In more than 23 years as a Michigan DUI lawyer handling drinking and driving cases in the Metro Detroit area, I have seen certain patterns of behavior that are completely missed, or at least misinterpreted, by the court system. This has led me right back to the University campus where I formally study of addiction issues at the post-graduate level. I think it applies to everyone that, as you learn things, it changes the way you view the world. In the world of DUI cases, that means a whole lot of people seem to get steamrolled, or sold out, by a system that doesn’t have the ability to understand their respective situations. Specifically, I’m talking about people with ADD, an anxiety disorder, depression, or a mood disorder who have been charged with a DUI, or otherwise wind up on probation for a DUI and thereafter face a probation violation for drinking or using a prohibited substance. This article will apply equally to those who do, as well as those who do not have, an alcohol (or substance abuse) problem.
We hear references to the kind of behavior in everyday conversation: “He’s ‘self medicating,'” or “she’s depressed.” There are detailed examinations in textbooks and plenty of research studies about the co occurrence of an alcohol problem and an anxiety, depressive or mood disorder, but our examination here will, by necessity, be much more topical and summary, even though this article will be divided into 2 parts. Technically speaking, the pairing of an alcohol (or substance) use disorder with another mental health issue is called a “co morbid” disorder.
This is very heady stuff, even for those with doctoral degrees in psychology and extensive substance abuse training. Before we get into how alcohol and something like ADD, anxiety, depression, or a mood disorder affects people in the real world, it is worth noting that, if the research and analysis of data about how to best deal with these situations isn’t even completely clear to the people with 50-pound heads and advanced degrees conducting research on University campuses, you can be sure no one at the local courthouse has any better solution.
The big problem is that the people (meaning Judges and probation officers) at the local courthouse must handle these situations. They have no option of just throwing their hands in the air and admitting defeat. To make matters worse, because of the incredible complexity of these combined and intertwined issues, the people to whom such cases are assigned (probation officers) don’t even have a clue that they don’t really know what’s going on. In other words, because they don’t understand the depth of the situation, they have no idea that they are in way over their heads. This is not a knock against anyone; treating co morbid disorders is far from fully understood, or in any way settled. My point here is that this kind of situation will exceed the resources and understanding of any court system, even though the court system has no choice but to “handle” it.
Unfortunately, what winds up happening is that the system just criminalizes and punishes people for being anxious, or depressed, or having ADD, or having a mood disorder. In many cases where a person suffers from one of these conditions, whether diagnosed or not, he or she may find some relief on occasion by drinking. We call this, appropriately enough, self-medicating. It often happens without any conscious awareness on the drinker’s part. For whatever reason, this sometimes comes to light when a person has a few too many and gets caught driving. Suddenly, then, it seems as though the system seems to stand ready to pounce on him or her, as if their drinking is only about being self-indulgent and partying too hard.
A person in this position may very well not even have an alcohol problem, but that doesn’t stop the court system from treating him or her as if they do. Similarly, it’s quite possible that the person doesn’t realize he or she has any kind of anxiety disorder, or is really depressed, but the system will blow right over that and attempt to treat a drinking problem that may not even exist. There’s a popular saying that applies here – “It’s complicated.” As we’ll see, that’s an understatement of grand magnitude…
When you stop and think about it for a moment, without even getting into the underlying complexities of a mental health issue or a drinking problem, the number of possible combinations of these potential situations is staggering:
- Anxiety disorder without drinking problem
- Anxiety disorder with drinking problem
- Depression without drinking problem
- Depression with drinking problem
- Depression caused by drinking
- Depression made worse by drinking
- Depression that makes drinking problem worse
- Depression that makes drinking problem worse, which, in turn, makes depression worse
- Mood disorder without drinking problem
- Mood disorder with drinking problem
- Mood disorder that makes drinking problem worse, which, in turn, makes mood disorder worse
- And the real kicker: any combination of any of the above
I am no statistician, but given there are over 10,000 possible combinations of a just a 4-digit number, the various potential combinations of those 11 situations is really beyond comprehension. The larger point here is that any and all of the above situations need to be evaluated by a highly trained professional, and many of them can really only be handled by a small, select group professionals with very specialized training. These are not situations that can be understood, much less remedied, by the very limited resources available to the court and probation systems. As I noted, however, that doesn’t stop them from trying.
Think about it this way- we expect that a person charged with something like a brutal and grizzly murder will be evaluated in multiple ways: first, to determine if he or she is even competent to stand trial, and then to find out whether he or she is not guilty by reason of insanity or is guilty, but mentally ill. If there is any finding of mental illness, the person is, appropriately enough, given treatment, rather than “punished.” However, even though things like ADD, anxiety, depression and mood disorders are incredibly common, and make up a huge share of the workload for health and mental health professionals, if a person suffering from one of these issues gets a DUI, there is literally no thought given to treating him or her any differently than a common criminal. The only remedy society and the court system even contemplates is to punish the person into getting better. It seems that the system is more sympathetic to a serial killer than a person facing a drunk driving charge.
I cannot stand by, as a lawyer who knows better, and watch that happen.
The absurdity of this approach is most obvious in a probation violation situation. Part of a probation order in any DUI case (and in any criminal case, really) is that a person shall not consume any alcohol. This is often backed up by a testing requirement to ensure compliance. If a person is suffering from something like an ADD, or anxiety (alcohol is an anxiolytic, meaning it has the effect of reducing anxiety), then taking a drink, despite being ordered not to, isn’t about disregarding the Judge’s authority. In other words, when there are powerful forces at work, some chemical, and many of which are unconscious, the whole idea of “willpower” or “obeying” rules kind of goes out the window. This may be crude, but one of the best analogies I ever heard is that “controlling” one’s drinking, particularly when other mental health issues are at work, is about as easy as controlling diarrhea when someone gets the stomach flu.
That seems to make perfect sense, doesn’t it? If the murderer cannot control his impulses because of the voices in his head, why is a person somehow “worse,” or less excusable, because he or she reaches for a drink when something like ADD, anxiety, depression or a mood disorder is present? The reality, however, is that the court system absolutely regards such conduct as “wrong.” This not only implies a behavioral or moral failure, but then the court will impose a punishment in an attempt to prevent it from happening again. Well, Mr. Jones, you tested positive for alcohol. That will be 10 days in jail. If it happens again, you’ll do 30 days. Could you ever imagine telling a person with any other kind of illness that he or she will be punished if it doesn’t go away completely, and all at once?
This wholesale, and, one might say, deliberate ignorance, if not indifference, frustrates clinicians. Every clinician knows that it takes time and often multiple attempts to get a handle on the right treatment, which often means the right medication, in the correct dosage amounts, for things like ADD, anxiety, depression or a mood disorder. It can also take numerous encounters with trouble before a person sees his or her drinking as problematic. If a person has an underlying alcohol problem coupled with a mental health issue, the whole “just say no” approach is about as useful as yelling at the sky during a thunderstorm and telling it not to rain. Yet the court has absolutely nothing to work with beyond punishment.
Having at least sketched the outlines of the difficulty of a DUI charge, or being on probation for a DUI charge, while adding the dimension of something like ADD, or an anxiety disorder, depression or mood disorder, we’ll pick up, in part 2 of this article, by looking at things more from the clinician’s side of things and seeing how, from that perspective, dealing with the court system in this kind of situation is dealing with a system that is broken at the outset. I will also examine my role, as a Michigan DUI lawyer with a psychology background and ongoing graduate education in addiction issues, and how that both enables and requires me to take action and do more than just stand by and watch as clients in situations like this get trampled in a rush of ignorance and lack of resources.