Interview with Lisa Smith
This week Liv interviewed Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks out of a Bar.
Lisa Smith is a writer and a lawyer. Clean and sober for more than 10 years, she is passionate about breaking the stigma of addiction, particularly for professional women. Girl Walks Out of a Bar is her story.
Prior to beginning her more than 15-year legal marketing career, Lisa practiced corporate finance law at a leading international law firm.
She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she received a B.A. She received her J.D. from Rutgers School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Rutgers Law Review.
Her writing has been published in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, After Party Magazine and Addiction.com.
Lisa is on the Board of Directors of The Writers Room in Greenwich Village.
She lives in New York City with her husband, Craig.
Interview with Lisa Smith
Liv: Let’s kick off with a food question: what have you had for breakfast today?
Lisa: Great question! I’ve been dealing with some stomach issues, so for the most part, I’ve cut out gluten and dairy. I had scrambled egg whites, almonds and two mini-muffins from a company that makes gluten-free / dairy-free baked goods. I never miss a meal.
Liv: Moving to your story, you said that using drugs and alcohol was once a way you escaped your insecurity and negativity as a teenager—can you elaborate on that?
Lisa: Yes, and this also goes back to the food issue. By the time I was seven or eight years old, I knew that I felt uncomfortable in my skin. I had these dark feelings and anxiety. I had night terrors. I found that food could ease that and bring me comfort. I didn’t realize that downing a box of Yodels was actually giving me a dopamine hit to the brain. I just felt better. As a result, I became a heavy kid who was teased by the other kids, exacerbating the feelings of insecurity and negativity – and leading to more eating. Once I found that alcohol and drugs could shut out those feelings in an even more complete way, I was off to the races.
Addiction in the Legal Profession
Liv: Using became a means of your coping with the anxiety and stress of an impossible workload as a New York City Corporate Finance Lawyer. In fact, you mentioned in your interview with Allison Micco that 1 in 4/5 lawyers have a drug abuse problem. In your opinion, why do you think drug abuse is so prevalent in this profession and why hasn’t it been addressed? What could law firms do to better support lawyers drowning in addiction?
Lisa: This is actually a giant topic. Thankfully, it’s finally getting more widespread attention. I would refer anyone interested to check out the op-ed piece I wrote on it for The Washington Post. Click here.
Also, The New York Times did a major story on it a couple of weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed and quoted in it--click here
Liv: You said, ‘beneath the façade of success lies the reality of addiction.’ What do you mean by that?
Lisa: I think that means you can’t assume someone doesn’t have a problem just because they’re outwardly succeeding in their career or are surrounded by friends and family. When my family and friends learned of my addiction, they all expressed incredible support, but they wondered how they couldn’t have known. I heard some form of, “but you’ve got this great job where you’re doing well and you have all of these wonderful friends,” a million times. You don’t have to lose your job or get a DUI or overdose to have a problem. Those are the “yets” that can be avoided by getting help before they happen, which they eventually would have to me, maybe as soon as the next day.
Liv: Your using became all-encompassing where you were using alcohol and cocaine around the clock. You mentioned that at this point, you had lost your ability to make choices—what do you mean by that?
Lisa: I mean that my addiction ruled my world. It owned me. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning, my brain was dominated by thoughts of, “When can I drink? When can I next use coke?” My life was structured entirely around feeding that beast. I was somehow able to show up to the office when I needed to (I worked from home A LOT) because that was a matter of survival to get to the next drink or line of coke. I had no ability to get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go for a walk, maybe check out a museum and grab some lunch.” It was just, “when next, when next, what do I have to do to get there?” I had no control. I had to have that first drink and then I had to go wherever it took me. Which was to some pretty awful places.
Liv: You have said that you were predisposed to depression—how did this impact your drug and alcohol use?
Lisa: For me, depression was like this nasty blanket that covered my brain. It was the voice that constantly told me I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough. It measured me up against other people and always judged me to be lacking. Alcohol and drugs didn’t so much make me happy as just shut that awful voice up. I could relax and not feel so self-conscious, sad or unworthy. Some people call alcohol, “liquid courage.” I called it, “liquid indifference.” It made me not care about the things that consumed my brain in a negative way before I drank.
On Getting Sober
Liv: After a decade of drug use, you hosted a self-intervention and made the decision to go to treatment. Your addiction was so advanced that you needed a five day medical detox. What prompted your decision to get help?
Lisa: It happened on a Monday morning after a weekend of drinking and doing coke around the clock. I was dressed and out the door to go to work when I suddenly thought I was having a heart attack. I thought maybe I had finally OD’ed. (Now I realize it was an anxiety attack.) I was so physically sick, puking blood and other things. For some reason that morning, I decided I wanted to live and decided to ask for help. I didn’t set out to say, “I’m quitting drinking today.” I just didn’t want to die.
Liv: Not all people who go into treatment remain sober. What can you attribute your continued sobriety to?
Lisa: So true. I have been so fortunate and I attribute it to three things. 1) When I went into the detox the psychiatrist correctly diagnosed me with major depressive disorder that I had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He put me on an antidepressant that worked for me. That’s highly unusual, getting the right diagnosis and effective medication that works on the first shot; 2) I had an incredible support system of friends and family, an apartment and a job to go back to. I didn’t have to deal with court dates or financial headaches or destroyed relationships in the first days of sobriety, unlike many people; and 3) I was done when I checked in. I was out of gas, just totally spent physically and emotionally. After I initially went in, I could have left, but decided to stay because I wanted to do that. It wasn’t because someone forced me to or I was court-ordered. I wanted it for myself.
Girl Walks Out of a Bar
Liv: You said that in writing your book, you wanted to demonstrate that there is another side to the nightmare of living in addiction. What does the other side look like?
Lisa: Wow. I heard in my recovery program that if I chased it, I could have a life beyond my wildest dreams, and I do. I used to be the kind of drunk who sat on a barstool and slurred, “I’m gonna write a book.” Now I wrote a book, which is still unbelievable to me. The most important thing I’ve been able to do, though, was be at my father’s side from the day he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to the day he died just five and a half weeks later. I showed up, a sober daughter, in a way I never could have imagined when I was drinking and using. But I think it’s important to include in this answer that I still have depression relapses periodically and expect that I always will. It’s taking life on life’s terms a day at a time, to combine two major clichés that happen to be true for me.
Holistic Recovery: How the body recovers from addiction
Liv: Moving on to holistic recovery, and the body, how has your relationship with your body evolved in recovery?
Lisa: I am so much nicer to it! I don’t beat the crap out of it anymore. And I am way more accepting of it than I ever used to be. I still have major hang-ups. For me, it’s hard not to look in the mirror and see the heavy, unhappy teenager looking back at me. I’m still self-conscious about it around other people. But I’m much kinder to myself all around now. I don’t put my self-worth on how I feel about my body on a given day. I did that when I was younger. Now, most days (not all), I can look in the mirror and say, “OK, you thought you’d be dead before 40. All in all, not bad for 51. And if someone disagrees, fuck ‘em.”
Liv: Has your relationship with food changed?
Lisa: Yes, it’s improved. When I was drinking, I would be the person who ordered a salad with dressing on the side and counted every calorie I ate, but drank two bottles of wine. I dropped out of Weight Watchers when I was told I couldn’t use all my points for the day on wine. (A lot of days using coke, I had no desire to eat.) In the first year of sobriety, I said, “If I’m not drinking, I’m going to eat anything I want.” And I did. Lots of pizza, ice cream, chocolate, whatever I wanted. All that mattered was that I didn’t drink. Then over time I realized that the healthier I ate, the better I felt physically, so my habits improved, but I never went back to that crazy restrictive thing I used to do. I’m still careful most of the time because all it takes is a hard look at a chocolate cake and I gain weight. But I can enjoy food in a way I never could before.
Top Five Recovery Tools for Addiction Recovery
Liv: Last, what is your top recovery tool?
Lisa: Gratitude – I can never forget how fortunate I have been and I have to give back to help others.