In some ways, Charles was a law student who would make a proud parent He graduated with Latin honors. He swept his 2L intra-school Moot Court competition. He was a Summer Associate at a V100 firm in New York City. He says:
“I was everyone’s friend.”
No one could have guessed that two months before graduation, Charles would be arrested, using heroin in his car, too sick from withdrawals to make the thirty-minute drive home across the city to get well.
Charles’s addiction did not begin in law school. While he saw many of his classmates start to use the bottle or the bong to release 1L stress, his story started with an arm injury sustained snowboarding. The opioids were prescribed to deal with the pain. There were also genetic factors.
“My father, like his father, was an alcoholic. And my stepdad, though we didn’t much know it at that time, was well on his way towards destroying our family one hidden vodka bottle at a time.”
Charles went through the first bottle of Percocet faster than then he careened down the ice black diamond on his snowboard. His doctor told him that the injury should not be painful at that point but still wrote him a prescription refill. After being offered some OxyContin by his best friend’s father, the problem intensified. Taking one or two of those small pink OxyContin pills soon turned into snorting up to five at a time.
“There were always ways to get the pills I needed both psychologically and physically. Around 2007, one of my classmate’s parents got divorced, and inexplicably both parents moved out of the house, leaving my friend and his older brother as the “men of the house.” It soon became the site of a never-ending party. One afternoon, a mason jar filled to the brim with 80mg OxyContin pills appeared at the house. In a short time, it was empty. My Junior year and senior years high school years were a drug-induced haze.”
In college, it was tough for Charles to obtain OxyContin. That did not translate to sobriety. It transitioned to Vicodin pills, which were easier to get. He says:
“I eventually found my OxyContin connection. At this point, heroin was not on my radar. That would soon change.”
In 2010, upon returning home for spring break, Charles was back with his old drug seeking crew, but they were using a different drug. It was now about heroin.
“The sales pitch was that heroin was cheaper and easier to obtain. I quickly became a “heroin addict” A term that carries so much stigma and so many stereotypes. I had crossed a line I never thought I would never step-over.”
When Charles returned to school, there was some self-awareness of his problem. He went to the counseling center. By April, he was off the OxyContin and the heroin. He says:
“I pulled myself out of the tailspin and managed and passed my classes that semester.”
During his junior year, things began to improve. He began a romantic relationship and managed to finish the year on the Dean’s List. The Senior year was even better: Dean’s List with Second Honors, a 169 on his only LSAT attempt, and a spot at a top-25 US News and World Reports ranked law school. He says:
“I was officially a sober 1-L. Law school came easily to me. I made the top 25% of my class with bottom 25% effort. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good thing. I honestly had never learned how to be a student. I was much more adept in being an addict.”
Not only did Charles now have to learn how to be a law student, but he was also surrounded by highly qualified, highly competitive people that in his words, “were out for blood.” He says:
“I remember students laughing at one another after class if someone botched a cold call. I remember students posting their first semester grades as Facebook statuses over winter break. For the first time, ever, the pressure was on. I only knew one way to deal with pressure.”
The next time Charles picked up a pill was 1-L Thanksgiving break. He says:
“One pill, that’s all it was. One pill…”
It served its purpose. A night free from the pressure of law school albeit artificially created.
“I wasn’t doing heroin; I wasn’t doing it every day. It was just a little “mental break.” And when I got back to law school for the Spring Semester, I can’t even recall picking up again at all, though I’m sure I did a few times over that semester.”
Charles returned to school for the new semester, but his relationship with his girlfriend was rocky, adding to the stress. He, however, got through the semester and began a job at a law firm.
“I had a relationship on the rocks, money in my pocket, and was entirely unsupervised. By the time summer ended and the Fall Semester started I had picked up heroin again. The train was officially off the rails, and there was no stopping it.”
Charles ended up doing even better grades-wise his 2L year. But overall, he was doing much worse, back to using heroin. He says:
“Sometime in April, I confessed my struggle to my new girlfriend. I remember her sitting on my computer looking up Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She pointed to the only one that hadn’t passed yet that Saturday night. And so I went.”
Charles spent his 2L summer attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“I was sober but also struggling with things that a lot of law students deal with. My summer associate position was incredibly stressful. It was a prize I never really wanted, I always wanted to do criminal defense work, but I had become so caught up in the rat race of law school that I wanted to win the Off-Campus Recruiting game even if I wasn’t sure I wanted the prize.”
Charles was also attempting total sobriety for the first time in his life and struggling with the sort of questions that confront many dealing with addiction. He says:
“I had never struggled with alcohol. Frankly, I don’t even really like it, so why couldn’t I have a beer every once in a while? It certainly made me feel immensely uncomfortable at firm events that summer, feeling like I painted a target on myself every time I declined a drink. I was also running around the city night after night to attend meetings. I felt like I was being ripped in different directions, spread too thin. Ultimately, I didn’t get an offer at the end of the summer. I returned to what had muted my feelings and brought me the illusion of peace and control so many times before. Heroin.”
That fall 3L semester Charles’s grades finally tanked. He was spending more time missing class and assignments to get high. His girlfriend and his parents knew he was using. He passed the point at which he could stop on his own. He then hit rock bottom. He says:
“In March of 2015, just a few months before graduation, I was arrested in my car, shoveling heroin into my nose because I couldn’t wait the 30 minutes it would take me to get home. The withdrawals, the sickness that would come over me, were too much to bear.”
The next day Charles spoke with his favorite professor.
“I’ll never forget walking up the avenue with him after class ended with his hand on my shoulder as I was on the phone telling my parents what happened. That’s a phone call that’ll haunt me forever. I hired an attorney to represent me in my absence, as I immediately flew down to Florida for treatment.”
Charles also contacted his law school’s Assistant Dean of Student Affairs. He says:
“I have to give my law school credit. That dean made me feel supported. She offered me the option of taking a leave of absence without providing her a reason. (I knew I had to disclose for bar application purposes). She also suggested that if I was honest about what occurred and went “on the record,” that she could apply to a Board of Trustees or Administrators to have my tuition for the semester refunded. She went to bat for me, and it was. She also told me that everyone in the administration and at that meeting wished me the best for my recovery and welcomed me back when I was ready. It might sound like a small gesture, but it helped.”
Charles flew to Florida for treatment. He spent 30 days inpatient, then moved to a halfway house for another month or so of semi-restricted living. He was also receiving intensive outpatient treatment.
After moving back from Florida, Charles entered an intensive outpatient program, ensuring that his transition home would be a smooth one. He returned to law school in the spring semester.
“I’m proud to say that I kicked ass that Spring. I got my best grades, all A’s and A-‘s. I was able to salvage my GPA and graduated cum laude. My school and classmates welcomed me back. I’m sure I got some looks from some people, and I know there were gossip and whispers. But I couldn’t care less. I had made it back to where I was and proved that I belonged. I heavily involved myself with Moot Court where I had found much personal success prior. It helped enormously to be able to integrate myself back into the law school community. That summer I crushed the bar exam.”
Charles is currently working a prestigious Chancery Division clerkship in his hometown area. He says:
“I was originally supposed to do this clerkship upon my originally scheduled graduation from law school. Much like that phone call to my parents, calling the judge to tell him I had been arrested and was in Florida for treatment and that I wouldn’t be able to work for him in the fall was another phone call I’ll never forget. But like the law school, his only concern was my getting better, and he too welcomed me back when I was ready.”
Charles only concern at this point is admission to the bar with the attendant character and fitness issues attached to his journey. He says:
“My concerns about character and fitness are primarily getting interviewed by a panel and having to be honest about my drug use. I am worried about having to disclose all treatment records, having some restrictions on my ability to practice, worrying that future employers will find out about what occurred (especially now as I’m seeking my first job post-clerkship.
“While of course, I’m incredibly anxious about being admitted, everything else has worked out thus far as long as I do the right thing, and I’m confident this will too.”
Finally, Charles has some thoughts on the stigma of addiction and culture of drinking in law school as well what schools can do better.
“While I have heaps of praise to place upon my law school for the way they handled my incident and my leave of absence/return, I do think that law schools generally could do more to help students with substance use issues.
“Just as important, students need to do their part by effectuating change amongst the culture. Far too many law students get drunk at every law-school event and social gathering. If they are well liked, then it’s hilarious. If they are despised, then it is something to whisper or gossip about, an excuse to put the person down.
I must say that I am the only student that I knew of using opiates during law school. One had mentioned doing them amongst friends in the past, but I never heard about current use. That’s not to say that other drugs weren’t prevalent. There was open Cocaine and marijuana use. Students used Adderall, both to study and to party. While I doubt that is going to stop any time soon, students should feel like they have somewhere to turn. Students should also have the courage to exhibit genuine concern for their peers and have difficult conversations where required, rather than let things go for one reason or another.
I did avail myself of the counseling services at my university, in college and for a brief time in law school, and having those options there was incredibly helpful; I, however, am the only student I know of that availed myself of this service in law school. I suspect I’m not the only student that needed counseling. Whether it is an issue of needing more advertisement or less stigma, I can’t say, but I can say that more students should be managing the stress of law school and their issues, substance-related and otherwise, with counselors offered by the school.
I think it would be fantastic for law schools to have a mental health committee or a board to have its ear to the ground. It needs to know what is going on so that it can tackle substance abuse problems, on an institutional level. How can we create a campus environment in which study drug use is discouraged? How can we empower students to use the counseling services?) and on a personal level (how can we know when a student is struggling and how do we intervene in that case?)
I hope my story can help one person. I know that the people in my story, my favorite professor, that Assistant Dean, made all the difference. One of you can make a difference in another student’s life.”
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 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. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.