I am a barrister and today I can say I am an alcoholic.

Now that the joys of dry January are long gone, how are you feeling about your drinking? If you are happy with things as they are, great. I am happy, but if I am perfectly honest, a part of me is jealous. No, part of me is very jealous.

Maybe you like the idea of drinking a bit less, in the same way that many of us would like to eat less or exercise more. If so, perhaps what follows is not going to apply to you. But does drinking get in the way of your life and your work? Is drink costing you more than money?

The transition for some of us from drinking one too many on an evening out to sitting alone drinking from dawn to dusk, or dusk to dawn, is a predictable one. For the first few years at the Bar my behaviour around drinking did not seem that different from many of my peers. There was the odd night when I embarrassed myself through drunken behaviour or failed to make it into chambers the next day.

Over time, I lost control over how much I drank and when I drank. I originally vowed I would never drink the night before a court appearance; but that rule went. Rarely did I make it into chambers on a Friday. Then Mondays were missed too, at first because I was recovering from weekend excesses, and then because the weekend simply merged into the week. Eventually it was impossible for me to know what days, if any, I would make it into chambers and the state I would be in if it did turn up.

Inevitably, my practice reduced as my drinking increased. The professional descent was mirrored by events in my personal life. Relationships were ended, friends were avoided, weddings and events were missed, debts piled up and my flat was sold to cover those debts. My response to these setbacks and the stresses that came with them was to drink the feelings away. My problems were caused by drinking, my response to problems was to drink and that led to more problems.

Eventually, I reached the stage where my life was a miserable existence of drinking alone, drinking to oblivion, coming to and starting the cycle again. Trips to hospitals became regular events. I felt hopeless and isolated. Colleagues and family sought to help. Trips to rehab followed, but relapses followed. Periods of sobriety lasting weeks or months let me try to start working again, but each time, I would disappear on another binge. I was unable to work and even if I was, no-one was offering me work. I was thrown out of the flat I rented and there was no prospect of the debts I had being paid.

It was at this lowest point I managed to start to put together a period of sobriety. I had been attending AA meetings for several years, but for the first time I attended 90 meetings in 90 days. I sought help everywhere including resources identified on the Wellbeing at the Bar website. Lawcare put me in touch with other barristers in recovery from alcoholism. The Barristers Benevolent Association offered financial advice and assistance, both of which came as a great relief and gave me a chance to focus on getting sober.

What happened in the following years happened slowly. I had to take time away from the Bar and found employment elsewhere. While at the time this felt like failure, it was, with hindsight the best thing that could have happened to me. The regular hours, the regular pay, the accountability of attendance, the increased social interactions all helped me. It also let me attend regular AA meetings.

Over time, one day at a time, I managed to stay sober and with that, other positives entered my life over the next few years. Promotions at work. Clearing of debts. A relationship. Marriage. Family. After a few more years, I returned to the Bar. The early days back had their moments of worry, after all, it had been a long time but after a few months it felt like being back home.

I still attend several AA meetings a week and work with a few barristers in their early days of recovery. Being in recovery working at the Bar has lots of unexpected advantages. Recovery programmes seem to help me deal much better with the ups and downs and oddities of professional life.

I have written this anonymously because that is what the traditions of 12 step recovery require. While AA worked for me, I know plenty of people who have changed their drinking habits with help from other sources too. Central to all their experiences and mine seemed to be finding somewhere we could be open with others about our issues and where there was some structure and accountability to our recovery decision.

If you recognise your own behaviour at any stage of my story and you think you may have a problem, then I hope you might be able to do something about it before your life gets into the mess mine did. The progress of alcoholism, or any addiction, is clinically predictable, just Google the Jellinek Curve for a graphic representation. Not everyone who comes to AA ended up in the state I did. I have seen many who recognise the warning signs at a much earlier stage.

For anyone suffering from alcoholism today, there is hope and there are resources that can help give some practical help in the options available to get well. There are links to those resources on the Wellbeing at the Bar website. If you have questions or want to try to stop drinking you might want to try an AA meeting; there is a fair chance that there will be another barrister sitting in there if you do. 


Crossing the line? Ask yourself…

There are two key questions that are core to the line between drinking too much to deal with stress and being an alcoholic:

  • Do you find yourself drinking more than you planned when you drink?
  • Do you find yourself drinking when you promised yourself you would not?

Those questions are at the heart of most clinical definitions of alcohol. They are also integral to the first of the AA’s 12 steps. If you answer “yes” to both, the option of simply cutting down is rarely available. Whilst the intention may be good, the results are no different. At that point willpower alone will not be enough.