Winter 2004. Las Vegas. Miami. Los Angeles. All places that hide my secrets. Drugs delivered to my hotel room in Vegas. Coke deals done with quick hand-to-hand exchanges under the cover of darkness just feet from the calming waves of the ocean in South Beach. I often require a high-end backdrop for the high-end product I was purchasing—it makes me feel like the false image I tried so hard to project. Of course, the dealers I meet don’t care about the ambiance. They just want to make a sale and not be seen.
Today, however, it’s a bitterly cold day in Chicago, hundreds of miles from any sun or ocean. Not a nice hotel. No drug deals along the scenic shores of Lake Michigan. This evening I’m cruising the crack dens and dilapidated drug houses of the Chicago slums. I’m terrified, but I’m not alone. My friend Mike, a cocaine addict like me, knows where the best blow is. My trips to Chicago to visit him always involve tense visits to seedy parts of town to score from his dealer. We move on to the high-end hotel rooms where all night booze and drug binges are a regular staple.
The cocaine money eventually runs out. The weekend ends. I head back to Dallas and my life of cocaine, booze, clinical depression, and bulimia. He stays in Chicago immersed in addiction, a failing marriage and the trauma of the past. Those dealing with addiction often don’t think about the lifestyles of others with the same problems. The impulse isn’t to think about the ways their families might be torn apart or the grief, anger, and despair that might be a prison in the same way coke addiction might be. The quest for white powder to drive the masking of pain, guilt, childhood, and loss.
I have my secrets. Mike has his. My drive is for the acceptance of an obese,thirteen-year-old bullied little boy looking for that first kiss. A date to the prom. To change a horrifying reflection that I saw in the mirror. To feel like a real lawyer while I swim in a sea of self-doubt and self-loathing. The drive for the elusive feeling of being loved and respected.
Mike’s struggles are touched by loss. Profound loss. The loss of a son, his only son at the time. A tragic July 4th weekend years before. I represented Mike and his wife for that accident. I bumbled my way to a settlement on a case I never should have taken in a jurisdiction I was not licensed, but I needed the money to fund my addiction and hoped it would settle before I had to farm it out to a competent lawyer in Chicago. Money and drugs over ethics and even caring friendship. A scenario that has played out many times among addicted lawyers.
The loss of their son. The pain. The guilt. The blame. Mike would never recover. His marriage would never recover. Addiction does not distinguish between the trivial and the tragic. Neither do secrets.
I wait in fear while Mike goes into a housing project apartment to score for our upcoming binge. My fear is not that he’ll be harmed, but that if something goes wrong, I won’t be getting high. But he emerges, prize tucked away and a smile on his face. Now there’s a true friend. Thoughts of the grief he carries are out of mind. Thoughts of my own depression, my own wrecked relationships also seem miles away. Who needs family, when you’ve got friends like this?
Another tragedy was around the corner for Mike, and it hadn’t been revealed to either him or me. The progression of colon cancer. That day he called me to tell me he was dying is embedded in my memory as if it happened yesterday. There were signs. There were symptoms. In that phone call, he lamented brushing them off as the normal side effects of the constant alcohol and cocaine hangover. Then one day his urine changed color. The color of the brutal reality of advanced colon cancer.
I’d see him only one more time before his death. We would take in a Dallas Mavericks –Chicago Bulls NBA basketball game on another brutally cold winter night in Chicago. He had to wear special gloves due to chemotherapy cold sensitivity. It would be the last time I would seek Mike. I would speak to him from his hospital room one more time in an incohesive muddle of delirium and pain medication as he waited to die. I never had the chance to speak to him outside the prison of addiction and despair. He died before he was able to find recovery.
I was luckier. I saw plenty of wreckage in my life as a consequence of addiction. Another failed marriage. A legal career that sputtered to a stop. But eventually, I found a way out and was lucky to find that path before I too died.
Looking back, while like most, I can identify the “rock bottom” that precipitated long-term recovery, it’s hard to say there was an exact date when the seeds of positive change were planted. And those positive changes for me were often a razor’s edge away from the kind of tragedy Mike experienced.
I think of Mike often and the toll his secrets took on his life and the toll they took on mine. We only found the strength to talk about them while drunk and high. We told no one else. That is not courage. Courage is finding that one moment to tell someone who can help versus someone who wants to be part of your secret. It’s terrifying. It’s worth it. Common sense is getting your colon checked if you’re in the designated age or risk group.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Make that call to your doctor. I will take my own advice.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. 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 on 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.