Today Mary Beth shares more of her story and how she chose her memoir’s title, ‘Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction.’
We discuss her path to recovery and how it was vital for her to own her story and navigate a recovery path that felt right for her.
Mary Beth reads an excerpt from her book!
As a retired federal judge, Mary Beth advocates for multiple paths to recovery as a board member for She Recovers, LifeRing Secular Recovery, and on the advisory council for The Hyer Calling Foundation.
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See full transcript below.
You’re listening to the Embrace Family Recovery Podcast, a place for real conversations with people who love someone with the disease of addiction. Now here is your host, Margaret Swift Thompson.
Intro: Welcome back! We return today with Mary Beth O’Connor the author of ‘From Junkie to Judge One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction.’ In the last episode Mary Beth shared the progression of her addiction that led to IV meth use at the age of 16 and how she embarked on her personal recovery journey from addiction and trauma. Today Mary Beth shares more about how she chose her memoir’s title and her advocacy for multiple paths to recovery.
Trigger warning, this episode involves discussion of IV drug use and trauma.
The Embrace Family Recovery Podcast
Do you feel in your journey and obviously every journey is different, and I respect you share that, I support that. Do you feel you needed to be clean and sober to do the trauma work?
Mary Beth 01:39
Yes, I had gone to therapy intermittently, like I was cutting myself for a while in college and I had gone to try to get help around that. But because I was on the substances I couldn’t access my emotions; I couldn’t even really tell the therapist what the primary issues were or given accurate history because everything was distorted. And so, when I went into rehab, they told us that they wouldn’t even evaluate us for say mental health meds for 90 days. And now I think the better approach is they do the analysis to see if there’s a mental health disorder or dual diagnosis situation, which is common. They do it right away early on, which I think is better. But I wasn’t going to make much progress in therapy without getting the meth out of my system. Because my brain couldn’t function properly. It was a barrier between me and myself, right. And you can’t really get very far in therapy when there’s that barrier between you and yourself.
I really appreciate your saying that. That is very much my story. Also, I had to remove the barrier. I didn’t even have the awareness that I was living in a constant state of anxiety because I was barriered from myself. And I got into abstinence, which is my recovery with food addiction. And taking away the binge effects and the numbing of that I suddenly was paralyzed by anxiety that I had been medicating and not even realizing. So, I appreciate the assessments being done quickly. But I also really want to say to those out there listening who are on this journey, that they may find their mental health issues surface a little bit after they’ve been recovery as well. It can go either way.
Mary Beth 03:11
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know I had PTSD or severe anxiety. It took me a while to even understand that I had it because I thought that my fears, and my catastrophizing, and my waiting for one little mistake for the whole world to explode that it was valid and proportional fear. But it wasn’t, you know, it was trauma based.
I remember saying to my therapist, like describing what could happen. I said, I’m not saying it will happen. I’m just saying it really, really could, so I need to pay attention to it. And I was spending a lot of energy on things that would never happen.
Even though I was making the right next steps in my recovery. And I was having some success like holding a job again, for the first time, things like that. I wasn’t enjoying my accomplishments, the way that I really deserved to because my anxiety was always focused on tomorrow, what’s going to happen tomorrow, what negative event, what catastrophic event is going to happen tomorrow. So, I didn’t get to absorb the pride and joy of accomplishment to the full degree I should have because of that catastrophizing.
Mary Beth, do you think that that came from being in a childhood where trauma was around, and you didn’t have the freedom to be the little girl, not worrying about what was going to come next? Do you think that’s part of the root?
Mary Beth 04:26
I mean, it’s interesting, because even before my stepfather because my mother wasn’t really connected to me, and she could be violent. I had signs of anxiety conditions. I remember when I was a little girl, I used to do things with numbers, I wanted even numbers. If you were talking, I would be counting your syllables and I wanted it to land on an even number and things like that. And so, I had some OCD type tendencies when I was young, although they never fully developed. Certainly, with the stepfather with that trauma. It really exacerbated because in my house you never knew when. It wasn’t that you got beat every day, it was things like you could do the same behavior 20 times in a row and 19 times it was fine, and the 20th time, it was like the worst thing anybody could do in this world. And that would be the reaction. So, there was that living on eggshells, never know when it’s gonna hit you, but also feeling sort of helpless and feeling like there was no one to protect you or support you. So, all of those things played into the anxiety.
There is a lot of reaction to language, labels, addict, junkie, your book title is Junkie to Judge. I know, there’s more. I respect that piece about the trauma and substance use disorder. Did you choose that label, because you have empowerment around where you’ve been. Like, give us a bit of background of why that worked for you and where you sit with it.
Mary Beth 05:51
I mean, I would never use it for someone else. But I did it for a couple reasons. I mean, obviously, alliteration is nice. But it was really about wanting to own my history. I see the shows with people who are shooting meth on television. And it’s almost as if it’s presented as if these people are too far gone, it’s hopeless, there’s no reason to help them because they’re too far gone.
And I really wanted to say she is me; I am her right and look where I ended up. But it was also to try to reduce some of the stigma.
I think that Americans judge substance use disorder in different ways for meth versus alcohol, or pills. And, you know, shooting meth is considered sort of at that bottom of that hierarchy. And so, I really wanted to say, look, I shot meth, and look at my life with recovery.
I think about the families a lot, that if I could go from an IV meth user to having a happy and productive life, and the judge is just a symbol of that, right. It’s not the most important part of my recovery. That’s my job. But it helps show the arc and a couple of words. And I do want to reassure the families that wherever they’re struggling family member may be in recovery, you know, there’s almost infinite possibilities, they can have a happy and productive life. But it’s also about the multiple paths, I wanted to stand up as an example of the success of taking an alternate approach also, because I think with friends and families, if their family member chooses something other than 12 steps, often they’ve never heard of anything else. And so that can make them nervous, right, like maybe their family member isn’t serious about their recovery, if they’re doing, She Recovers, or they’re doing LifeRing or something else. And so, part of it is to just be a part of the education process, that there are other options that work just as well, and that I had success with those other options.
I also think another piece of that is if our families out there have a loved one who seeks a different path to recovery than 12 steps, but they are drawn to 12 steps as family members that people can within the same family find individual paths, and still support and respect one another’s journey.
Mary Beth 08:03
That’s true. I mean, I do a friends and family meaning for LifeRing members, friends, and family once a month. But I tell them about all the support groups including Al-Anon, just because their family member finds LifeRing to be the best fit, doesn’t mean that they will find it to be the best fit. So, we offer friends and family support, so does Hazelden, and so does SMART, so does Al-Anon, they need to look for the place that they’re going to be comfortable.
The only caveat to that is that if they’re learning different philosophical approaches, you do have to interact in a way that you’re respecting the other person’s viewpoint. Because of the family members doing Al-Anon they’re viewing recovery, and substance use disorder in a somewhat different way than if someone’s doing LifeRing or some of the other programs. So, you just have to respect that. But yes, the family members got to do what’s right for them for their own healing.
And I think when our loved one is an adult seeking recovery, it’s a very different dynamic. I would like it to be a very different dynamic for the parents or the partner than if it’s a minor child or young adults.
Though, in my addiction, I would say I was very infantile, and reactive, and blamey, and my behavior wasn’t very mature. I still had to find my past. I look at if my family had said, you need to do this. Really, let me show how much I don’t need to do that. Would have probably been my rebellious nature and reaction. So, I think it’s about dignity and grace for one another in this family illness that everybody is touched by it, affected by it, hurt by it, and that we get the opportunity to get a path out, a path forward, and a healing.
Mary Beth 09:48
You know part of what I remind the friends and family I talk to is I’m friends and family too.
Mary Beth: Everybody I know with a substance use disorder is also friends and family right because we have our family members and definitely our friends who struggle with it as well. And so, I understand the frustrations. I put my own sister in my rehab, she lasted eight days. And so, it’s hard when they won’t listen when you know that you’re giving good advice. And it’s easy to want to sort of manage the process. But at some point, you have to stand back a bit. I mean, it doesn’t mean you can’t do research or mention options. Give a family member who says, you know, that 12 Step thing, I just don’t like it. Then to know that there’s alternatives that can be useful, oh, well, you know, I actually heard that there are some other options you might want to research. I mean, you don’t necessarily do it for them. But information can be helpful. The other thing is to notice the effort, right to focus on where they’re making the effort. That’s the important part.
And I think that’s the key with family, right? We cannot fix, manage, and control someone well, however, if someone comes to us and says, I want help, but that doesn’t feel right, what else is there? I’m scared, I have no options. And you’re willing to say, hey, why don’t we do some research together and see what the options are? I don’t know, let’s listen to a podcast that might have someone speak about the fact that they found another path, you know what I mean? Like there are ways family can share in the process without taking control of it.
Mary Beth 11:08
Absolutely. And, also, I mean, you know, the hard thing about being in the middle of your substance use disorder is it’s hard to make decisions when your brain is so impacted by the chemicals of your substance, right. And so, I know my concentration skills or follow through as far as doing research, it was problematic. And so sometimes you sort of need the help of family to give you suggestions, or say, look, here’s the three I found, maybe you should look at these, rather than starting with a universe of possibilities that you might not be able to manage. But yeah, you want to be a loving support. But yes, you can’t control the process, unfortunately.
No, no, we certainly have seen many people try, much to no avail. But I think that the showing the loving investment that I am here, I love you, I cannot enable or help your disease take you, I will not do that. You want help? I’m here. We’ll support you in whatever way you feel you want help. Let me be there for you. But it’s so torturous waiting for that moment.
Mary Beth 12:09
It is yeah, and the other thing I will say that friends and family is, you know, I used three times in my first five months, and I now have 29 years and that is common. The slips can really create a lot of fear, because you’re worried that there’s never ending but the reality is most people don’t have perfect abstinence from day one. And so, it’s important to see that a lot of times what you see is that people will build up longer periods of abstinence over time, or shorter periods of relapse over time, you know, on average anyway, and it can often be a progression up to abstinence, if that’s what they choose to do.
But it’s rarely a light switch. Just like I was saying, it’s rarely when you walk into rooms, I’m 100% committed like and I’ll never change my mind. That’s not how it works. Let’s not set up false expectations around it and get worried when they don’t meet those false expectations.
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Language has power. I encourage people who I work with, to not say they’ll never use again. I myself do not say I will never pick up again. I’m today grateful, I’m not picking up. Today I’m grateful I’m where I am. I’m willing to do it for today. I’m willing to work at it tomorrow. But for families that’s hard to hear. They want that promise. And they want to believe when we choose to get help. it’s it we’re there. And it’s not an on off switch. I think that’s a great description.
Mary Beth 14:39
Well, especially in the beginning. I mean the data shows for substances if someone gets five years, they have an 85% chance of never having another relapse. But it does take two to three years for your brain to fully recover for most of us. That’s the sort of the high-risk period. And I wouldn’t use the word never for me but I certainly can’t imagine a scenario under which I would go back to using and I haven’t for a long time. Sometimes newbies say things to be like, well, what if you knew you were dying? Like, no, I don’t want to spend the last of my life in chaos. Unconnected to my friends and family focused on this substance because that’s what would happen, right? I mean, if I knew I was dying, I would want the time to, you know, have the final conversations, and bond with the people and share our love. And if I’m using meth, I am just focused completely in a different place, and it would not be the way I would want to go out. And so, there is no legitimate reason that I can imagine it happening. But on the other hand, I’ve never forgotten the chaos, the misery, the obsession, I don’t play around the edges. I take it seriously. But I don’t feel the need to recommit every day. My commitment was made a long time ago, and I’m solid, but it’s those first couple years are the tough part your brain is rebuilding your behaviors or rebuilding, you’re more vulnerable to something taking you by surprise.
Margaret: Trigger laden?
Mary Beth 16:04
I would also point out and I’ve wondered this many times with, you know, serving working with 1000s of people with substance use disorder through my 20 odd years. I’d never want anyone to go through life with a substance use disorder, like I really wouldn’t. Any type of food addiction, process addiction, chemical substances, none of it. It’s miserable. Yes, at first, it’s awesome. But it turns on you and it’s freaking miserable. The self-loathing, the feeling like a fraud, the level of integrity loss, everything is so painful. When I think about statistics, like what you just shared about 85% after five years. If you put cancers next to that, I don’t think the outcome is that positive. The prognosis? Like even though I would not wish this on anyone. When people feel there’s no hope, I point out, there’s a huge level of hope, compared to many other illnesses that we have faced in our families, in our lives. And so, I’m not sure what you think about that. But I do find that a thought that’s also hopeful around substance use disorder.
Mary Beth 17:22
Well, the other big step forward in treatment is medication assisted treatment for alcohol use disorder and opiate use disorder. I mean, they still don’t have it for stimulants, although they’re doing research. But the data shows, I mean, it’s vastly higher rates of abstinence, maintenance or lower rates of using with the medication. The problem is only about 10 to 15% of people who could use the medication get it and that is the problem in America. But if you have a family member, and they’re struggling with alcohol or opiates, I mean, one of the researchs or one of the you know you might do is to look at the medication assisted treatment, and the data is amazing. It’s really amazing.
The other day, someone said to me, that it was a harm reduction technique. I’m like, how is the harm reduction to give someone medication, I mean, if you’re giving someone medicine for cancer, or high blood pressure, we don’t call it harm reduction, we call it treatment. It’s medicine. So that has been a great improvement. And a lot of people really benefit from it, the cravings are so much less, the struggle is less. They can focus on other areas than fighting the cravings that they would need to be fighting. And some people need long term maintenance. And that’s okay, too, because it’s a regular dose, they are not given a dose such that they’re in that fog. They’re given a dose of they feel normal, like other people. And so, you know, they’re not hard enough is that opiate sluggishness around them. So yeah, the medication has been a great help and helping the data and helping people find stability and recovery.
It’s been an evolution to, I was blessed to be on the front lines of it, when it was started to roll out in treatments in some level, and to watch the adjustments of medications. So, it wasn’t mood altered. So, it was a nice level of functionality and stable and the evolution of finding sober houses, which would allow someone to have it. You know, there’s been lots of change, and it’s been slow. But there are people who are fighting to make sure that it is consistently getting to the people who can benefit from it and have a quality of life they’ve not been able to have prior.
Mary Beth 19:26
Yeah, I mean, it’s getting better. But we definitely need easier access to these things. Well, we in general we need easier access to affordable, accessible treatment right now a lot of people don’t have access, they have to wait. I had to wait 10 weeks, I had to call my program because on a waiting list because I didn’t have insurance and I didn’t really have money. I had to call every Monday from nine to noon to keep my name moving up the list, otherwise I would have dropped to the bottom again. And I was really proud that I managed to do it because that is an obstacle to someone with a substance use disorder and I had a home I mean, I’m living in my house. Imagine someone who isn’t who’s transient or who’s unhoused. And so we just don’t have enough treatment beds and the treatment option. And certainly, aftercare is another big problem. Because the rehab, it’s just a start of the process. People need support, when they get out, especially again, the early periods, the more support they get the better. 30 days to me, it can be helpful, but it’s not a light switch, that you’re gonna be fine, when you get out. You need more, right, and the more supports we have for people, the better we increase their odds.
So, in your recovery, you have found your way to become a judge. Was that your career trajectory prior too?
Mary Beth 20:38
No. So you know, I emphasize the timeframes, right. So, I went to law school when I had six and a half years sober. When I got home, okay, I was 32, my resume was a mess, I couldn’t hold the job. So, my first job when I got home was a part time temporary, low level admin job. Because for me to get up every day and go to work, and stay all the hours, I’m supposed to be there and do a good job, and good the next day, and the next. I was 32 I had literally never done that. So, I really had to get that habit that understanding that sort of muscle memory. And then I had a mid-level permanent admin job. And then I went to a bigger company. And then at six and a half years, I went to law school. And I was appointed a federal judge at 20 years sober. So, you know, it was all about what’s the right next job for me? How do I get the skills I need to get the right next job and moving forward incrementally.
And still working as a judge?
Mary Beth 21:36
No, I took early retirement for multiple reasons in 2020. And so now I do my advocacy around multiple paths to recovery. I’m on the board for She Recovers and LifeRing. And I do podcasts and television, I write essays, I’ve had essays in like the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times, and the book for me really is part of the advocacy. And so that’s my sort of part time job in my retirement is the advocacy work.
Fabulous. So, you’ve served people in many different ways in your career, and also with your retirement advocacy work? How was the response to you writing your story? Firstly, within your family, and then within maybe career or people from your life and your work? How has it been?
Mary Beth 22:21
I mean, a lot of people reached out to me because they’ve seen me on TV, or they happened upon a news article or something. And so, it’s generally been positive. The only times I get negative feedback, or some people seem upset that an IV meth user could ever have become a judge like that somehow shouldn’t have been impossible. And I keep saying I had 20 years sober, I had 20 years sober. It’s not like I was shooting up in the back of the courtroom, you know, I had 20 years of sobriety.
How about the fact that that shows people can get well know and be high functioning in recovery, no matter where their disease has taken them? Or their addictions have taken them? Like, wow, okay. I’m going to shush, because I could go off on a tangent.
Mary Beth 23:06
Well, on the other side of that is, if I would have had an alcohol use disorder, I don’t think I’d be getting the same level reaction. Again, it’s part of the reason I use the junkie word was to really show that you can recover from anything to anywhere, I don’t think I’d have the same level of reaction if it was to alcohol.
Fair enough. Despite knowing that within every profession in this world, even high achieving professions, the levels of alcoholism, the destruction of alcohol consumption is pervasive.
Mary Beth 23:42
Right. I mean, lawyers have a higher alcohol use disorder rate, they have a higher substance use disorder. But the other reality is the opioid overdose, the overdose deaths in general, which part of it is stimulants, horrific. But the truth is, alcohol is still killing more people every year than the opioid overdoses. And Americans tend to forget that. Alcohol is vicious. It’s particularly vicious to women. It really has a lot of physical consequences. Alcohol is legal for historical reasons. It’s not legal because it’s more mild. It’s not legal, because it’s better for you. If you’re going to pick a more mild drug, you would pick cannabis, not alcohol. Alcohol is a very harsh drug on the body, and emotionally, and physically.
I appreciate you saying that. It’s one of the things. I agree 100 said that the opiate crisis, you know, each drug that’s come along, that’s become the big one that we talk about, have been problematic and have caused destruction. I’m astounded how alcohol continually has this wave throughout the background of all of those narratives through our generations. And the destruction as you said, because it is a slow decline. And usually when people finally who are God forbid turning yellow in a corner office and somebody says whoa, what is going on? Some don’t make it out because there’s so far compromised. And it’s tragic.
Mary Beth 25:04
I mean, it’s a slow decline. But it’s also the accidents, right? I mean, a lot of younger people die in boating accidents, or car accidents, or other type of accidents because of alcohol or they make poor decisions as far as having sex or putting themselves in dangerous situations. And again, I’m not against alcohol use, I just want us to face the true risk of alcohol so that people can make an informed decision and pay attention if it’s getting out of control.
And I think of those families out there that I have personally worked with and seen through my journey, who’s loved one has lost their life due to the consumption of alcohol, the progression of the substance use disorder with alcohol. I wonder if they must sit back sometimes and say, where’s the voice for my so and so? You know, not to say that the other voices shouldn’t be heard, but to say, whoa. So there’s a lot of work yet to be done, but certainly come a hell of a long way compared to 1993.
Mary Beth 26:05
It’s true, there definitely has been progress on multiple fronts. And that is nice to say, yeah.
So, I’ve asked you to pick a part of your book that you would be willing to share, because I do find people share with me how much they love hearing you speak your words. And I don’t know if you have an audio book that you’ll be doing with your own voice.
Mary Beth 26:22
The audio book is out. And I chose not to do it, mostly because I didn’t feel like I had the skill set, you know, as far as the acting skill set with the voices and things, but the audio I’m listening to, uh, now I’m gonna need this on chapter 12, myself, but she did a really good job. So, if you’d like audio books, it is available.
Fabulous. So, what did you choose to read? Is there any setup for that section for our audience.
Mary Beth 26:45
30% of my book is recovery. It’s about my recovery process and how I was thinking and not to say people do it the same, but just as an example of if you want to think about it a different way. And then at the back, I have guidelines and checklists about things to think through. And so, I’m going to really read about something from the guidelines that’s talking about what I found as some of the keys to my recovery. And so, this is sort of in the middle of that chapter, and it says.
“Taking charge of my own recovery strengthen me. Rather than follow orders to submit to the program being offered, I viewed all ideas presented to me as suggestions. I did my best to keep an open mind even to those teachings I wanted to knee jerk, toss out the window. I analyzed each concept against this standard. Will this help me build a strong recovery foundation. I then accepted, rejected, or modified the recommendations. This process invigorated dormant decision-making skills and improve my ability to make solid judgments. I learned to guide myself forward, and I gained expertise that I continued to apply to my recovery and to use when making decisions in any arena. The key to my recovery was my motivation, and my efforts, and my family. Only a weak connection existed between my actions and what happened to me. No matter what I did, I could not avoid the abuse. Building a hybrid recovery program taught me that my labor had a significant impact on the likelihood I triumph. I couldn’t control everything. But by making good choices, I came to trust my ability to guide myself to a drug free and happier future. This concept smoothed the path to improving in all areas.”
Your foreword of your book was written by Dawn Nichol, founder of She Recovers. And she wrote “real and raw” to describe you, which I would attest to, and I thank you for the courage it’s taken. And the willingness to put your story out as an example for other people to have hope, and for families to remember that we don’t necessarily predeterminedly know what the plan will be for our loved one, but not to lose hope. And that our stories have power.
I heard you loud and clear earlier, Mary Beth, say that the drunkalogs stories you heard listening to people in the rooms, you would take something you heard that made sense or would help you, and you ran with it. That is characteristic to you. That is beautiful. Like it speaks to how you became a judge. It speaks to your willingness to learn, to challenge yourself, to have the life you’ve got and overcome so much. And I’m really in awe of hearing your story and that you’ve chosen to share it with everybody, and I thank you for that.
Mary Beth 30:00
Well, thank you. Thank you. I mean, my goal at this point is to be of service. And so, it’s nice to hear that, you know, it’s having an impact in the way that I’d hoped.
Is there anything you haven’t shared? Before we wrap up that you would want to share for the listeners? Obviously, your book will be linked to every podcast so people can find your book. But is there anything in your story, you didn’t touch on you wanted to or anything for families, you feel like you want to say, anything on your heart.
Mary Beth 30:25
I mean, the main thing I would say for the families is to try to not give up on the family member, even when you have legitimate fears about whether or not they’re ever going to find their path forward.
I mean, I’ve seen people come into the rooms that have struggled for two years, and then they get their feet underneath them, and now they have 10. And so, you know, people have many different paths, it’s hard to watch, because we love them. But, you know, try to hang on to enough hope, wherever your family member is, other people have recovered from that point. So, trying to find just enough hope to settle yourself down a little and to just keep optimistic about the future possibilities.
And I have to add to that, that I would advocate for families out there for sure what you said, and more. Gain support for yourself while you’re hanging on. It’s a painful journey to be in by yourself, alone with the thoughts and the fears and the worries when you love someone in the illness. And so yes, keep hope, and find people who’ve walked this path so you can have support.
Mary Beth: Absolutely.
Outro: I have to agree with Dawn Nichol’s description of Mary Beth’s memoir “real and raw” and add my descriptors of Mary Beth, tenacious and courageous. I have deep gratitude for Mary Beth sharing her triumphant story with me on this podcast.
Come back next week to meet Susan Avery AKA Annie Augustus Rose a mom, and author, and a true fighter.
I want to thank my guest for their courage and vulnerability and sharing parts of their story. Please find resources on my website.
This is Margaret Swift Thompson.
Until next time, please take care of you!