A Lawyer's Fractured Fairy Tale
by Carol P. Waldhauser, Executive Director, Delaware
Lawyers Assistance Program
John Doe's rise in the legal profession was so rapid that even
his peers described both his personal and professional life as full
of hard work accompanied with good fortune, good timing and a bit
of luck. Clearly, many see John as living the American
Dream. So why is John's family worried that his fairy tale
life is about to become a fractured fairy tale? Could it be
that they know John is a high-functioning alcoholic?
A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who is an alcoholic but
is able to maintain his/her outside life, i.e.: career or
home or family and friendships - all while drinking
alcoholically. This type of alcoholic has the same disease as
the "skid-row" alcoholic, but shows different signs of the
disease. Moreover, the disease itself progresses differently
within the individual.
Ironically many high-functioning alcoholics are not seen as
being alcoholic at all because most have succeeded and/or
over-achieved academically, professionally and personally.
Unfortunately this success can, and often does, increase the
symptom of denial in the high-functioning alcoholic.
Accordingly, it is their denial that makes them less apt to feel
that they need treatment for the disease of alcoholism.
It is a well-known fact that many people, including those in the
legal profession, find themselves struggling with unhealthy,
expensive, and often life-threatening addictions and/or other
compulsive behaviors. And, if asked, many other individuals
might tell you that they know someone - family, friends, and/or
peers- that they believe have a drinking problem or are
It is a common saying that alcoholism is an equal-opportunity
destroyer. It can affect anyone regardless of race, ethnic
background, socioeconomic status, profession and/or station in
life. Similarly, it is a common saying in the field of
alcohol counseling that the alcoholic is the last person to know
that he or she has a problem with alcohol. Rather, an
individual's family, peers, partners, friends often know before the
alcoholic admits that they are drinking alcoholically.
Needless to say most individuals do not intend to become
addicted to alcohol. However mirroring our fictitious
character John, there comes a point when some people begin to
depend on the alcohol not just to feel good, but to feel
normal. Gradually, the occasional use of alcohol may turn
into weekly use, then daily use and eventually the user comes to
the distressing realization that he or she is addicted to
A landmark study in 2007 by the National Institute on Alcohol
Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) categorized alcoholics into 5
subtypes: 19.5% of alcoholics are the "functional" subtype,
31.5% are the "young adult" subtype, 21% are the young antisocial
subtype, 19% are the intermediate familial subtype (middle-aged
with mental illness) and only 9% are the "chronic severe" subtype
that fits the stereo-type of the low-bottom alcoholic.
Another little known statistic is that other addiction experts
estimate that between 75% and 90% of alcoholics are
Additionally, excessive alcohol consumption causes more that
100,000 deaths annually in the United States, with 24 percent of
these deaths due to drinking and driving, 11 percent to
alcohol-related homicide, and 8 percent to alcohol-related
Equally as important to realize, the legal profession is
vulnerable to this disease. According to Douglas B. Marlowe,
PhD, and J.D. in Alcoholism: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments,
And Stress Management For Lawyers:
Alcoholism exacts an exorbitant toll on lawyers, the legal
system, and consumers of legal services. In a 1990 study,
conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association, a staggering 17%
of the 2,600 attorneys surveyed admitted to drinking 3-5 alcoholic
beverages per day. In the state of Washington, another study
found that 18% of the 801 lawyers surveyed were problem
drinkers. It is estimated that the number of lawyers in the
United States actively abusing alcohol and drugs is twice that of
the general population. Approximately 40% to 70% of attorney
disciplinary proceedings and malpractice actions are linked to
alcohol abuse or a mental illness. P. 240
Dr. Marlowe states further "despite this high incidence, lawyers
suffering from alcoholism often feel painfully alone. Fearing
discovery or retribution, they are reticent to ask questions or
attempt to learn more about their problem".
Needless to say as members of the legal profession, most lawyers
spend their time dealing with other people's problems, often
ignoring their own. The day-to-day pressures and deadlines of
practice sometimes cause lawyers themselves to succumb to substance
abuse, addiction or other compulsive behaviors. Even for the
high-functioning alcoholic, without treatment, the suffering
lawyer's family and work can be drastically affected.
Why Do Some People Get Addicted While Others Do Not?
While many individuals do not become addicted, some people do
because of their vulnerability. Genetics is a big
contributor to the risk of addiction and the nature of this
contribution is extremely complex. Remember too that
addiction is a disease. More specifically addiction is a
brain disease characterized by: compulsive behavior,
continued abuse of drugs despite negative consequences and
persistent changes in the brain's structure and function.
Second, addiction is similar to other chronic illnesses
because: it has biological and behavioral components, both of
which must be addressed during treatment. Like other
diseases, however, it is: preventable, treatable, it changes
biology and if untreated, it can last a lifetime.
In fact, the disease model of alcoholism contains three core
components that are frequently utilized in the discussion of any
Tolerance. This is said to be evident when, after
exposure and repeated use, and increased amount of the drug is
needed to produce the same effect.
Withdrawal symptoms. These are experienced when
the effects f the drug wear off, and they vary according to the
substance taken. Common withdrawal symptoms include tremor,
hot flushes, and nausea - these are typically relieved by another
dose of the drug.
Craving. This is the addict's overwhelming desire
to take the particular drug of choice even in light of persistent
problems caused by the substance.
Furthermore, this disease develops in stages, and denial is a
major symptom. Recovery from it (protracted
abstinence and restored functioning) is often a long-term process
requiring repeated episodes of treatment. Plus, relapses can
occur during or after treatment, and signal a need for treatment
adjustment or reinstatement. Participation in support
programs during and following treatment can be helpful in
sustaining long-term recovery therefore full recovery is a
challenge but it is possible.
Is Someone You Know A High-Functioning
If you, or someone you know, can check any of the symptoms
listed below - they may suffer from a serious health problem.
Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking or drug use?
Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking or drug use? Have you ever felt guilty about your drinking or drug use?
Have you ever had a drink or other drug to steady your nerves or relieve a hangover?
Has drinking or drug use interfered with your work, marriage or other commitments?
Have you ever lied to cover up your drinking or drug use? Are you drinking or using drugs during the workday?
Are you coming to work after a long night of drinking or drug use and then counting the hours until the end of the workday to have a drink or use again?
Taking "long lunches"
Not returning to work after lunch
Unable to be located
Ill with vague ailments
Absent (especially Monday/Fridays)
Improbable excuses for absences
Last minute cancellations.
Checks not deposited
Debit card withdrawals
Incomplete or irregular records
Pay office expenses from trust
Pay personal expenses
"Borrowing" from trust
Failure to timely disburse
Incomplete accounting for receipts & disbursements.
Remember John? This illness can ruin marriages and
careers, break up families and law firms, undermine financial
security, destroy a person's physical and mental health and may
lead to incarceration and sometimes to premature death.
Conversely, all of this is avoidable if the illness can be
identified and treated in time.
This article was originally published in the DE-LAP Zone Monthly
Column in September, 2010, reprinted with the permission of the
author and edited for length. Posted 8/2/13.
If you are concerned about substance use, please call the Missouri Lawyers' Assistance Program at 1-800-688-7859 for free, confidential assistance.