Advice for Addicts

Briggs Cheney on how he got sober

Published in 2017 Southwest Super Lawyers — May 2017

For a long time, I’ve been involved with helping lawyers in New Mexico, and around the country, who suffer from addiction. It can be alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, overeating—you name it.

My deal is alcohol. 

I grew up outside of Chicago, in the ’50s and ’60s. Both of my parents were alcoholics. I got into law school, passed the bar, started doing what all of us did. I was sworn in, back in ’73 in Santa Fe, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I remember being at the top of La Bajada on my way back to Albuquerque, and as I got to the bottom of the hill, I thought, “Holy shit. I don’t know anything about being a lawyer.” And I think I’ve been scared ever since.

What I ended up doing was covering up those fears with alcohol. Back in the mid-1980s, about 10 years into my practice, I would get up every morning, get in my car and drive to the stoplight. Left was work, and right was Walgreens. With every ounce of strength in my body, I could not go left. I would go right to Walgreens, and I would stand in line with all the homeless folks. They’d open at 8:00, and I’d step up to the counter and buy eight or nine Jim Beam miniatures.

I’d put a few in one coat pocket and a couple on the floor mat of my car, and suck one on my way to work. I’d excuse myself during the mornings to go to the bathroom and sit in the stall and drink. At lunchtime, I’d go out and have something to drink and, after lunch, I’d finish off the miniatures.

At 3:00 or so, I’d leave the office, telling them I was going to the law school library. Instead, I’d go to another Walgreens. I’d get two half pints and put one in one breast pocket and the other in the other. One half pint would get me to pass out. I’d wake up at 3:00 in the morning and have my other half pint, take a shower, come to the office and try and put together my practice as best I could. At 7:30, I’d leave before anybody came in and go to another Walgreens. 

When you’re a binge drinker, the binges get longer. You’re not sleeping, you’re not eating; and, at some point, you finally crash. Then you have to detox, and I’ll tell you: Self-detox is about the worst thing in the world. 

Then you’re cleaned up, getting sleep and eating; life’s good. I remember saying to myself, “Why do I put myself through this hell?” It could be two weeks, a month, six weeks, and then I’d think, “I want a drink.” And I’d do it again.

Back in the ’80s, because I was on the Board of Bar Commissioners, a couple lawyers came to me and said, “We’ve got a problem in this profession with folks who suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction.” 

I was on the ground floor of starting what we now call the New Mexico Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, and, ultimately, the assistance committee saved my life. Almost 20 years ago, they had what I call “a surprise birthday party you don’t want to have.”

I had tried everything to stop on my own. If you suffer from addiction, you can’t do it alone. That night, I negotiated the best deal I thought I could do, and I promised that I would go to 90 meetings in 90 days. I kept my promise; I’m not good for much, but my word is pretty good.

If I were king of the world, I would make every lawyer—particularly trial lawyers—go to at least one or two 12-step meetings every week, because that is the best training any trial lawyer will ever get: You learn about people, how to pick jurors, listening and keeping your damn mouth shut. You learn some tools about dealing with life. 

What I’ve found is that standing up and telling people in public who you are and what you’ve been through is maybe the most effective thing we can do to help other lawyers who are struggling with the disease of addiction. When I can stand up in front of 300 people and tell them my story about having to go to Walgreens every morning and every night, that gives them permission to say, “Gosh, maybe I can reach out to that person and ask for help.”

I work damn hard at my sobriety, and I’m a much better person and lawyer than I ever was. I’m proud of myself, though I’m not proud of the things that I’ve put family and other people through. But every day I’m sober—and every day I go to meetings—I’m paying back. I help a lot of people, like a lot of people helped me. 

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