Manhattan, N.Y. (WROC-TV) — Lisa Smith remembers well her many trips to Rochester.
She would visit with family then travel back to her home just outside of Manhattan.
It’s in Manhattan Smith became a lawyer.
Her work brought her professional and financial success, but it also provided a cover for her secret: she was addicted to alcohol.
That disease and her decision to fight it would become the subject of her book, “Girl Walks Out of Bar.”
Smith talked with Adam Chodak about the book and her effort now to help other attorneys, especially aspiring attorneys, find help if they need it before it’s too late.
Adam Chodak: The detox facility you initially went to was not a romanticized version of a detox facility, but it appeared to be the best fit for you at the time.
Lisa Smith: I totally agree with that. Detox was where I learned some humility about this whole thing. Like I’m not different than anyone else that has a substance abuse problem, no better, no worse and no one treated me other than a person who needed to get detoxed. I wasn’t getting a massage. I wasn’t getting great food or anything like that. It also showed me that if I ever went back, that’s the best I could hope for.
AC: You ended your week there and have stayed sober since. You’ve got AA meetings, but you didn’t need anything longer. How come?
LS: I always say that for me there were like 3 reasons why I’ve been fortunate enough not to relapse so far in 16 ½ years. One is that when I was in the hospital, it was the best thing for me, I got an actual correct mental health diagnosis and I got medication that worked first one I tried, both of those things are highly unusual so my brain chemistry caught up pretty quick. Second was I didn’t go back to a pile of wreckage. I had a job, I had supportive family and friends, I didn’t have to show up in court, I hadn’t been arrested. I got to go back and that was a huge help and, third, I was really really done. I was just exhausted and I was like you tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
AC: I think what was so impressive about your book was you didn’t just start when you started drinking, you took us back and said the roots of this existed in my childhood.
LS: I really believe that. I learned through talking to the psychiatrist with whom I spoke daily in the hospital I was in was that in the end of speaking to me for 4 days, he said, listen from everything I hear you have crossed the line from where you can drink safely, you’re going to have to not drink anymore, but I believe what you’ve been doing with drinking and with drugs is probably the same thing that when I go back to my childhood that I was doing as a child with eating. I believe you have a mental health disorder that has not been diagnosed or treated until now, I believe you have major depressive disorder and anxiety and you’ve been self-medicating since you were a kid with food then moved on to alcohol and drugs and now we’re going to address that chemical imbalance in your brain differently.
AC: At the height of this you were self-medicating with this with wine, vodka, cocaine, this had been going on for years, ended when you passed out at night, but what was it about that one morning that you said, enough? You called your friends and said I’m going to detox.
LS: That morning, it was the last 18 months for me was the end of a 12-year downward miserable spiral and there was the physical spiral and then there’s the physical addiction, then there’s the psychological spiral of shame and fear and you lose your self esteem and that was the last 24 months of 24/7. I had gotten up that Monday morning like I had many Monday mornings, I had a drink and used cocaine in order to balance myself out basically to normalize myself to go to work and I was headed out the door, makeup on, laptop in one hand, New York Times in the other and I was in my apartment in NYC and I got to the elevator to hit the down button and I became overwhelmed with this feeling that I now know was a panic attack, but at the time I thought it was a heart attack or an overdose and for some reason in that moment something snapped and I said I’ve got to go get help, I know I’m going to have to go to the hospital.
AC: What’s interesting about your visit to detox is that you did get a diagnosis, you got a drug that worked and I think that people who might think, Oh, I’m going to have to do this on my own might not realize that there might be chemical help out there that can help them move past this.
LS: Yes, I was extremely fortunate, it can very difficult to get a correct mental health diagnosis out of the box, I was really fortunate with that and it can be very difficult to get the right medication prescribed to address whatever that chemical imbalance is in the brain that may have led you down the path of a substance use disorder. But there is, I mean, there are people that come into recovery and it may take time and it take trying different medications and some people, no medication, but whatever it is there is help out there for these chemical imbalances and I take it like I would take any medicine I was prescribed as if I had diabetes or if I had cardiac disease, it’s all the same.
AC: What I love about your mission now, talking to folks who are just getting into the practice of law and even folks who have been practicing law for many years, you’re using your own story to remove the stigma of this and to remind them that this might not be a sign of weakness, they can still be a great lawyer, a great husband, a great wife, but they have to get this under control and there are ways to do that.
LS: Absolutely. What’s been really great in the legal profession, one of the positives and we’ll see coming out of this pandemic is that these discussions of mental health and substance abuse disorders are much more frequent and much more open, but in the legal world it’s been very helpful for people and partners in big law firms to even the managing partner of one of the biggest law firms to come out and say I struggled with alcohol for a long time and I’ve now been sober for 25 years and I’m proud of that, there’s no shame in that. It’s not a weakness, it’s not a defective thing. It happens and you can get better and you can have this amazing career in fact your career gets so much better so, yeah, I think it’s really important to understand that there’s you’re not going to get where you think you’re gonna get if you’ve got a substance abuse disorder.
AC: Outside of our career, a lot of people have social lives built around friends who drink and if they have this disorder they might think, Well, am I going to lose all my friends now? I know that was a concern on your part too. What’s your message to those who say, I know I have a problem, but I don’t want to lose my friends.
LS: First of all, your friends who are truly your friends stick around. My friends who I write about in my book are still my best friends today. The people who fell out of my life are people that I hung out in bars with and didn’t have any major connection with and so your friends aren’t going to walk away from you. You just do different things with them. Instead of going to a bar on a Friday night, they’ll meet up with me for brunch on Sunday or a museum on a Saturday and they’re fine with that because they didn’t have the same relationship with alcohol that I did and the other piece of that is that if you think that your life is going to get really boring and quiet be prepared because life gets big when you get sober, you have choices, you have options. I had always wanted to in my head be a writer and I would sit on a bar stool and say, I’m gonna write a book. And then I got sober and I wrote a book. So you have no idea what you’re capable of and how big life can get.
AC: Is it still hard for you?
LS: I don’t miss alcohol any more or drugs, but there are times I think like many people and certainly now you just wish you could sort of disappear a little bit in your mind, just shut the pandemic out, escape and then I remind myself if I escape now, I have tools now that help me do that in a much healthier way and if I’m trying to escape with alcohol I can walk my brain down the road of where that goes next. A smart friend of mine in recovery, he said, If you’ve got 10 problems and you pick up a drink, you’ve got 11 problems.
AC: There’s this mantra in the book – Don’t pick up no matter what – that seems like a pretty important mantra.
LS: You are never alone. If you are feeling that way and you feel you want to drink or you want to stop drinking, whatever it is, you are not alone, there are so many resources out there and groups that get together, all kinds of issues and all kinds of substances whatever it is, people want to connect and help you and I had that feeling, my sense going through that whole descent was that I felt so afraid and isolated that I lived in fear. When I realized it wasn’t just fear, that’s when I decided I wanted to write the book with my name on it to be able to let the next person know, you’re not alone.