Picking up attitude problems

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By Michael G. Brock
MA, LMSW

I work with a lot of different attorneys on Driver License Restoration cases. Sometimes we have discussions about how to save client’s from themselves. I’m sure it is so with any type of case that the more you see the more you recognize patterns emerging. One of the things we see a lot of is clients who are prone to sabotage. They do it in a variety of ways: sometimes just because they are nervous they talk too much. If they talk too much they are setting the agenda, rather than letting the interviewer set the agenda; thus they are not providing the information the interviewer needs to do his job, they are wasting time, and they more they talk the more likely they are to put their foot in their mouth.

Clients are frustrated with not being able to drive and fearful that they are wasting their time and money going through the now lengthy and arduous process of trying to get their driver’s license back. They may express cynicism that it is all about the money being made in the DUI industry, though the hearings themselves are free. If some of the traffic through the court system is for ticky-tacky fouls that raise revenue more than they protect the public, this is not one of those instances. This process saves lives, and drunk drivers endanger lives and need to realize that. Hearing officers are charged with keeping the streets safe and clients need to respect them and their function.

Often, clients will want to let us know that they are really not bad persons. They do that by defending themselves and minimizing their problem with substances, and this is very self-defeating. Sometimes they feel that enough time has gone by and on that basis they should be allowed to drive again. But over time, untreated substance abuse problems usually get worse, not better, so that is a particularly insipid argument. Other clients will tell us that they know the state requires a year of sobriety, but they only drink socially these days; and still others are openly hostile. We patiently explain that telling the hearing officer, “Give me my license back and don’t give me any crap,” is not a winning strategy.

The process of determining who is safe to drive and who isn’t will never be foolproof, but the state has been fine tuning the process for a few years (decades?) now, and the hearing officers are pretty good at sorting out truth from lies and who is ready to be back on the road. They undoubtedly see the same things as the lawyers and evaluators who handle these cases see, but they see more of them, all day long, every day, and that is all they see.

I’m sure every lawyer has had hard to manage clients, but many of them don’t ever have to say anything on their own behalf, so if they are inclined to damage their case, they don’t get the chance. But driver’s license appellants have to answer questions, either from the attorney or the hearing officer, or both, so they will get the opportunity to blow up even a well-prepared case. That’s why it is really important to talk to them about what attitude they display in the hearing.

Some of my clients show me a lot of attitude, but tell me they won’t show that to the hearing officer. First of all, they shouldn’t be showing it to me. I’m a neutral evaluator, not their mental health counselor or their advocate. Secondly, if they are showing it to me, it is there and will probably come out under stress. But, the issue isn’t just that they show it, it is that they have it in the first place. It is always unwise to show attitude to someone who is making a decision about your future, but if the client has the attitude that someone else is the problem, what are the chances that they have achieved permanent and lasting change?

I try to be very clear with clients that if they have had a problem with drinking and driving, their plan should be to remain sober throughout this life and the next. If they answer a question on the Michigan Substance Abuse Screening Test so as to indicate that they were always in control of their drinking — and it’s surprising how many people do answer that way — I ask them how they got arrested. Typically they respond that they were usually in control of their drinking. But that wasn’t the question. Usually being in control of your drinking is like being almost out of range of a sniper.
I ask if they think it’s all right to drink again. Usually they say no, and tell me how long they have been abstinent and how long they went to treatment or AA. I then ask, “And how many drinks do they say it is safe to have in AA?” The answer, of course, is none. So why do clients answer that way? Because they want everyone to know they are not a bad person.

I don’t confront clients on every answer in the MSAST because it would take too long. I have seen that a person can admit loss of control, but still deny that he ever neglected his work or family responsibilities because of substance abuse. However, if you are drinking a pint of liquor in a day, you are neglecting something, especially if you are a spouse or a parent. The more ownership of the damage a client has created through substance abuse I see, the more confident I am that he is committed to a solution that involves permanent abstinence. I would be surprised if the hearing officers didn’t see it the same way.

I know many attorneys require their clients to attend AA. I don’t require it from self-represented clients because you can get a DUI or two these days without being an alcoholic. Moreover, if you are going to go to meetings, you also have to know something about how the program works, and be able to say how you are working the program. It’s not enough to show up and get a sheet signed. That said, I’m not going to contradict anyone’s lawyer. His strategy is his strategy.

But one thing that’s real, involved AA members don’t usually beat themselves, so they are generally much easier to work with than someone who wants to argue that his relapse really wasn’t that bad because he only had a couple of drinks, or justify drinking because his buddy had just come home from the war and they were celebrating his safe return. We all understand that, right? How could you not have a drink when something like that happens? Or when something really bad happens, like a divorce, or your dog died?

What are these client’s saying? If it’s not that bad to have a couple of drinks, then why not do it again? And if circumstances, good or bad, justify drinking, then such circumstances will undoubtedly occur again in the future.

There is a reason that pride is the worst of the seven deadly sins. It makes people think that they can substitute their judgment for the law, or what experienced people tell them they will need to do if they wish to be successful at anything. I used to tell my kid that anything she wanted to do in life would take longer and be more difficult that she expected it to be. Everyone who has ever accomplished anything worthwhile knows the truth of that statement. You either listened to someone you respected, or you learned the hard way.

Somehow, attorneys have to convey this message to their clients that the situation is what it is, and not what they think it should be. The law is the law, the burden of proof is the client’s, and it is a high burden of clear and convincing evidence. They have messed up and endangered their lives and the lives of others, and they are asking for mercy — a second chance. Clients have to show they get this or they won’t get their license back. They have to internalize it or they will wind up losing it again.

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Michael G. Brock, MA, LLP, LMSW, is a forensic mental health professional in private practice at Counseling and Evaluation Services in Wyandotte, Michigan. He has worked in the mental health field since 1974, and has been in full-time private practice since 1985. The majority of his practice in recent years relates to driver license restoration and substance abuse evaluation. He may be contacted at Michael G. Brock, Counseling and Evaluation Services, 2514 Biddle, Wyandotte, 48192; 313-802-0863, fax/phone 734-692-1082; e-mail, michaelgbrock@ comcast.net; website, michaelgbrock.com.

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