Dealing With Addiction in Family Court Litigation
“I Just Wanted a Decent Night’s Sleep”
This one is a little personal, and is something that I have never talked about publicly, so bear with me. As I see this exact issue coming up more and more in Family Court litigation, I hope my story can help someone.
I recently celebrated an anniversary that I never thought would appear on my “life” calendar … something I never thought I would need to “celebrate” in the first place: my two year anniversary of complete sobriety.
My struggle started with prescription sleep medication, that eventually took on a life of its own. The battle was dark – very dark – and almost took my life. For the first time, however, I feel like I am on track to actually beat this thing for good.
ADDICTION CAN AFFECT ANY OF US
Like so many others entrenched in the battle of addiction, I have never done a “hard” drug in my life. The extent of my drug history was some marijuana in my twenties (maybe half a dozen times) and occasional shots of alcohol while hanging out with friends. Alcohol ended up becoming a much larger problem for me later (more on that in a bit).
For far too many years of my life, I was under the ignorant misconception that “addicts” were only those that “chased a high” and abused drugs like heroin, meth, or cocaine. How could I become a full-blown addict by taking pills that were being PRESCRIBED by my doctor, I would often ask myself? Well, it’s VERY easy and it’s precisely where many battles with addiction start.
In fact, as an example, most cases of heroin addiction start with a legitimate prescription for pain pills. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 75% of patients seeking treatment for heroin addiction started their opioid use with prescription medications, NOT heroin. Additionally, people who misuse prescription pain medication are 40 TIMES more likely to become addicted to heroin than those who don’t.
My point is that some of your pre-existing stereotypes or conceptions about addiction may be way off base. Mine sure were. I am an "addict," and this is a battle that I will likely be fighting for the rest of my life.
During my college years, I began having panic attacks. They would come out of nowhere, without rhyme or reason. The only common denominator seemed to be crowded situations. Suddenly, I would feel like I was having a heart attack. My heart would race uncontrollably, the room would start spinning, and I began sweating profusely.
Oddly, my biggest concern wasn’t my physical health while the attacks were happening, but the fact that everyone seemed to notice that I was having a problem. This would often trigger future attacks and create a “vicious cycle,” of sorts.
I finally got myself in to a doctor and learned that panic attacks were common in my family. I also learned that there is a direct link between anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Problems with one (anxiety, in my case) can often lead to problems with the other two later on (for me, it would be insomnia). I began taking an anti-depressant to treat the panic attacks, which for the most part, worked quite well.
"I JUST WANTED SOME SLEEP"
After moving to Las Vegas in 1997 for a job in morning radio (which meant getting up at 3:00 a.m. every day), I began having problems with sleep. After getting only a few hours of sleep at night, I would try to take mid-afternoon naps (to compensate) which created even MORE problems trying to get to sleep at night. Yet, another one of those “vicious cycles” that were becoming far too common.
I tried all the “standard” recommendations like exercise, light therapy, eye masks, valerian root, melatonin, so forth, and so on. Nothing worked. Later, I began taking Tylenol PM a couple nights per week (which quickly became every night). Before I knew it, over-the-counter sleep aids stopped working ENTIRELY and I turned to my doctor for help. In 2004, I filled my first prescription for Ambien.
THE "TOLERANCE" FACTOR
The problem with medications like Ambien and benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Klonopin, or Ativan) that work in a similar way (Ambien is technically classified as a non-benzodiazepine, but affects your brain chemistry the same way as benzos), is that they work great initially, but your body builds up a “tolerance” to them VERY quickly. These kinds of medications are meant-to-be prescribed on a short-term basis only, not for years and years, a lesson that I learned the hard way.
When one pill at night stopped working, two would do the trick. I knew it was wrong, but I convinced myself that I would feel better after getting a full five hours of sleep (two to three hours was typical – six to eight hours hadn’t happened since college) and that I wouldn’t let it happen again. Pretty soon, two became the norm.
Then, over time, it was four, that somehow turned into eight, and so on, and so on. Eventually, my brain chemistry became completely altered and missing doses would make me very sick (caused by withdrawal symptoms that would start within a few hours of missed doses).
THE INEVITABLE CRISIS
Fast-forward to 2014, where I found myself in a full-blown crisis. Ambien had taken over my life, yet I wasn’t sleeping at all. How was that even possible, I wondered? It stopped working entirely, yet I needed it in my system to avoid becoming ill. I was actually taking a sleeping pill in the middle of the day, not to sleep, but to avoid becoming sick. That’s when I knew I was in REAL trouble.
Going stretches of five to seven days at a time without ANY sleep was not uncommon. Based on the dynamic I mentioned earlier, not sleeping would then spike up my levels of anxiety and depression, making it even MORE difficult to get rest. The cycle became impossible to break. I was spiraling, and I was spiraling fast. That’s when I turned to alcohol to help me sleep. Huge mistake.
In addition to just being a horrible idea, when mixed with medications like Ambien and benzodiazepines (even if they aren’t “working” but remain in your system, nonetheless), alcohol dangerously amplifies the effects of the medications you’re taking AND the alcohol you’re consuming. Dangerous, vicious combination.
Maintaining a positive attitude on the radio was almost impossible. I was missing a LOT of work. My co-workers lost respect for me. I lost respect for them. Some of my co-workers were actually rooting for my demise (yes, the environment had become that toxic -- radio is an industry of large egos rooted in even larger insecurities), and it was time to get out.
I took six months off between jobs in early 2015 to "fix" my problem “on my own,” which was yet another HORRIBLE idea. Self-help just doesn’t work and I have no idea how or why I convinced myself to the contrary. I dove back into the early morning schedule in mid-2015, and before year's end, knew that it was time to get professional help or I was going to die. It was just that simple.
In January 2016, I checked into a ten-day inpatient program for Ambien addiction. The program helped me detoxify safely, but I still wasn’t sleeping. My longest stretch without sleep was nineteen days (six days before arriving, ten days there, and three days after).
Doctors didn’t believe me, saying that it was impossible to go that long without sleep. All I could tell them was that I wasn’t interested in breaking records, but I wasn’t sleeping. Not at all. I knew that psychosis couldn’t be too far off, if the pattern continued. They sent me home and said, “Sorry, we’re out of ideas.”
That’s when I found a doctor that knew this stuff like the back of his hand, and he took the time to get me sleeping again. Slowly and safely. It took a few months, but it worked. I’m back to sleeping six-to-eight hours a night. Best of all, I have been Ambien and alcohol free for 2 years ... or 730 days ... or 17,520 hours ... but hey, who's counting?
ADDICTION IN CHILD CUSTODY LITIGATION
I swear, I didn’t plan on taking such a long detour to get to the meat of this post, but the words just kept on coming out. My apologies.
Addiction comes up A LOT in contested Family Court litigation, and it’s something that Judges take VERY seriously. And rightfully so, as the safety of kids is at stake.
In no particular order, here are some tips that come to mind, based on my own experience as both a litigant in Family Court and as someone who has battled addiction personally:
1. GET REAL HELP
If you’re like me, you think you can fix anything and everything on your own. Candidly, the sooner you accept the fact that addiction is a different kind of beast, that requires skills and tools that you simply don’t have in your arsenal, the quicker you will be on the road to recovery.
Who should you call?
Here are some resources that are excellent:
Dr. Michael Levy, D.O., FASM
Dr. Mel Pohl, MD
Las Vegas Recovery Center
Solutions Recovery Center
2. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH SUPPORT
As you deal with addiction head-on, most of your friends will vanish. The topic scares most people, and the issues you face will make a lot of people uncomfortable. Many friends want to help, but they just don’t know how.
A handful of true friends will emerge, and it is those people that you should treat like the treasures they are. I wouldn’t have made it through the fight without the love and support of my family and close friends.
Embrace them, let the guard down, and let them help you.
3. BE TRUTHFUL IN COURT
I can’t stress this point enough, but you must be honest with the Court; you must be honest with your ex; and, most importantly, you must be honest with YOURSELF. Without honesty in the litigation process, it’s game over.
As you lay out your struggles to the Court, you may be surprised to learn that most Judges DON’T want to punish or embarrass you, they WANT YOU TO GET WELL and will even connect you with many helpful resources.
Safeguards will like be put in place to ensure the safety of your children. It may be drug testing, it may be therapy, or it may be a combination of several different things. Whatever the case, DO EVERYTHING THE COURT ASK and DO IT WITHOUT HESITATION.
Now is NOT the time to argue with your Judge about how wrong you think they are. If you are truly committed to beating your addiction, then you will gladly agree to any measures that detail your progress for the Court.
Your kids are worth it.
4. CREATE AN OPEN DIALOGUE WITH YOUR CHILD(REN)
Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for. You may think that you’re doing a great job of hiding your addiction from your child (and you may very well be), but at some level they know that you have been struggling.
Talk to them about it. Let them know that it’s okay to ask you questions. They may have some strong feelings about your addiction that you’re not quite prepared for. Let them express those emotions and keep the dialogue going.
The Court may order some therapy for you and your kids, moving forward. If so, do it, nothing but GOOD can come from therapy.
Need a resource?
Here are some providers that the Court often uses:
Mark Chambers, Ph.D.
John Paglini, Psy.D.
Stephanie Holland, Psy.D.
Nicolas Ponzo, MSW, LCSW 702.248.1169
Donna Wilburn, M.S, LMFT
IN THE END
Above all, never lose sight of what's important.
Your kids; and, your path to recovery.
You CAN do it. And, you WILL do it.
If you ever need someone to bounce ideas off of, shoot me a call, text, or email. I'm far from a professional on these issues, but I’m a good listener.
Mark DiCiero is the Owner and Founder of Pro Se PROS, LLC. Reach out to Mark directly at 702.743.3338 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.