Lisa F. Smith is a writer and lawyer in New York City with more than 12 years of sobriety from alcohol and cocaine. Now the Deputy Executive Director of a Manhattan law firm, she previously practiced corporate finance law at a leading international law firm. Smith is a graduate of Northwestern University and Rutgers School of Law. She serves on the Board of Directors of the NY Writers Coalition and The Writers Room.
Smith spiraled into alcoholism and drug addiction early in her legal career. The pressure and the responsibilities of big firm practice were overwhelming and the need to excel too great. Alcohol and drugs provided her escape. Smith also suffered from an undiagnosed depressive disorder, which she self-medicated with alcohol and cocaine.
After ten years of daily drinking, Smith feared she was dying and checked herself into a hospital for a five-day medicated detox. Although doctors urged her to next complete a 28-day program, she refused. It would have meant being honest with her law firm about her illness and Smith feared the stigma of addiction. She immediately returned to work and began intensive outpatient treatment in the evenings, as well as 12-step meetings.
Years later Smith began sharing her story. She began to write publicly about her addiction and recovery. When she told her work colleagues, the response was supportive and compassionate. Although difficult to share, Smith realized sharing her truth was necessary. She is working hard to rouse conversation about the social stigma and culture of substance abuse within the legal community. Her memoir, “Girl Walks out of a Bar,” will be published on June 7th.
FFA: When did you realize you needed help and how did you ultimately ask for it? How did rehab and the recovery process change your life? Do you have any resources to share with us that have helped you?
LS: I had been an alcoholic for more than 10 years and using cocaine daily for about a year. I had known for years that I needed help but was terrified at the thought. As awful as drugs and alcohol were, the prospect of life without them was even scarier. One Monday morning in 2004, after I had stayed up drinking and doing coke all weekend while working on a client proposal, I thought I was going to die. I was physically sick, emotionally destroyed, and out of drugs. I was dressed for work, laptop in hand when something snapped in me. I said, “I need help.” I checked myself into a detox where I learned about the disease of addiction and that for me to recover, I would need to be abstinent going forward. My life changed in every way possible, including many ways that I couldn’t have imagined, all for the better. I stopped hating myself and became a person I could respect when I looked in the mirror. Twelve-step programs have been essential in my recovery.
FFA:Tell us about your book Girl Walks Out of a Bar? What impact do you hope that your book has on the legal field?
LS: My memoir follows my descent into and recovery from addiction as a high-functioning lawyer in big New York firms. I feel fortunate to be in a position to speak up about this problem. I hope someone will read my story, maybe spot similar behaviors or thought patterns in themselves or someone they love, and do something to stop the progression of the disease before it takes them where I went.
FFA: What can be done within the legal profession to assist those who need help but are afraid to ask for it?
LS: A recent study conducted by the American Bar Association together with Hazelden Betty Ford showed that younger lawyers are at the highest risk of substance abuse. Therefore, education on these issues from the start is necessary. Alcoholism and drug addiction frequently co-exist with underlying mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, which many lawyers experience. They need to know there’s confidential help. There are Lawyers Assistance Committees at bar associations and Employee Assistance Programs offered by employers. Also, law firm orientations for new lawyers should include discussions of addiction and mental health issues.
FFA: How do you deal with your depression and anxiety now?
LS: When I was in detox, I was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, something I never realized I had. It was likely at the root of why I self-medicated myself with food first, then drugs and alcohol for so many years. Now I treat my depression with prescription medication under the care of healthcare professionals. I also attend 12-step meetings regularly and stay close to others in recovery.
Lisa recognizes there are many like her struggling with addiction in the law firms everywhere. She believes, “the conversation about substance abuse among lawyers needs to be structured and ongoing.” She wants to provide information and educate young lawyers to help them understand that if they need help it’s okay. For more about Lisa Smith’s her road to recovery and overcoming addiction be sure to get a copy of her memoir, “Girl Walks out of a Bar,” this month.
Freedom From Addiction is an online community, support network and resource that seeks to reduce stigma. The organization encourages anyone struggling with alcohol abuse or any addiction to seek help. For more information, visit www.freedomfromaddiction.com/