In some ways Charles was a law student that any school and parent would be proud of. 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 doing 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 begin to use the bottle or the bong to release 1L stress, his story began much earlier with an arm injury sustained snowboarding. The opioids taken to deal with the pain. The genetic factors. He says:
“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.”
Middle school was a difficult time for Charles. Teenage angst, alternative clothes, his parents’ relationships (new and old); he says:
“In my mind, I was different. I remember walking into school with the temporary cast on my arm and the warm glow of oxycodone in my body that for once I was walking on clouds, and not into the warzone of teen conflict.
“I went through that first bottle of yellow Percocet faster than I careened down that icy black diamond on my snowboard. And though the doctor said, “It really shouldn’t still be hurting,” he didn’t so much as hesitate to write a second month’s prescription. The seed was officially planted.”
After later being offered some OxyContin by his best friend’s father, the plant began to grow. What began with taking one or two of those small pink OxyContin pills soon turned into snorting up to five at a time. He says:
“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. It was quickly emptied. My Junior year and senior year 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 translated to Vicodin pills at first 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 from college for spring break Charles was back with his old drug seeking crew but they were seeking a different drug. It was now about heroin. He says:
“The sales pitch to me was heroin was both 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 cross”
When Charles went back to college after break ended, 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 to not fail my classes that semester.”
Charles’s junior year in college, things were looking up. He began dating someone, and managed to finish the year on the Dean’s List. 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 easy 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.”
And now not only did he have to learn how to be a student, Charles was 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 first time Charles picked up a pill again 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. He says:
“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 back to school for the new semester but his relationship with his girlfriend was rocky, adding to the stress. He got through the semester and began a job at a law firm. He says:
“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 personally, he was doing much worse, now back 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. He says:
“I was sober but I also struggling with things that a lot of law students struggle 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 immensely with the sort of questions that many addicts struggle with. 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 says:
“I was spending more time missing class and assignments to get high than I spent in them. My girlfriend knew I was using. My parents knew I was using. I had passed the point at which I would ever stop on my own initiative. Unfortunately, I passed the point at which I would stop without hitting rock bottom. And hit rock bottom I did.
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 first. The withdrawals, the sickness that would come over me, was too much to bear.”
The next day Charles spoke with his favorite professor. He says:
“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 immense credit. That dean made me feel incredibly supported. She offered me the option of taking a leave of absence without providing a reason (though I knew I had to disclose for bar application purposes) but she also suggested that if I were 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. Ultimately, she went to bat for me, and it was. She also relayed to 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 then flew down to Florida for treatment. He spent 30 days in inpatient, then moved to a halfway house for another month or so of semi-restricted living during which time He went back to the center during the day for intensive outpatient. After that ended, he got an apartment with a guy he had become close with down there, someone that ran in similar circles back in high school and someone that he is close with to this day.
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. He says:
“I’m proud to say that I kicked ass that Spring. I got my best grades yet, all A’s and A-‘s. I was able to salvage my GPA after the hit it took the Fall a year before 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 was some 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 doing a prestigious Chancery Division clerkship in his home town 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 relates that his only concern at this point is being admitted to the bar with the attendant character and fitness issues attached to his journey. He says:
“My concerns in relation to character and fitness are primarily getting interviewed by a panel and having to be honest about my using history, having to disclose all treatment records, having some sort of 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 and aren’t admitted yet).
“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. He says:
“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 abuse issues.
Just as important, students need to do their part by effectuating change amongst the culture. Far too many law students got far too drunk at each and every event or get together. If they were well liked, then it was hilarious. If they were despised, then it was something to whisper or gossip about, to put the person down for. In neither case did students exhibit genuine concern for their peers.
I must say that I am the only student that I knew of using opiates during law school. One peer 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. Cocaine and marijuana were frequently used by students I encountered. Their use wasn’t even an open secret; it was just open. And of course students often abused study drugs such as 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. And 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.
While 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 am the only student I know of that availed myself of this service in law school. I can’t think that I’m the only student that needed it. 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 also think it would be fantastic for law schools to have a committee or a board to have its ear to the ground for what substance abuse is occurring on campus. If students won’t “tell on themselves,” when they need help or when another student does, the administration can’t throw its hands up and wait. It needs to know what is going on so that it could tackle substance abuse problems, on an institutional level (for example, how can we create a campus environment in which study drug use is discouraged or how could we see more students attend our 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 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.