08:46 AM

The value of a helping hand

Vol. 76, No. 5 / Sept. - Oct. 2020

Hugh F. O'Donnell
Hugh F. O’Donnell practices family law with his own firm in Kansas City. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of law, he is a licensed mediator in both Missouri and Kansas, and co-founded the Collaborative Law Institute of Missouri (now Collaborative Divorce Professionals). He is chairman of the Missouri Bar Intervention Committee, which is authorized by Supreme Court rule to investigate substance abuse, conduct interventions, and recommend and monitor rehabilitation programs for recovery. These activities may be carried out at the request of a disciplinary authority or upon referral or request of a third party.


More than 20 years ago, I wrote the following article, which was published in the Journal of The Missouri Bar. It was published anonymously because of the stigma associated with alcoholism and addiction, and partly to comply with the anonymity principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

I am now putting my name on the article – even though doing so is contrary to the principles of anonymity – in the hope that stepping into the light will encourage others who may be suffering to reach out for the help that is available.

Since I wrote the article in 1991, my life in sobriety has continued to flourish on a personal level. I have a close and loving relationship with all three of my children. I also have many friends, both in and outside of recovery, whom I love dearly. I know I can count on them, and they know they can count on me. Professionally, I’ve been privileged to be on the forefront of family mediation and collaborative divorce in Missouri, and a respected member of the family law bar. None of that would have been possible without recovery.

I am a truly lucky man, and I will be eternally grateful for those who extended a helping hand when I needed it most. I hope and trust there are some of my colleagues who will benefit from reading my article. If my story spurs even one person to seek the help they need, I will consider its republication a success.

The Value of a Helping Hand

One of my most distinct childhood memories involves alcohol. My parents, two sisters and I were out of town visiting my paternal grandfather. We were at a hotel getting ready to go over to Gramp's apartment. My dad was drunk and my mother very upset. My mother said to me (or maybe all three of us kids), “Can’t you do something about your dad’s drinking?” or words to that effect. Well, I was maybe 10 years old, and I took what she said to heart. From that point on, I treated my dad as if he was my arch enemy and somehow thought that would deter him from drinking. Needless to say, my behavior did not have the desired effect. The incident in the hotel caused me to resolve that one thing I would never be was a drunk. I broke that resolution.

I grew up on a farm in a house occupied by my parents, my two sisters, my uncle, and my maternal grandparents (who owned the farm). Much later in my life I learned that we were there because my father had been fired from his job for drinking at a time when my mother was pregnant with my younger sister, and he had no way of supporting his family. My parents fled to the farm to survive.

My dad did all of his drinking at home. He never went out running the bars or carousing. Every day was the same. He would go to work at the factory, come home, and go to his bedroom to drink and read. He would come out long enough to eat dinner, but then went back to drink and read until he fell asleep. All this time, my mother was trying to run a household which included the care and feeding of three kids born within 30 months, elderly parents, and her brother who worked the farm. That is how I remember my childhood.

I don’t wish to convey the impression that I had an unhappy childhood. It was lonely on the farm with no little male companionship. However, my mother was a very good mother whose only fault was her love for a man who was alcoholic. It was not a home where a lot of emotions were expressed, but I felt secure and loved. My grandmother died when I was fairly young, but my grandfather and uncle were very good people.

Other than my disrespect for my father, as a young boy I seldom got in trouble. My sisters and I went to parochial school where the nuns were strict, and misbehavior was not tolerated. I was a fairly good student, an altar boy, etc. However, things changed when I reached high school. Then a serious case of rebellion set in.

My first serous drinking episode occurred when I was 15. My dad would hide a bottle in the barn, and I knew where he hid it. I figured it was safe to steal it and that pop would never say anything because mom wasn’t supposed to know it was there, and she handled all discipline with the children. At any rate, I took the booze, and some of my friends and I went to the drive-in movie and drank it. I don’t remember that much about it, but I must have liked it because I continued to drink whenever possible. Incidentally, after that first night I learned that you don’t steal an alcoholic’s liquor, whether it’s hidden or not, without paying the price. Pop reported the theft to mom, and she administered an appropriate punishment.

Through the remainder of high school, my friends and I drank whenever possible, which was usually every weekend. I didn’t drink any more than most of my friends, but I sure did get in more trouble. In my senior year I was arrested for being in possession of alcohol. Later that year, I demolished an automobile. I should have been killed or seriously injured in the wreck, but fortunately wasn’t seriously hurt. I did not make the connection of alcohol to my problems.

After high school, I went off to college, though my parents really didn’t have the money. I took out student loans, got some scholarship money, and worked to get through. I had very little spending money, but I always managed to save some for alcohol. I can’t honestly say I drank more than the people I ran around with, but it was a pretty hard drinking crowd. Of course, at that point it was the late 60s, and I was introduced to marijuana. So I added that to my repertoire. As I look back on it, I don’t think my alcohol and drug use was beyond control at that point. I partied hard but also studied hard enough to get good grades.

At the end of my sophomore year at college, the girl I was dating got pregnant. At first, we were going to get married. Instead, she was going to give up the baby for adoption. However, a couple of things prevented that from happening. First of all, she was trying to keep the pregnancy secret from her family, and since she was thousands of miles from home, that was a possibility. However, that possibility evaporated when she was asked by her sister to be in her wedding, which was to occur in the eighth month of her pregnancy. At the same time, my father was dying of cancer. Obviously this placed a great strain on my mother and my predicament added to her burden. Therefore, that summer was tremendously stressful at home. Furthermore, I began feeling a lot of guilt for what we were about to do. With all of these problems surrounding us, we sought refuge in each other and got married. This was obviously not a marriage with a firm foundation.

Thanks to financial assistance from my wife’s family, I was able to continue college and go on to law school. Though the marriage was troubled from the beginning, my consumption of alcohol was not a contributing factor during the early years. Instead, our immaturity and respective personality flaws caused us to suffer through numerous short- and long-term separations. It was an unhealthy relationship which two sick people could not terminate.

After I became a lawyer, I began making enough money to allow me to drink more frequently and in greater quantity. I drank to escape the problems of home and the pressures of being a new lawyer. Besides, it seemed to be more or less a part of being a lawyer. Lawyers worked hard and played hard, and when lawyers played hard, they drank hard.

About a year after I began practicing, our second child was born. Under the circumstances, this was obviously not a well thought out decision on our part. Be that as it may, the existence of that child and her older sister later prevented me from seriously considering ending my life.

We kept the marriage together for another five years through our sick dependence on each other and the relationship. The last five years were marked with more separations and even more bitter conflict. It was also marked with a further increase in my drinking. I found myself stopping after work every night on the way home to pick up a six-pack and began drinking immediately. Naturally, that added to the tension. I had no concept at that time that alcohol was a problem in my life in spite of the fact that I also got a DUI during that time. (The fact that that was the only DUI I ever received is nothing less than a miracle.)

When my daughters were 10 and 4, my wife threw me out of the house for the final time. This time I stayed out, and we got divorced. Before we did so, she tried to convince me that all of our problems were a result of my drinking. I refused to accept the proposition that alcohol was a problem in my life. I recognize now that it was, but I also believe that our marriage was doomed even without my drinking.

After the divorce, my ex-wife and I continued to fight. Things hadn’t changed much; we were just living apart. She denied visitation, and I was forced to go to court to enforce my rights. Although I was drinking heavily, I loved my daughters and wanted to be a part of their lives. My ex-wife was emotionally unstable, and I thought I would provide some stability in their lives. Of course, I was completely ignoring the potentially devastating effect that my drinking was having on them.

In the five years following my divorce, my drinking reached a point where if I did not stop, I would die. Being single gave me further license to drink. I had to “socialize” and that meant running the bars. As if alcohol and marijuana were not enough, I also discovered cocaine. Cocaine is the only thing which I encountered in life which is more insidious than alcohol.

In spite of the boozing and drugging, I did manage to continue working. I had left a small law firm about the time of my divorce and was attempting to make it as a sole practitioner. I had to work to make money to support my habits. Early in this five-year period, I only drank occasionally during the day, but plenty every night. Later, I would sometimes leave for lunch and return to the office several hours later not having partaken of anything more solid than beer nuts. For reasons which I could not fathom, my practice was not going well.

To solve my financial woes, I took a job which provided me with a stable, if meager, source of income. I quickly learned to hate the job for reasons that are not important for the purposes of the story. Suffice it to say that my discontent provided me with another excuse to drink more. By this time, I had beer in my car at all times. I more often drank lunch than ate it. I would sometimes drink while driving to the courthouse and always when returning from it. I would often drive for an hour after finishing at the courthouse so that I could continue to drink. At night, I drank and smoked dope until it was time to sleep. On special occasions during the week and on weekends, I added cocaine to my means of escape. Actually, I was no longer drinking and drugging to escape; I was doing it because I had to. It was my life. Blackouts were not unusual. I remember waking up one morning with a vague memory of being lost driving my car and bouncing off of cars on both sides of the street. I broke into that cold sweat that I had become familiar with at these times and looked out the window praying that it was all just a dream. It wasn’t.

Somewhere in the middle of this downward spiral, I met a beautiful and exceptional woman. We began dating and fell very much in love. I loved her more deeply than I had ever loved anyone. In fact, more deeply than I knew I could love. Naturally, her disenchantment with the relationship grew as my drinking worsened.

By the end of my drinking career I had lost nearly everything. Things happened in a hurry. First, I lost my job. Then the woman I loved said she was leaving because she could not bear to watch me drink myself to death. Finally, the counselor I was seeing said he would no longer treat me unless I quit drinking. I almost forgot, my body was beginning to rebel from the abuse.

Suicide was an option which I considered. However, I did not feel that it would be fair to my children to have to live with that for the rest of their lives. I knew that drinking and drugs would soon kill me one way or the other, so the only thing left was to quit. But how?

I couldn’t imagine a life without alcohol, much less how to go about stopping. For the last few years, my life had centered around drinking. I planned my day around my drinking and drugging. I looked forward to the first drink of the day and then the next. On the weekends I had my children, I always made sure there was enough money left on Sunday evening to get enough beer for the night, even if it meant a little less food for the kids. In those rare moments when I could imagine life without alcohol and drugs, I thought I would be unbearably boring, and so would life. Alcohol was escape, it was my friend; the only one I could always turn to. The fact that this friend was killing me had not sunk in. I just could not conceive of a life without alcohol.

With that mentality, how could I quit? I had no clue. I remember talking to my counselor and trying to convince him to continue to see me because I really wanted to quit. He wanted me to go into treatment. I didn’t want to, and in a moment of desperation, I blurted out, “How about AA?” I have no idea where that thought came from. Even in my denial, in the back of my mind I had often considered what alcohol was doing to me, but I had never considered AA as a solution. To this day I can’t tell you where that suggestion came from. I can tell you that suggestion was about to change my life dramatically. In effect, my life was about to begin again.

The counselor to whom I had mindlessly uttered the suggestion got me in touch with a lawyer in AA. I went to his office and visited with him and two other lawyers in AA. The three of them freely and openly told me of their experiences and seemed to genuinely care about me. I know now that they certainly did. All three of them are now dear friends of mine. There was no preaching or lecturing at this meeting. These men simply told me what had happened to them and what life was like for them now. Although my brain was fairly pickled at that time, I was still able to figure out that when those fellows were talking about their drinking lives, it had a familiar ring to it. It also didn’t take a genius to appreciate the fact that their lives were better than mine.

I can now appreciate how foggy my brain was at that time and find some humor in it. A couple of sober years after that meeting with lawyers from AA, I was driving to work thinking about a case that I had been working on for several months. It suddenly occurred to me that the lawyer on the other side of the case I was pondering was one of the lawyers in that office. In the past few months, I had numerous telephone conversations and personal meetings with that lawyer, and it had not even dawned on me until that day that he was one of the lawyers I met that day.

I had managed to not drink for a couple of days before that initial meeting, a major accomplishment for me. The hope which I took from that meeting enabled me to not drink for another three or four days when one of those fellows took me to my first AA meeting. I am sure that was the longest I had gone without alcohol for 10 years. I will never forget that first meeting, although I can’t tell you much about it. I do remember that there were about 20 men in the room talking about things that men don’t talk about: gut feelings, a higher power, and living life without alcohol or mind altering drugs. It was too early for hardly any of it to sink in, but these people seemed to be happy and seemed to have been where I was. Besides, I really wanted to stop drinking, and I knew I would need help for that to ever happen, and AA had to be that help.

Early on, all I could do was go to meetings and try not to drink in between. The AA program involves some suggested steps to recovery. I tried to work those steps to the best of my ability. My brain was still suffering from the years of abuse, and it would be safe to say my ability was quite limited. Nevertheless, the important thing seemed to do the best I could, not necessarily to do it perfectly.

After several months, my mind began to clear. I was amazed at how much energy I had as a result of not drinking. I began to exercise just because I had so much energy.

Little by little, life began to improve. My health returned, and my thinking improved. I was amazed that this process continued for about two years. The woman I loved returned, and we were married. My relationship with my children got better and better. I couldn’t find employment, but a fellow lawyer offered me an office and at least enough referral business to pay the rent on it. As it turned out, there was enough business to pay the rent, car, food, and child support. Money was not as important as staying clean and sober.

I was on a pink cloud for a couple of years. I didn’t have many responsibilities or obligations, and the problems of life avoided me during that period.

As life got better, the responsibilities and obligations increased. After marriage, business improved enough that we were able to buy a house. Then things got complicated in a hurry. Within a three-month period, my two daughters from my previous marriage came to live with us, and my wife bore our son. Overnight, we had gone from a couple with a dog to parents of two teenage girls and a newborn infant. It was quite a shock. On top of all that, we had an old house that needed work.

The added stress tested my sobriety. I wasn’t really tempted to drink, but my thinking became distorted. My compulsive personality resurfaced, and I became obsessed with work, both at the office and at home. It was very difficult for my wife also. After three years, the pressures of the children and other things became too much for her, and she left. I was devastated. The person most instrumental in motivating me to quit drinking didn’t want to live with me anymore. The woman I loved more than I knew I could love anyone or anything was going away. To make matters worse, if that was possible, she couldn’t tell me why she was leaving because she really didn’t know herself.

The day after I was informed of this tragedy, I found myself in front of a jury pleading a client’s case. The fact that I was able to do this can only be explained by the strength I had been given through AA. Certainly my ability to survive that ordeal and the pain and suffering of the next several months can only be attributed to what I had been given in AA. Those who read this may consider that statement to be a gross exaggeration; if I had not lived the experience, I would probably think so too. This is not the bantering of a person who has been brainwashed in some sort of a cult. In fact, AA may be the antithesis of a cult. It has no leaders, no dues, and no rules. Just 12 suggested steps to living with alcohol.

Those 12 steps not only allowed me to live without alcohol, but to live happily. However, it did not give me a life without pain. It does give me the tools to endure the pain with a sober mind, cope with the problems, and even grow from the experience.

I cannot adequately explain how different my life is now. I have a very good relationship with my children, and, by the grace of God, they are all healthy. My friends in AA are the kinds of friends who are rare to find. They care about me and are always there when I need them, and vice versa. Of course, I have friends who aren’t drunks, too. I’m still a sole practitioner and there still seems to be enough clients to take care of my needs. Last, and certainly not least, I have a higher power in my life. I always believed in God, having spent my years in parochial school. I just didn’t know until AA that he believed in me.


1 Hugh F. O’Donnell practices family law with his own firm in Kansas City. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of law, he is a licensed mediator in both Missouri and Kansas, and co-founded the Collaborative Law Institute of Missouri (now Collaborative Divorce Professionals). He is chairman of the Missouri Bar Intervention Committee, which is authorized by Supreme Court rule to investigate substance abuse, conduct interventions, and recommend and monitor rehabilitation programs for recovery. These activities may be carried out at the request of a disciplinary authority or upon referral or request of a third party.



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