Vulnerability Is a Good Thing
April 7, 2007 — My life was in tatters. Two decades after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, a once-successful legal career had imploded. My ability to hide my issues and wear the mask of the respectable, hardworking lawyer had finally given way to the realities of untreated clinical depression and alcohol and cocaine addiction. On that day, I found myself standing in the parking lot of a Dallas psychiatric facility. It was familiar territory. My first trip there had been after a near suicide attempt less than two years earlier.
My girlfriend at the time came home that weekend from a family visit (she had moved in with me two weeks earlier) to find me passed out in our bed with cocaine laid out on the dresser and alcohol bottles strewn across the bedroom. She knew nothing of my mental-health and substance-use issues. I had a J.D. in law, but a Ph.D. in the ability to hide my issues from family and friends.
As I stood in the parking lot waiting for intake with my girlfriend at my side crying, the following thoughts occurred to me. The first was there would not be a third trip back to the facility; I would probably be dead before that happened. The second was that my girlfriend was going to leave me. The third was that I had reached the precipice of my family’s patience. I would always have their unconditional love, but they no longer wished to watch me destroy my life and bear the daily pain that goes with it. At that moment, I knew it was time to take that first step into the terrifying unknown of recovery.
The next day, I walked into my psychiatrist’s office and did something I had never done before. I allowed myself to be vulnerable. For the first time, I began the long process of opening up about trauma that dated back to childhood, which I had buried for decades as irrelevant to my happiness and mental health. Later that day, I walked into the rooms of 12-step for the first time. I refused the suggestions of my psychiatrists and my family to consider residential treatment, and this was the compromise. I had always viewed 12-step as something only homeless people and chain-smokers took part in. It was not something that a lawyer would ever do. When I finally walked into the room, there were quite a few lawyers I knew. After sitting in the corner of the room crying and listening to others share their stories, I realized that I was not special. We were all just people trying to find long-term sobriety. At the end of the meeting, I took a desire chip to stay sober for 24 hours. In that moment, one day would seem like a huge victory for me. That moment was more than 10 years ago. I have not had a drink or done cocaine since then.
Looking back, getting sober was, of course, crucial, but tearing back the layers of my life and exploring the pain and shame of a bullied, shy, and conflicted teenager was just as important in a well-rounded long-term recovery. From a self-exploration standpoint, vulnerability is a strength. It is, however, something that I find that lawyers have the most trouble with. In our profession, vulnerability is viewed most often as a weakness — something to take advantage of as part of the adversarial process. For me, vulnerability has been a crucial part of realizing all the gifts that come with long-term sobriety.
The girlfriend who witnessed that “rock bottom” is now my wife. She stuck with me as I found recovery and, in doing so, repaired myself and the broken trust that so often accompanies relationships strained by addiction. I decided not to re-enter the practice of law. I realized that doing what makes me truly happy is more important than taking a path that never felt right from the day I walked through the doors of Pitt Law. That realization would not have happened without sobriety and vulnerability. It all starts with one small step forward. It’s scary. It’s worth it.
Brian Cuban is a Dallas,Texas-based attorney, addiction recovery advocate and author of the book, The Addicted Lawyer, Tales of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption. He is a graduate of The University of Pittsburgh School of Law.