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A few years ago, Jerry was a studious, angsty and ambitious law student. Sounds normal. But he never liked to party. “I never got it. There was no point in getting hammered.” In his second year, he took criminal law and was required to observe a criminal trial for one day. The assignment instantly became a pivotal force. “I was totally absorbed in what I saw. I knew I had found my calling. I started to go every afternoon. I was a regular and got to know one lawyer by first name. My only p.m. class that semester was crim law, but I didn’t mind skipping when I could learn the real thing. The classroom suddenly seemed so stale. And the law suddenly had all the juice. “I watched every day of a trial involving a self-defense murder by a prisoner. Fascinating stuff. But I was missing whatever happened in the morning. So I would pester the DA to fill me in.” Cliff, the district attorney in the case, was frequently beat after a day of litigation; he suggested that Jerry come a few minutes before the trial with his questions. “I never talked much in class because I never cared too much about what they were teaching. I usually kept quiet the few times I had something to say since I don’t like the pressure of thinking and talking on the spot.” But Cliff was always friendly and encouraging, and the new Jerry always had a flurry of spontaneous questions without a moment’s hesitation. “Before long, we were meeting for lunch regularly. And that was when I noticed. Cliff drank like a whole bottle of wine almost every lunch — right before walking into court. I didn’t say anything because, well, I felt uncomfortable. That, and, as far as his performance went, there was no sign of his drinking whatsoever.” Jerry laughed as he shook his head. “He always carried parsley with him in case the restaurant didn’t have any. That took care of his breath and he took care of the rest. “By the time summer rolled around it was only natural for me to work for Cliff.” Troubling discoveries soon followed. “My first week, I noticed he kept a thermos in his car. And it wasn’t chicken soup. Then I understood why he always left for court early. Finally I found the courage to say something. He was really calm. ” ‘I’ve been waiting for you to say something,’ he told me. ‘I used to be just like you. That was why I took a liking to you and answered all your questions. You seemed interested and dedicated to being a prosecutor, despite your having a little stage-fright. When I first started [trying cases], I used to get incredibly anxious afer a trial. I’d obsess over all the little things I did wrong. A drink after a day in court would help me to focus on the next day. It wasn’t long before I found that a drink before court took away all my nervousness. It slowed down my head, sure, but not too much. At first, I made a few mistakes I’d attribute to the drinking, but I made a lot less mistakes from nervousness. After I developed a strong tolerance for alcohol, I stopped making any mistakes out of nervousness or being tipsy. That was my balance.’ “ Jerry felt crestfallen and confused at once. “Cliff was my idol. He had nothing but kind words for me. He had taken me under his wing. I never had a mentor before. My parents were hippies. They weren’t crazy about me going to law school. And here was this guy being so honest, taking a chance on me. It really brought me closer to him. To the point of emulation.” Once the quasi-secret was shared, the two began to drink together. Cliff never applied pressure per se; the poison did its own advertising. “That summer I noticed that if I had one drink in the morning, I could concentrate fine and I wouldn’t freak out over deadlines or or not researching properly. I wasn’t so serious and suddenly, I was good. My writing smoothed out, too. Where Cliff had seemed like a likeable degenerate before, now he just seemed like a practical advocate. He had kept things under control. If a shot kept his jitters under control, what was wrong with that? The results spoke for themselves. “He had been drinking for 20 years and he wasn’t hooked. That really once made sense to me. Sick.” “Did you think you could control your drinking?” “I wasn’t sure, but I was willing to take that risk. Consider my perspective: I was succeeding in the law, my biggest weakness was now a strength, and I finally had direction.” “So you felt safe?” “Drinking is its own world. And drinking with Cliff was our own world. In that world, yeah, I felt safe.” The long-term issue was what would happen to Jerry when he stopped working under Cliff’s shadow. “I was sad to see the summer end. But when school started, I told myself I was going to finish with a bang now that I cared. At least I did that … “ Jerry had almost never had a drink all summer unless it was with Cliff. Once school started, he found that, just like Cliff, he craved alcohol before and after pressure situations. “One of my professors was a softie; he would tell us the day before who he was going to call on. Another one just went by alphabetical order, so that was never a problem either. I only drank once a semester for those classes. But my other two classes, maybe it was Fate or something, but I didn’t get called on until the last week. So I always expected it, and so I always drank for those classes. The problem was, I had those two classes on alternating days. I was drinking every day before and after class. After a few weeks, a little wasn’t enough.” Drinking was, after all, functional. Too much or too little meant Jerry would not be at his optimum. He usually didn’t imbibe to the point of hangover, but sometimes, especially if he had had a dinner with Cliff the night before, he would wake up in “pure misery. My only memory of crim pro was sipping vodka in the mornings to take the edge off [of my hangovers]. I got myself a thermos just like Cliff’s. At the time, I didn’t even notice they were the same. I don’t know how he would’ve felt about it. It all just made sense.” There was only one close call, not long before graduation. “One prof was very maternal. She wouldn’t remember your legal interests, but if you had a cold in class one day, she would ask you if you felt better the next day and actually bring you an orange. “One morning before class started I was sipping out of my thermos and she asked me if I wasn’t feeling funny. My eyes were bloodshot, I had forgotten my sunglasses and I looked like crap. I really had had sniffles [in the previous class], so I didn’t know if she was playng it both ways. I just nodded. Then she asked something real innocent, like, ‘Is that orange juice?’ I thought I was found out. I couldn’t look her in the eye. I just mumbled, ‘Seabreeze.’ It was the lowest moment of my life. “Somehow she heard ‘Ocean Spray’ or something like that. She smiled and told me it was her favorite juice. I didn’t hear one word in class that day. I just sat and sat and stared at my thermos. I wanted to smash it against the wall. Or maybe just myself … . I thought class would never end.” Jerry went straight home. “I just kept looking and looking at the thermos. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I grabbed it and opened it. I finished what was left in one drag. Then I slammed it down. Hard. Left a dent. I called my parents. They’re usually at work but my dad was home with a cold, too. I told him everything. No one knew a thing but Cliff of course. Dad was real understanding. Told me that that was the world surrounding me, but that I had a choice about what world I lived in. His simple words put a lot in perspective for me.” Jerry got himself into AA. “I really wasn’t too afraid of drinking again; I was so disgusted with myself, I knew I wasn’t going back. It was more about coming to terms with myself.” Even the stress of studying for the bar exam did not lead him to drink. “If anything, [the bar exam] helped me stay dry by giving me something to focus on. I looked at the pressure as a challenge instead of something to escape. That was the new world I wanted to live in … . If you’re gonna quit drinking, do it when you need to start studying for the bar; there’s no better time.” Jerry let out a chilled laugh. He sat up and grew entirely serious. “But I was prouder of my one-year chip than passing the damn bar.” Meanwhile, Jerry stopped seeing Cliff. “We’d talk on the phone once in a while. I told him I was busy with finals or graduation or the bar or whatever excuse I had going for me. He understood. I wonder how much. He cared about me drinking as little as he cared about me not drinking. He stuck to business.” What shocks more than Cliff’s indfference to his infectious ways is his failure to connect drinking with “business”. Addiction is a battle that never ends. And the farther away a habit gets, the more harmless the quiet tickle of harmless temptation feels. “The moment of truth came when I started trying my own cases. Could I be smooth without a drink? The night before my first case, my parents didn’t call. I was surprised, but I had plenty of work to do anyway. The next morning, before I left my apartment, I got a special delivery. My dad had sent me vitamins with a note. ‘To keep you in balance. Dad.’ That note was all the balance I needed. I was great that day, but just as important, I was comfortable. Really believed in myself.” Jerry purposely worked in a different district attorney’s office. He never talked to Cliff again. But he needed closure. “I mailed him the old thermos with the dent. No note, no return address. I had kept it as a reminder. He never knew about it before, nor did he reply. But he knew. About a month later, I heard he retired — voluntarily.” The pressure of the law simply overwhelms. Every day, real lives are decided through the torrent of cases a lawyer runs through. That is the joy and the tumult and the chaos of practicing law in modern cities where every reaction seems to be either a baptism by fire or a perfunctory shrug of jaded shoulders. Some trade the varied anxiety of practicing law for the roundabout anxiety of drinking. Jerry drank to balance his imbalances. When living under a pressure greater than any individual can place on himself, that can seem to be the only balance. I asked Jerry if he had any regrets or if he still carried issues with him. “I don’t regret meeting Cliff. If it weren’t for him, I never would have believed I could be a litigator instead of some desk-jockey researcher. He might just have been one of those rare lawyers for whom drinking really works. But he’s unhappy. It’s easy to screw up your whole life before you see everything that is wrong with it.” It was what happened afterwards that showed Jerry what he was made of. Free-lancer Mitch Artman lives and writes in Chicago.

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