In today’s podcast, KL meets Mary Beth O’Connor, author of “From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction.”
In this podcast, Mary Beth shares her journey of going from a lifetime of abuse, trauma, PTSD, and anxiety, to being sober and in recovery since 1994. Six years into her recovery, Mary Beth attended Berkeley Law, and in 2014 she was appointed as a federal Administrative Law Judge.
Mary Beth shares three big takeaways in this podcast.
First, that recovery is attainable even after 20 years of abuse, trauma, PTSD, and anxiety. Second, multiple pathways to successful recovery are absolutely possible. And third, raw and candid conversations can shatter the stigma of alcoholism.
Mary Beth’s story is so powerful she has also been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and Recovery Today.
You don’t want to miss this episode!
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
From Junkie To Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma And Addiction
Guest: Mary Beth O’Connor
We have a great guest for this episode. I am so excited and looking forward to this. Mary Beth O’Connor has a book out that I finished. It is a page-turner. I could not put it down. My wife has it and she can’t put it down. It’s a big story. The book is called From Junkie to Judge. I love the title of that book. Mary Beth has been clean and sober for many years and has lived a remarkable life in her addiction and beyond. Welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
Give us a peek into your journey without giving the book away. What precipitated? You grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m going to throw it to you there.
The full title of the book is From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction. I did want to show the substance use disorder and trauma connection. I start the book and my story with my mother was unwed in 1961, which was a big deal. I didn’t even live with her for the first six months of my life. I lived at the nunnery and then she married my sister’s dad for 6 years and then 3 years with my great-grandmother. Mostly she wasn’t focused on me and wasn’t that interested in what I was doing or what was going on. She was interested in having peace, which isn’t always happening with kids.
She could be violent and hit but it got a lot worse when she married my stepfather when I was nine. He was violent with her. He was physically and sexually abusive to me. It was that kind of household where you never knew what was going to happen. You walked in the house, do the same thing 10 times and it was fine on the 11th time. It was the worst thing anybody ever did. At first, when she married him, I tried to figure out what are the new rules.
I saw barefoot in the house, which I’d always walk barefoot in the summer. I can adjust. My mother had to be a mom. You couldn’t say she. It was weird things. Once I tried to adjust, at some point I realized I can’t control this because there’s always a new rule, the same thing gets a different reaction or the mood that he’s in is out of my control. I could do some techniques to reduce the violence but I couldn’t eliminate it. It was a constant stress and strain. I found my first drug, which was alcohol. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine.
That’s what a lot of people started on. It made me feel looser like I could breathe. I was giggling with my girlfriend. I felt happy in a different way than I could ever remember. That captured my attention, “This makes me feel better.” I was pursuing alcohol right away. I was making opportunities to drink. The drinking age was eighteen at the time in New Jersey. I was able to go to parties with older people or steal alcohol. I was pursuing the first drug that I took, which was alcohol.
Speak a little bit more about the escalation.
There was a lot of pot, weed or cannabis right around at the time. I did a lot of that. I had pills. We would steal where people would sell uppers and downers. I did a lot of acid in my sophomore year of high school but when I was sixteen I found what became my drug of choice, which was methamphetamine. I was shooting meth at seventeen years old. Within six months of first snoring it, I was shooting it. I was in full-bore addiction in high school. I was in bad shape for the last six months of high school.
I did make it to college and did better for the first three and a half years. I mostly used on the weekend alcohol, some cocaine and pills but I had a life-threatening multi-assailant rape in college and then moved in with a violent boyfriend. I couldn’t hang on. I started using meth again in January, in my senior year of college. I used it until I was 32. It was a long haul from 12 to 32. It wasn’t like it was a short problem.
Could you speak a little bit about the connection between trauma and use? This is an emerging understanding for people who love people that are dealing with substance abuse disorder.
Everyone who has a trauma history picks up or everyone he picks up has a trauma history. My odds of developing a substance use disorder were about 4 to 6 times the average, especially because it was ongoing trauma. It wasn’t a one-time event. The other way to look at that is that about 75% to 80% of the people with a long-term substance use disorder have some kind of trauma history. There’s a close connection.
That’s why sometimes people ask me, “What’s the one thing we could do to reduce the rates of substance use disorder in America?” The US has a high rate compared to the rest of the world. My answer to that is mental health treatment for children because there is such a strong connection between that childhood pain and eventually developing a problem with substances.
There is so much information related to this piece. I had trauma when I was growing up. My son had trauma when he was growing up and we chose somewhat different paths but all grounded in that I walked into my home never knowing what was going to be happening. That hypervigilance of surveying and then realizing that no matter what you do doesn’t matter. It’s still going to happen anyway. More people go through this than we know. The statistics are underestimating what’s happening certainly in America at this point.
People who don’t develop a son are going to show up in some other way, which can also be unhealthy. Whether it’s some other behavioral disorder or being a perfectionist. Perfectionism can be a sign of trauma or not valuing yourself and letting other people have the dominant position. There are all kinds of ways that it can show up. It doesn’t just show up one way. Those other ways may not be as physically risky but they’re often interfering with having a happy life. That’s the most important.
That’s why I seek early treatment if we don’t have affordable, readily accessible substance use treatment or mental health treatment both for children and adults. That’s one of the big problems in America. Somehow, we want to ignore some of the core reasons that it happens and not treat them. Once you develop it, it’s like, “You should figure out how to get better. We’re not going to put a lot of systems in place to help you.” In most of the country, there are long wait lists and not enough beds for substance use treatment. For children, there’s a complication that the people who enact ask for help are often the people who are causing the problems. That’s an additional application.
There are so many chemicals off of this. We’re both in it in different ways. The things that you talked about later in the book in terms of taking care of yourself and all of these things are the stuff I coach loved ones on. It’s the same thing. It’s just a different side of the coin. How do you love someone when they’re in the midst of substance abuse disorder and you feel somewhat powerless, particularly if you have a child who’s an adult, a spouse or sister or like with your sister? This is full ranging. What was the turning point for you?
First of all, it was a process. Sometimes we put up this artificial expectation that when people start treatment or are thinking about it, they should be 100% sure and committed. In my experience, that’s not typical and it wasn’t typical for me. What happened was a combination of events. I was having physical problems because meth is a toxic drug. I had lost yet another job. I could never hold a job because I was using it all the time. I had a degree from Berkeley. My last job was in word processing. I could only do it for nine months. I was exhausted beyond the pale. I was depressed. My partner was ready to throw me out.
It was all of those things together at 32 when I finally said, “What if I go to rehab? Let’s try rehab.” I didn’t go there thinking I could get sober. Sober was beyond my imagination. I thought maybe I can figure out how to use less because there would be less chaos and misery. It’s not that I wanted to keep using it. It’s just that stopping was beyond my comprehension. I went in. I used it 3 times in my first 5 months. I have 29 years. I don’t even think of them as relapses. I thought of them as figuring out how to stay sober. It was going through the process. If I could’ve used it 3 times in 5 months regularly, I wouldn’t have been in rehab.
It was a lot better but it wasn’t perfect. That is common. For friends and family, it’s important that they know these things that often is a process to get to a real solid commitment to abstinence. It’s more typical that one day you’re committed and the next day you’re thinking, “Maybe I can drink later.” It wasn’t that bad. It’s a back-and-forth and that is normal. It often happens that way. I know sometimes ambivalence can be scary when you’re the loved one and you’re not hearing the certainty and absolute commitment that you want but that’s a normal part of the process. That’s how it was for me. I had to work my way toward believing that absence was possible for me and then figure out how to get it.Ambivalence can be scary when you’re the loved one of a person recovering from addiction. You may not be hearing the absolute commitment you want from them, but that’s a normal part of the process. Click To Tweet
That’s such an important thing for people who love people. The first time Sam went into rehab, it was coming from jail and we were thrilled. When he got kicked out two weeks later, he did this high and low thing for quite a while following the trajectory of his journey with substance abuse and stepped back from it and realized, “I can’t follow his trajectory on this and it’s going to be a process.” This last relapse, I’m pretty good certainly compared to what I used to do with this. The process piece of this is most people don’t get it. They don’t see or heard it. They’re thinking, “Rehab, he or she’s going to come out 30 days later and we’re going to be back on track again.” That’s such a lie.
First of all, the treatment is in 30 days because they’ve determined that that’s the optimal time of treatment. Historically, that’s what insurance would pay for if you had insurance. It should be about a longer-term plan like, “Is there an aftercare? What’s the plan when you get out,” and all those kinds of things. Treatments are a jumpstart at best and a time to get your brain a little clearer so you can try to make a commitment.
I’m going to say that when they don’t have perfect abstinence and the recurrences as we call them, relapse or recurrence, it’s not like they usually are going back to zero. I hate that they’re like, “You’re starting over from zero.” Typically, that’s not true especially if they got some time under their belt because they did learn some things during the time that they were sober.
They often have a higher level of commitment even if they aren’t able to be perfect. Part of what I encourage the families to look at is the long-term trajectory. Often what you’ll see is the periods of sobriety might get longer and the relapse periods might get shorter. Sometimes people give up one drug and then another. Alcohol or opiates is the worst problem but they’ll keep doing cannabis for a while and maybe they’ll give it up later. There are different ways of approaching it. It’s helpful to look at the longer-term arc, even when it’s having its up and down. Sometimes if you look at the bigger picture, you can still see an upward trajectory going up like this.
It takes a lot to be able to hold that perspective and belief that they are on an upward trajectory of getting their lives back.
Everybody I know with a substance use disorder, we are friends and family as well. I lost my best friend to heroin fourteen years into my sobriety and that was heartbreaking to me. My sister didn’t get sober on my schedule. I put her in my rehab a year later. She lasted eight days. She was sober later but it wasn’t on my timeframe. I know how frustrating and scary it can be. You can’t get micromanaging into it because the person with the son’s going to have to be the one to drive the process. You can help. You can all hopefully keep a loving connection. That’s important. The data shows that people with that loving friend and family connection on average do better.
It’s hard to keep your hands off. I understand but it is important to let them drive the process and make their choices. Sometimes what I see with the family is that they think the person needs inpatient but the person doesn’t think they do or they think, “They need to go to AA,” but that person prefers life ring or women for sobriety or she recovers. The family can sometimes want to control the decisions about the type of treatment or what the treatment plan professional or non-professional is. That can be problematic too because the autonomy of the person with the medical issue of substance use disorder is important and they get to make their choices about how they’re going to proceed.
That’s such great wisdom to own. Where I am with it is, “This is Sam’s journey.” I have always delivered the message, “No matter what you do or what happens here, you are always loved. We’re here for you in boundary ways.” What I find is that a lot of parents in particular have a challenging time with this. Somewhere along the way, they got the idea that they were supposed to fix it, save them, keep them from suffering or all of that stuff. It’s a paradigm shift of beliefs, at least that has been my journey.
Invalid fear. We’re afraid that we’re going to lose our loved ones and they’re not going to be able to find sobriety before they die and have permanent medical or other consequences. Not being in control is scary. I like that you use the word boundary support. Just because I’m saying, “Keep the loving connection,” doesn’t mean you should let yourself be verbally abused, financially abused or any of those other things. It does. You do have to look where’s the proper boundary for you to protect yourself appropriately and take care of yourself. The other thing I’ll say is that there are more friends and family support groups than there used to be. A lot of people only heard of AA for sobriety and there are many other options. Tens of thousands of people use them every year.
For families, Al-Anon is what most people know. It’s not a good fit for everyone. LifeRing, SMART Recovery and Hazelden offer friends and family. There are multiple other groups or internet support groups that offer friends and family. I always encourage friends and family to also look at the support group options because they might find a group that fits better than Al-Anon for them. That can be helpful to be with a group that shares your worldview and philosophical beliefs or a meeting format that you like. It can help you feel more connected to your peers in the support group than if you’re the only one you ever heard of but not the best fit.
The research is that building a strong community that has your back in the midst of anything that is life-challenging is 1 of the top 3 ways that you navigate and are able to handle it and thrive on the other side of it. Relatively early on, I set an intention that I wasn’t going to live in the crisis of my son’s disease because I have got a great life. I wanted to continue to thrive even in the midst of him dealing with his disease. That has been a journey in and of itself. I had to build some communities that believed I could thrive in the midst of that because a lot of people don’t. They’re in the hole with their loved one and are in the crisis of it. I was like, “I’m not doing that.”
I love that approach and that way of looking at it. Kudos to you.
I’m putting an exclamation point on how important it is to build the tribe that’s going to hold you in the outcomes that you most want to create for yourself on this journey. The other thing that you briefly touched on, which is important also is two things. One is the brain hijacking that takes place is important for a lot of people to understand better. What I loved about your story was you did it your way. I kept thinking, “She’s doing it her way,” and then you said it. I’m like, “Yes.”
When I went into rehab, they told me the Twelve-Step way was all there. They swore that I had to accept a higher power. I don’t believe in a higher power that I had to turn the will of my life over. I was not going to do that. I had to agree I was powerless, which I didn’t. They told me, “If you don’t follow the Twelve-Step program, you will fail.” They were vehement and adamant about it. This was a problem because it wasn’t the right fit but I at first believed them. I wanted to rehab in ‘93. These are the experts, I guess that’s the only way but it’s not going to work. What I decided to do was keep my mind and ears open and listen for ideas.
I shouldn’t just say listen but proactively look for ideas that I could use for everything else. I did read all of the AA big books and texts. I actively participated in rehab classes and pulled out the parts I thought were useful. I even reframed some of the steps. Step one is powerless over my addiction. I didn’t agree but I thought about it and I said, “I can’t agree. I am powerless to moderate.” There’s no moderating. I tried to do all of those things but it was still scary to be challenging the orthodoxy, especially when I’m coming out of a twenty-year addiction and knowing that my judgment and thinking are fuzzy. It was scary to be choosing to bolt against what they were telling me.
I got home in January ‘94. I will emphasize to the younger readers that there was no Google. I went to the library to see if there were other peer support options. It turns out there were. They just hadn’t told me. I found Women For Sobriety, which still exists. I do events at their conferences for them. I found Rational Recovery, which exists a little but mostly is now SMART Recovery. I found Secular Organizations For Sobriety, which exists a little but is now LifeRing Secular Recovery. I’m a board for LifeRing. I’m also on the board for SHE RECOVERS, which is for recovery not just from substance use but trauma, other behavioral disorders, self-harm and everything together.
I never ended up following any one program. I continued to do how I had started. I went to meetings for all the groups. I read everything for all the groups. I pulled out the ideas I thought would be useful. LifeRing would call that Building A Personal Recovery Plan or SHE RECOVERS would call it Building A Hybrid or a Patchwork Plan. That to my knowledge didn’t exist at the time. I didn’t know anyone else I’d done it. What worked for me was to think about, “Here are the suggestions and techniques. I heard somebody talk about how they handled a situation like this. That might help me. Let me remember that. I file it away if I can use it later.” I used the parts that I thought would be helpful to me. It’s many years later, I did a good job.
That was avant-garde at the time, scary and courageous. The way that I think about it is you had this nagging guidance that, “This was my path.” You stayed true to that knowing. I talk quite a bit about the same thing in terms of, “Not everybody’s going to agree with how I’ve come at this.” That’s not important that they do. “I have come at this. The beliefs that I have are options to explore.” Take what you want to take from what I have to say or what I’ve written or all these things. Take the things that resonate and use them and then look for other things that will support you in whatever part of this journey that you’re on. We’re very much kindred spirits along those lines.
The book is about recovery and part of it is because I did it in a somewhat unusual way and I wanted to explain how I did it. I used those same techniques to attack my trauma recovery but it’s not that I think someone should read the book and copy me exactly. It was to show how I thought about it, different ways of approaching it analytically, “How did I tackle it?” You as an example that some may be useful to other people but not that I expect them to copy me exactly. It’s like I’m on the board for LifeRing and SHE RECOVERS. I will also tell people about Women For Sobriety, SMART and other options because I don’t care if they pick my programs. What I care about is that they know their options and find the place that fits them best because that’s going to increase their odds of success. That’s all I careIndividuals recovering from trauma and addiction should know their recovery options and find the best one that fits them best. This way, they can increase their odds of success. Click To Tweet
You’re in this place in your life where it is all about service and giving back. We talked a little bit about this before we got on with the readers. What I’d like you to talk about a little bit more is this notion of the journey. I don’t know enough about this relative to the book in your journey but your journey with shame because shame seems to capture a lot of people and keep them stuck.
One of the things I felt most ashamed about wasn’t my drug use. I always knew that was related to the trauma. It didn’t help me get it under control but I knew that those were connected. One of the same things for me was the promiscuity around drug use. Another event that hung around with agonizing shame might not be quite the right word but second-guessing was a choice I made during that multi-assent rape where I chose not to try to get away because I didn’t think I could. That stuck with me for a long time, “Did it mean that I wasn’t valuing my survival or I hadn’t tried?” When I wrote the book, I made another step in the recovery in those areas.
I started to see my younger self’s sexual choices. I had before but even more related to the sexual efforts of my stepfather, feeling my value was that I was pretty and men give me drugs for free and those kinds of things. The thing with the rape that I started to trust more Mary Beth at that moment was the nuances of that situation. It wasn’t like I decided and offer up. I thought about this choice. It was an agonizing analysis and decision-making process.
I had to trust that at that moment I was considering all the factors in a way that I’ll never be able to again because it was immediate at the time. I must have made the right choice. I came out alive from it. I trust her more than I had trusted before. Those are some of the thoughts I have about that question. The little threads that follow you and undermine your confidence, belief in yourself or choices and decisions that you made. When you look at them in the bigger picture, there’s always a reason. They’re always connected to other threads. That’s something that I made a new step forward in when I was writing the book.There are little threads in life that undermine your self-confidence. When you look at them in the bigger picture, you can understand the bigger reason and see how they are connected to other threads. Click To Tweet
My experience in writing has been very cathartic and clarifying on so many levels. I wondered if that had been your experience. When I read that part of the book, you do an exceptional job giving us the way you were thinking about it. The window in. I thought of two things. You were so brilliant at that moment, the things that you did to survive that assault. I thought that brilliance also was one of the gifts of your childhood because you knew the nuances in ways that most people would not.
At the time, part of the reason I was able to handle it as well as I do is that I knew how to put my fear aside and focus on what can I do at the moment to reduce my risk and help me get out of the threat or reduce the threat. I was aware. I was pulling up a skillset that I had from living with my stepfather and that may have helped me.
What I also want to touch on is forgiveness. I have my journey in forgiving myself and then giving others their roles in all of this and forgiving Sam for things that he’s done. I’m curious about your journey in forgiveness.
My mother is an example because I had an ongoing connection with her. She divorced my stepfather when I went to college and I didn’t have to talk to him again. My mother had some ongoing relationship. When I got sober, what I saw happening was our relationship difficulties were not about what had happened when I was a child. It was that she kept behaving in the same way. Sometimes she was even violent with me.
There was a bad episode when I was 35 years old. That was noticeable. Even before that, she liked to drag me into the chaos. At first, I would respond with emotion, yelling and behaving the same way she was. I realized I didn’t do that. That’s not how I want to act. I had to gradually learn how to interact with her to be civil but not react from an emotional place.
Trying to keep my words and my tone perfect was a process. First, I learned how to not use bad words. My face and body still weren’t good but gradually I got better. Part of it that is I could do well at first under neutral circumstances but with an emotional escalation, I wouldn’t do so well. It was a learning curve to learn how to interact with her and keep a civil relationship but not let her drag me into her chaos.
I didn’t view it as forgiving her. I never thought about it that way and I certainly have never forgiven my stepfather. What I did learn through therapy is I had to release the agony and the pain because that was hurting me. That was undermining my happiness and joy. I was approaching life in general. I don’t agree with that you’ve got to forgive but I do think you have to release the emotional side that’s hurting you. That’s how I looked at it.
I agree with you because there’s a book called The Body Keeps The Score. It’s a brilliant read. It’s on our resource list. We do hold the anger and all that goes with that thing. I’m curious as to your tenacity in keeping a relationship with your mother. You kept perfecting your skillset in terms of staying true to have some relationship with her.
Part of it was that she had custody of my sister’s children, my nieces and nephew. We wanted access to them. She would use being mad at me as a reason to cut off access. I remember one time that they were supposed to be on a plane to come to visit us for a week. I did something she didn’t like and she was saying she wasn’t going to put them on the plane. I hear three kids crying in the background. I don’t know what I would’ve done if it wasn’t for the children being there but the kids were there. I had to maintain a relationship with her.
The other side of it was when she was dying, I was there. Partly my brother was living with her and he was the primary person. I wanted to support him with all the things that were going on at the end but also I could be respectful of her. I was with her in hospice for the last week of her life. When she was dying and even before, people would say, “You’ll be surprised how much her death is going to impact you.”
It did. I felt bad for her. She died at 72. That’s young. There was a little bit of sadness that my mother was gone but it wasn’t like grief the way that you would normally grieve a close parent. I have disconnection and emotional separation that already happened. I wanted to logistically and pragmatically do what I could to make sure she was comfortable at the end. She is my mother. That’s how I approached it.
I had a similar experience when my mom passed too. She had a heart attack and died like that. I wasn’t there but getting the phone call. The first thing I thought was that she is finally at peace. I was grateful for that. I remember an aunt of mine asking me at the reception after the funeral, “How are you doing?” I said, “I’m great.” In retrospect, I thought she must have thought I’d lost my mind because nobody knew what was going on. I do remember being grateful that my mom was finally at peace.
I saw my mother in later years. She was the one who was making her life miserable. She was having fun. She was living in chaos. There was always financial chaos. Her life was always a mess. There were some new catastrophes and crises. I did have to put up appropriate boundaries financially because my mother had a gambling problem. She had a shopping room but she had my sister’s children. If she needed or was short on money because she had to support them, we would have given her that money but I wasn’t going to make up for her gambling losses.
It was a tough balance to figure out what is the financial request legitimate. I should pay for the floor. Although I would never give her the money, I would pay the floor guy. What is it about her gambling? It was a hard balance in that way too. There were still complications but ultimately I did my best to try to keep things on a neutral ground and do what I thought was fair given that she was taking care of my sister’s children in that way.
I love the thoughtfulness in that.
She didn’t do great but she did do better. My stepfathers make things even worse. All these relationships are complicated. When you get sober, it’s a process of figuring out, “What relationships am I going to keep? What are they going to look like?” Even if you want to keep them, there’s usually an adjustment. Each person isn’t as harmful as my mother. People are used to you behaving in a certain way and you’re going to change your behavior.
You’re going to be more assertive or put your needs on the table when maybe before you didn’t or you’re not going to engage in a certain type of conversation. People have to adjust. It is part of the process of recovery to think about, “Whom am I keeping in my life? Which interactions in these relationships need to change so that I can keep them in my life?”
It’s complicated. That’s also been my journey on the other side of this. I had to think through, “Who’s going to support me in thriving in the midst of this chaos? Whom can I call when Sam has a relapse and I need to talk to somebody and they’re not going to go down the rabbit hole of, ‘How could he do this to you,’” or being super judgmental about his decision and all of that. I cut out or severely minimized the people who brought a lot of judgment to the table and had that notion, “Somehow he was doing this to me,” which was like, “What?” It is complicated. Being intentional about whom you keep at what distance or whom you let go of is a big step in maturing.
It’s full of times because sometimes you have to go to people that you care about but the relationships are dysfunctional. They won’t get better that you have to let them go. That can be a painful process. There’s a loss and grieving in part of that process.
Where do you stand in looking back over this whole thing that you call your life? What’s the message that’s most important for you in service to deliver to people?
Multiple paths to recovery. I want people to know that there are a number of peer support groups. They have different philosophies and meeting formats but studies show that they’re all equally effective. What’s important is that people find the right fit but also you don’t even have to pick one. If they make you sign in blood an exclusive contract, that’s a red flag. Be careful.
That’s always an important message to me. Increase awareness about multiple pathways. I thought long and hard about the title of my book and using the word junkie, which I would never use for someone else. I wanted to tie myself to my shooting meth because part of what I see on media or television are these television shows about people who are shooting meth and they’re presented as if their life is hopeless. “Why bother helping them? Look at where they are. They’re beyond the pale.”
They’re beyond our understanding, sympathy and empathy. I shot meth until I was 32 years old. In sobriety, I became a judge. I wanted, hopefully, a stigma reducer to maybe make people think twice about writing anybody off instead of offering them help and services and also be encouraging to the friends and family that no matter where their loved one is in the process or how much destruction to their life, that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, they can’t get well or they can’t have a happy future. It’s the destigmatizing part of it. A large part of why I chose that From Junkie to Judge title was to try to help do that.
It spoke to me. My son has dealt with meth for quite a while and fentanyl. I had a client years ago. We have a homeless mental health drug addiction problem in the area where I live in. Her take on it was, “Why don’t they just let them die?” She had no idea what my journey had been when she made that statement. Quite frankly, I was shocked by the statement. It took me a while to process that.
That statement says, “People are throwaways.” Another reason why I love your book is that you peel back the disease and get to the humanity that is going through the journey of this. We’re all a brother, sister, son or daughter of someone. Someone has loved us along the way. In our humanity, that’s one of the things that’s important to me. We’ve got to drop this judgment that makes people throw away.
People act as if there is a system in America of easily accessible and affordable treatment. There isn’t. For a lot of people, if you even try to get into a program and you don’t have insurance, there’s no bed available, you have to get on a list, maybe you’ll get a referral three months from now or maybe never, there are a lot of odd rules. For example, traditionally in rehab, if you had a relapse, they would kick you out, which is insanity with no other medical condition. Would you throw somebody out because they didn’t have a perfect commitment to their treatment or the perfect ability to maintain their treatment? It wouldn’t happen with any other disorder or disease but it happens with drug use disorder.
There are a lot of problems in the system. People act like, “Before even you thought it, at some point, I’m going to give up on the person.” We have a system in place where that should even be on the table and even if you eventually had that idea. Not that you should but we need to have a better system so that people get the treatment they need. We need to have more than just the inpatient but when they get out, what are the aftercare options?
The data shows that people have longer-term support like 12 to 18 months. It doesn’t mean inpatient but with social workers or counselors, someone helping them guide, peer support groups or access to mental health meds because substance use and mental health conditions go hand in hand. I had PTSD and severe anxiety. I didn’t know it. I didn’t under treatment for that too.
I had to do therapy and medication. That took longer than my substance use disorder to get under control. We don’t have these systems in place and yet we expect people to magically get better. On top of which, a lot of people are unhoused, which is a whole nother layer of problem, which creates a whole new trauma. I can’t even imagine the trauma of being unhoused. It must be horrible. We should never write people off. On top of this, people have a misunderstanding of the supports, systems and care that are available to people but they’re struggling. We’re not anywhere near where we need to be.
That’s a whole other conversation. There are a lot of great people that are working on that. At the same time, we’re still falling apart so we can fall together in terms of taking care of people and being human and compassionate.
I did the trauma list because maybe people will be more compassionate if they understand that there are usually underlying calls for this. Often, it’s a trauma/mental health because most people that struggle through trauma have either depression, anxiety or some other condition as PTSD as a result. People should understand the reality of it, where it comes from and also the misery of living it. When I was sober and my sister wasn’t, my mother would talk as if my sister was out having a good time. She’s not having fun. She’s living a miserable, chaotic existence. No one would choose this. She looks at all the options on the table, “I think I’ll be a drug addict.” It’s misery. It’s not a happy time.
People underappreciate that too. They think we’re out getting high. Those good time days were years or decades behind you but by the time they’re getting into the severity or the people are looking at them as something that’s far gone that we shouldn’t even bother. There are many layers to it, even the harm-reduction side. People hesitate to try to keep people alive, give them Narcan or any of that. The truth is that people deserve our care as human beings to keep them alive.
A higher percentage of people that access harm reduction will go into treatment but even if they don’t, they’re people. They deserve respect for us to do them what we can to reduce not only their odds of death but their odds of having long-term health impacts. Plus the other side of it is cheaper than having people go to the ER every other day and all the other things that go on. If the money was moved from the emergency crisis that happens into better long-term robust treatment, it would save money. If all you care about is your tax dollars, it works for you too.
The dollars and cents unequivocally make sense. We’re stuck in this grip of, “This is how we’ve done it for long and this is how the money is made for all these people that are making money.” They’re not letting go. I’m not sure I’ll see it in my lifetime in terms of the breakdown that needs to take place in the rebuild that I believe is necessary but I’m going to do my part like you’re doing your part. This conversation alone is dropping the walls of the stigma. We have to have more conversations like this.
The truth of what this is and who we are in it and all that we’ve talked about in this episode. We’ve covered a lot of ground in a lot of different pockets of what this journey looks like not just for the person who’s dealing with addiction or substance abuse disorder but also the loved one side of the equation too. As loved ones, we have to do our work too. I interviewed a CEO. His son has been dealing with substance abuse disorder. When he asked him, “What do you need from me,” he said, “I need you to do your work.” That resonates and rings in my ear as a truth.
There are a lot of people stepping up to the plate to try to do everything that they can. I like that more of friends and family are willing to be open about it but also more of us with substance use disorder, more people are going public because of the value of that. It is complicated. It’s like you’re giving your money to a charity. There are many good charities and ways to attack them.
We all have to find our lane, pursue that and hope that other people are picking up other parts of other balls that also need to be moved forward because you can’t fix everything. I can’t fix everything. I’ve created my focus and you created your focus. Other people are doing good work but it’s harder than it should be in this country. These things are harder than they should be.
This takes a village on so many fronts. I want to say how deeply grateful I am for you and the message that you bring, the work that you’re doing and your willingness to serve and be a voice for so many people.
I’m trying to make my book useful, like 30% about recovery. There are checklists and guidelines. I have a Twitter feed. I try to make that useful. It’s crazy but I post information on my Twitter feed. Science, articles and new perspectives are crazy. I do that because I thought, “What can I add to the conversation?” That’s the goal.
I want to share information with people who might not have access to it otherwise. I view the book as part of the advocacy. I did try hard to think about how to make the book of value, how to make it something that I hadn’t seen exactly in a book like that and how to find a place where I can add to the conversation or provide tools or ideas that might be useful to other people?
As soon as we can get it on there, I am a huge fan and it will be one of the books that I certainly recommend to the people that I work with and know. Thank you for doing it. Tell people how they can get ahold of you if they want to reach out to you.
The site is JunkieToJudge.com. You can message me there. Essays that I’ve written are also there, as well as some other information. My Twitter is @MaryBethO_. If you forget, just do Junkie to Judge. You can always find me. My book is on Amazon and all the usual sites or your local bookstore can get it.
Thank you for being with us and being the person that you are in the world. We need you.
It’s been a fabulous conversation. I appreciate it very much.
- From Junkie to Judge
- SMART Recovery
- Women For Sobriety
- Secular Organizations For Sobriety
- SHE RECOVERS
- The Body Keeps The Score
- @MaryBethO – Twitter
About Mary Beth O’Connor
Mary Beth has been sober since 1994. She also is in recovery from abuse, trauma, ptsd, and anxiety. Her story is chronicled in her memoir From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction. She’s had essays in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Recovery Today.
Mary Beth is a Director for She Recovers Foundation and LifeRing Secular Recovery. She regularly speaks on behalf of these organizations and about multiple and secular paths to recovery. She develops relationships with other organizations, such as Women for Sobriety. And Mary Beth trains attorneys and medical professionals about substance use disorder and recovery.
Six years into her recovery, Mary Beth attended Berkeley Law. She worked at a large firm, then litigated class actions for the federal government. In 2014 she was appointed a federal Administrative Law Judge, from which position she retired early in 2020.