The incidence of problematic alcohol and drug use amongst lawyers is well documented. The dangers and negative consequences of the overuse of alcohol and drugs are also well known. The weekend news often seems like a chronology of people hospitalised as a consequence of dangerous levels of drug and alcohol use. And on Monday mornings, the courts are filled with those charged with hospitalising the people we read about.
Despite our knowledge of the negatives, drugs and alcohol continue to be used in dangerous ways. It seems knowledge of the negatives is not sufficient to make us reduce our usage to more manageable, less destructive levels. Part of the reason knowledge is not a sufficient deterrent is that despite what we know, none of us considers ourselves to be addicts or dependent; or to use alcohol or drugs in a problematic way.
In our minds, addicts are other people: people who are homeless, people who have no jobs and no prospects. We, on the other hand are employed and productive; we have homes and a lifestyle. A lifestyle that includes partying. We may lose one or two days on the weekend from being hung over or wiped out, but we certainly don’t see ourselves as dependent or addicted. After all, the measure of a good party is how long it takes to surface the next day, and if it hadn’t been for our friend’s party we would have been home, “stone sober” having a constructive weekend.
The mind has a self-protective capacity that prevents us seeing ourselves as addicts or dependent even if we rely on our drug of choice to help us unwind after a week managing the rigors of law. A former friend vehemently denied he was addicted to marijuana, despite using it every weekend from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, plus when he went to visit family or went out to socialise. According to him, it made him a more pleasant, relaxed and friendly person; but in his eyes, he was not an addict.
The mind is not only strongly self-protective; it also has a self-delusional capacity. As I mentioned, the term addict is what other people may call us. We never call ourselves addicts, at least not initially. It is this self-protective and delusional capacity of the mind that is one of the reasons it can take people a long time to acknowledge they need help to manage their alcohol and drug use.
Likewise, the mind forgets how much we have drunk or how many drugs we have taken. We think we have only had one or two joints or tabs, or a “few points” over the weekend, forgetting the other drugs we might have ingested or the three or four bottles of alcohol we consumed.
The other reason we find it difficult to acknowledge we need help to manage alcohol and drug dependency is because of the strong positives often associated with alcohol and drug use. These positives are often not acknowledged.
Prior to working in community legal centres, I worked for 20 years in homelessness sector. I dealt with men who had experienced the extreme negatives of alcohol and drug dependency. They were homeless, unemployed, and many had served time in the justice system and had lost contact with family and friends. Having experienced the extreme negatives, it would be reasonable to assume they would be eager to deal with their dependency. Yet this was not the case. When I spoke with many of these men, they remained committed to their alcohol and drug use because of the positives it gave them.
What are these positives they spoke about?
One of the positives is that drug and alcohol use allows us to relax quickly. Without being judgmental, it is reasonable to acknowledge that as a profession, lawyers are a fairly uptight bunch. The adversarial nature of law, the constant pressure to meet deadlines and billable targets, the long hours and the need to exercise caution all contribute to high levels of tension and anxiety. Mindfulness and meditation sound like good practices but when it is Friday night and we have come off the back of a difficult trial and our e-mail inbox is overflowing, alcohol and drugs provide a quick relaxation response even, if we know that it would be healthier for us to practice some mindfulness With a bottle of wine, a couple of joints or the help of Tina, we can relax and unwind more quickly, rather than trying to still our minds or be conscious of our breathing.
Alcohol and drugs not only relax us; they also give us the confidence to be friendly, unself-conscious, to be seen as smart, funny and friendly when we see ourselves as awkward and self-conscious in social situations.
Our legal training taught us to think in a linear fashion, to see things as right or wrong, black or white. When we have low self-esteem combined with thinking in a linear, black or white manner, social situations can be complex to navigate and negotiate. Alcohol and drug use takes the edge of the complexities and allows us to be more relaxed and sociable in these situations.
There is also the transcendence of drug use. For many people who use drugs it isn’t just because of the actual high of the drug. It is the rituals they follow as they prepare to inject themselves or ingest. For many drug users the ritual of preparation follows a set pattern and helps shift the mind in preparation for the actual hit. The other system within society that uses ritual is religion. For many drug users as for many religious people, rituals enable them to connect, however briefly, with the transcendent.
Lawyers enter law with high ideals and strong intrinsic motivators to do good and make a difference in society. The influence of law school and the necessity of obtaining legal work can lead to a change from intrinsic motivators to extrinsic motivators such as getting good grades, obtaining clerkships, being accepted into top-tier firms or simply getting work. This switch to extrinsic motivators can ultimately lead to a sense of disconnection and alienation from oneself. Drug use allows a person to feel connected to something greater than oneself: a false, fleeting connection to what was once intrinsic.
When I spoke with the men who were homeless and using alcohol and drugs, they would tell me that despite all the negatives, their alcohol and drug use allowed them to feel connected, it gave them confidence to be social and to have friends and it allowed them to feel alive. For many lawyers their alcohol and drug use has similar positives. So how do we deal with these positives?
Unless we develop a constructive way of acknowledging the positives and build a sense of ourselves on a more solid, alternative foundation, like many of the homeless men I dealt with, we will delude ourselves into thinking we can manage our usage and dependencies.
In the next e-news we will look at how we can build positives into our lives in an on-going way without the use of alcohol and/or drugs.
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Join David Kernohan for a further MHLC free CPD event.
Norton Rose Fulbright
108 St Georges Terrace, Perth
4.30 pm 25 August 2016
This CPD will attract 1 point Competency area 2, Professional Skills.
If you haven't booked already, register on Eventbrite here