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Addiction, recovery in legal world: a firsthand account

Bob Schuneman

Bob Schuneman

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, with support from Mairs & Power, a financial planning firm, recently presented a four-week series, “Addiction, Recovery, and the Minnesota Justice System” as reported in the Sept. 20 edition of Minnesota Lawyer. (The entire series is available for on-demand viewing here.) I’m grateful to Minnesota Lawyer for this opportunity to share my perspective on the importance of recovery and the existence of resources to help legal professionals grappling with addiction.

In my work with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, I frequently observe, “Lawyers are people first; the granting of a law degree does not confirm immunity from the same diseases of despair to which all people are susceptible.”

Diseases of despair include substance use disorders, depression, and anxiety. In 2016, the results of an ABA Hazelden Betty Ford sponsored study were reported in “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” (Krill PR, Johnson R, Albert L. The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. J Addict Med. 2016 Jan-Feb;10(1):46-52). This seminal report revealed that lawyers experience depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, and substance use disorders at rates that are many multiples of those found among the general population. Every indication is that the pandemic has made each of these problems significantly worse.

The report further identified stigma — the fear of being seen as weak, vulnerable, and somehow “less than” — as a primary reason lawyers are reluctant to seek help. Other research on stigma and its effects reports that one of the most effective ways to counter the fear of stigma and overcome implicit bias is to interact with someone who has the relevant condition. That’s my purpose in writing this article.

I am a person in long-term recovery. For me, that means that I’m no longer the person I was when I was drinking. When I was that person, I spent — wasted, really — countless hours complaining about how life had dealt me a rotten hand, how I wasn’t getting the recognition I should, how I was a victim of so many perceived wrongs, and so on. Looking back at my 8½-year recovery journey, I have become someone who sets and achieves meaningful goals, cultivates and nourishes meaningful relationships, and is a steady and reliable friend.

Through my recovery journey, I’ve been influenced and encouraged by countless others on similar journeys. By serving and helping others, we, in turn, are helped and served by them. Often, we are oblivious to the impact we have on other’s lives.

Recently, I received a Facebook message from Dan, one of my high school friends. He wanted me to know that he had seen my posts over the years about my recovery path. Inspired by the postings, he resolved to quit drinking. On the day he contacted me, he celebrated his fifth sobriety anniversary.

Until that moment, I never knew the impact I had had on his life.

Stories like this one are legion among the recovery community. The realization that our lives touch so many others in so many ways is humbling. As we recover, we begin to unravel, understand, and attempt to remediate the negative ways our behavior touched others. And we marvel at the positive impact our recovery journey has on others.

In short, recovery has allowed me to change from someone I secretly loathed to someone I genuinely like. For me, the fruits of recovery include self-respect, self-love, self-knowledge, and, ultimately, inner peace.

Some days are still a struggle. The support of others in the recovery community continues to be a source of strength, wisdom, and healing. Getting sober was one of the best decisions I ever made. Knowing that I’ve contributed in some small way to another’s recovery journey is simultaneously humbling and exhilarating.

In the early days of my recovery, LCL provided me with peer support. My story is one of the thousands of lawyers, judges, and law students whom LCL has helped. My first interaction with LCL involved alcohol, but LCL helps with so much more! LCL helps and supports legal professionals and their families with any problem causing stress in their lives.

I’m living proof of LCL’s life-changing work.

If you notice you are drinking more or in different ways, honestly ask yourself if you are concerned about your use. Has anyone else commented on it, and how do you feel about that? Do you have regrets about your use or something that happened during your use? Through LCL telehealth assessments, counseling and support for underlying stress are available. If a colleague or staff member seems like they might be intoxicated, or is disorganized or missing things, be very concerned. LCL can coach you on how to support a colleague as they get the help they need.

Bob Schuneman is the Outreach Coordinator for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Minnesota’s Lawyer Assistance Program. LCL helps lawyers, judges, law students, legal staff members, and their immediate families with any problem causing stress or distress in their lives. www.mnlcl.org. (651) 646-5590.

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