because the ambiguous “what if” is usually answered with the worst-case scenario in our minds. This imagined worst-case scenario helps maintain the stigma. So, what helps to break the stigma? Hearing real stories from those who have felt that fear, persisted through it, and come out stronger on the other side. One such story is from my friend and colleague Amanda.
-- Shawn Healy, Ph.D., Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers
As I celebrate nine years of continuous sobriety, I cannot help but remember how terrified I was that others in the legal community would discover I had a problem with alcohol. I will never forget walking into my first recovery meeting with the hood of my sweatshirt tied so tightly around my face, afraid a colleague would see me.
Despite the fact that I had done so much of my excessive drinking with fellow lawyers, advocates and members of law enforcement, the stigma and fear attached to being identified as an alcoholic was crippling.
What is it about saying out loud what so many of us deal with that is so impossible? Why does our profession recoil from the idea of addiction when so many among us are suffering? Why do we excuse bad behavior so easily with “work hard, play hard,” yet balk at the idea of getting help?
It wasn’t easy navigating life with my newfound sobriety, in a world where “you deserve a bottle of wine” or “you need a drink after that day” are simply normalized comments exchanged between battle-weary co-workers.
Work events, where alcohol was the ever-present lubricant for social bonding, felt full of landmines. Trying to come up with excuses for turning down drinks was so uncomfortable.
I knew others were having the same experience, since I had connected with so many lawyers in recovery and had heard so many stories (drink carts at the firm, beers handed out at the office during new employee training) —stories that were otherwise kept quiet, since many, even those with decades of sobriety, firmly believed that if they were outed as an alcoholic they would lose their jobs and their reputations.
I believed that, too. But after receiving unconditional support from friends and family after opening up about my drinking problem, I decided to “come out” about my recovery at work a few years ago. I didn’t make that decision lightly, and it was a slow and tentative process, but I have been amazed by the reaction I have received from fellow attorneys and the judges with whom I work.
Instead of being shunned or judged, I have been met with only support and kindness. It has built a foundation for bonding and connection I wouldn’t have thought possible with my colleagues.
The reality is that this disease is everywhere. The number of people who are struggling or in recovery or who have a loved one with addiction is stunning and never ceases to amaze. And while my personal experience “recovering out loud” to others in the legal field has been overwhelmingly positive, I am also very aware that the stigma, though changing, is very real.
I now feel called to be of service in this area. I have been in recovery just long enough to have my sea legs under me, and to know in my heart that our system is broken in this area. The old way of dealing with this issue is notworking, and we as a profession need to get comfortable talking about it out loud.
It is time we take responsibility for the fact that lawyers have a staggering rate of alcoholism and addiction, and we owe it to each other to create an environment in which our biggest fear is not one another. Being a part of the well-being movement has given me an incredible opportunity to speak out and to work to get rid of a stigma that keeps people sick and scared. A stigma that keeps people from getting help because the fear of being “found out” trumps the need to get healthy, to be good parents, to thrive personally and professionally, and for many, to just stay alive.
If you are reading this, and you think you may have a problem, please know that there is help and that those of us in recovery are everywhere. Recovery is possible, and our courthouses and law firms are full of those who have it, once you know where to look. I can assure you that many of your favorite lawyers, judges, professors and mentors have walked this path. There is a whole community of people here to help you.
If you are reading this and you do not have a problem, please be an ally. Think about the events you put on. Think about what you serve. Think about the words you use. Talk about the fact that addiction is a major issue among lawyers and address it in a real and useful way.
Are there support groups in your area? Promote them. Do you have a point person within your organization to whom people can go if they are suffering? Advertise it. Normalize sobriety, because excessive drinking has been normalized to destructive and unhealthy lengths in the legal field, and that only hurts us as a profession and a community.
Educate yourself about the behaviors that are indicative of someone struggling, and find a healthy and supportive way to help. What you do and what you say matters. We call each other “brothers” and “sisters” in the law; it is time we truly begin to look out for one another.
In closing, thank you. To all of you who are struggling and sharing your experience with us, thank you for helping to make us better. To all of you who are in recovery, thank you for showing us that we can heal and come out even better on the other side. Thank you to all of you listening to and caring for the members of our community, to make it kinder and more inclusive. And to those of you who have heard me and supported me — the scared girl with the hoodie hiding her face — thank you.
For information on available resources and supports to the legal community, contact Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers at 617-482-9600 or visit lclma.org.
Amanda Rowan is an assistant clerk in the Superior Court and formerly worked as an assistant district attorney. Promoting lawyer well-being and creating a more inclusive and supportive legal community is her passion. This article first appeared in the Feb. 14, 2022, issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and is part of a series from the Massachusetts Bar Association Lawyer Well-Being Committee.