On September 22, 2005, a 29-year old man appeared in a rural South Dakota courtroom. His criminal history did not look all that different from the dozen or so other defendants waiting to be arraigned or sentenced that day. Like the rest, this man spent years in and out of similar courtrooms – a DUI here, a driving under suspension there. Like the rest, this man was subject to required alcohol assessments, outpatient counseling and other band-aide-type treatments that never really treated the fullness of the illness. Like the rest, this man remained addicted to alcohol.
On this September day in 2005, however, a judge did not think this man was like the rest, despite nearly everything before her indicating he was a severe threat to public safety and just another tragedy of addiction. Instead of sending this man to prison, which society would have preferred, she decided to offer this man his last second chance.
Just last month, this man appeared in the same courtroom before the same judge. The circumstances, however, were vastly different. On this day, the man appeared before the judge to take the Oath of Attorney. The once defeated and desperate defendant ravaged by an insidious disease, was now a lawyer – triumphant and healthy.
I am that man.
The success of my life today is vastly different from the dark, shame-filled and stigma-ridden life I once lived. Even when there were genuine and serious attempts by my family, my friends, and me to get me well, something was always missing in the treatment equation. That something was not truly understanding the nature of this disease. A chronic disease requires long-term management. Even though medicine and science recognize addiction as a chronic disease, the acute treatment model is still the norm almost everywhere. As we know now it takes more than that.
So, what was the difference during the summer and fall of 2005? Sure, I wanted to get well, but surviving this disease takes much more than the afflicted deciding to get well. First, I had the emotional and financial support of my family. To have one or the other is good, but to have both at the very early stages of recovery is crucial. Second, although I was going to have to start my journey of getting well while in the criminal justice system, what I had was a judge who was fully engaged in my progress. The judge also had great tools, such as twice-daily breathalyzers and in-patient treatment. It also didn’t hurt that she genuinely cared. The third and most significant factor to me getting well was timing.
Here’s what I mean by that.
When the judge sentenced me to 180 days in jail, she required that I go to in-patient treatment and at the same time, use the time in jail to formulate a life plan. Imagine, after five DUIs and all the destruction and chaos of 12 years sick with the disease, this was my first time in in-patient treatment. The plan I devised was to move to Sioux Falls, SD and live in a sober-living home until I was ready to return to college. The sober-living homes were very new to Sioux Falls and unknown to the judge, but she trusted my judgment and the contacts I had made.
Think about that for a moment, although the judge had a heavy hammer she could swing if I screwed up, the judge trusted my judgment. This was not a drug, alcohol, or other problem-solving court where judges regularly incorporate the notion of trust into the adjudication process. This was a regular court of law where defendants are not trusted the judge and the judge is not trusted by the defendant.
The sober-living homes that existed in Sioux Falls were started by a man named Kevin Kirby. Kevin is a survivor of the disease like myself; and like myself, nearly lost his life and everything important to him because of the disease. Kevin was tired of seeing so many people suffer, so he set out to help more people get the help they need and begin to solve addiction in Sioux Falls.
The six months I spent in the sober-living home helped establish the discipline and supports I would need if I returned to college, which I did in the fall of 2006. Originally, I planned to study journalism and return to my previous profession of radio broadcasting, but my curiosity of the U.S. Constitution and a course on the subject led me to a professor who saw a greater purpose in me. This professor, a former public defender, suggested I go to law school. Sure, overcoming the felony-DUI would be difficult, but if I worked on the legal issues now, she believed it could happen.
For the next two summers, I returned to that courtroom to seek modifications to my sentence and probation requirements. The modifications were all approved and a clearer path was set for law school, due in large part to the success of my recovery. Part of that success was taking advantage of the recovery supports that were available at the University of South Dakota, such as free counseling and aftercare. Without that ongoing support, getting through college and earning a bachelor’s degree would have been tremendously difficult.
As expected, all my applications to law school were rejected. However, the University of South Dakota School of Law has what is known as the Summer Screeners Program. Every year they offer the opportunity to 50 or so individuals who were on the bubble of admission, to take two law courses over 6 weeks and compete for 10 seats in the next incoming class. Without that program, I would not have gotten into law school.
Some amazing things happened while in law school. I met the woman who would become my wife. With that woman we bought a house and got a dog. I earned a masters degree in history. Relationships with family, friends, and colleagues blossomed. And, I became friends with the judge. She was at my wedding and my law school graduation.
The judge has been a key factor in my recovery. In many ways she saved my life. What she would tell you is that she just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Again… timing.
Recently, I returned to the judge’s courtroom. This time, however, I was not appearing as a defendant, but as a newly admitted member of the State Bar of South Dakota. This time, I was in that courtroom as a lawyer to raise my right hand and swear the Oath of Attorney as administered by Judge Kathleen Trandahl.
The moment was unforgettable.
There was one last intervention – divine, some might say – that made a remarkable impact on my recovery and my life.
While an undergraduate and graduate student, I advocated publicly on campus on the issues of addiction and mental health. My advocacy and interest led me to spending several Saturdays over many months in 2008 and 2009 taking part in a town hall process in Sioux Falls that was exploring how to make Sioux Falls a recovery community. That’s where I met Kevin Kirby once again. From that process, Face It TOGETHER Sioux Falls (FITSF) – a recovery community organization – was formed, and continues to operate today with exceptional success.
Over the years, I watched as FITSF saved lives. And, over the years, I stayed in touch with Kevin and his co-founder of FITSF, Charlie Day. When I graduated law school and was looking for guidance, it was to these two men that I turned. What I did not know at the time was that they had recently created a separate, nationally focused organization to do in other communities what was done in Sioux Falls. Last October I was asked to join the national organization – Face It TOGETHER.
Nearly a year later, my work with Face It TOGETHER continues. I am involved in proliferating our recovery supports model to affiliate communities and helping design a revolutionary measurement tool that will redefine how we measure the recovery process. It is a privilege to work with passionate social entrepreneurs committed to solving addiction to drugs and alcohol through system-wide change.
The journey was difficult, but I am forever grateful for every up and every down of that journey.
I am an addiction survivor, and my disease, at the time of this writing, has been in remission for 8 years.