First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
My father was an alcoholic. He drank to great excess virtually every day of his adult life. What followed was all too predictable – car accidents, arrests and jail time due to driving while drunk, a broken marriage, fired from jobs, alienated from his children, and too many physical ailments to list. He woke up every morning, calmly vomited, and then sat down to breakfast – his first six pack of the day.
He lost his mother when he was only 12 years old. He was a World War II veteran. He lost two brothers in that war, and I am sure he was devastated and scarred. But drinking was not the answer. It ruined his life and made the lives of his family very difficult.
On irregular and infrequent occasions, he would go to the VA hospital for a short stay to dry out. We would sometimes get postcards from him. He would return home a self-proclaimed “new man” and, for a very short while, he really was a nice guy. But then, in short order, he would start drinking again and the downward spiral repeated itself. At his request, we buried him with a six pack in his coffin.
As president of your Bar Association, I cringe with a combination of anger, sadness, empathy, and embarrassment every time I see a news report about a lawyer arrested for drunk driving. Or a lawyer disbarred for stealing money from clients and gambling with it, or using it to feed a drug addiction.
I understand the enormous challenges addiction presents, but I am sick of these stories. As lawyers, we need to be better than that. Is it any wonder we are so often the butt of jokes? The public has to put their trust in us to intelligently assist them with important and confidential legal matters. But that trust is being eroded by the actions of a few lawyers who are unable to control their destructive behaviors, just as my father could not control his.
If you or a colleague is in a similar situation, I am very proud to say that your Bar Association is working hard to provide help to fight these and other related problems. Association members, and their dependents, can receive free and confidential help through our Lawyers Helping Lawyers Program. Help is also available through the Association’s contract with the Coastline Employee Assistance Program (Coastline EAP). To discuss your concerns or those you may have about a colleague, you may contact Coastline EAP and/or a Lawyers Helping Lawyers Committee member, whose names and telephone numbers are included in every issue of the Rhode Island Bar Journal and in the Lawyers Helping Lawyers link on the Bar’s website, both of which also include information and contacts for Coastline EAP.
Coastline EAP is a private, non-profit consulting service contracted by our Bar Association to help members and their dependents at no charge. Coastline EAP provides health counselors for a wide range of personal concerns including (but not limited to) alcohol and substance abuse, gambling, depression, anxiety, domestic violence, and grief. Telephone 401-732-9444 to arrange an appointment. At your initial appointment, Coastline EAP counselors will work with you to review your concerns and develop a reasonable, and mutually agreed upon, course of action. They ensure confidentiality and protect privacy.
If you require the further services of private clinicians or treatment programs, Coastline EAP will help you choose services in accordance with your existing medical benefits. In most cases, your medical benefits will cover all or a significant portion of the counseling or treatment costs. If your family member does not have medical coverage, Coastline EAP and our Bar Association will work to secure free services or negotiate sliding scale fees or extended payment plans to help eliminate or reduce financial barriers.
Because of the sensitive nature of these personal problems, attorneys in need are often reluctant to seek help. Before or during your contact with EAP, you may choose to seek peer assistance from a member of the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Committee. Peer attorneys will lend an ear, share their own personal experiences, and, if necessary, advise you on re-entering legal practice or accompany you to self-help meetings. Our program has a proven, 25-year record of helping Rhode Island lawyers, confidentially and free of charge. Please see our web site at www.ribar.com for the names and numbers of the members of the Committee.
When seeking assistance from a Committee member, your privacy and professional standing are protected. In 1991, the Supreme Court issued changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct, giving members of the Committee immunity from suit, exception from the duty to disclose unprofessional conduct, and an obligation to confer in confidence with lawyers seeking help. In 1995, the Supreme Court also authorized a disciplinary diversion program. This allows some attorneys to seek treatment and avoid discipline if the attorney successfully completes the prescribed program. This program is run in conjunction with the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Board.
Whatever your problem, please don’t try to handle it alone. Don't put off the call trying to decide whether things have gotten bad enough. There is no need to risk your health, license, livelihood, reputation or family. Once you have made the call, you have taken the first courageous step to a better personal and professional life.