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Addictions at the Bar – when a dry January is not enough

I am a barrister.  I am also a recovering alcoholic.

For the first few years at the Bar my behaviour around drinking did not seem that different from many of my peers. There was the odd night of when I embarrassed myself through drunken behaviour or failed to make it into chambers the next day.

But if you told me then I had a drink problem, I would not have listened to you.  Yes, I would admit I was a heavy drinker, but I would never have considered myself an alcoholic. But over the years, I lost control over how much I drank and when I drank.

I could no longer avoid drinking on evenings before a court appearance or a professional commitment.  The state of my professional practice illustrated the progress of my alcoholism. Rarely did I make it into chambers on a Friday. Increasingly, Mondays were missed too, at first because I was recovering from weekend excesses, and then because the weekend simply merged into the week.  Eventually it was impossible for me to know what days, if any, I would appear and the state I would be in if I did turn up.

The professional descent was mirrored by events in my personal life. Relationships were ended, friends were avoided, weddings and events were missed, debts piled up and my flat was sold to cover those debts.  Despite all these events being negative consequences of my drinking, my response to negative emotions was to drink the feelings away. I reached the stage where my life was a miserable existence of drinking alone, drinking to oblivion, coming to and starting the cycle again. Trips to hospitals became regular events. I felt hopeless and isolated.

Colleagues and family sought to help. The next few years were among the lowest for me and for those closest to me. Trips to rehab promised so much, but the relapses would dash those hopes. Periods of abstinence lasting weeks or months let me try to start working again, but each time, I would disappear on another binge. I was unable to work and no-one was offering me work. I was thrown out of the flat I rented and there was no prospect of the debts I had being paid.

Perhaps it was a new depth of desperation but at this lowest point I managed to start to put together a period of sobriety. I had been attending AA meetings for several years, but for the first time I attended 90 meetings in 90 days. I sought help everywhere, including resources identified on the Wellbeing at the Bar website. LawCare put me in touch with barristers in recovery from alcoholism. The Barristers Benevolent Association offered financial advice and assistance, both of which came as a great relief and gave me a chance to focus on getting sober.

What happened in the following years happened slowly. I had to take time away from the Bar and found employment elsewhere. While at the time this felt like failure, it was, with hindsight, the best thing that could have happened to me. The regular hours, the regular pay, the accountability of attendance, the increased social interactions all helped me.  It also let me attend regular AA meetings.

Over time, one day at a time, I managed to stay sober. And with that, other positives entered my life over the next few years. Promotions at work. Clearing of debts. A relationship.  Marriage. Family. After a few more years, I returned to the Bar.  The early days back had their moments of worry; after all, it had been a long time but after a few months it felt like being back home.

That was all a few years ago.  I still attend several AA meetings a week and work with a few barristers in their early days of recovery.  Over the last couple of decades, I sense the attitude of society as a whole to alcoholism has moved towards being more understanding of it as a mental health issue rather than a matter of weak willpower.  That certainly seems true at the Bar, from the support many are now getting from their chambers and from organisations connected with the Bar.

For anyone suffering from alcoholism today, there is hope and there are resources that can help give some practical help in the options available to get well. There are links to those resources on the Wellbeing at the Bar website.  And within a 15 minute walk of the Inns of Court there are AA meetings every morning, every lunchtime and every night (you can find your closest meeting here). Visit into one if you have questions or want to try to stop drinking; there is a fair chance there will be a barrister or two sitting in there if you do.