Lawyers and Scientists and Substance Abuse

Jul 17 2017 Published by under becoming an adult, life, Uncategorized

In the NYTimes on Sunday, there was an article about a BSD/high performing lawyer, who was a substance abuser, and ultimately died of it. It is a sad story, eloquently told by his ex-wife, Eileen Zimmerman, who just didn't know, till after he died.

There were a number of quotes in the article that hit me. The ex- said: "None of this made sense. Not only was Peter one of the smartest people in my life, he had also been a chemist", as if being a chemist or a scientist and knowing what the effects of drug addiction are would make a difference. Substance abuse, proclivity towards substance abuse, genetic or social, probably doesn't respect smartness. It also doesn't seem to respect socio-economic status. As I have said, addiction isn't a moral failing. Its really much more  complicated than that.

But there were a number of criticisms of the social and professional climate of being a lawyer. Lots of these apply to scientists that I found compelling and worth thinking on. The article was very good, in that it tried for statistics, as much as they exist. And the author went and talked to many people who know about the problem. One of the things people said was that law, the practice of law, includes an environment of not telling, not discussing problems. She quotes a psychiatrist as saying "as long as they are performing, its easier to just avoid [talking] about it". Not just drugs and alcohol, but personal problems in general.

There was quote after quote that could be talking about scientists I've known. One thing that hit hard, amongst they many that did, not for lawyers but for all the young scientists I know was this quote: "I can't do this forever, Peter often told me, I can't keep going like this for the next 20  years". The desperation of working like that will take its toll.

In the middle of the article, there was a bit of comic relief, for me, though not necessary for the lawyers.  She quoted a lawyer, Will Miller, a recovering addict from Bellevue, WA, that there are, of course, other stressful occupations, like being a surgeon, but none of them are as bad as being a lawyer. My dear Mr Miller, the most stressful occupation in the world is the one you are in, when its not going well, and the wolf is at your door.

But it is another bit by Mr. Miller, the former addict and prosecutor, that prompted me to write this post. He said that law school encourages students to leave emotion behind, "take it out of their decisions". Sound like something we all know? If the law is not supposed to be based on emotion, neither is science. Science more than the law? Depends, I suppose, on whether you are a scientist or lawyer. And for heavens sake, future physicians are actively taught to distance themselves from feelings, lest they get swept away in the pain and agony of their patients. Being "emotional" in science is attacked on two fronts. The first is that science is logic, exact, empirical and objective. Emotions are none of these. But second, a more subtle thrust, is that certain people, certain ethnicities and genders and other identifiers are considered more "emotional" than others, louder, less "cultured" and "refined". These people aren't going to be as good scientists as others.  It's one more way of  judging the quality of one's work by these kinds of personality markers that are, in the end, orthogonal to what one produces as a scientist.

The article doesn't forgive, or even suggest that forgiveness is part of what needs to happen. Nor is it only finding fault with the culture of law as it exists right now. But the brutality, much of it self-inflicted, the requirements to succeed in law, is part of what is at the root of substance abuse. And these same pressures and viciousness of culture, produce substance abusers in all directions in many more fields than law.

None of this is really any different from what I have seen since graduate school, and later as faculty, in my peers, my mentors and my trainees. The article is a good one, and I do not fault it for being about lawyers, for it is a compelling story, both in general and in specific for this person. There is much wrong with the system and there are many things that need fixing. Part of that fixing has to come from all of us, all of us looking beyond our immediate needs and doing what we can to change things.



Update: See this about physicians.

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