An Interview with Mary Beth O’Connor

By Felicia Naoum

Mary Beth O’Connor has a unique story, one that bridges the gap between the worlds of trauma, addiction, and success. It is not every day that you hear of an individual struggling with drug addiction becoming a federal judge, published writer, and drug addiction advocate. Her story is a real-life dichotomy. 

This retired judge may now be on the right side of the law, but her personal struggles prove that even those who end up on the right side of the law are still human.  Here’s to recovery, second chances, a dialogue that embraces honesty and change, and turning your pain into power.

Mary Beth’s memoir, From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction, is available to order from booksellers everywhere.

You share how your childhood trauma led to your addiction to meth. Did you ever think that a young, traumatized child, such as yourself, would grow up to become a judge, an author, and a person who beat drug addiction?

I always did well in school, and it was the one place I received positive attention. I also was verbal and had strong writing skills. I recall several people telling me I should be a lawyer. And I wrote stories and plays for the neighborhood kids to act out. So, I did think about going to college to be an attorney or author.

Then my meth addiction escalated during my senior year of high school. I was accepted to college based on my prior work. When it came time to leave, I dreaded going. I couldn’t imagine living without drugs, but also couldn’t imagine using meth and succeeding. Since I couldn’t think of a good excuse to stay home, I did go. And for the first few years of college, I managed to reduce my drug use to mostly weekends and did well academically. But, after a life‑threatening multi‑assailant rape and moving in with a violent boyfriend, I lost this limited control. For the next 10-years my connection to my true self grew increasingly tenuous and my dreams were distant memories. 

When I got sober, at 32, I felt old and was hyper-aware that I’d wasted my education and my life up until that point. I thought I might be able to hold a job, which I couldn’t do as an addict, and perhaps move a few notches up the corporate ladder. This was the extent of my imagination. If you would’ve told me where I’d end up professionally, I wouldn’t have believed it. More than that, I wouldn’t have believed I could recover from the trauma enough to be happy and productive.  

What is the biggest difference between Mary Beth O’Connor today versus Mary Beth O’Connor during her darker days?

I have a much more positive outlook. The many traumas and lack of a bonded parental relationship caused post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety. For much of my life, I lived every moment expecting the next horrible thing to happen. This made me miserable and prevented me from enjoying the good days and my accomplishments. Getting my anxiety under control took much longer than resolving my substance use disorder. I went to therapy for over a decade and took medication for several years. The improvement was gradual and still is incomplete, but I consider myself  95 percent recovered. While I still know that ­terrible events can happen, I trust myself to handle them. I also can experience pride in my achievements and happiness from my relationships.

Addiction encompasses so much negativity. Was there ever a positive that came along with your drug addiction?

I can’t think of a positive from my addiction, although being forced to find my own path in my recovery strengthened me. The 12-step approach wasn’t right for me for multiple reasons, including that I don’t believe in a higher power. My rehab insisted I would fail if I didn’t comply with every aspect of the 12-steps, which was a dangerous message that put my recovery at risk. I did consider all the ideas presented to me by the 12-step books and meetings, plus what I learned in rehab. I adopted some but I ignored the premises I knew wouldn’t work for me. When I returned home, I looked for other peer support options and found three. I read all these materials and attended these meetings too. And continued to analyze and synthesize all this input into an individualized program that worked for me. As I succeeded in maintaining sobriety and otherwise improving my life, I began to feel confident and competent in my ability to guide myself forward. I learned that I could trust myself to make mostly good decisions and to keep pushing onward and upward, to attain my goals and build a good life.

The world of drug addiction and becoming a judge are seen as polar opposite worlds, some may say one that plays by the rules and one that does not. You’re proof that addiction doesn’t spare anyone. Is it a misconception that addiction only happens to certain people?

Yes. It is true that certain categories of people are more likely to develop a substance use disorder. This includes those who suffer traumas, those who start using substances at a young age, and those with untreated mental health conditions. But anyone can develop a substance use disorder. For example, there’s been a significant increase in alcohol use disorder in seniors, most of whom probably used alcohol moderately for much of their life. And, while the overall percentage is low, a notable number of people do develop an addiction from prescribed medication.  

Do you think the root of addiction is always trauma?

No, not always. Trauma, though, does significantly increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. The flip side is that a large majority of those with a substance use disorder have been traumatized. There is an interplay, too, with the increased chance of developing an addiction if you start young, because childhood trauma literally alters the brain. Still, some people use drugs in an effort to manage mental health symptoms, often because they don’t know they have such a condition or because they don’t have access to appropriate treatment. And some develop an addiction from overuse, such as a gradual increase in alcohol consumption.

To the young one’s suffering, as you once did, what are your words of hope to them?

I first would caution them that drug use, and I include alcohol in this, can seem to help reduce your pain, but this doesn’t last. If you consume drugs to manage trauma or mental health conditions, there’s a good probability you will lose control and your biggest problem will become addiction. And there are better treatments than illicit drugs, such as therapy and targeted medications. If you succumb to a substance use disorder, though, this condition can be treated, and you can get well. I was an abused child, without a parent I could rely on, then suffered additional sexual assaults in college, lived with a violent boyfriend, and used drugs for 20 years. Yet, I recovered, both from my substance use disorder and the trauma. It takes focused effort, but recovery is possible no matter your history, or the length and depth of your addiction.

What made your open recovery, which is different from the traditional route of twelve-step meetings for recovery, work for you?

My substance use recovery is secular and founded on self-empowerment, rather than the higher power and powerless approach of 12-steps. Even in 1994, when I got sober, there were multiple peer support options. Today, there are even more. I’m on the board for She Recovers Foundation, which focuses on strengths and a journey to wholeness. She Recovers includes recovery from substance use disorder but also from trauma, mental health challenges, behavioral disorders such as eating or gambling, grief, and anything else. I’m also on the board for LifeRing Secular Recovery, which focuses on a 3-S approach of sobriety, secularity, and self-help. Both She Recovers and LifeRing support multiple paths to recovery and both have members who also participate in 12-steps.

As to open recovery, all the peer support groups of which I am aware have anonymity as to others and confidentiality as to what occurs in meetings. The individual, though, gets to decide whether she remains anonymous. For example, She Recovers encourages open recovery, when and if the member decides to do so. Similarly, many 12-step members choose to be open about their sobriety, with Matthew Perry’s memoir being one recent example.

I chose to give up my anonymity, in part, because I wanted to contribute to increasing awareness of the many pathways to recovery. As a meth addict who became a judge, I thought my trajectory might attract attention that would allow me to speak about the peer support options. My goal, always, is to do what I can to increase the odds of success of those seeking recovery. I think that knowing there are additional support groups that take a different approach than that of the 12-steps can help people find the right fit for them. 

The title of your book, From Junkie to Judge, uses alliteration. Some associate the word “junkie” with a negative connotation or one that is judgmental. Did you ever have any reservations about using the word junkie in your title or describing yourself?

I chose to use “junkie” for multiple reasons. Of course, the title captures attention, especially because this is a true story. And I love the alliteration. Of more significance, “junkie to judge” is a concise summary of the arc of my life and of my memoir. In addition, both junkie and judge are words with social resonance. Judges have a notable role in society and are viewed with respect. On the other hand, society views addicts on a hierarchy. It is better to be addicted to alcohol than to methamphetamine. It is better to pop pills than to shoot up. An intravenous meth addict is at the bottom of the social strata. By connecting junkie and judge, I am proof that anyone can recover and succeed, no matter how low their addiction took them. I hope my progression contributes to reduced stigma and increased willingness to help those still suffering from substance use disorder.

Would you say the decriminalization of drug crimes will aid in combating addiction and overdose or further induce addiction and overdose?

When you were a judge, did you find yourself ruling more with heart and compassion, since you once walked in the shoes of some of the individuals who came before you in the courtroom?

When I was a judge, I certainly had an unusual perspective as to substance use disorder and recovery. I still had to do my duty and follow the law. My approach was to get the information I needed and move on. And I didn’t make unfounded judgments about the person because they were struggling with substances.

How important is it for the justice system to become educated on addiction? Could such an education revamp the system with more positive or negative outcomes?

Part of the solution needs to come from legislators, such as the recent improvement in federal law as to the severity of sentences for those possessing crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. As to judges, I do think that as a group they could benefit from better training about addiction, such as that for most people recovery isn’t an immediate ability to maintain abstinence all the time. In addition, even drug courts often mandate 12-step attendance, rather than allowing the individual to choose the peer support group of her choice. This is particularly problematic given that the peer support options generally are equally effective, which is a finding of the Peer Alternatives for Addiction study as to four of the largest programs.

What is the best piece of advice you could give the individual who is currently in the depths of addiction and feels like there is no way out?

I felt the same way. I believed that, due to my trauma pain, I had three options: use drugs, commit suicide, or have a psychotic break and end up institutionalized. I was wrong.

I suggest trying to find enough hope, and I do mean hope rather than confidence, to take one positive step forward. Go to a meeting, listen to a recovery podcast, tell a friend that you need help, or research treatment options. Consider harm reduction techniques, such as using less or first giving up the drug that has the worst impact on your life. Try to remember who you were before the drugs and, if relevant, the trauma. She is still inside you and you can reconnect with her, which can strengthen you in your journey to a new life. 

What does it take, according to Mary Beth O’Connor, to find that way out?

I think the most important factors are persistence and patience. Substance use and mental health treatment can be difficult to access. Building a sober life usually requires a multi-pronged approach. Improvement often is incremental, rather than a leap forward. And none of us make perfect decisions throughout the process. Overall, though, we can guide ourselves forward, which includes seeking out the help we need. You will be surprised at how much you can accomplish if you just take the right next step and then the next and then the next.

Photo Credit: Todd Rafalovich

BOOK: From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction