by Elke Churchman*
Giving back is a way of life for me. It is fulfilling and has made me a much better lawyer, a better family member and a better member of society.
It has not always been that way. I was very narrow and grasping in my focus and cut off from the world. I lived in a nightmare of my own mind. Never feeling good enough but at the same time feeling I must pretend that I was better than, an egomaniac with an inferiority complex! I never fit in and felt I had nothing of value to offer society.
I was sure that my law degree was given to me by mistake and that I was not worthy of it. I felt that I had no right to a place in the legal community. Looking outside my office or home windows I feared that others would find out just how incompetent I was in all aspects of my life. I felt like a fake who was always on the look out to be found out.
I grew up suffering from the effects of a violent, abusive, alcoholic father. Little did I know that alcoholism was a disease and could be inherited. When I was a little girl my mother would often be in distress and I would ask her what would help her. She, a new immigrant to Canada, would respond “a good lawyer”. I took this to heart and so voila, that is what I aspired to. However the legacy of my father shaped my view of the world. I feared the world and thought it a dangerous place and I had to be continually on the ready to do battle with it. I was in some fundamental sense-broken.
Then I found alcohol in my thirties. What a relief! It took away the nightmares and for the first time in my life I felt that I could possibly fit in and feel normal. However, alcohol is a cruel master. One needs more and more of it to get to that feeling of “normal”. It extracts a heavy penalty for continued use. It takes your soul and leaves you spiritually, morally, emotionally, physically and (quite often) financially bankrupt. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive and fatal disease. There are only three outs at the end of the downward spiral of alcoholism, institutionalization, death or recovery.
As I plummeted down that alcoholic spiral, outside I looked like I had it all; career, husband, three kids, house and pool, all the trappings of success. On the inside I was dead. I saw the world through “a glass darkly”. It prevented me from joining in and taking part of life. I was failing in my profession. I was paralyzed with fear. Even the simplest of tasks such as feeding my family, paying bills or answering client calls were insurmountable obstacles in my alcoholic prison. My world was crumbling; my health failing, the Law Society asking questions, SaskPower threatening to cut off power, the family concerned. Suicide was on my mind on a daily basis as a viable way out.
He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imaging life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.
Alcoholics Anonymous p. 152
I was filled with such disgust and shame that I could not ask anyone for help. Fortunately my (then) husband was at the end of his rope and he forced me to seek help through Lawyer’s Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), the Saskatchewan lawyer assistance program. Through them (kicking and screaming on my part I might add) I entered an addiction treatment program and then joined Alcoholics Anonymous. This momentous fork in my life took place 13 years ago and I have been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since July 1, 1998; happy, joyous and free.
The first years of sobriety were tough. One of the many challenges I faced was regaining my practicing license. In an act of fear (as I truly believed I could no longer cope) I had resigned from the Law Society of Saskatchewan prior to going into recovery due to “medical reasons”. Thus I had the task of proving to the Law Society that I was now fit to rejoin the practice of law. This process took the better part of year and a lot of ranting, raving and gnashing of teeth on my part. I thought the Law Society was being hard on me, treating me unfairly and being unreasonably slow. In fact they were being supportive and cautious. They provided me with the time I needed to ground myself properly in my recovery and in the AA program. The Law Society certainly has a mandate to protect the public but they also provide support to lawyers. I have phoned them at times over the last years for advice and information and they have always responded in a positive and helpful fashion.
Once in AA and working the program I began to enjoy a freedom from the slavery of alcohol and began to experience a freedom from fear; fear of people, of failure, of economic insecurity, of rejection. I began to enjoy freedom to be myself and to love and be loved and the freedom to grow spiritually. I no longer feel that I don’t fit in. I no longer hold tight to life so as to crush all the beauty and joy out of it. I can now enjoy all the gifts (and challenges) that life has to offer as the AA program has given me tools to do that.
I joined the Board of LCL in 1999 to give back. I have held various positions on this Board and continue to give of my time to this organization. I am in the process of preparing a proposal for organizing peer volunteering in association with LCL in Saskatchewan. I joined the Board of Legal Professional Assistance Conference (LPAC) a few years ago. LPAC is part of the Canadian Bar Association and is dedicated to helping lawyers, judges, law students and their families with personal, emotional, health and lifestyle issues. I attend the annual LPAC conference and the annual American Commission on Legal Assistance Programs (COLAP) convention. I do this in order to obtain information and resources to help lawyers in Saskatchewan with all sort of issues not just alcoholism. Issues such as: work life balance, sexual addictions, coping with stress, drug addictions, aging in the profession, gambling, internet addictions, and depression.
The statistics are extremely discouraging for lawyers. For example 20% of the normal male population and 8% of the normal female population suffers from alcohol problems at some point, compared to 67% of male lawyers and 71% of female lawyers ["Lawyer distress: Alcohol-related problems and other psychological concerns among a sample of practicing lawyers," (1996) 10 Journal of Law and Health, Beck, Sales & Benjamin 1-60].
Another troubling example is that lawyers suffer from the highest rate of depression of all professionals in the United States. They are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from major depressive disorders than the rest of the employed population. Approximately 121 million people worldwide are afflicted with major depression and it is the leading cause of disability. ("Lawyers With Depression," paper presented by Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq. at the 2010 COLAP Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana)
I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be a cheerful face left on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell: I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better: it appears to me.
Letter by Abraham Lincoln, January 23, 1841.
Although my disease is alcoholism not depression, it had much the same effect on me. I can so relate to the words of this great lawyer. In recovery I have become “better” and did not have to “die”.
I give freely of my time in Alcoholics Anonymous. I owe my life, serenity, happiness, family, friends, career and freedom to AA and these various organizations and the fact that they so freely gave to me and accepted me. We have a saying in AA that unless we give it away we cannot receive it. “It” being our very souls and the essence of life and love. One of my favorite quotes from A.A. literature is as follows:
…I can give back to A.A. what A.A. gave to me! Giving back to A.A. not only ensures my own sobriety, but allows me to buy insurance that A.A. will be here for my grandchildren.
Daily Reflections, p.220
I feel I am truly one of the most blessed people on earth and I am grateful to be a recovering alcoholic. God has given me sober days and a life blessed with peace and contentment, as well as the ability to give and receive love, and the opportunity to serve others-in the A.A. fellowship, my family and my community. For all of this, I have “a full and thankful heart.”
If anyone is identifying with some of what I have shared please seek help from your lawyer assistance program, peers, friends, professionals, co-workers, anyone at all. If you take even one step towards recovery you will be amazed at the relief that you will experience.
I will end with another favorite quote:
A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
*Assistant Manager Legal and Technical Analysis, Occupational Health and Safety,
Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety [back]