Brian Cuban is a Dallas-based attorney, author, and addiction recovery advocate. His best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer, Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow, and Redemption, is a look back at how addiction to alcohol and drugs as well as other mental health issues destroyed his career as a once successful lawyer. He addresses how he redefined his life in recovery and found redemption. Sober since April 8, 2007, Brian now writes and speaks on recovery topics nationwide.
Here’s our interview with Brian Cuban:
Why do you think depression and substance abuse are so common among law school students and lawyers?
The job is a stressful one, and it tends to attract “type A” individuals. Unfortunately, it is also a profession that, starting in law school, does not encourage self-exploration of personal issues. We are too busy solving everyone else’s problems and are simply taught and conditioned that showing the vulnerability necessary for such exploration is weakness. We are a profession that tends to hold things in. We tell ourselves we are over it and have to deal with it. Or we simply ignore the issues altogether and wait for the consequences instead of seeking help at the earliest possible touch point.
Do you think the legal industry exacerbates these issues? If so, how?
Any high-stress occupation can exacerbate underlying mental health issues and other personal problems. Law schools are also part of this exacerbation by historically not providing enough awareness and resources needed for law students (even though students are clearly suffering.) The deans at various universities are at the front line in changing this culture and some are very involved in helping students as well—but to be frank, at least from my perspective, there are some who still do not make this a priority.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, in the legal profession we don’t talk about these issues as we should as a profession. However, the good news is that this is rapidly changing. For instance, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change is a report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, initiated in part by the American Bar Association. Also, many state bar associations and the state Lawyer Assistance Programs (which “provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues”) are trying to change the culture of addiction and mental health silence in the industry. They try to encourage their members to both talk within the profession and take advantage of the resources out there to get help.
How did your addiction and depression affect your personal relationships?
I have been divorced three times, all the relationships failing to one degree or another due to my addiction and depression. When a person spends all of his or her energy wearing a mask and building a wall to hide mental health and addiction issues from a significant other, that does not leave much room to love and let love in. The person locked out says, “You don’t love me.” Rather than risk being vulnerable to the person who wants to help, the answer often becomes, “You’re right, I don’t.” Marriages often take the path of least resistance straight to divorce.
What led you to finally getting help? Was it hitting rock bottom?
I am not a big fan of the term “rock bottom” because it implies the worst has to happen for change to occur. I prefer the term “recovery tipping point.” I want to change the culture that encourages struggling lawyers to wait for consequences to catch up with the problem before they take any recovery steps.
For me, the recovery tipping point was in April 2007 after my second trip to a psychiatric facility after a drug and alcohol-induced blackout in which my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) found me passed out in bed after coming back from a family visit. It was at that point that it hit me that I was on the tipping point of losing everything, including my life. I began 12-step recovery (the most well-known is Alcoholics Anonymous) and finally began allowing myself to be vulnerable with my therapist. Today, I am approaching 11 years sober from drugs and alcohol. The girlfriend who found me passed out stuck with me while I rebuilt the trust I destroyed and built my recovery. We have now been married for over a year. My family ties are stronger than they have ever been. I am happier than I ever could have imagined pre-sobriety.
Once you got sober, you stopped practicing law. Why?
My law practice was non-existent when I went into recovery. Its failure was the direct result of drugs and alcohol. I still have my law license as it has never been suspended. But as I like to joke, it’s not because of a lack of trying!
My not going back was more a function of the fact that I never wanted to be a lawyer and went to law school for terrible reasons. In my mind, staying in graduate school for three more years would delay having to go out into the real world and having to face my issues to the extent I realized I had any. In other words, when I graduated Penn State undergrad, I wanted to attend law school so I could continue the addictive behaviors that had become my daily survival.
Why did you feel it was important to write your book?
It is still taboo for society in general to talk about depression and addiction, less so than it used to be but it’s still there. That taboo or “stigma” is magnified in the legal profession because, as I stated earlier, we are a profession that is encouraged in law school to hide things about ourselves that we may perceive as “weaknesses.” In essence, we have the societal stigma in general and then we have the professional stigma piled on top of it. That’s a tough wall to break through.
Along with helping to break these stigmas, I always have various motives for writing books from an anecdotal perspective. I am exploring myself and using what I find to hopefully connect with others so they, in turn, will then explore themselves and possibly seek recovery or have a stronger recovery.
What advice do you have for law school students?
Law students tend to come out of law school less mentally healthy then they go in. My advice to incoming students is this: If you are already dealing with mental health issues, addiction, eating disorders, and other similar issues, have a wellness plan going in. I define a wellness plan as a complete circle of trust that you can turn to. If it is substance use, know the local 12-step groups. If your Lawyer Assistance Program assists law students, connect with them before you start school. They will know the resources available for you. If your law school doesn’t have student-run recovery groups but it is part of a larger university, see if the university has any such groups.
I often ask law students and lawyers to draw a circle and on that circle to make a list of their 10 top triggers for unhealthy behavior or increased stress. Then write out in a few words what the plan is to deal with each trigger in a healthy way: Who they will call? What self-care action they will take? That is the circle of trust. Make sure there are no gaps in the circle. Close it off to cover your common feelings and triggers.
Another part of that circle of trust going in is also how to release stress in a healthy way. Some law schools have wellness activities such as yoga and meditation. If not, find out if your larger university does. It is so important to make time for yourself.
Remember this: Addicted law students will most likely become addicted lawyers without a plan and treatment. And there is no such thing as a high-functioning lawyer who is also a problem drinker. Don’t wait for consequences to catch up with the problem. From a recovery and learning coping skills standpoint, today is as good as it is ever going to get.
*This is part two of our five-part series on mental health, substance abuse, and wellness in the legal industry. See the rest of the series here.