I have recurring dreams. Scenes from law school, struggles with addiction, are all in re-run. These dreams are vivid and colorful, like full-length movies played out in my subconscious.
One particular dream begins as I arrive at a social event. Maybe a law school happy hour or a state bar convention. I’ve been drunk at both. I walk to the bar and order a Diet Coke. The bartender tells me they don’t serve non-alcoholic drinks. Instead he offers me a shot of Jack Daniels. One of my favorite drinks pre-sobriety. Generally, with a cocaine chaser. I take the drink from him, but I can’t raise the shot glass to my mouth. My right arm is frozen. People start showing up. Drinks in hand. Laughing, having fun. Are they laughing at me? A person asks, “Are you going to drink that?” I don’t know what to say. I no longer drink, but maybe just this once. I can’t raise my arm to allow Mr. Jack to quell my anxiety and make me one with the group. The entire room is now laughing at me. I will never be one of them unless I can lift Jack to my lips. I will never be the confident Brian. The confident lawyer. Over 10 years into my recovery and I still have that dream. It has occurred in one variation or another since I got sober.
The pressure of trying to fit in as a non-drinking person in a profession (including law school) in which the culture often revolves around alcohol can be a daunting task, especially in early sobriety.
The reality I’ve experienced, however, is that is that most people at social functions don’t care about the drinking habits of others unless you’re putting yourself in a situation where the primary function is to drink — like a law school happy hour. I have occasionally been asked the dreaded questions, “Can I get you a drink?” or “Why are you not drinking?”
I am in a place now where I generally don’t stress about it. I am open about my recovery. When the stress level does rise, I do my best to remember a saying I learned in 12-step recovery. “What people think about me is none of my business.” That includes what they think about whether I take a drink or not. When I tell them I am in recovery, the answers have ranged from support to indifference. It’s not unusual for the person to confide in me that he/she is also in recovery. It’s all become pretty normalized, even though the stigma causes us to think we are the only ones and that our recovery is something to be ashamed of. Most people know someone in recovery. Many people do not drink for reasons having nothing to do with recovery.
That’s where I am. You may not be there. It bothers you. I’ve been asked by both law students and lawyers early in recovery: “How do I just say no, feel comfortable about it and not get caught up in projecting what others think, which raises my anxiety level?” Just the thought of being asked the question causes stress. You don’t want to be triggered but for whatever reason, socially or professionally, you feel you need to be part of the event and face the question that may never be asked or cared about by anyone else.
Here is some very basic but important advice on how to deal with going into potentially stressful drinking environments. This advice has helped me navigate many social drinking situations. The discussion of whether you can pass on these events without stigma or career impact or how law firms and the legal profession in general can change the culture around drinking is for another time. You’re going and that’s that. I get it. I’ve done it.
Have a game plan going into the event whether it’s a law firm function, state bar function, client dinner, or a law school happy hour. Don’t wait until you get there to deal with it on the fly. Would you walk into a trial without being prepared or take a final without studying? That includes anticipating the questions and having your answer ready. I simply tell it as it is. I am in recovery. If they want to know more, I more than happy to tell my story. My personal view is that when we start veering from the truth, it only adds to the stress and stigma, but I get that you may not be ready to talk about it. You are not required to. It’s your recovery. Be comfortable with your answer(s) before you attend the event.
Set a time limit for staying and stick to it. Just as important, have an out if you feel the stress building. It can be anything. Early in my recovery, “have to let the dog out” was a good one for me. Have a person you can call for support if you can’t leave. Your sponsor if you’re in AA. If you’re not, another law student or lawyer in recovery. Maybe your therapist. Anyone who can listen with compassion and empathy, and most importantly, be honest with you.
The fear of being in triggering situations is normal as you navigate life in sobriety. The goal should not be to avoid fear. The fear is there to teach you. Learn from it. Plan for it. It’s just one moment in your entire life. It will pass.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.