In the drunk driving world, it has long been established that, as a group, DUI offenders have a higher incidence of drinking problems that the population at large. As a Michigan DUI lawyer, an important part of my job is to protect my clients from being perceived as having a problem that isn’t there, particularly in light of the court system’s inherent “alcohol bias” that looks for (and all too often finds) one. The fact remains, however, that the percentage of DUI drivers who present with a troubled relationship to alcohol is higher than average. In other words, for plenty of people facing a DUI, their drinking has become problematic. Many people in this situation don’t know what to do, or are struggling with the very idea that something is wrong. It is not uncommon for a person to have a feeling in his or her heart of hearts – a “gut feeling” – that something isn’t quite right, but the first instinct is to promise one’s self to get hold of it, and to fix it somehow. In this blog article I want to keep a simple focus on the concept of coming to realize that your relationship to drinking is precarious after a drinking and driving arrest. We’ll skip the drama, all the “how to” advice on getting help and everything else, and just look at how one begins to open up enough to start thinking about this. For my part, I bring a special skill set to this discussion beyond merely being a DUI lawyer. Academically, I have completed a post-graduate program of addiction studies, so I am well aware of all the modern research and theories regarding the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol problems. I also know that, while I understand the clinical side of things, I am NOT a clinician, so I won’t try and play therapist. My role, in that sense, is to listen and help “counsel” my clients, and see that they are directed to the right kind of help, whatever that may be (and is often NOT what any court has in mind).
Recently, a client sent this wonderful email message to me: “On another note, I thought long and hard about the conversation that I had with you in your office in January. I had to do some major introspection and be brutally honest with myself about what occurred that put me in this situation. It is not something that I am going sweep under the rug when this case is over. I have attended weekly AA meetings at my local church and it has been very helpful. (I have attended ten meetings and I have the signed document from the meetings to verify.) I am going to AA for my own needs and I plan on continuing to do so regardless of what the court might order me to do. I wanted you to know. Your insight was a big part of my coming to that decision. You are truly are a counselor in the best sense of the word.” For everything I do as a lawyer, this is the very finest kind of return or reward I can get. There is no money nor any praise that can equal the feeling of knowing that you’ve been really able to help someone pierce the darkness and see a little hope. It’s this kind of “light bulb” moment is a person’s life that I want to talk about in this article.
There’s an old saying that “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” In my line of work, I hear from all kinds of amateur lawyers who’ve spent endless hours on the internet doing their own legal research and somehow think they have the whole legal system figured out. If there’s one thing I know about counseling and treatment for troublesome drinking, it’s that everyone is different, and while something like AA may be the best fit for one person, it can the exact opposite for another. Similarly, one person my thrive in group therapy, while the very thought of that may terrify someone else. There are people who do well with something called “bibliotherapy” (don’t worry, “biblio” means book, not bible), which means learning about recovery from one’s own reading. My role is to help the client who is contemplating his or her relationship to alcohol, or who has already concluded that it has become problematic, to understand that there is a whole universe of recovery options out there. In terms of first things first, it’s not about picking the right one as much as it is about ruling out those that hold no appeal. It is the job of the therapist to apply, handle and monitor things from there.
The whole world of addiction has been central to what I do for over a quarter-century, and is something I know from both the outside looking in and the inside looking out. Thus, my understanding of alcohol and drug issues goes much deeper than just the university classroom. And for all the knowledge anyone can have about it, it’s also about being able to talk to people in a way that is engaging, and makes theme think, not react defensively. It’s takes no skill or tact to say, “You have a problem, get into treatment,” or, “It will help your case if you get into counseling.” But it is natural for someone, if addressed in such a way, to become defensive. And as I noted earlier, a lot of people aren’t quite at the point of admitting, or even realizing, that their relationship to alcohol has become difficult, so speaking in a way that sounds even a little bit accusatory is an almost guaranteed way to send him or her running for the hills. Instead, my job is to help the client honestly evaluate his or her circumstances, and this is done through dialogue, not lecturing or giving unwanted advice.
The terms “light bulb moment, “ or “a-ha moment,” are often used when a person comes to realize his or her drinking has become a problem. Some will say that when this happens, it’s like a light switch flipped, and where there was darkness (ignorance or denial) there is now light (admission or knowledge). It is not unusual for a person to have a back and forth debate in his or her head over the idea that use of alcohol has become detrimental. Normally, a person will have been far from his or her best for quite some time before they reach the conclusion that alcohol is a problem. Often enough, as the person has tried to make up for functioning below his or her potential, they’ve built a mountain of broken promises to do better, to drink less, to drink less often, to stop sooner, and otherwise attempt to control, limit or manage his or her alcohol intake. Ironically, by the time anyone begins to think about cutting back, the problem is too far gone, and “managing” one’s drinking is never an option, although every living human being will try. The real question is how long they’ll try until (or if) they figure this out. Unfortunately, some people waste years, and even decades of their precise time on this planet struggling with this. I had one fellow finally throw in the towel after more than 25 years of trying every strategy imaginable to get a handle on things, only to conclude that nothing worked, while realizing that, because he had tried absolutely every possible way to manage his drinking, all with no success, the only option left was to quit.
I think that one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever heard is the admonition that “anything that causes a problem is a problem.” This splendidly simple way of looking at things cuts right through all the analysis and debate and whatnot (all of the BS, to put it another way) and makes clear the truth that when you’re even wondering if you’re drinking is a problem, it probably is. Why would anyone “wonder” about this in the first place? Is it that every time you drink, piles of money magically appear in your home, and by now, you have so much that you are tripping all over it? Is it because the day after drinking you feel so good that you can run a marathon and not even feel tired, or because there aren’t enough weights in your gym to pile on the barbell, or that you’ve been promoted at work so many times there are no higher positions available? Have your personal relationships gotten so close and warm that everyone wants to be with you all at the same time? Yeah, right. Chances are, you’re trying to do some mental gymnastics to NOT connect the dots that the things going wrong in your life are related to your drinking.
I try to help the client to unblock these thoughts, to stop suppressing them, and then next, to frame them within the context of his or her real life experiences. From there, my best efforts are directed at helping him or her explore the help that’s available. AA is a wonderful program and a good fit for some, but certainly not everyone, nor even most people. This is where I also need to combine my clinical and legal skills to help a client for whom AA is not the best therapeutic option avoid being forced into it by a well-meaning Judge who doesn’t really understand that, as help goes, AA is like a particular antibiotic medicine in that it is one of many available, and that what may work wonders for one person may do nothing for another.
These discussions are unique to each particular client. In addition, they should only be part of the legal strategy for handling the DUI itself in certain situations. For example, a first offense DUI client who has only gone so far as to consider the possibility that his or her drinking is an issue should not run into court and talk about AA or counseling, lest he or she wind up getting ordered into it. I’d tell the client to explore these things privately. If the person tries counseling but winds up not liking the counselor, I don’t need him or her stuck in it because the Judge has required him or her to continue until released by that counselor. Things are different, of course, in 2nd and 3rd offense cases. I know this makes me different as a DUI lawyer, and I’m proud of that. Whatever else, I hope the reader can see that all of this goes much deeper than meaningless bullhorn marketing slogans like “tough” or “aggressive.” Here, we’re looking more for the skills of a diplomat and a surgeon rather than a bar room bouncer.
If there’s another truth at play here, it’s that the whole world may be able to see someone as having a drinking problem, but the only thing that matters and the only chance for any change is when the person him or herself sees it. The usual response when you’ve had enough of someone else’s drinking is to try and argue – to force him or her to “see” what’s right in front of them. The problem is, no concerned friend or family member can scream loud enough to make someone hear a message they’re simply not ready to hear. Logic fails here. Instead, when a person is humbled enough to at least listen a little (the time right after a DUI is often (but not always) such a time), then the best thing is to help him or her by providing the tools to think about things so that it’s ultimately his or her decision to get help. Or not. As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” As important as it is to have the skills to help someone see things differently, it is important to understand that more often than not, a person struggling with his or her drinking will be blinded (or deafened) by denial and simply be nowhere near ready to do anything more than get pissed off at someone forcing help on him or her that they don’t want.
When someone contacts me and expresses concern about his or her drinking, the “counselor” part of my job as an “attorney and counselor at law” is to help him or her find the right setting in which to explore that. I’m skilled enough to know that merely being able to help someone identify a problem does not make me the right guy to fix it. That’s the therapist’s job (remember, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”). I firmly believe in a holistic approach to treatment, meaning that within the greater meaning of “different strokes for different folks,” a person should get into the kind of counseling or treatment that works for him or her. This is far better than a one-size-fits-all approach that is, unfortunately, all too often is the only tool in the court system’s toolbox.
At the end of the day, effective counseling, as a counselor or lawyer or physician or whatever, is more about listening than anything else. As a lawyer, it is easy for me to talk. I give advice and I guide people. The counselor part of my job is more about listening. Dialogue is about responding to what someone says, not about waiting for them to be quiet so you can talk. When someone wants to explore his or her relationship to alcohol, or if he or she knows that it has become a liability, I’m here to listen and to offer assistance.
If you are facing a DUI anywhere in the Metro-Detroit area and looking for a lawyer, do your homework. Read articles, read websites, and take the time to read between the lines. When you’ve narrowed down your selections, call around. All of my consultations are done over the phone, right when you call. You’ll find my office open and ready to help, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at 586-465-1980.