Today, learn what happened after she decided to get clean and sober, while her best friend and sister did not.
How did she handle those feelings of despair and terror and manage the racing thoughts: “I got sober. Why can’t you?”
Mary Beth sits down today with KL Wells to discuss the multiple pathways in recovery from the perspective of an addict and a loved one. They speak on building an openness to change, permitting ourselves to pick up new tools when the old ones don’t work. They argue what works for you at one point in your recovery, may not be helpful later.
If you need help navigating a loved one’s recovery that isn’t on your timeline and needs a fresh perspective to help you manage your thoughts and feelings as they find their path, this episode is just for you!
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Mary Beth O’Connor: I’m A Recovering Addict, But I’m Also A Loved One
We have Mary Beth O’Connor back for the second time because I honestly loved talking to her. She’s wicked smart, thoughtful, a huge learner, and an advocate in the space that I believe is one of the pivotal spaces that will change so many lives and the trajectory of humanity in so many ways. Welcome, Mary Beth.
Thanks for having me back.
For those of you, this is our second episode with Mary Beth. Our first one was dropped on May 9th, and it is a great episode. I listened to it again. I am a huge fan. I would encourage you to go back if you haven’t listened to it, it is well worth the listen. That’s the tee-up for our time together. There were a couple of things that we talked about on the front end before we got on that would be important for our audience to hear perspectives on. One that was important for you was touching again on the notion of as a loved one, we’re in this with people who are dealing with substance abuse disorder, and there’s a relapse or a recurrence. We tend to think they’re back to ground zero. If you would speak to that, I would appreciate it.
I don’t think anybody goes back to day zero. That sounds as if you learned nothing or you’ve forgotten everything that you learned, and somehow your brain has been wiped clean of the knowledge. The person had some success for whatever period of time. Often, it’s weeks or even months. It’s not like that time is forgotten. There were things that were learned and experienced, behaviors, habits, and patterns that have been repeated during that time of sobriety that are there to be picked up again and to move forward. The other thing is what I encourage people to do is to look at the details of what exactly happened so that they can have a plan for next time.
For example, somebody offered you a drink and you hadn’t mentally prepared for it. It wasn’t an environment you were expecting. Were you surprised by the amount of pressure that you felt from peers maybe? You didn’t want to explain yourself or whatever it might have been. Was it something that in the back of your mind thinking, “Maybe this one time is okay?” Whatever happened, you can look at it and say, “When that comes up again, what’s my plan for next time?” You build a stronger foundation. You got it under control. You thought it out in advance. I don’t think you ever go back to zero.
Tracking time is a little different. For some people, I say, “You don’t go back to zero.” You can’t say you had 6 months if 3 times you used in 6 months. First of all, are you tracking sobriety time or recovery time? You can think of those as separate things. Continuous sobriety time is one way of tracking. From the last time I use until now, that’s continuous sobriety time. You can be in recovery for a lot longer than your continuous sobriety time. I know people that have been sober for 5 years except for 3 days in the 5 years. They counted it as 5 years minus 3 days, whatever works.
Tracking time can be helpful to a lot of people because they see it as a success point, “I’ve got 30, 60, or 90 days.” When people are struggling with getting any length of continuous sobriety in the beginning, sometimes it’s negative and it can make people feel, “I failed again.” Sometimes it’s better to just stop tracking. It’s like any other tool. It helps some people at some point and sometimes it’s not useful. We need to get rid of this rigid grasping onto the last day I used. The next day is day one and I have to track it. I can only think of it as continuous sobriety and not the bigger picture. Looking at the bigger picture can be often helpful. It can help people see the bigger long-term pattern.
Several things are coming out of what you said for me. One is that it is figuring out what works versus what doesn’t work. I love the fact that you built a personal plan for yourself. You picked the tools, the beliefs, and the things that you believe would work for you, and you let the rest go. We tend to have these rigid ways of looking at how this has to go in order for it to work. For the most part, that’s not the truth. It’s the notion of thinking through, “Does keeping track of time work for me in terms of supporting me in my sobriety, and in my recovery?” If it doesn’t, then dump it. It’s giving people permission to pick up the things that work and lay down the things that don’t work.
There is not any tool that I can think of that works for everybody all the time. I don’t know of a tool like that. People are different. Even what works at one point in your recovery may not be helpful later. The identifier for me in meetings is, “I’m Mary Beth and I’m an addict.” When I first got sober, I didn’t mind saying it. I thought I needed to beat it into my brain. It was part of that process of acceptance that I wasn’t going to be able to use again and that I did have a substance use disorder. Later, after about maybe six months, it wasn’t feeling connected to me to who I was.
I was announcing it like this is the most important part of me. This is the essence of who I am. By six months sober, that felt untrue. It wasn’t the essence anymore that I was a person with some sobriety, and that I wasn’t in active addiction anymore. Why was I announcing it as if I was? I found women for sobriety where you announced, “I’m Mary Beth, and I’m a competent woman.” That’s the introduction. That met me where I was. The tool that helped in the beginning wasn’t a tool that worked for me all the way through.
We always need to be paying attention to whether this is working or not. With someone has a slip or a relapse, it is a good time for a reevaluation, “What have I been doing? Is what I’ve been doing helping me? Do I need to let anything go? What do I need to add?” If you do have some a slip, it’s usually a good idea to think about, “What can I do to reinforce my program? What can I do to make it stronger? What can I do to reduce my risk of having this happen again?”
The notion of labels is another conversation. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in recovery and having a difficult time with what you talk spoke to. We’re all bigger than our biggest “mistakes” or whatever it is. We’re bigger than our addictions. If we label ourselves, then we put ourselves in a certain box that doesn’t allow for the fullness of who we are in the world.
Except for some people, it’s a way for them to keep connected to something that they don’t want to turn back to. For some people saying, “I’m Mary Beth. I’m an addict for 10 or 20 years,” it is comfortable. It’s a reminder every day of the reality that they have a substance use disorder, and that most likely, they shouldn’t risk using any substances. It depends on the person. I thought about it with the title of my book, From Junkie to Judge. I thought a lot about word use and terminology. I wouldn’t use that for anyone else, but I used it on purpose because I wanted to own my IV drug use. I wanted to use that title as a destigmatizing tool, from shooting drugs to a judge.
It was for a certain purpose. I wouldn’t use it in any other context, but in that context, I had a purpose. It’s important to think through what you’re using and what’s comfortable and what’s helping you. To say, “I’m Mary Beth and I’m a competent woman,” that felt like, “Let’s stand up straight. You sit up straight and be tall and be proud.” That was energizing for me. It depends on who you are and where you’re at. It’s important to be open to change and to be open to constantly reevaluating the tools you’re using and if they’re still working for you.
What you spoke to there, which we touched on when we talked previously, was this notion of humanity. You became a meth user at a time when you were, at least the way that I remember those times because I’m a little bit older than you, the scum of the earth. Meth is so much more of a thing now than it was back then when you were using it, from my perspective. You poke at this whole notion of, “I’m still a human being first.”
The difference today is what I see on television. I watched some of those shows about people with a meth use disorder in more rural and impoverished parts of the country. It’s presented as entertainment as if they’re not real people. They’re not presented as full human beings. There’s usually little context to their story. It’s watching a car crash and look at how bad this is. It’s almost inexplicable. We can’t understand and explain it. Therefore, we can’t empathize, sympathize, or be compassionate.
I don’t like the way that meth users or any drug users are presented in most of the media for that reason. They are full people with a full story. Something drove them to get to where they are today. Usually, it’s some pain or trauma. Whatever the reason, it’s not like they’re living a happy life. It’s not like they’re thrilled to be where they are. We ought to be compassionate and not just be looking at them as if they’re almost animals in a zoo or something that’s not fully human. That’s the way it is often presented.
Given the fact that one in three American families deals with a family member that is dealing with substance abuse disorder, what the heck are we thinking? You look on the right or the left of yourself, one of you is going to be dealing with it.
You think that would reduce the stigma, but we’re not there yet. It is getting somewhat better in part because more people are being open about the recovery. It’s one reason I speak openly about my recovery and about the depths and burrows of my addiction, but you’re right. What other mental health issue do we have this kind of reaction to? Don’t get me wrong. It can be hard for people to acknowledge, professionally that they have a history of anxiety or depression or other things.
There is some stigma associated, but substance use disorders are by far the most stigmatized of any medical condition that I know of, except maybe obesity which has a lot of stigma around it too. It is crazy because we all have loved ones who have struggled. If you don’t, you will soon because it’s too prevalent for that. It’s almost sometimes we understand the specifics of our person, but yet we’re able to judge all the other people, which is crazy. It’s like there are others, but this is my person. My person is it’s not her fault. My person is I understand, but those other people. They’re in a different box. When they’re not in a different box, they’re the same. There’s a common thread through all of this and for all of us.
I’m super curious about the other side of the coin. You dealt with your addiction for 20 years. You took it on and have been clean and sober for 30 years now.
Rocking on. That’s so awesome. As a sober clean person, you were dealing with your sister, and your best friend still. I want you to speak to the other side of the coin.
When I talk to friends and family, I always emphasize that I’m friends and family to everybody with a substance abuse disorder. We are also friends and family. When I got sober, my sister who is two years younger than I am was still using. Her circumstances were worse than mine. I was in a more stable housing situation and a more stable partner situation. She was homeless at times and living in much more challenging circumstances. She wasn’t getting sober on my timeline. I brought my sister in when I was about a year sober.
She lived in Arizona and I live in California. It took some convincing to go into my rehab. I would pay for her to go into my rehab and she agreed. I even got them to move her up the waitlist faster than normal. I flew her from Arizona to California, and I drove her to rehab. Eight days later, they called and told me, she was insisting on leaving. I was so frustrated. I went there. I sent her back on the bus. I wasn’t going to fly her back there. I couldn’t trap her in California. I sent her back on the Greyhound.
She eventually got on her own path years later. It’s frustrating and it’s frightening because sometimes she would disappear for months. One time we didn’t hear from her for a year. We don’t know if she’s still alive or what’s happening. I used to imagine what I would be doing when the phone rang and I got the call that she was gone. I take that out of my head. I understand the frustration. She didn’t do it on my timeline. It creates a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety. It’s also about, “Where’s the line?” My friend Gina is my best friend in college. She’s the closest person I’ve ever had. I felt so interconnected with her. Our histories were so similar. The love was so deep.
When I got sober, she was happy for me, but it didn’t trigger her to do it. She had a heroin addiction. I would see her and she was always excited. I was in law school to law school one day between classes. I ran into her in San Francisco. She was telling her friends, “She’s going to law school now.” She didn’t do it. Eventually, she died. There’s all that second-guessing, “Did I make enough effort? Did I try to convince her?” There’s no way to drag her in. I was an example. I would mention it to her, but there’s that second-guessing, “Did I try hard enough? Was I enough for her or was I not?” That was hard.
You’re touching on all the things that I’ve been through, and those of us who love people have been through. A year without hearing from your sister, how did you navigate for yourself to stay mentally healthy and strong, and live your life in the midst of the chaos and the trauma of this disease?
When she was missing, my mother was looking through the papers for the unidentified Jane Does because she had some tattoos, and we could identify her that way. I knew she had been arrested, and so they could find her fingerprints. I thought that eventually, they would probably find us if she were gone because she had a criminal record. It’s one of those things where it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s in the background and then suddenly, something triggers your memory and the fear rises up again, or it’s my birthday and I didn’t hear from her. Usually, I would hear from her at least on my birthday. What does it mean that I didn’t hear from her?
I was worried she had died, but I also knew that even if she was alive, if she wasn’t in touch with us, she was in a bad place. She would’ve been in touch with us if she was even doing halfway decent. I was worried about what she might be going through, what kind of living situation she was in, what she was having to get drugs or who she might be, what man she might be with, and how safe he might be or not. We grew up in a violent household. We both had a tendency to pick violent boyfriends at times. You’re trying to go forward with your life. Mostly I could, but every once in a while there’s that reminder that brings up the fear.
Part of my experience is, at times, there had been this underlying unease. I’m aware of it. I can feel it. Sometimes I’m better at relieving it than others because of the worry and all the things that you mentioned. For a lot of people, this is one of the big questions. How do you manage in the middle of no connection for months or a year or years, when you still have a heart that is wondering and still loving them from extension?
If it’s having a significant impact on your own mental health or your own well-being, that’s a time when you might need professional help to deal with your own feelings because they’re valid. There’s a normal range where we’re all going to have it in that situation. For some people, it becomes more of an obsessive cycle, or you can’t let go of the fear. It becomes embedded in your existence. If you’re in that place, then professional help is probably a good idea.
There are also friends and family support groups. People know usually about Al-Anon, which is the 12-steps version, but there are others. There’s Hazelden. LifeRing offers Friends and Family, which is a secular smart recovery. There are other friends and family options on the internet. There are groups, and that can be helpful to talk it out and share your concerns and take anything else. The shared understanding can be a stress reliever or an anxiety reliever, and to know other people who are going through it. It is a real challenge.
Culturally, we have more of a propensity to isolate because we’re ashamed. We’re afraid of what people are going to think. We think we’re the only ones, which is so ridiculous at this point. Back in the day, prior to your experience in getting clean and sober, I helped my brother get into rehab. I didn’t know anybody who was dealing with this. I was open about it. I felt very alone at that time. Now, there is hardly anybody that you can talk to that doesn’t have it in their family or a friend, which is stunning.
Part of that is that hopefully, people are being more open about it. The substance use disorder rate percentage in America hasn’t changed that much over the last twenty years. It’s high compared to the rest of the world. America has a bigger problem than the rest of the world. It hasn’t gone up much in the last twenty years. It’s just that more people are talking about it, which is a positive. That can be good for people to know they’re not alone, and that others have gone through it.
Also, the practicalities. How do you find a rehab for someone? What are the questions that you would ask? How do you even evaluate these programs? Talking to other people who’ve been through it, there cannot just be an emotional benefit, but there can be practical information that can be shared that can relieve the burden of trying to figure it out all on your own and all by yourself in isolation. There are a lot of mutual support benefits at multiple levels.
Two things, one is we are more isolated now than we’ve ever been in terms of not having that 2 or 3 close friends we can turn to. When Sam was arrested, I was there. That was hugely traumatic for me. As soon as I fell out emotionally, and when I picked myself back up again, I got on the back phone and started calling my friends. I’ve got a great community. My community has grown so much larger now because of this experience and realizing how important the community was for me to continue to navigate mentally healthy, and all the things. It’s a courageous step for people to make that first phone call and ask for help, ask for guidance, or ask for information.It's a courageous step for people to make that first phone call and ask for help, guidance, or information. Click To Tweet
The support groups can be a place to develop those friendships that you might be missing too. For people with a substance use disorder too, a lot of early recovery friendships arise out of peer support groups. That can be helpful as you’re moving forward and going along. I know a lot of people hang out at those groups longer than they might need individually to be of service to the newcomers that are coming in. That can be a real positive cycle of people sharing the information they have, sharing the support that they have, and sharing the comfort that they have.
Let’s shift a little bit here. It’s connected to my head. Early in our conversation on the 9th of May, you talked about when you had that first drink of Boone’s Farm, which is what my first drink was too, and how you felt happy. I’m super curious as to what’s happy for you now.
When I used to think about happiness, I thought of it as a big joyous event. It’s got to be something big. You’re going to the theater or your husband proposes, or the joy is somehow at this heightened level. As I’ve gone through my sobriety time, I realized happiness is more a typical day level. For me, happiness is about a lack of chaos, first of all.
Not being emotionally distraught, but also it’s the quiet times of my husband or going out to dinner with friends and having a conversation. Feeling productive and useful is a type of happiness, feeling that you’re being of value, and being there for your friends when they need you. I couldn’t do that in my using. God forbid, if somebody needed me, they’d have a 10% chance that I could focus on what they were talking about than be useful in any way.
Those connections and relationships are built through everyday conversations, but also when you need emotional support, they’re there for you. When they need it, you’re there for them. Those are joyful experiences and happy experiences. I like to go on vacation. Those can be happy times, but part of the reason they’re happy is because I have time with my husband, or I’m visiting friends out of town, wherever we are. I learned to think of it more as contentment, emotional fulfillment from relationships, and bonding time with my people. Those are primary sources of happiness.
Speak to the journey into the depth of feelings.
When I was using throughout my childhood because of the violence, the feelings that I knew were heightened feelings like rage, anger, frustration, fear, and terror. Those were the feelings. Anxiety was a huge one. When I got sober and went into therapy, my therapist would ask me how did I feel about something, I would look perplexed. I had no words. She had to give me a feelings card. It had 24 feelings. It was two columns. It was laminated like this big. If she asked me how I felt or when the doctor and I were having conversations, she said I should pull it out if I wanted to describe it. I had to look.
There are a lot more emotions than 24. They are categories because I didn’t have the words or the connection. It also did take a while for the less intense and less heightened feelings for me to even be able to know that I felt them. I was used to operating at that level. It took a while for me to be aware of small moments of happiness or feeling like productive because I got something done. It’s that bonded feeling when you’re with a friend and you’re having a close emotional conversation. It took me a while to even be able to feel those experiences, to have those emotions come to my consciousness, and to make me aware of them. It was a retraining process.
As I was having fewer of those crazy heightened emotions, there was almost space now for me to be able to have the more everyday feelings like minor irritation even. Minor irritation would’ve gone underneath my radar. It took a while for me to know. Sometimes I would get snippy because it was an irritation at this level, not this level, but I was reacting to it. I didn’t even know I was reacting to it because I didn’t know I was feeling it. Part of it was also noticing those behavioral cues. Why am I acting this way? Sometimes I had to process it backward. Here’s the input, and here was my reaction. I wonder what feeling was in between.
It was definitely an evolutionary process. It’s common with people in early substance use recovery. They are usually either disconnected from friends or they get overwhelmed by feelings they haven’t had in a long time. Sometimes it’s a combination of both depending on the specific emotional area and their past history. It is common that you might get frustrated with something. It’s this overwhelming level that you don’t know how to manage because you haven’t had to experience managing it because you were using. Using tamps down a lot of the emotions and you don’t get to feel them. It is a process for most of us.
I was talking to a dad who has a son dealing with substance abuse disorder. He’s a very successful CEO who was a workaholic. What he talked about in terms of his own journey with this was learning how to feel also.
If you’re working all the time, you don’t have time to do anything else. It’s sucking up all your emotional energy, your mental energy, and your actual time. I’m on the board with She Recovers. It’s about recovery from anything. Overwork is a big one. I was at an event and a woman was talking to me about her perfectionism. She always has this where everything has to be perfect. I told her that first of all, perfectionism can be a trauma response. It can tamper down. It’s an anxiety response. It’s a type of anxiety. That can keep a lot of other emotions at bay because this one feeling overrides everything else. I’m anxious. I need to be perfect. I’m working 78 hours a week. I’m either working and focusing or I’m exhausted and sleeping. That’s my entire life. There’s no room for anything.Perfectionism can be a trauma response. Click To Tweet
That was part of what happened with his family. He was completely emotionally disconnected. He talked about being the person with the grand gesture. Because he was making so much money, he could pay for the trips, cars, boats, or whatever that was, but he couldn’t emotionally connect with his family. He chose to leave professionally and start on this journey of rediscovering what it was to be a human.
When I got sober, I went to law school. I’m six and a half years sober when I went to law school, then I went and worked at a big law firm. I’m from a blue-collar working-class family. I went to Berkeley Law, which is a major accomplishment in my sobriety. I got a job at a big law firm. My bonus was my mother’s annual salary. It was that big of a differential. I got into that treadmill of all those hours and I had to cancel events. We’d have tickets to the ballet or whatever and I couldn’t go most of the time because something would come up at work.
I remember being on the beach and they’re calling me when I’m on vacation. I was at work pretty much seven days a week. At first, it was an achievement that I had gotten something back that I would’ve had earlier in my life if I wouldn’t be using until I was 32. It was an enticing achievement. It’s like, “Look what I’ve accomplished.” It was reinforcing. It was a type of happiness in the beginning. Over time, it was overtaking my life. It was about, “Is this how I want to live? I do have a choice here. I don’t have to keep going like this.”
Even though there were reasons why they attracted me four years ago, it doesn’t mean I’m committed for life. I decided to leave. I said they can’t make me do it. I don’t have to do this anymore, but you can get in that cycle because there is that positive achievement. Especially if you’re achievement-oriented, there’s a positive benefit in the beginning, but it can lose its sheen and lose its benefit over time. Seeing that it has done that can be challenging when you’re stuck in this high pace cycle. It’s hard to find time to even stand back and evaluate it when you’re on that treadmill.
It’s a different type of addiction. It steals your life as much as the other stuff does. We live in a culture that massively rewards that kind of behavior. I do think it is courageous and counter-cultural to be able to say, “Is this the life that I want to live?” “Nope, this is not the life I want to live. I’m going to go create the life I do want to live.”
When I resigned from that job, it was huge. I debated that decision for a long time, but I never regretted it after I left. It was just a big step. It was about, “I’m sober now. Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life? This is not really what I want. I needed more balance and more time for friends and family.” That is what it mostly came down to. I needed more time for friends and family.
How was it? Did you go from a law firm to being a judge? What was the transition there?
I went from a big firm to a smaller firm for a year, and then I started working for the Federal government as a lawyer first. As a lawyer, I was leading or co-leading class actions worth $100 million. Even when I got to the government job, somehow I ended up on this treadmill. It was a slower-paced treadmill, but it was somewhat of a treadmill.
I remember when they gave me one of my big cases. I realized everyone was like, “I’ll do this if you want me to,” but I didn’t feel the need to do it anymore. I didn’t feel the need to have the biggest case or the most prestigious case. It was like if you want me to do it and you’re paying me, I will do it and I will do my best. I had lost that emotional requirement to be the golden girl, which I had been. I did work for them as a lawyer for eight years, then I became a Federal administrative law judge.
The way that I interpreted part of what you said was the need to prove yourself.
First of all, there was that sense of lost time. I got sober at 32. I felt I was trying to make up for what I would’ve had if I wouldn’t have been in my addiction, especially those last 10 years after college. If I would’ve been sober when I graduated college, my life would’ve been very different than getting sober at 32. There was financial pressure also. I had debt and I was behind on retirement savings and all those other things. I had a bigger mortgage on my house, and I probably would’ve had one if I would’ve been working for 10 consecutive years instead of using meth for those 10 years. There were some real actual financial needs that needed to be addressed and resolved.
It was also that sense of trying to get back a loss. When I got into Berkeley Law, which I had started to do right out of college but couldn’t because of my addiction, that was a recouping of something that I wanted. It is easy to get caught up in that and keep going, and not stand back and reevaluate. It was Gina’s death that caused me to. I was thinking about it a little bit, but her death was pushing it. I felt that even though I don’t think I could have made her go into rehab, I was working so much. I wasn’t available to her. I was thinking about, do I want to do that again and not be available to my people. It was also wearing on me after four years.
The school had always been my special place. I had always gotten a lot of positive attention. I did well in law school. I got a top-tier job. At the top-tier job, I was excelling. I was at the top of my class every year. That was where I had always had my positive reinforcement. I was happy to get back that type of positive reinforcement again, and to be able to stand back and say, “That’s good but I can’t live my life racing for it or trying. I can’t be the goal of my life. It could be, but I don’t want that.
I generally think that story is very emblematic of the success story in America. More and more people are reevaluating what success is. This idea of the importance of relationships in our lives, we want more of them and more time with our people. We want to be more of an expression of love instead of productivity.
We all want to be productive to a point. I remember saying, it wasn’t the work. If they would’ve let me work, 75% of the hours that I was working, I might’ve stayed because it was the volume. It is about the right balance. I think of some of the younger generations, their priorities have shifted to a certain degree. I hear sometimes people my age complaining about it. They’re setting some boundaries around what they’re willing to do to be successful. They’ll do this, but they’re not going to go that far. Good for them.
I’m totally in support. I do believe that, hopefully, most of us can reevaluate what success means in life. Being a productivity cog in the cosmic wheel is not life success.
I’m sure there’s a small percentage of people that love it, and good for them. For most of us, it’s a standard that has been imposed on us culturally that we may not agree with. We just haven’t always had time to stand back and think about it. It’s nice to have people think about it. I’ll say in recovery, it’s not uncommon that people to have this urge to make up for lost time. You’re getting in recovery, especially if you didn’t get so much in your 30s or your 40s. You have this sense that you need to make up for things. That can be an impetus that can sometimes derail us onto a track that isn’t what we want in the long run. You’re trying to make up for lost ground, whether it’s financially or professionally, or to rebuild your sense of value in society. That can sometimes turn amiss, especially over time.
In those worlds that you walk in now, are you having some of these kinds of conversations with people?
A lot of the younger lawyers that I talk to look at it differently. For example, I mentor a student every year at Berkeley Law, a first-generation professional because that’s what I was. Some of them are interested in the same big law track. They’re concerned about the demands. They want to have a real conversation about what the job is really like. What am I expected to do? What am I giving up and what am I going to get for it? One of the things I talk to them about if they do it is they should think of it as a 2 to 3-year commitment.
While they’re there, here are the skills you should get so that if you choose to leave, you can leave. You should always be thinking about what’s in my own best interest, how am I building my resume up so that I could walk out if I want to? Also financially, be careful not to get what we call golden handcuffed. Not to get so many financial obligations that you need that salary in order to survive. These are techniques that you can share with younger people to help them avoid getting trapped. The worst thing is when you find yourself trapped.
A lot of people don’t have that option. There are people who have to work two jobs to survive. That’s a whole other level of structural problem in our society that people have to do. For them, it’s not as simple as saying, “I choose not to work 60 hours a week, or I choose not to do this.” It’s not always an option for people. For those that it is, it can be important to think about what you want your life balance to look like.
Where are you currently in the life that you are inspired to create?
I emphasized early retirement. It was early in 2020. My goal at that point was to do what I’d done. I wanted to finish my book and I wanted to develop an advocacy role because I felt not enough people talk about multiple pathways, or at least it’s not at a high enough visibility. There needs to be more people talking about it and trying to get opportunities at as high level and as frequent level as I can. I felt that my individual story because it was unusual, the Junkie to Judge might capture attention and let me do that. Everything I wanted to talk about was the substance use trauma connection because people under-appreciate it.
That can also be a stigma reducer. Appreciating that could be one avenue to help reduce stigma. If people knew the context, maybe they wouldn’t be so judgmental about it. I wanted to build that role for myself, also at a part-time level so that I could do some more things with my husband and do some more things with my family. I still want to be of service. I still want to be of use. This is a new role for a new phase of life for me. It’s an exciting role, but it is also intellectually challenging. There is a lot of new research coming out about substance use disorder and recovery.
I try hard to keep up with all the studies, new ideas, and new thinking because things have changed in the 29 years that I’ve been sober. I want to be as useful a tool as I can in sharing some of that information. I was speaking at a National Association of Mental Illness event recently, and they were asking me about decriminalization. I gave what is usually my number one point, which is the Federal government defines SUD as a disease, and yet it criminalizes it. This is a contradiction. A woman in the audience stood up and she goes, “You blew my mind.”The Federal Government defines SUD as a disease, yet it criminalizes it. This is a contradiction. Click To Tweet
I’m like, good. This is the impact that you want, which is to share ideas and help people understand it at a deeper level. That was very rewarding to hear her in-the-moment emotional response and to know that it’s getting through and it’s sharing information that can add value, help change minds, help promote evidence-based approaches, help reduce stigma, help people be a little more empathetic, and all of those things. It does feel rewarding to be at this point in my life where I’ve never been able to talk about my story openly and professionally. I never did it. Now that I can, I’m trying to use it as a tool. For me, it’s a tool.
Are you at that point, since you’re in the space of service and advocacy as a life’s path? Do you identify your experience as a gift?
No. I would never want anyone to have to go through what I did. I know people go through it every day. My experience is the combination of having physical and sexual, two multi-assailant rape as a child, and other sexual assaults and violence. That combination is a little on the high side. My A score is an 8, which is on the high side. People go through those experiences every day. I don’t think that’s a benefit. Once it happens, you have to decide what you’re going to do with it and how you’re going to use it. In some ways, sometimes it was helpful.
When I had that multi-assailant rape where I could have died, my trauma history came in handy because I knew how to disassociate from the emotions and deal with the situation. That was helpful. It probably saved my life, but it would’ve been better to have had neither of those experiences. I do think that whatever happens, we have to figure out what are we going to do with it. How are we going to process it? How are we going to use it? How can it increase our empathy and our understanding, how can it help our growth, and all of that? Can I use it as a tool?
I certainly would not wish it on anyone. The thing that everything happens for a reason drives me crazy because I don’t think that’s true. It minimizes the pain that people go through in their experience. It’s as if saying, “It shouldn’t hurt that much because you use it for a valuable purpose.” The pain is real. We have to get through the pain. We have to process the pain. If we can do something beneficial with it, that’s wonderful. What I would like us to do is reduce the frequency of these events so that fewer people have to go through them.Pain is real. We have to get through the pain. We have to process the pain. If we can do something beneficial with it, that's wonderful. Click To Tweet
Two things pop up as you’re saying in this, Mary Beth. One is that my experience so far is because of all the things you did experience, you are uniquely qualified to speak to this in ways that I have not run across anybody who has the experience you have. I’m blessed and so grateful that you are who you are in terms of your experience, and the impact that you will be able to have because of your experience. I’m deeply grateful and I would never wish this on anybody.
I want to give an exclamation point for my gratitude for you and how you’re able to articulate this in ways that other people aren’t able to hear. They’ll probably be more women that rise up in the audience and go, “You blew my mind.” Also, hopefully, some more men that rise up. One of the things I was wondering was, what are you reading right now? What is something that you’ve learned that has begun to shift your thinking about this whole world that we’re living in?
On the recovery side, my ideas have evolved. I was taught when I went into recovery that if you have a substance use disorder, 100% of the people who ever had a problem with any substance can use no substances again for the rest of their lives. That’s what I was taught. I assumed it to be true. It turns out the science doesn’t support that. There are people who can give up one substance and manage another. There’s some data that shows that if you had a substance use disorder for one substance, you’re also developing for another that’s lower than the general population. It is an interesting study.
I don’t mean to say that everybody who had a problem should be going out and trying other drugs. I don’t, and I never will. My abstinence is solid. I do feel that for me. It’s probably because of the severity of my substance use disorder. Another change is we don’t talk about it as a light switch but as a curve like mild, moderate, severe, and other mental health illnesses. For me, picking up any substance would be extremely high risk. I do think their odds are high. Eventually, I would turn back to a problem so I don’t do it. I’m not everybody. People that are on the mild scale may find that they can give up alcohol because it’s bad, but cannabis isn’t causing a problem.
Part of it is the way we define a substance use disorder. It’s about negative consequences. If you’re using cannabis without anything else, and it’s not having significant negative consequences in your life, it doesn’t count as a substance use disorder. It’s also that now, there are some medical benefits for some conditions for using low-dose hallucinogens, ketamine, or cannabis. For some conditions, those are beneficial. I support medication-assisted treatment for ibuprofen, methadone, Naloxone, and whatever it might be as a tool to help people have a stable life. It used to be that while you’re on methadone, you’re not sober. I don’t care how but to me, that’s crazy talk.
If you’re on a maintenance drug that’s allowing you to live your life without the negative consequences, you may be dependent, but that’s not the same thing as addiction. Those are some of the more nuanced ideas and different changes in my thinking that have happened. It’s important to talk about the true spectrum and not just to limit ourselves to black and white, or the yes or no. We have to be more honest, but part of it is that you lose people if you tell them things that aren’t the truth. You need to be honest about the reality.You lose people if you tell them things that aren't the truth. You need to be honest about the reality. Click To Tweet
When people or newbies tell me that they want to give up one thing and keep the other, my advice to them is that works for some people, but for a lot of people, it won’t work. What I suggest is that if you want to try it, that’s fine, but be honest about what’s happening as a result. Are you able to keep the other substance under managed use such that it’s not having those negative impacts on your life? If the answer is no, you got to admit that to yourself and build a new plan. Maybe you’re a person who perfect abstinence is going to work better. To pretend as if nobody can do it or it’s never the right answer is false. I don’t want to be giving people false information. Even when it requires a more complicated and lengthy discussion, it’s just no.
People have a tendency to want to make decisions in black and white, and they’re simpler that way. Life is complicated. We’re complicated. As you said, one thing for one person is not the same thing for another person. Sussing that out is a journey.
The sciences evolve. There is a lot more research in the last 10 years than there were 10 years before that. Part of what I’m saying, there’s actual data that shows this. It’s not just some crazy idea or people’s, individual experiences. There’s some data behind this. We need to be open to new ideas, change our minds, and follow what is shown to work for some people. To get out of, “This is what worked for me. Therefore, it’s the right answer for everybody.” If somebody says that to me, it’s a red flag. I’m an abstinence person. I will be abstinent for the rest of my life. That doesn’t mean everyone has to follow my exact path, or that’s the only path forward.
You spoke so well about picking the things that would work for you and letting the rest of it go. The notion that you were told that it had to look a certain way, I do think that’s always a recipe for questioning when you’re told, “It absolutely has to look this way. If you don’t do it this way, you’re doomed.”
It’s thinking about let’s say parents when they talk about drugs. If you give them false information, even the parts you said that were true get discounted. If you’re lying about part of it, then your entire message is undermined. It’s more important to tell the truth. Part of it is that recovery is a process. It does require honesty. Some people, for example, moderate down to abstinence. I was told when I started, “You can’t do that. You got to shut it all off.” The reality is the data shows some people can and do better moderating down to abstinence.
When a newbie tells me that they want to try that, my information is, “For some people that works. You need to keep your eye on your plan. If you say you’re going to reduce it this much over these two weeks, did you do it or are you still back where you were?” It is almost a little more work than just trying to shut it off because you’ve got to look at the nuances. It partially does require that the person in recovery who has a plan is keeping their mind open and their eyes peeled for what’s happening as a consequence of their plan. Is their plan working? That is a question you need to be asking a lot in the beginning.
The truthfulness about what’s working and what’s not working is probably paramount mission-critical.
It’s even the whole truthfulness with parents when they talk to their kids about drugs. The opioid overdose epidemic or the overdose epidemic in general is about 20% or 25% of stimulant-related deaths. For parents to be honest about the reality of things like, “Say no.” The truth is a very high percentage of parents today dabbled in drugs in their teenage years. They just didn’t develop a problem. Today, dabbling can be even more dangerous than it was then because of fentanyl and other issues.
Have an honest conversation about things like don’t use behind closed doors by yourself because that’s how people die. Your friends should have Narcan and an understanding of how to use it if anybody is using drugs or if you’re using it in a group. Maybe you don’t do it together. Maybe one person tries it, see what happens, and then the next. It’s that awareness that they don’t know what they’re taking. It’s not that you’re saying go ahead and do it. It’s that you’re giving them honest information because the odds are either they or someone they know is going to do these things.
Stick your head in the sand and say, “Just say no.” The Reagan motto doesn’t work. It can cause unexpected consequences for people. Your kids won’t talk to you if they know you’re not telling the full picture or you’re not there for them to have an honest conversation about it. When I was a kid, the things we heard about LSD is that everybody went crazy and ended up in a mental institution. As soon as you find out that’s not true, then you don’t believe the whole thing they said.
I very well remember that “Say no to drugs” campaign. What a farce.
Also, a lot of times, who were talking about that? The cops were coming into the school. It wasn’t as if it was being talked about from a health perspective. The reality is what we should be teaching is these are the real risks of drugs. There are real risks. It’s important that teenagers are informed about those actual risks so they understand them. Maybe you can take some steps to reduce them. I don’t want to pretend that all drug use is positive. It’s not all positive. Even if people don’t develop a substance use disorder, they can get pregnant, have car accidents, get in a fight, get arrested, and have criminal records. There are all kinds of consequences that can come from drug use that we should be honest about. It’s got to be in the bigger context of being realistic about what’s going on.
It’s almost a split conversation in terms of health risks and yet we criminalize it. That’s a whole other big conversation for us culturally to have. That mixing is crazy-making. It doesn’t make any sense at all. We’re still so steeped in arresting them and putting them in jail and don’t give them access to the resources that they need in order to turn their lives around. It’s insane.
The reality is it is defined as a disease by the government, and yet a high percentage of the people that are in jails or prisons are for pure possession. There are around half a million people still today in jail for possession. A very high percentage of them do have an actual substance use disorder, but even if they don’t, why do I care if they’re doing drugs if it’s not harming anybody else in any other way? If it’s harming other people, there’s usually another crime related to it like assault or driving under the influence. There are laws to take care of those other areas.
You don’t need laws to worry about people’s personal use when most personal use is not problematic. Most personal use is at a moderate level. Most personal use doesn’t cause any other crimes or any harm to anybody else. That’s the truth of it. We behave the opposite of that, and criminalizing has so many ripple effects on destroying people’s lives. Plus, the racial disparity in enforcement, which we talked about last time is a whole separate problem that undermines the way that we implement the drug laws or whether they should even be on the books at all for personal use.You don't need laws to worry about people's personal use when most personal use is not problematic. Click To Tweet
We could probably talk for a couple more hours. I do want to say immense gratitude to you. Is there anything that you want to leave our audience with in terms of their journey as somebody who loves somebody dealing with this disease?
In my book, From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction, 30% of the book is about recovery from the SUD and from the trauma. I do think that can be a useful tool. I do have guidelines and checklists in the back. I would mention crafts for friends and family. If I were in this situation today where I had a friend or family member, I would look at community reinforcement and family training, which is a good technique for family members. That’s where I would focus if I were a friend or family member. Mostly, get the support that you need. Think about your own mental well-being. You’re allowed to think about your own mental well-being. You can be loving and have boundaries. All of these are important ideas.
Thank you. I know you’re super busy with the book, all the speaking engagements, and interviews. For those of you who are not familiar with her book, it is an absolute read. It should be on the top list of books that are read for so many reasons. It is a page-turner and brilliantly done. The messaging matters at this point in time. Thank you for writing that.
Thank you. I wanted it to be useful. I’m glad to hear that’s how it’s hitting.
It’s getting circulated in my circles. Thank you for your time. Have an amazing summer. Enjoy while you’re home. We’ll probably have another conversation maybe next year when you’re a little bit more settled.
Thanks for having me back.
- From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction – Past Episode
- From Junkie to Judge
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.