My Story: Judge Michael J. Murphy

Reprinted with permission from www.thecompletelawyer.com Link opens new window.. Copyright ©2008.

By Judge Michael J. Murphy

Judge Michael J. MurphyI have struggled with allowing this story to be published. Part of me wants this part of my life to be forgotten. I am certainly not proud of what I did and did not do while I was under the influence of alcohol. I also realize that there are still many who view alcoholism as a moral failure and not as a disease. I do not intend to hold myself out as a moralist or as the model recovering alcoholic. Let me make it clear that I am not asking anyone to say no to anything. I don’t pass judgment on those who use. Most people can use and never get into trouble or get addicted. Neither do I claim to be the model person in recovery. I do claim progress, not perfection, in my recovery.

Recovery has not always been easy and I more than once asked the question, “Why me?” There is always the fear of a possible relapse. I realize that I could remain anonymous and not be subject to the watchful eyes and the judgment of others. In allowing this to be published it is my prayer that those who read this who suffer from the disease of addiction will see themselves, and seek help.

You will not find this on my resume but all who know me know my story. In 1979 I walked into my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. I have been on the never-ending road to recovery ever since. What this means is that I don’t drink. I go to AA meetings.

Now it is your turn to know my story and how it is that I became a recovering alcoholic. And to know that I don’t drink and, with the grace of God and the fellowship of AA, I will not drink for the rest of today.

The going hasn’t always been easy. My struggle with alcohol lasted about a decade. During law school I drank, but seldom excessively. I was committed to the study of law. My grades reflected my efforts. And, in hindsight, reflected my absence from heavy drinking.

When I got out of law school in 1970, I found myself alone. As a young prosecutor I became attracted to a crowd that would stop after work for a few—a few too many. Soon, when the others would stop, I kept going.

I started drinking every day. At some point I felt I could not, not drink. I no longer drank for the taste. Whether you call it a willing servitude or an overwhelming compulsion, I needed to drink. I was an alcoholic.

I began to preemptively stock up on alcohol. I feared that I would have no liquor and the stores would be closed. I could not bear to run out. I lived alone, yet I found myself hiding bottles in the bathroom and in closets. I feared that if I had a visitor, I did not want that person to know how much booze I had around. I carefully disposed of the emptied bottles in the garbage. I didn’t want my cleaning person to know how much I drank.

If I were out with friends or on a date, I would excuse myself and sneak off to the bar for a quick shot or two. I was ashamed of how much I could and did consume. My tolerance increased at an alarming rate.

I found myself going to different bars and different liquor stores so the bartenders and storeowners would not detect the copious amounts I was downing. When I was drinking I tried to avoid people I knew. Normal drinkers would not understand my remarkable ability to immerse myself in the strong waters, which drain the soul rather than cleanse it.

At some point I realized that I had lost control over my drinking. Alcohol had me in a cruel vise. Drink became my closest friend, my lover, and my life. Too often I promised others or myself that I was quitting, only to break that promise and fall into depression over my failure. I would often say to myself that I was only going to have one or none at all, then wake up hung over in the morning.

Then the blackouts started. A blackout is a permanent or temporary loss of memory caused by alcohol. An alcoholic can act quite normally and carry on a logical conversation and not recall it the next day. The person need not be drunk. I would drive home and have no recollection of the drive or where I parked my car.

One incident stands out over the others. I was stopped on Lake Shore Drive going 45 in a 40 zone. It turned out that I knew the officer well. He had messed up with his commander and was placed on traffic detail as a result. We talked for some time and then I went on my way. The next day I didn’t recall either the stop or the ride home. I found my car, and to me it was just another memory loss. The next week I ran into the officer at a social gathering. He began talking of our meeting on Lake Shore and how he was now off of the traffic detail. The more he talked, the more my memory came back. I asked him if he thought that I had too much to drink that night and he replied that he did not think I had been drinking.

During this time I continued working and, apparently, I did an acceptable job. I spent twice as many hours producing the same amount of work as a sober lawyer. I tried to do routine things in the morning, and as my mind cleared in the afternoon, I would take on more challenging tasks. Like many alcoholic attorneys, the last thing to go is the professional pride.

The end did come. And it came quickly. I needed more and more alcohol. Blackouts occurred too frequently. My health began to deteriorate. I was depressed over the drinking and faced periods of anxiety over the prospect of stopping. I remained alone drinking for five days and then on a Friday afternoon I picked up the telephone. I called for help. That night a man picked me up and took me to my first AA meeting.

What happened to me is not normal. Normal people do not act the way I was acting. But I was a normal alcoholic. Most normal people do not hide bottles, do not sneak drinks, do not go to different bars and stores to purchase booze so they will not be noticed, and they most certainly do not have blackouts. Most people can elect to drink or not to drink. Alcoholics cannot, not drink. Alcoholics act the way I acted because it is the nature of the illness.

Yes, when I started in recovery in 1979, I fought it. I was addicted to alcohol. My body and my mind craved it. I was being asked to give up the number one thing in my life. It came before my friends, before my work, and before my family. I loved it, but hated it for what it was doing to me. That personal struggle was difficult and intense. Yet with the help of the people in the AA program, I was able to get dry and then work on changing my life.

In recovery I learned that I was powerless not only over alcohol but over so many other aspects of my life. I began to accept this powerlessness, and my life became more manageable. I came to accept that there was a higher power and I turned my problems over to that power. In the beginning that higher power was the AA program and the people in the program. As time passed I accepted the spirituality of the program and now the higher power is God, as I understand God.

Today, each day, I make a conscious decision to turn over my will, my life, and the many problems that I face to God’s care. This does not mean that I don’t continually strive to solve the problem, but by turning the problem over I am accepting the outcome.

I embraced the 12 steps of AA and integrated them into my life. As a result, my life changed. I found myself in a more peaceful, accepting place. I returned to my family. I united with old friends and made new ones who accepted me the way I am, for what I am. My work improved, and I was promoted. I reached out and began helping others in the program.

In my early recovery I learned of the newly formed Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP). I was attracted to it and its basic goal. LAPs then, as now, offer help and hope to the impaired attorney, law student, or judge. All of the help and hope is given in the strictest of confidence. As long as I have been associated with LAPs I have never heard of a breach of this confidence. In LAPs, I have seen professions saved. I have seen families saved. I have seen lives saved.

Recovery and helping others has shaped my personal and professional life. I was elected as an associate judge in 1985 and elected a circuit judge in 1994. I joined the appellate court in 2005. I am most grateful not only for the opportunities I’ve had since recognizing my inner-storm but also for the strength to overcome it and again live in a way that expresses my deepest values.

With the help of my higher power I shall always have my door and my heart open to someone in need of assistance with his or her recovery.

Michael J. Murphy, born in Chicago, graduated from Loyola University. First in his class at John Marshall Law School, he was awarded a postgraduate scholarship to their Lawyer’s Institute. Judge Murphy enjoys local and national recognition as a leader in judicial education having taught at Northwestern, Chicago-Kent, Loyola, University of Chicago, and John Marshall Law Schools. He was a special agent in the organized Crime Division, U.S. Treasury Department; Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Justice Division and Chief of the Civil Rights Division, Illinois Attorney General’s Office; and Executive Director of the South East Chicago Commission. Judge Murphy was appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court in 2005, and elected in 2006. He is an active supporter of numerous charitable and advocacy organizations including the Illinois Lawyer’s Assistance Program. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, have three daughters and six grandchildren.


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