I recently had the honor of telling my story at the three Minneapolis/St. Paul law schools. During that visit, I met attorney Suzula Bidon. Suzula has a journey that personifies redemption: Addiction; federal prison; the battle as a convicted felon to get her law license; a certified yoga instructor; a story worth reading and learning from.
Brian Cuban: Where have you been in life?
Suzula Bidon: I started in the woods in northwest Wisconsin, on the Yellow River. I was an only child of hippie parents catching frogs and tadpoles until my brother came along when I was five. I was largely isolated from the world. I had little regular, consistent social interaction, and little interaction with community.
When I think about that time, and the role it played in my susceptibility to addiction, I think of the Rat Park experiment. In the late 1970s, researchers were studying addiction by giving rats in cages two choices of water: one with drugs, one without. Most rats drank the drug water and died. Then, one of the researchers had a thought: of course rats alone in a cage with nothing to do and no other rats for companionship would choose the drugs. What would happen if they tried the same experiment in a social, resource-rich environment with toys, and other rats, and room to run around? Well, the results in Rat Park were different. Most rats did not choose the drug water. While there are many factors, I believe my isolation during my childhood is part of what set me up to be susceptible to addiction.
When I started school, it was like being thrown into the deep end of the social pool, without social skills. I felt hypersensitive and socially awkward, so by the time the gateway drugs (cigarettes and alcohol) became a part of the scene in middle school, I was thrilled to have a way to fit in and quell my social anxiety.
After my sophomore year in high school, we moved to a city, St. Paul, MN. Shortly after the move, my father died of a heart attack. I was dealing with the upheaval of moving, a whole new level of social anxiety, and profound grief and loss. I managed to finish high school at a prestigious prep school, St. Paul Academy, which got me into Barnard College in New York. That’s when my addiction really took off.
I tried everything, got addicted to heroin, got off heroin with methadone, graduated from college on methadone, and then when I got off methadone, I started using stimulants (methamphetamine and cocaine). For me it was never about the effects of a certain drug; it was about control – having a way, a pill or a powder I could take, to change the way I felt.
In New York, I struggled, in and out of sobriety, and during one of my sober stints I was randomly attacked on the street one morning. I was lucky — I wasn’t permanently injured, just beat up — but it scared me enough to move back to Minnesota.
In Minnesota, I white-knuckled it for five months, but I wasn’t done using drugs. I still felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I started using methamphetamine and then selling small amounts to support my own drug use. When a drug buddy in New York found out I was selling, he asked me to send him some and I did – small amounts a handful of times. Then he asked me for a much larger amount, I sent it, and the package was intercepted. I was federally indicted on a conspiracy drug charge and ended up spending 30 months (27 with good time) in federal prison.
When I got out in 2009, I had three missions: to stay sober, build an amazing life in recovery, and to become a lawyer so that I could change the system. I paid my dues working for $7.25 an hour at a bagel shop, got into law school, and started in 2011.
I loved law school, and graduated magna cum laude in 2014. The Board of Law Examiners put me through hell, but eventually they gave me a license in 2015. After a year of criminal defense, I ran a nonprofit for six months, and since then I’ve been working as a solo, and a policy consultant.
BC: Where are you in life now?
SB: Law has taken a back seat for me these days. My main focus is yoga. In 2011, I felt something was missing from my recovery. All the outward signs were good, and my recovery was going strong. I was involved in 12-Step fellowships, I was doing service, I was in law school. I was still uncomfortable in my own skin. It dawned on me that what was missing was a physical component. There’s a great saying, “we store our issues in our tissues,” and until that point I had done little to reconcile and reconnect with my body. I was thinking recovery, but I wasn’t living and breathing recovery.
I got certified to teach yoga, and I created a yoga curriculum specifically for addiction recovery, that eventually became Recovery Yoga Meetings®. Now I’m scaling that business to hopefully become the industry standard for yoga as a complementary treatment for addiction in healthcare. I’ve created a teacher training curriculum, and it just keeps growing. I’m also a writer. I’m working on a memoir and a recovery guide that incorporates all the tools and skills I’ve learned along the way.
BC: What is your hope for the future and message to others?
SB: We as a profession, as a society, as a country, have got to rise together to meet this challenge of addiction. And a big part of that is having the courage to make an objective, rational assessment of how our policies are working. The Drug War and mass incarceration are failures by every definition. There are more drugs, more easily available, and more people are dying than ever before. It’s like we learned nothing from Prohibition. And we need to once and for all treat addiction as the public health issue it is. My personal belief is that addiction is an illegal disease.
One of the things I do is present continuing legal education seminars on addiction-related law and policy. Lately, I’ve been sharing five simple changes to the way we talk about addiction.
First of all, “stigma.” That’s the layperson’s term for what we call discrimination. Whether we’re talking literally, under the ADA, or more generally in terms of the collateral consequences of addiction, we have got to stop soft-pedaling this. If a person is in established recovery from addiction, it is discrimination to hold their past against them.
Second, “addiction” itself. Addiction is the most severe form of substance use disorder, which is a spectrum, according to the DSM-V. There is substance use, substance misuse, substance abuse, and finally full-blown addiction. Eighty to ninety percent of individuals who use substances do not develop a problem. Not everyone with a substance use problem has addiction.
Third, “addict” and “alcoholic.” This one is long overdue. We need person-first language. We don’t call people with cancer cancerians. Or someone with depression a depressive. I am a person in recovery from substance use disorder. Historically, 78 years ago when the medical field didn’t understand addiction, and everyone thought it was a willpower or moral issue, people who couldn’t stop drinking starting meeting in rooms to support each other. They identified themselves as “alcoholics” for two reasons: to admit they had a problem, and to identify with each other.
Twelve-Step programs, mutual aid societies, and peer support services are still valuable tools for healing, but we have conclusive scientific evidence that demonstrates that substance use disorder is a brain disorder. In the legal profession and society at large we need to demonstrate our understanding by using accurate and non-judgmental nomenclature.
Fourth, “clean” and “dirty.” If you work in the criminal justice system you know what I’m talking about. It’s most common with regard to urinalysis for drug testing. If a test comes back positive for a substance, it’s dirty, and hence the client is dirty. No drugs, it’s clean, she or he is clean. Gee, there’s nothing pejorative about that. Again, let’s be professional and use the proper terminology: a drug test comes back positive or negative for the presence of substances. A client has been abstinent or not.
And finally, my personal favorite: Medication Assisted Therapy, sometimes referred to as Medication Assisted Treatment. We all think of this as methadone or Suboxone, for opioid use disorder. But think for a moment about smoking. Many people use a nicotine patch, or gum, or a medication to manage their cravings while they change their behavior, and stop smoking. The same principle applies when it comes to opioid use disorder. Studies show that medication assisted therapy leads to better outcomes for treating opioid use disorder. I am living proof. Medication assisted therapy, methadone in my case, saved my life. I tried abstinence repeatedly, and I couldn’t stop going back to heroin. The methadone dealt with the opioid receptors in my brain, by preventing cravings and withdrawal symptoms, so that I could change my habits. Methadone allowed me to get off heroin, and since I wasn’t spending my time buying illegal drugs, I was able to devote my time to rebuilding a life I actually wanted to live. I eventually graduated from Barnard while in MAT.
Still skeptical? The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous included in the AA basic text this quote by Herbert Spencer: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” Look at the evidence and see for yourself.
You can learn more about Suzula and Recovery Yoga Meetings® at recoveryyogameetings.com
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.