Overcoming Addiction: My Journey From Prison to Practicing Lawyer and Advocate
Ten years ago I was in federal prison. Today I’m a lawyer and an entrepreneur, and I have an amazing life. It took a lot of work, pain, and discipline to get here, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
My experience – all of it – makes me the uniquely powerful and effective woman I am today.
I spent my entire adult life struggling with addiction and depression. I started with the gateway drugs – alcohol and tobacco – as a teenager. Both tasted nasty to me, and I didn’t particularly like the feeling of being drunk. What I loved was having something I could take – something external – to change the way I felt inside. I picked up marijuana in high school, then discovered – and quickly became addicted to – heroin in college.
With the help of methadone, I graduated from college. In the following years, after numerous failed attempts at treatment and sobriety, I found myself addicted to methamphetamine. I started dealing small amounts to support my own addiction. Then, in 2005, I sent some meth through the mail to a friend. The package was intercepted and I was indicted on a felony conspiracy drug charge that carried a potential 10-year sentence.
Faced with such severe consequences, anyone without the disease of addiction would have been able to stop using drugs. I couldn’t. I served a year in prison, got out and relapsed. When my continuing use was discovered, the court revoked my supervised release, and I finally broke. I begged for help, and thanks to my public defender, I was allowed to go to treatment. That was more than nine years ago, and I’ve been in recovery ever since.
Recovery and the System
Unfortunately, the court was not interested in my recovery. After completing treatment, when I returned to court for my revocation hearing, the judge told me that I hadn’t learned my lesson, and he was going to teach it to me.
He sent me back to prison for 18 months, in a maximum-security facility, for relapsing.
The first time I went to prison, to serve the year-long sentence for sending drugs through the mail, I was still trapped in the irrational mindset of addiction. I told myself that it wasn’t my drug use that was the problem; I had been set up. It was a fluke. I would do my time and use the experience to write a best-selling memoir.
The second time, I had just completed treatment and I was ready and willing to stay sober and do whatever it took to build a life in recovery. The injustice of being sent back to prison for relapsing – for having the disease of addiction – broke me in a different way. I decided that I needed to change things, and to do that I would become a lawyer.
When I got out of prison, one of the first calls I made was to the state bar association. I told them about my past and asked if I could legally become a lawyer. The person I spoke with confirmed that my past did not disqualify me from becoming a lawyer. All I would have to do is prove my rehabilitation when the time came after I had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam.
Choices and Decisions
Fresh out of prison, it took me months to find a job at a bagel shop making $7.25 an hour. I was ashamed, resentful, and angry. I whined about it to a friend, and after listening to me vent, he said, “I don’t think you understand the difference between a decision and a choice.” He held up two pens. “Pick one,” he said. So I picked one. He asked me why I picked that one. I explained that I liked the color. He said, “That’s a decision. Try again.” Several more times I chose a pen and explained why. Finally, after choosing a pen again, he asked me why I chose it, and in frustration I said, “Just because! For no reason at all!” “Exactly,” he said.
I was still confused. He went on to explain that I was working at the bagel shop because I had decided that was what I needed to do to get where I wanted to go in my life – just like choosing one of two pens because I liked one color better, or one shape. What I hadn’t done with the bagel shop job was choose to be there. I wasn’t choosing every day how to show up. So from that day forward, rather than focusing on the negative and being irritated that I had to be at that job, I chose to show up without resentment and make the best bagel sandwiches I could – with a smile on my face.
That lesson about decision and choice continues to serve me every day. We all have to make decisions, and there isn’t always an ideal option or even an option that we want. Sometimes it comes down to picking the lesser of two evils. What we do always have is choice: how we show up once we’ve made a decision. I may not be able to control my circumstances, but I can always choose my attitude.
I kept working at the bagel shop and I took the law school admission test. Thanks to 15 months in prison studying, I got a good score. I applied to four local law schools and was rejected by them all. I was discouraged but still hopeful, so I made appointments with the admissions directors and asked them if I had any chance of getting in. They all said yes, but they just needed me to have a little more time out of prison with continued sobriety before they were willing to take that risk.
I reapplied to law school and I got in. Three of the schools even offered me partial scholarships! I started school in 2011.
Facing My Past
During my undergraduate years, college had been a backdrop for my addiction. This time was totally different. I loved law school. I soaked up knowledge and cultivated authentic, meaningful relationships with everyone I could: professors, senators, representatives, judges, deans, you name it.
The administration at the law school knew about my past because I had to disclose everything on my application, but I didn’t share it with anyone else. A few students and professors who had Googled me pulled me aside to mention that they knew, but to my surprise, they were supportive. Still, I lived with a constant fear that at some point my past would become known and I would be exposed.
The moment finally came at the beginning of my last year in law school. I had chosen to do an internship with a county district court judge, which required a background check. I remember a gut-wrenching sinking feeling and thinking, “Well, here it is. It’s over.” I asked the judge if I could speak with him privately. We sat down in his chambers and I told him about my past. By the time I finished I was crying. He looked me in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “I spend my days sending people to prison, and you are the miracle that I hope for everyday.” (He actually asked, “Can I brag about you to the other judges?” to which I said, “Um, please don’t.”) From that day forward he treated me as an equal, and he often asked for my insight on issues given my experience.
During law school, I volunteered more than 800 hours of pro bono legal services as a certified student attorney. I helped women being released from state prison with their civil legal matters so that they would have a better chance of successful reentry into their communities. I also provided pro bono criminal defense representation in a diversionary treatment court where individuals with mental illness received treatment rather than punishment. Talk about coming full circle!
I graduated magna cum laude, and was one of six students out of a graduating class of more than 200 to be nominated by the faculty and administration for the “Student of Merit Award”.
I took the bar exam and passed. I received a letter from the board of law examiners congratulating me on passing the exam, but telling me that I would not be licensed due to character and fitness issues.
The next six months were hell – talk about retraumatizing. I had submitted character affidavits and documentation of more than seven years of proven recovery and rehabilitation, but none of that mattered. The licensing board required me to participate in adversarial hearings, undergo psychological testing and a chemical dependency evaluation, and provide urinalysis. Finally, after six months of jumping through hoops, the board gave me a license to practice law.
Paying it Forward
That was two-and-a-half years ago. Today, in addition to practicing law, I get to teach legal professionals about addiction and recovery. After a recent lunchtime presentation for judges and prosecutors, a judge approached me with tears in her eyes. She said, “I wish I had heard your story earlier. This morning in court, I sentenced a woman to jail time for relapsing, and I don’t think I would’ve done that if I had heard your story beforehand.”
I got goosebumps. What I once considered my unredeemable and shameful past has become one of my greatest assets.
My life is proof that recovery is possible. Our pasts do not define us, and every challenge can become a source of resilience and purpose.
Images Courtesy of iStock