'Girl Walks Out of a Bar'

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Author Lisa Smith appeared at the Jewish Book Fair in West Bloomfield on November 4.

Attorney’s memoir relates her sobering story of substance abuse   

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

To deal with the pressures of life as a new associate in a fast-paced law firm, attorney Lisa Smith turned to alcohol and cocaine to help her cope with the competitive nature of her work.

Smith’s research revealed that she was not an anomaly among her peers.

“One study showed that the highest percentage of substance abuse occurs in the first 10 years of practice. New lawyers are coming out of law school with massive amounts of debt and they haven’t aged out of drinking,” said Smith, an author and alumna of Rutgers Law School.

Smith, who has been clean and sober for nearly 13 years, talked with The Legal News about her career and her well-received memoir, “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” in advance of her November 4 appearance at the Jewish Book Fair in West Bloomfield.

“I didn’t start out to write a book, but after I went through detox I woke up at 5 in the morning and started writing my experiences down,” Smith said. “Then I went to a writing workshop where I got good feedback. I realized I could really help people. The result is 10 years of writing at 5 in the morning.”

Recalling the years she spent as a “highly functioning” addict, Smith said she believes that the demands inherent in the legal profession create a predisposition to substance abuse and “a culture of drinking in law firms.”

“The law is a 24/7 profession that attracts so many Type A smart driven people, and with the environmental pressure to produce billable hours, firm sponsored happy hours and the need to take clients out, alcohol becomes an acceptable form of relief,” Smith noted.

In spite of being part of a culture where alcohol use was widespread, Smith takes full responsibility for her addiction, tracing it back to her childhood when she first learned that food could help her tame the insecurities she experienced.

“I grew up in northern New Jersey with terrific parents. I didn’t have anything that was terrible that spun me out as a kid, but I started self-medicating with food. It gave me comfort.” Smith said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I was born with a brain that was genetically predisposed to addiction.”

Like many addicts, Smith said her dependence on drugs and alcohol was progressive, beginning in her teen years and escalating as she began to chart her legal career.

“I was a blackout drunk on the weekends in high school and partied heavily through college and law school,” Smith said. “I started drinking daily after I was transferred to corporate finance, mostly to shut out the feelings of insecurity, fear, depression, and anxiety I experienced.”

With her addiction controlling her life, Smith shifted her career goals from making partner to working in marketing for her law firm, a move that allowed her to frequently work from home where she could better hide her condition.

Then, after another drug-fueled morning and an anxiety attack that made her feel something was “unusually wrong,” she reached out for help.

“Something was really wrong that morning. I was a mess –I looked like a bruised banana,” Smith said, as she recalled the morning that changed her life’s trajectory. “I thought I was going to die, so, I checked myself into rehab for a five-day detox, where they got me right – diagnosing me with a major depressive disorder. Since then I’ve managed to stay sober by following up with 12-step meetings. “

When Smith decided to go forward with her story of addiction and recovery, her initial inclination was to write it under an assumed name, but she soon decided that the truth was preferable.

“I knew I had to own it if I wanted to talk about substance abuse to other lawyers, especially since the people close to me didn’t know about it,” Smith said. “The reaction from my family, friends and colleagues has been so supportive. People can identify with my story.”

Today, Smith continues her work in law firm marketing, is in demand as a lecturer and is married to a man who has always known her as sober, an experience she describes as “surreal.”

“Having a husband who has never seen me drink is surreal. So much of my life experience and who I am has been shaped by addiction and recovery, things he can't identify with or fully understand,” Smith said. “My brain works differently than his does. But that's okay. In fact, it's a good thing. We traveled separate roads in the past, but happily our lives merged at the right time to head in the right direction.”

As she goes across the country talking about her memoir and how addiction impacts families, Smith said she has found that those she meets are genuinely interested in what motivated her to recount her experiences in a book.

“I wrote the book in order to try to help the next person who suffers. I felt totally isolated in my disease, so the first point I'd make is that no one is alone in this disease and there are people out there who understand and can help. We need to pay attention to underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, that might lead someone to self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs,” Smith said.

“If the underlying condition can be treated early and appropriately, a slide into addiction might be prevented. There is life after drinking. The people I know in recovery are living the lives they only wished they had before. I went from being a drunk girl on a barstool slurring, ‘I'm gonna write a book,’ to a sober woman who actually wrote a book. “
 

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