Steinberg: ‘Do you want to die? . . . Or do you want to be OK?’
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You can’t say Karen K. Harris isn’t smart.
Princeton undergrad. Harvard Law. Partner at a big law firm in Chicago.
“Theoretically, I’m smart and should know better,” Harris said. “It just wasn’t the case. It’s a disease, unfortunately. My father’s side of the family. I just happened to get it.”
The disease is alcoholism, which not only runs in families but in certain professions. Journalism is one, let me assure you. And law is another. A study published earlier this year of 12,825 attorneys by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that 20 percent of attorneys engage in “hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.” That’s one in five, twice the average for people in general.
“Lawyers are more likely to be problem drinkers,” said Patrick Krill, director of the Legal Professionals Program at Hazelden and one of the study authors. “It’s a very stressful environment with an abundance of alcohol.”
For Harris, the problem began slowly.
“I drank moderately at college,” she said. “I started as the only African-American woman attorney at the firm, and felt a lot of pressure to succeed. I wanted to fit in. Every Wednesday and Thursday we’d go out for cocktails. It was the culture.”
She graduated from Harvard in 1994, and by 1996 was “pretty much drinking every day. … I knew really quick I was in trouble.”
But knowing you have a problem and doing something about it are very different things, particularly for attorneys. Alcohol or drugs are involved in 60 percent of malpractice claims and disciplinary cases.
“There’s an overwhelming reluctance to reach out and get any kind of help,” said Krill.
“I was in trouble, but I was afraid to do anything,” said Harris. “I am a lawyer and have a law license and if someone finds out, what happens to my license?”
So she did what so many alcoholics do: try to hide it.
“I thought, ‘I can handle this. I’m smart. I can manage it, somehow,'” Harris said. “But you can’t really manage it on your own.”
Eventually she sought help; in 1999, she went to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and had a typical reaction.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to help. How stupid this is, what a bunch of losers,'” she recalled. “‘We’re all losers, and we’re in a church basement because we can’t figure out our lives.'”
So she stopped going.
“It really didn’t stick,” she said. “I drank for another 10 years.”
But alcoholism doesn’t go away; untreated, it gets worse. Harris kept trying.
“I went to the evening program at Rush. That didn’t take,” she said. “I wound up taking a day program at Hazelden. That didn’t take. Finally, I was in-patient at Hazelden in Minneapolis.”
That worked, for the past eight years anyway. What changed?
“I had to make the decision that I needed to live,” she said.
She worked as a not-for-profit lobbyist for five years, and then the legal profession came calling again, and Harris had to ask herself if she could take the risk.
“I’d been toying with the idea of going back to a firm,” she said. “They made me an offer, it was a big dilemma. I had a long conversation with my sponsor. Whether to go back to a law firm, the hours, the kind of atmosphere, whether that was conducive to recovery.”
She took the job, at Arnstein & Lehr, a 200-person law firm, deciding that she wouldn’t worry about billable hours, just about staying sober.
At the end of the first year, they made her a partner.
“I damned near fell out of my chair,” Harris said. “I called my sponsor and said, ‘Remember, my goal was just to stay sober for a year ….'”
Is she confident that she can stick with sobriety?
“I don’t know I have another recovery in me,” she said. “I don’t want to take that risk. It comes down to: Do you want to drink and die? Or do you somehow get over it, move on and be OK?”