There is a popular internet meme that is often attributed to the actor Robert Downey Jr., although I can’t figure out when and if he actually said it:
“I don’t drink these days. I’m allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs.”
Not long into the start of my Dallas party days and my career as a licensed Texas attorney, I also “broke out” into handcuffs.
August 8, 1992, not long off of finally passing the Texas bar exam on my third try. The first two attempts going bad because my bar study revolved more around cocaine and alcohol at real bars than review books. This night is about the Dallas bar I am at getting hammered on giant beers and peach sweet cider ale. I take frequent trips to the bathroom with my newly purchased cocaine “one hitter” from a local head shop. Finally, around 1 a.m., the cocaine and booze money are exhausted.
Soon I’m flying up the highway well over the posted speed limit. I don’t notice the state trooper parked on the side of the highway waiting for someone just like me. He pulls me over within walking distance of my house. He asks, “How many have you had tonight?” I give the answer given by thousands of intoxicated individuals across the country right before they are arrested. “Just a couple, officer.” After the roadside tests, which in my drunken state, I believe I execute perfectly, he tells me I’m being arrested on suspicion of DWI and slaps the cuffs on me.
The trooper is a nice older guy who even pulls over to loosen my cuffs when I tell him they’re cutting into my wrists. We carry on a pleasant conversation the entire trip to the Lew Sterrett jail, which is the main jail and holding facility for the city of Dallas. I ask him if he’d take me back to my car when I blow under .10 (the legal limit at the time). He laughs and says that he doesn’t think that’s going to be the case, but promises if I’m not booked, they will get me back.
He’s right. I blow a .11 on the Breathalyzer. I fail to follow the legal advice I gave time and time again. Don’t blow. But like any drunk, I’ve convinced myself I’m not intoxicated.
Being handcuffed on the side of a public highway was humiliating. It was nothing, however, compared to the assembly line booking process staffed by Dallas County deputy sheriffs. Rightfully so. I’ve earned the verbal abuse. It’s open season. One of the deputy sheriffs leans across the table, sees my fake diamond stud earring, places his face inches from my nose, and starts yelling for all to hear:
“YOU’RE A STINKING LAWYER? ONE THING IS FOR SURE. YOU DO STINK! YOU’RE A DISGRACE TO THE LEGAL PROFESSION! I HOPE THEY KICK YOU OUT!”
I agree with him. I don’t say a word. I’m put in a large holding cell (otherwise known as “the drunk tank”) that smells of puke, urine, and the stench of the non-showered. Men, some much younger than me, dressed in their hip night club shirts and alligator shoes are crying uncontrollably in shame and uncertainty for their futures. They’re beneath me, I think at first. I’m a lawyer! But then, after a few minutes sitting on a concrete floor, I realize they are me. I am them.
I stand close to the phone in the drunk tank waiting for the shirtless tattooed dude to finish using the phone. He’s screaming into the phone in Spanish and gesticulating wildly. I take a step backwards. Only outbound collect calls are permitted. Who will I call? Family is out. I’m too ashamed.
About ten hours after my arrest, I’m released. My first call is to my father. I cry uncontrollably in shame and fear of the unknown consequences to come. My life is over. I vow to him and myself that “I’ll never drink again.” My next call is to my brother Jeff. He’s circumspect. “Yeah, you fucked up. Deal with it. Learn from it. Get a good lawyer.” My last call is to another friend to take me to the tow yard to get my car. Standing in the “line of shame,” I notice another guy who had been in the drunk tank with me there to get his car. I don’t feel so bad. Misery loves company.
Monday, August 10: Back to work. I can still hear the crying in the cell, and my own sobbing with my father on the other end of the line. Despite numerous hot showers to wash away the memories of the drunk tank, I can still smell stench.
Now I’m crying in my office, wondering about my future Do they let convicted felons keep their law licenses? Will I get fired? My boss knocks, and I wipe the tears away. He wants to talk about a case going to trial. I need to get the shame off my chest. If I’m going to get fired, so be it.
“I was arrested for DWI over the weekend.”
“Did you hurt anyone?”
“No, spent the night in jail. I’m sorry.”
“It happens, Brian.” He repeats the advice I had received from my brother Jeff. “Get a good lawyer and learn from it.” Sigh of relief. I’m not getting fired.
I managed two weeks of sobriety after getting out of jail. Just as long as it took to feel secure again in my established routine. My DWI should have been a learning experience. It was not. Or rather, it wasn’t the learning experience it should have been. Like many addicts who are humiliated, repentant, and swear off drinking, drugs, or whatever else in the immediate aftermath, the farther the event was removed in time, the easier it was to tell myself it would never happen again. I only learned it’d be better to take cabs to and from the clubs. That way I could drink and do as many drugs as I wanted without getting busted.
I pled not guilty. I approached my friend who was with me at the bar that night and asked him to lie for me at trial. Having more integrity than I did, he refused. The state trooper did not show up for trial, so the charges were dismissed. I remember my attorney handing me the dismissal. When I thanked him, he said to thank the assistant district attorney for dismissing the case. I had no idea he was being tongue-in-cheek. I stuck my head in the ADA work room next to the courtroom and with a big, ear to ear, teeth-baring grin, said, “Thank you!” They were not amused. The look in their eyes told me I should have humbly stayed quiet. I high-tailed it out of the courthouse. No thought about how I’d gotten to that point. No thought of being in desperate need of treatment. Just relief that I had dodged a bullet. No hard consequences other than the few grand I gave my lawyer and getting my car out of impoundment.
I may have beaten the DWI, but cocaine and alcohol had taken over my life and were robbing me of my ambition, my ability to focus, and the stability of all my relationships—professional and personal. Before long I’d lose my job for not meeting expectations. The beginning of a slide into addiction that would carry many more consequences not yet envisioned.
To get some perspective on these issues, I reached out to Miami lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Brian specializes in representing lawyers before the bar. Here is what he has to say:
“When lawyers are arrested for alcohol or drug related offenses – or there are allegations that the lawyer was impaired when arrested, reporting requirements to the Bar are just part of the issue.
The lawyer must first determine their obligations to the Bar, as different states have different requirements. The lawyer should real the disciplinary rules to understand whether there are different requirements for a felony or misdemeanor, and whether the requirement is upon arrest, upon the filing of charges, or upon disposition of the case.
After the lawyer understands their reporting issue, the next question is whether it’s time to look in to a lawyer’s assistance program. The Bar may be less concerned with the underlying allegations, and more concerned whether the lawyer has an addiction. The lawyer should consider whether an evaluation is necessary, as the Bar may require one prior to closing any disciplinary file.
Lawyers should understand that state Bars are concerned about impaired lawyers, and if the Bar can be a partner in assisting the lawyer with a substance issue, it may result in no discipline – saving the lawyer from public embarrassment, and putting the lawyer on the road to good health.”
*December is Impaired Driving Awareness Month. During the holiday season, this of course happens more frequently. Make smart decisions. Please also note that the average drunk driver will drive drunk 80 times prior to arrest. If you have a problem, don’t wait for consequences to catch up to it. Today is as good as it’s ever going to get to seek help so you don’t break out in handcuffs.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at email@example.com.