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How ‘professional context and obligations’ can create a ‘perfect storm’ for addiction

Whilst many industries, including the legal profession, can be “soaked in alcohol”, there are a number of ways forward for those struggling with addiction and substance abuse, said this clinician.

user iconLauren Croft 29 June 2022 Big Law
How ‘professional context and obligations’ can create a ‘perfect storm’ for addiction
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Simone Barclay is the director of Think Straight, a clinic helping people overcome addiction. In a recent discussion at legal professional coaching business Coaching Advocate’s Virtual Summit 2022, Ms Barclay spoke in a session titled “Adding Fuel to the Fire: The Sometimes Problematic Connection between Practising Law and Addiction” – and explained why the high-pressure, high-performance environment of law could potentially create a “perfect storm” for drinking and or substance abuse.

Ms Barclay holds a master’s degree in science, with a particular focus in psychology, and has worked as an alcohol and other drugs clinician since 2005. She offers her clients insight and compassion, drawing from her own recovery from alcohol dependence 20 years ago.

“Some of the warning signs that I’d be looking out for would be an inability to control your drinking all of the time. So, some days you might be fine, but sometimes you sit out to just have a few and you, metaphorically speaking, wake up in a sea of empties or you have a lot more or drink over a much longer period than you intended to. 


“Do you have a health issue related to your drinking, including a mental health issue, depression, or anxiety that is being either caused or made worse by your drinking? Do you have a relationship issue? That is your primary relationships, family relationships. It can be friendships and work relationships as well. Do you have any legal issues? And these are things that even perhaps haven’t come to the attention of your workplace or some other legal enforcement authority, but perhaps you’ve been driving while under the influence or indulging in some other illegal behaviours,” she explained. 

“And then, the final [warning sign] is about our responsibilities. So, that’s work. Are you slowing it up in the morning? Late to work? Not there? Your primary responsibilities, are they being affected? Perhaps, you can’t take your kids to rugby on Saturday mornings. Are these things being affected? So if any of those four primary areas of your life are affected or exacerbated by your alcohol use, then that’s absolutely a red flag and that’s what we would look at.”

In terms of when to take action after noticing these red flags, Ms Barclay said the sooner, the better – which can occasionally help combat a problem with drinking and addiction before it even begins. 

“Firstly, I would try a period of abstinence. Three months is what is recommended for your health, your physical and emotional health. Get back on track, see where you’re at, and see how you go with maintaining that abstinence. Just don’t drink at all over that period of time. And that’ll give you a lot of clues about why you’re drinking, what your triggers are, why it’s important in your life, where alcohol papers over the cracks, or doesn’t, as the case may be,” she said. 

“Is it helping you manage your anxiety? Is it something you’re doing to try and help you sleep? So, all those little things that pop up will become really clear if you have a period of abstinence. You’ll also start to feel a lot better, think a lot more clearly. And at the end of that, then you can make a reasoned decision rather than just keeping on with what may have just become a habit.”

However, Ms Barclay said that if someone you love is showing early warning signs, a gentle approach can often be better than an outright intervention. 

“I certainly wouldn’t invite your average person on the street to try and engage in an intervention because, as I say, you’ll just shut down that avenue completely. If you are able to approach it a little bit more gently, you’re certainly going to get a lot more traction from people in terms of perhaps responding in a more positive way or at least being more open to perhaps looking at their behaviour,” she said. 

“Another thing not to do is what we used to call ‘enabling’. We don’t call that anymore, it’s quite a pejorative term, but really it is supporting the individual in their poor decision. I’m not going to lie for you. I’m not going to cover for you. I’m not going to fill in for you if you’re late. I’m not going to make excuses for you to a third party. I am going to expect you to face the full consequences of what you’re doing and I’m not going to help you mitigate those.”

This kind of problem can be particularly prevalent in certain industries, Ms Barclay added.

“So many of our industries, and the legal industry is just one of them, they are, metaphorically speaking, soaked in alcohol. Alcohol marks every occasion and it certainly is a marker for the end of the day, conferences, meetings. Everything is marked by the consumption of alcohol. I am starting to see organisations change, but it is happening slowly. But I absolutely feel that we have an obligation as organisations to support people in the same way that you would support someone with any other illness and particularly one that may have been exacerbated by their professional context and obligations,” she said. 

“And I think just creating an environment where it is reasonable to choose not to drink. So it really is about having some occasions that aren’t soaked in alcohol, where alcohol was not served, and making it a normal and reasonable thing to do. And it’s surprising to discover how many people actually would rather not drink for a whole variety of reasons. Not everybody wants to always be saying no, or just having one to kind of fit in with the crowd. There are times when it’s really good to have an environment where there isn’t that pressure on people.”

Despite many organisations still marking special occasions with alcohol, there are many roads to recovery for those negatively affected – in the form of ongoing support, impulse control and prevention strategies. 

“You’re looking at your impulse control and you’re looking at the habitual aspects, just like giving up smoking. It’s not just about the nicotine. It’s about the social side of it, the little break that you go out and have a cigarette and chat to your friends, and it’s about that reward at the end of a stressful meeting, whatever. So, it’s all these sorts of things as well. And then often, it’s about what we call ‘emotions management’. So, what we find with people who are drinking is that it’s a great anesthetiser to all of our emotions. Anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, whatever it is. So, it’s kind of reigning those things in and getting a handle on whatever is sitting on top for you,” Ms Barclay added.

“Another big part of treatment is putting you in touch with an ongoing support network in whatever form that looks like. I mean, if you go to an inpatient treatment, they used to be three months long. Now, they’re about 28 days and that’s just around insurance. So, I sort of like to think of the acute phase of recovery as about three months long, and then you’re into what we call ‘post-acute’. So, this is when you’re putting in all the relapse prevention strategies and just incorporating this into your lifestyle. I think it’s absolutely possible to recover in terms of being free of the symptoms of the disease.”