Lawyers & Substance Abuse - You are Not Alone: How to Know There's a Problem for You or a Colleague; Getting Help; More Appropriate and Constructive Ways to Alleviate Stress
In this program, Gary Reing, former Chair of the Lawyers Assistance Committee of the NYS Bar Association and NYC Bar Association, talks about his own addiction struggles and path to recovery, including his reinstatement to the practice of law. Additionally, he will address issues of substance use and addiction within the legal profession and discuss ways to identify attorneys in trouble and explore resources where attorneys can get help.
Gary Reing: Good afternoon. My name is Gary Reing and I'll be presenting a program on attorneys' addiction, alcoholism, and wellness. Since approximately 2008, the ABA and state bar associations have started to concentrate some of their efforts on attorney wellness. Why? Well, a most recent study done in 2015 by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found the following when it comes to attorneys regarding alcoholism, substance abuse, and other mental health issues:
One, 28% of attorneys suffer from depression. 19% suffer from anxiety and 23% suffer from excessive stress. This is compared to 10% of the normal population. Additionally, when it came to alcohol and other drugs, 20% of the 12,000 people screened by the Betty Ford survey were found positive for harmful alcohol use. Men have a higher percentage than women when it comes to alcohol abuse, and younger attorneys had a higher percent of alcohol usage than other attorneys.
A study subsequent done by the California Lawyers Association and the DC Bar found that women were more likely to leave their profession due to mental health concerns as compared to men; 25% to 17%.
Clearly, as a profession, we attorneys have factors in our lives that cause problems for us over and above the majority of the United States population. So what can we do about this? What can we do to remedy this? First off, every state has a lawyers helping lawyers or a lawyers' assistance program. Most states have it through their bar associations and some states have it through both the bar association and an outside volunteer group, such as California, which has a lawyers helping lawyers assistance program through the state bar, which has mandatory membership and has something called the other bar, where attorneys are able to assist each other and provide peer support to their fellows in order to assist with dealing with these issues in life that are at least partially caused by our professional stress and obligations.
Why do we have lawyers assistance and lawyers helping lawyers? When I speak for the New York State and City Bar Associations my reasoning is very simple. We do this because everybody else hates us. As we know, lawyers are not held in high esteem. We can look in our social media and entertainment areas; when was the last time you saw a hero attorney in a television show? All the attorneys are flawed. When was the last time you saw a hero attorney in a movie other than a John Grisham? And there, only one of the attorneys is a hero. So we're not held in high esteem except by those who need us. This increases the pressure, the stress and the likelihood that we will go untreated because many of us were brought up to feel that to ask for help to ask for assistance is a sign of weakness. It's not a sign of strength.
Also, up until recently, there was conflict with admitting authorities in various states as to whether you could safely disclose that you had an issue, whether it was alcohol, drugs, or mental health. The mental health question has been removed from most Bark applications with the reasoning that HIPAA serves to protect the individual from disclosing that information. It could still potentially be brought up as a matter of fitness to practice, but we haven't seen any case law on that recently. Certainly, alcoholism when it comes up, most admitting authorities and character committees see this in the form of DUI arrests or convictions in a record, same thing with the usage of drugs. However, we have come up with programs within the bar associations to help people with this.
One of the things we do here in New York is we will monitor law students. We have had the opportunity in the Downstate New York area to go into most of the law schools with the exception of Columbia and NYU who have no problems with any of their students, but we've gone to all the rest. We speak at orientation regarding how to recognize a problem, how to find help for a problem confidentially, and how to go for assistance. In some cases where people have had a prior issue earlier in life, we will monitor them. Basically, the student will sign a contract with these; at least New York City or New York State Bar Association. I believe also Nassau County does this, where they agree to get treatment for their particular underlying issue, where they will be urine tested, where will have to report to a practicing attorney who would be the monitor in that case for a period of time up to and including their interview and submission to the character committee.
What we do as monitors is we will issue a letter or prepare an affidavit, allowing that potential attorney to bring that to character and fitness' notice in order to show that yes, they have changed. Here in New York, we've been fairly successful with the monitoring program as regards admissions. Many of the people we have assisted do in fact get admitted to the practice of law. We do not have conditional admission in New York, so they do not have to continue in our programs, but some of them become active members of the committee and volunteers themselves. We believe that this also makes them more empathetic to their clientele's problems and issues.
Now, we also deal with disciplinary issues. Many years ago, the California Bar was one of the first to recognize that some behavioral issues that result in potential disciplinary violations are a result of mental health issues and/or alcoholism or addiction issues. And what they did in their monitoring program is that if you fulfill the obligations of your monetary contract and you have your disciplinary matters diverted for a period of time, it can well mitigate your punishment or disciplinary consequences, but they have to find a direct causal connection between the alcoholism, addiction, or mental health issues and the behavior that violates the canons.
Again, in New York, we've recently become successful with this in certain departments. We now have diversion throughout the state. Some departments observe it in spirit and others observe it much more informally rather than referring people for diversion. I, myself, am currently monitoring two attorneys who are in disciplinary proceedings, one of whom has applied for further diversion looking to get at least a year in our program before they go before the grievance committee. And the other is a suspended attorney who at some point will like to come back and by participating in our program, his counsel and he believe that we'll assist him in finding his way back to the act of practice of law and service to society.
The question then becomes, how am I involved in this? Where does my knowledge come from? Where does my participation come from?
Well, for those of you who remember something called the Hair Club for Men, the president was not only the president, but also a customer. I am the former chairman of both the New York City Bar Association Lawyers Helping Lawyers or Lawyers' Assistance Program, and also the New York State Lawyer Assistance Program Committee. I am also best known for my introduction when I speak on behalf of the associations. And that is my name again, is Gary Reing. I am a alcoholic addict, convicted felon and practicing attorney. So I have the experience and consequences to help others who come down my unfortunate path. How do I get there?
My first drunk was a Passover Seder when I was eight years old. I loved the feeling. It started out 25 years of using alcohol and later drugs to gain a desired effect. I drank and drugged for effect. Not to be social, not to do anything else, but feel good or not feel at all. Now it doesn't happen overnight that one becomes an addict or an alcoholic. In my case, it developed over at least a 12 or 13-year period before it became debilitating.
There's a saying in recovery programs, that first you take a drink and then the drink takes you. Part of the reason I liked to drink and get numb in the early years is because I was not a happy child and it took me out of my unhappiness. I really didn't start to drink until high school when the drinking age was 18. So we all knew somebody who could help us purchase beer, wine, and other alcohol, and we would drink it warm. It would make us happy. It would take away inhibitions. It would make me more comfortable with myself. It would also make me sick on occasion. But to me at that point, it was well worth the price. I also drank in synagogue. They put out alcohol after every service and while I didn't like going and was forced to go by my father, it was something to look forward to at the end of the service. I liked how it felt. And I continued to like that feeling until I could no longer retain it many, many years later.
For me, alcoholism and addiction were a progressive disease. It wasn't until 1956 that the AMA decided and found that alcoholism was in fact a disease and not a character defect. Some of society found that earlier. In fact, there was an article in The Saturday Evening Post on March 1st, 1941, where A.A.'s success in helping to treat alcoholism was first brought to public notice. A.A. having been born in 1935, this is only six years later. And that in fact was a landmark article written by Jack Alexander.
Historically, people who had alcoholism issues were sent to mental hospitals. They felt there was no hope for them other than in these institutions. And many of them unfortunately would die from it. There was no progressive treatment to keep an alcoholic from drinking. There were many movements and there's a whole history of the alcoholism movement and treatment movement that I will not go into. But today we have rehabs all over the country. I've already mentioned Betty Ford Hazelden, which serves the addicted and alcoholic to at least detoxify and gain some grip on their lives and give them a path forward in sobriety and abstinence. But they're all over the country. Insurance covers them. We, in fact, will refer other attorneys to various facilities depending on their particular needs out of the state and city bar. Fortunately, as I say, insurance does cover a lot of this and people can get help.
In my early drinking years in high school, my parents and others would comment to me that they thought I was drinking too much when I drank whether it was a family affair, a picnic or whatever, and yet it didn't affect me and I did not feel that I had any issues with it. One of the traits of an alcoholic is denial. We deny we have a problem. We deny that there are any consequences, or that the consequences if we have them, are in any way related to the drinking. That was my story at that time.
Our disease is also progressive. We use more and more. We need more and more to achieve the desired effect. I was a blackout drinker from early on, but I know based on my spending that I had to drink more and more to get that buzz, to get that feeling of painlessness, of not being shy, of being comfortable in my own skin. I kept taking more and more and more. I found myself drinking in high school more frequently. I would sneak a drink at home as opposed to waiting for the weekend, hanging out with my friends. I became obsessed to an extent of thinking about how I was going to be able to drink on the weekend. And as I got near the end of high school, I knew that it was imperative that I go away to college so I could drink the way I wanted to drink without really knowing what that was.
I was fortunate enough to go to college [inaudible 00:16:29] in New York. The drink in age in 1969 was still 18 and there was a pub on campus. I remember going out that first Friday night to go out drinking with the guys from the dorm. And I will tell you that I ended up puking on the lawn in front of my dormitory sometime later that evening and saying to myself, "Wow, what a great night this was?" So while there were immediate consequences in terms of feeling ill, it certainly didn't stop me from drinking going forward. I looked forward to Friday nights. And what happened is I became obsessed with getting to Friday night and I found that sometimes I could work it out to do it on a Thursday. So frequency comes into play. We know quantities have increased, and now I'm beginning to obsess about getting high and getting drunk more than my schoolwork, certainly.
Late in my freshman year, I was introduced to marijuana and hashish. And throughout the college period, I found additional new and exciting drugs such as Quaaludes hallucinogenics, and the occasional bit of speed to help study when I felt that studying was imperative. I never saw it as a problem. It did interfere occasionally with my relationships with women so I had breakups in some cases based on the fact that they didn't like how much I drank or drugged. I thought they were just be bitchy and it didn't matter. I would rather drink and drug than have a relationship. I had wonderful causes for denial. I did well academically. I was an officer in student government for a period of time. And my senior year, I helped to run the college newspaper. So how could I possibly have a problem if I could do all these things successfully?
As I neared the end of college, I decided I wanted to work as a paralegal, perhaps clerk my way to the bar so I didn't have to depend on my parents. And that's what I started to do. At this point, in addition to working for legal aid in the Bronx DA in various positions, cocaine was introduced into my life through a girlfriend. And I realized that when it came time to go to law school, because the clerking concept was going out of style and out of fashion, that I would have to take a geographic move in order to accomplish the law school goal. Basically, I felt that the reason I used as much as I used was because of the people I was hanging out with, with the exception of the girlfriend. So I felt if I made a geographic move, I'd be able to function more clearly and become a good law student and eventually become a good lawyer.
So I did what any other person would do in 1975, when I got admitted to law school, and I decided to move to the great sober haven of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. This was the end of the hippie era, but it was still going on. San Francisco was a wonderful place for a butting alcoholic and addict to live. Upon arriving there and living in the Haight, I found that you could buy liquor in grocery stores. It was very easy to get marijuana and hash and other drugs. I remember the first Friday in law school, our [inaudible 00:20:33] professor took us out to a bar at the end of this day. He was our [inaudible 00:20:38]. Class was over at 3:00 and most of the class went to the bar on Market Street, downtown San Francisco. By five or six o'clock, most of my classmates had left. There was about five or six of us who were left come nine, 10 o'clock, and these became my friends for the rest of law school because they drank the way I drank.
The remainder of law school was basically a continuation of what I'd been doing up until then when it came to alcohol and drugs. More frequently, more quantity, more thinking about it. And denial came from good grades. I was a teaching assistant for my evidence professor. I got to write part of a US Supreme Court brief for him and we were cited. Those students who worked on it were cited in the brief. And all in all, how could I possibly have a problem if I could do all these things successfully?
I finished law school in two and a half years. It was tough times in the United States. It was the late '70s. We had the misery index, inflation plus unemployment. I also knew that it was going to be very difficult to get a job in San Francisco in the Bay Area as my law school was not as well connected as the others in the area, we would be competing against USF, Stanford, Hastings, Berkeley. I went to Golden Gate and we were not up there in terms of good connections with good alumni connections. So I decided that I would have to go back to New York, where I had some connections in order to find work. And also I get away from these folks I was hanging out with who were the ones who made me drink and drug the way I did because frankly, if I wasn't with them, I wouldn't do what I was doing.
At the end of law school, I flew back to New York. I moved back to my parents' house. I took a bar review course and dragged pretty much on a daily basis at the end of the day to take the edge off. So I always had a rationale for drinking. And despite the steely behavior, I passed the bar exam on the first try. It was probably the only bar I passed. All the rest I went into generally for a drink. And I went through the character committee, got admitted to practice law in New York. Worked with an older lawyer for a short period of time in order to get my feet wet so to speak. Because I was involved in politics to an extent in Bronx County, I was able to be what is now called a court attorney to a state supreme court judge, which is a trial judge. And that was the start of my legal career.
Towards the end of that time, that's a two-year job basically. Some people now do it as a career. It was political then. So it was patronage. We did it for about two years and moved on. I found that I would want to have a drink at lunchtime. And at first that bothered me, but there were a lot of other attorneys drinking at lunchtime. I saw men and women who were brilliant attorneys in the morning, but in the afternoon seemed to have lost their grip on their case and their presentation. I was never going to become one of them, but I would come back with a little buzz and sometimes the clerks or the court officers would tell me, "Gary, you really need to watch it. You're coming back a different person than when you left." And I blew it off because that's what denial does. I was good at my job. I was good at writing opinions, taking care of the jury charges and whatever else my judge asked of me.
When I was getting ready to leave, I decided I would strike on my own. I think that was my addiction to alcoholism speaking, because frankly, I might not have been employable. My focus was my focus. My desire was my desire. And I opened up in the Bronx, a small shop of my own, practicing on my own. My first retain client was a bar, so I could drink free. This is now the late '70s, early '80s. Cocaine is king. There were lots of drug dealers to defend. I took what they call 18B or indigent counsel work, which also kept things going on a steady basis and brought in enough to pay the overhead. I would say by this time, my first priority was being able to drink and drug at the end of the day, pay my work expenses, rent, and other costs were secondary, but I was able to do it all. I was a successful trial lawyer. I had a small, but budding transactional real estate practice and was fine in my own mind.
Unfortunately, my father came down with cancer at this point. I could not leave my parents' house as he needed physical help when he was going for treatment. And all that really did was give me another excuse to drink more and drug more once he was in bed. We'd come to the city every day or I would drive. He was a court stenographer. So I destined to be in the Bronx as he was at the Supreme Court there. My office was across the street. And things moved on. I met a nice girl who was actually almost a little too nice for me, who became my wife. I had a young daughter, but truthfully, they were secondary to my maintaining my mood alteration, my altered state, if you will, and drinking and drugging. I mean, I did spend time with them. I actually believe I cared about them, but they weren't my priority at that point.
Eventually my drinking and drugging start to outstrip my income. And while I was still winning cases, I was starting to come up short for funds. Fortunately, my wife paid our rent out of her earnings and I started to borrow money from my clients. You would probably call it grand larceny. I called it borrowing. I had a significant amount of money going through my escrow accounts because I was doing a lot of real estate deals. And I always intended to pay it back. Part of denial is believing one's own lies, and I certainly believed mine. There came a time shortly after I started to steal, that I found that I wasn't functioning well. I wasn't sleeping well. It bothered me what I was doing, but not enough to stop. That's the curse of alcoholism and addiction.
I found that I wasn't taking as many matters on. I was late to court. I was still trying some cases and still winning some, and I started not to go to court. I felt that I wasn't all there and I wasn't able to get to that state of high, of drunkenness, or drug-induced good feelings, euphoria that I had been previously. I'd put on my suit in the morning, take suitcase making believe I was going to work and just drinking and drugging all day, coming back sometime late at night. And basically I was using the money from those escrow accounts to sustain my addiction and my using. Didn't bother me as much as it should have, I guess. But people reached out to me from my bar association because I wasn't showing up to court on my continuing matters, "Gary, what's wrong with you?" My father had passed away. They blamed it on that. They knew I had a problem. They didn't know what it was. They didn't know how to help me. And I just lied outright to them.
Sometime later in 1984, I lost a case I thought I should win and I just stopped going to court altogether after that and all my cases were reassigned. My wife was getting really upset with my using and she had me go with her to a counselor who frankly thought that I needed to go to treatment for this. I lied throughout the entire episode with the counselor and my wife saying that, "Yeah, I'll go, but I need time to wrap up my practice." At this time, I really had no practice left. There was some money left in the escrow account. I was getting mail from the disciplinary committee and grievance committee to come in for interviews. I think I went once and walked out because I was uncomfortable. I did not want to get representation. And eventually I got served with papers that they were going to suspend me unless I showed cause why I shouldn't be suspended for failure to cooperate with the grievance committee.
Truthfully, I didn't even open the envelopes for the most part that they set me. But eventually somebody came to my office and served me with papers in person and I had to look at them and I was hoping it would just go away. I kept using more and more and more. I couldn't get drunk anymore. I didn't feel high. I was in total despair. I had no spirit. I was emotionally depressed. I hurt physically. And on one morning, I woke up, or came to, not sure which, and I realized that if I didn't do something that day, that I was going to die very shortly from the alcohol and the drugs. I got in my car. I had a couple hundred dollars left in cash. I did one last matter and wanted to show cause to get some cash to buy cocaine for the ride. I was going to Minnesota to a treatment center in the Twin Cities. And of course here I am leaving from the Bronx and I got on the road and started heading out. Clearly, I didn't go come home that night.
I called my wife the following morning. I was outside of Cleveland, Ohio on Route 90 at a rest stop and I called her in a moment of lucidity. I said to her, "I'm going away so I can come home again." I knew I was in trouble with the law and with the bar. I didn't realize how bad it could be or would be, but I knew if I didn't do something at that particular point in time, I would die. And frankly, I was in such a state emotionally and mentally that if I had died in my car on the way to Minnesota, as long as I didn't hurt anyone else, I would be okay with it. Despite all this knowledge and despite knowing that what the cause was, I had to stop in Gary, Indiana because I'm a Gary to have one less beer. And then I ran out of cocaine in Wisconsin. So while I can't teach people much about using, I can tell you that an eighth of an ounce of cocaine only gets you to Wisconsin. It doesn't get you to Minnesota.
I arrived in Minnesota the next morning wearing woolen suit in 85-degree weather. I had my briefcase. I had stopped in a store to buy a six pack of underwear, at least realizing that I probably did not smell great and figured, oh, I'd be able to go out and get some other clothes after. I walked into the facility, it was called St. Mary's then. Now it's Fairview Medical Center in Minneapolis and was told by the people at the front desk, "We've been waiting for you." I went upstairs to the ward. They had two floors for alcoholism and addiction treatment. 1985 was very she-shed to go get sober and clean. I checked in and I will tell you, I don't remember much of the first two days. I had been without sleep. I was what they call [inaudible 00:34:09], I guess.
I remember coming to mentally in a meeting of the other patients and residents and hearing somebody talk about how there are no dues or fees for membership in this 12-step program. And my thought was, I heard them say there were no Jews or thieves and I was going to get up and leave. Then I realized I had misheard. So I stayed.
This was a 30-day treatment program. I started to write down in my group through my counselor, a wonderful man named Cal, all the bad things that happened in my life, all the wrong things I did. And then what was the state of my drugging or drinking? So what I was able to realize after two weeks there was that my life was unmanageable and the reason was my alcoholism and my addiction. Originally, I thought that the reason I drank and drug was because of the unfortunate things in my life. But they brought me to this new realization that it was all connected to my drinking.
The following week was family week. My wife had agreed to come out. What she found out in the answer was how badly I had basically bankrupted us financially that I was losing my license. That nothing was good, but she came anyway. And in family week, you tell the person the truth about your using. They then tell you what the effect of your addiction, alcoholism has been on the family. And then you discuss your resentments on the third day. Being the lawyer in my mind that I was still, I had the first day all plotted out, but apparently Cal, my counselor was smarter than me and halfway through my recitation, she says, "That's enough out of you. Ellen, you are turn." I will tell you that my wife has been late for almost everything in our lives, including our wedding, but with the opportunity to confront me in hand, she was actually early for that session.
By the time she was done, I was passing gas through two orifices. She had written me a new one, but it brought home more and more that my drinking and drugging made me a bad husband, a bad father, a bad lawyer. And yet I was willing to at least look at it and try and change. I didn't have much hope at this point. I'll be very honest with you. She left to come back to New York to our daughter who was a year and a half old and a day or two later, my counselor gets a call that I was indicted in Bronx County for grand larceny and forgery, but they were kind enough to allow me to stay in Minnesota for the rest of the 30-day treatment before I had to come back.
I finished my 30 days and was suggested I go to a halfway house, but first I had to come back to New York. I came back, I stayed home for the weekend. I didn't go out anywhere except to 12-step meetings. We went to the Westchester County fair after digging through our couch to find loose change so we could take our daughter on some rides. Monday, I surrendered myself. My Criminal Courts Bar Association, Bronx County, was kind enough to represent me pro bono gratis. They did not charge for their services. Bob Salzman was my attorney. I was arraigned. I went from criminal defense lawyer to criminal defendant in a couple easy hours. I was fortunately released on my own recognizance to go back to Minnesota and continue my treatment. All my funds had been frozen. I had no access to anything except a couple dollars that I had at home in New York that I had left behind.
I had a [inaudible 00:38:35] that I had to sell for airfare to get back to Minnesota. My car was still out there as I had driven there. I got back and found out that I had to wait to get into a halfway house. The main thing I had learned in the first 30 days, except when I drug and I drank bad things happened, was that I could ask for help. Maybe I could even get it. So I needed a place to stay while I was waiting to get into a halfway house. I'd been accepted, but they were full. And one of the fellows that I was in treatment with had a dairy farm in central Minnesota. And he said, "You can come to the farm and stay with me until you get in the halfway house." And I said, "Rick, what am I going to do with the farm? I'm a New York City lawyer." He says, "I have the perfect job for a New York City lawyer and you'll find out when we get there."
We got to the farm and he wakes me up the next morning, you get up at the crack of dawn. And my job was shoveling cow manure. This was a dairy farm. Cows do three things. They eat, they get milked and they poop. So I, having the ego I had as an attorney, I became the chief poop shoveler. And this is what we did on a daily basis. We milked them in the morning, we fed them, we cleaned the barn. We did farm work in the fields. We went to meetings at lunchtime in the community to help us not drink and drug a day at a time. And then we came back for the nighttime feedings, milkings and cleaning, and that was the life of a farmer. I never appreciated till I spent my time on that farm.
But I tell you, I'm an ambitious guy and I wanted to milk a cow. And at this point, my wife and my daughter had come out for a few days and they were staying at the farm with us. I got to put the milker on the cow. The cow did like how I handled it. I was never much good at most relationships with females and the cow kicked me across the barn into a trough full of poop. My legs started swelling immediately, and I knew that I had to get medical assistance. I go to what is called the Chisago County Hospital. That's with an S. It's in central Minnesota. It's probably about 60 feet long way, 20 feet wide, the whole place. And I go back to see the doctor, my wife yells out, "Don't give him anything for the pain. He's an addict. He just got out of treatment." And the doctor looked at my leg and he gave me a prescription for this wonder drug called Motrin. And that's what I took. And my learning from this was I could live with pain without mood-altering medication. And I took the Motrin. I spent another two weeks on the farm and got into the halfway house.
The halfway house, I had to go find a real job. I had multiple roommates. It was a 90-day program. It took me five months to complete. My counselor, who is still a friend today, Tom, told me, "I'm afraid you may be too smart to get sober." I was forbidden from talking about anything legal or watching legal TV shows because they knew more than I knew that I wasn't coming back to the practice of law anytime soon. And I worked what they call humbling jobs. I made pizzas, I sold ads on the phone. I did typing and filing. I helped move furniture. I mowed lawns, whatever was necessary. I worked on leading a daily sober life and making myself into a better person and further exploring what life without drugs and alcohol would be.
And then it came time to leave Minnesota and come back to New York to hopefully be able to move back to my house. My wife said I could move back into our apartment on certain conditions. And she wrote me an eight-page manifesto, which my group got to read too, because we were always in group therapy in these places. I got up in a meeting in the halfway house and said, "I need help. Does anybody have any idea what I can do to earn money in New York when I get back?" And one of the women had a boyfriend who had a tax preparation business. I had some experience with tax work when I was still practicing. And he and I met when I came back and he hired me for that tax season. I was getting $5 an hour, which was better than nothing. And at that point, the assigned work criminal defense was only 15 an hour. So it wasn't that big a cut.
I went to work preparing tax returns. I brought home a check every week. I handed it over to my wife who then gave me enough to get back and forth to work, get a coffee and a newspaper. And that was it. And that was okay. And life started to get better. I followed an aftercare plan given to me by both the Hazelden half warehouse and the folks at St. Mary's, which involved going to the meetings, it involved group therapy. It involved talking to people about my problems, not keeping them to myself. And just around my first anniversary without a drug and a drink, I faced the music in court. I pled guilty to the top count of both my indictments. I was summarily disbarred. After that, I got five years probation and yet I didn't have to drink or drug over it. And life continued to get better.
I stayed abstinent through a program of recovery that I still go to 36 years later. We saved money because I was turning it all over to my wife. I started a part-time business at night, doing returns on my own in the community we lived in, in Yonkers, New York, not in competition with the place I worked for. I went to probation. I do everything I was told to do. And interesting enough, eight years later, I was able to help my probation officer get sober. I was discharged from a five-year probation sentence after three years because I was doing everything I was supposed to do. And frankly, they were overstrained. We were able in my fourth year of sobriety to buy our first home. I guess when you don't spend all your money on our alcohol and drugs, there's money left over to do other things. We'd had our second child in the interim, my son, Scott, who today is my law partner.
Eventually, I decided to go on my own with the tax business. I also taught at a business school to make sure we had health insurance. My wife was a speech therapist for the deaf and we had decided we would do without some things so she could be home with our kids and life got better.
10 years in, in 1995, I decided that I would like to see one, if I could pay back the money I stole the state client assistance trust, the fund for client protection had paid the clients I stole from. And I spoke with them about starting a payment plan, which I did. And about a year later, I decided to speak to a disciplinary, the defense attorney about possibly getting my license back. That started a five-year process to get a hearing and spoke to my friends in sobriety when I was thinking of doing this. And the main thing they said to me and the main concern they had was if I would be okay if the bar said no. And by this point I was trusting in the sober life. I was trusting not only in my family and my friends, but a power greater than myself. That as long as I did the footwork in life results would take care of their own. And I started the process. It took four years.
The business by this time was successful. I was able to pay back more and more to the fund for client protection. I was fully paid by the time I had my hearings. My first hearing, I had 15 witnesses. I had a grievance attorney on the other side who knew about recovery and he asked me very pointed questions, which apparently I answered correctly because I was living it by then. It was like listening to the witnesses who were people who knew me before, during and after. It's like listening to your eulogy when everybody says nice things about you when you're dead. I got to hear it live.
After a number of months, the referee recommended that I be readmitted. I then went to a three-person public panel where the main concern of one of the public member was why didn't I pay interest on the money? And the answer is there's no provision in New York state law for that. The grievance committee council was actually my advocate at this point. And again, interestingly enough, later on, we both presented to newly admitted attorneys in the First Department, which is Bronx and Manhattan just prior to their admission.
In September 2000, I get a call from my attorney while I was on the front page of the Lord Journal going out, I was buried in the back with two-word decision, "Motion granted." And I'll tell you, I didn't feel fit at this point to practice law. I still felt bad about my bad acts. I didn't feel I was a bad person anymore because I made financial and societal amends along the way. People who knew me started to, "Can you help me with this? Can you help me with that?" And I started to do that. There were other attorneys who had undergone discipline in the rooms and they had made suggestions to me and I found out that New York state had a lawyers' assistance program. I called the chair of it up in Albany. I said, "I'd lie like to help out if I can in any way," because I certainly owed the profession for the bad acts I had committed while practicing the first time around. And he met with me and the head of the New York City Bar Program and several other volunteers in offices of the program and suggested that I become a volunteer for the New York City Bar, which I did with Eileen Travis, who still is our director. LCSW runs a tremendous program that's helped literally thousands of people and I'm a volunteer to this day with her.
Strangely enough, this felony convicted, previously disbarred, reinstated attorney become secretary to the committee and then chair of the city bar committee. Several years later, accidentally, the secretary of the state committee resigns and I'm asked to take that spot and I become chair of the state committee for a few years, all with the idea of helping other attorneys to not go through what I went through. And if they are going through what I went through, to help them come back to be a productive member of the bar and society where possible.
Now all of this sounds great and fairytale-like to an extent. However, not everything is wonderful. In 1995, we find out about hepatitis C, I test positive for it. And 2010, I'm chairman of the city bar committee at this point. We have a wonderful year. We go out to Ohio to the rock and roll hall of fame, the Football Hall of Fame and the house in Akron where A.A. was founded. Things are good and we end up going to Alaska and things are wonderful. I come back and have my physical and find out that I have a tumor in my liver. Earth shattering to me and my family. I once had been asked, "Would you ever use again?" I said, "Possibly if I had cancer, or if I lost a child, God forbid." So I'd seen my dad pass away from cancer very painfully. And I spoke about it, people who needed to know, I let know about it.
After telling my immediate family, my second call was to the secretary of the city bar committee to let her know she's going to take over for a while as I'm going to be at for three months with this surgery and hopeful recovery from it. And I looked at my life 25 years of sobriety, two wonderful children, a successful business outside law and a small practice of law. And no matter what was going to happen from that surgery, because it was a very high-risk surgery. No matter what happened, I was okay with the result. I remember waking up, which was just wonderful in and of itself, and realizing I had lived through this process, not knowing what the results were, not knowing whether I was going to have to do chemo or whether I was going to do radiation or what I was going to have to do, but knowing that it was good to be alive no matter what.
And I started to recover from that surgery. They took a third of my liver out. A lot of pain goes with that. I'll tell you that. And for the first time in sobriety, I'm taking painkillers, but I'm not holding onto it. My wife is holding them. She's dispensing them to me as prescribed so they don't alter my mood. My physicians all knew that I was a recovering addict and set this up accordingly. It was a three-month course of medication. I was done with it in two months. I'm okay with being uncomfortable, better than risking a relapse into addiction and life again was good.
My son was in law school. The next year, I got to speak to his incoming [inaudible 00:54:06] orientation as part of what I do with the city bar. And that was a blessing. He was okay with me telling my story. He and my daughter have both told my story to friends of theirs who had problems and we've been able to help them. And life is good.
I had a slight relapse with cancer in 2017. Again, had to take a drug that I had no intention of ever using called fentanyl. They were inserting radioactive beads through my arteries to surround the tumor. And while I was never an opioid user, I now understand why people become addicted to this. And I continue today just before the age of 70, as a volunteer in both the city and state programs.
But how do you help somebody you who are not addicts and alcoholics? Well, you see when their behavior changes, they get moody, they get angry, they're late, they don't show up. You see a lack of concern, a lack of affect. Ask them if they need help. In many states, we have a confidentiality clause. In New York it's section 499 of the judiciary law that says when a person comes to lawyers helping lawyers to lawyers assistance, whatever your county program is, it remains confidential. We do not have the rule. We are exempt from the rule of informing our fellow attorneys for past conduct. We can't condone or counsel bad conduct going forward, but you are protected and your friend is protected if you come to us in order to get them help. That's what we're here for.
There are treatment facilities all over. We have people at the state sitting certain county levels that are available to help your friends. And I say your friends, because if you're listening to this, you're probably fairly responsible and don't have this issue yourself. But alcoholism touches at least one out of every 10 Americans in some manner, shape, or form. And doing nothing and not confronting them is really not an option. The first week that my son went to college, I got a call from him. He was up in Geneseo, New York and he said, "Dad, I have to come home. Can you send me a plane ticket?" I said, "Why? What's going on?" He said, "Brandon committed suicide." And I will tell you that suicide rates among attorney are probably the highest of any profession. We're very close to the dentist who are close second or just ahead of us.
So I sent him tickets, flew home. And when he came back from the wake, I had said to him, I said, "Did you guys know anything?" Because these were all guys who were athletes in high school together and good friends. And he said, "Yeah, but Brandon made us promise not to say anything. He didn't want to cause a ruckus. So we did what he asked. We didn't say anything." And I let it go with that because how many times do we see other people who are drunk too often, who appeared to be out of it, so to speak, from drugs or alcohol, who have mental health issues? We can see there's something wrong with them and we just mind our own business.
I will tell you that one of the programs we have done for a number of years for CLEs as a group is doing nothing is not an option. There are hundreds of volunteers in New York State amongst the bar who are stand ready to help people, and there are just as many in other states, if not more. What I'm asking you to do is to join us in helping others. We have actually saved lives. I had a woman come into my office years back who told me she was going to commit suicide. I talked to her for at least two hours until I could persuade her to go to the bar association, to sit down with Eileen and Eileen's clinical associate and discuss this before taking any action. And we got her to go over there.
It wasn't smooth once she got there, but I can tell you at nine o'clock that night having threatened suicide again, she had checked into a mental health ward on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she's still alive today because we as a profession care, because we were willing to spend the time to get her to help with the proper person.
In this case, I'm convinced we helped save a life. And what I'm asking you folks who are listening today besides getting your CLE credit for this and giving me the opportunity to speak with you, is I'm asking you to pledge that when you see somebody in distress, whether it's an attorney or a non-attorney or a client, we help anybody in the legal profession, reach out to that person, bring them to lawyers assistance, or lawyers helping lawyers. If we can't help them directly, we will get them to the proper place. Our committee and our director has connections at Bellevue for mental health issues. We will get that person seen that same day. So we're asking you to pledge to help us save lives, going forward, and to enjoy yours as much as I enjoyed mine. Thank you very much.