As the public health exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic — the lockdowns, the mask requirements, the social distancing — became more concrete, warning lights began flashing for J. Gary Gwilliam.
What he envisioned was a looming toxic cocktail — literally and figuratively — for anyone with a drinking problem. But his concerns didn’t limit themselves to the highly susceptible. He also saw peril for anyone suddenly plunged into a COVID-sparked overload of stress, isolation, boredom and family responsibilities. In other words, all of us.
“The problem is that all of a sudden you have this ubiquitous, inescapable issue of COVID exacerbating all the normal stresses of our lives,” he said. “Then to add to the problem, you have people staying at home. For anyone with addictive tendencies, it becomes so much easier to reach for a drink. You tell yourself, ‘I’ll just pour one.’ But over the course of the day, one becomes four or five.”
Gwilliam, a founding partner of the 44-year-old Oakland law firm Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, should know. Until his then-wife and several lawyer friends staged a wholly unwelcome intervention in 1984, the prosecutor-turned-litigator was used to sequencing his days around drinks. “It was just tied to my everyday life. How could I could I go to a Raiders game and not drink? How go out after work and not drink?”
For lawyers of his era, it was a cultural expectation, almost a subject for braggadocio. “It was a macho profession at the time,” he said. “And part of it was that you had to be tough enough to drink.”
Jobs with high rates of alcoholism
For all its prestige, it was then, and remains, a profession with a dark side: high rates of alcoholism. “There are lots of studies showing that alcoholism is more common in certain professions,” Gwilliam said, citing law enforcement, the military and healthcare. Topping several lists: lawyers. A 2016 study funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that one in three practicing attorneys are problem drinkers, which includes heavy drinking and binging.
“It’s a high-stress job,” he said. “You want that perfect outcome for your client — and yourself. There’s continuous pressure to win” That, too, was substantiated in the study. In it, 28% of practicing attorneys reported struggling with depression; nearly one-fifth (19%) reported experiencing some type of anxiety disorder.
Although Gwilliam knows well the stresses particular to lawyers, he readily acknowledges that “any job or life stress can get you there. The most recent being COVID.”
Pandemic sparked wave of heavy drinking
In anticipating the potential for pandemic-related substance abuse and mental health issues, Gwilliam was spot on. According to several studies, the COVID epidemic led to a secondary epidemic of excessive drinking, most notably among women and mothers. According to a 2020 report in the journal JAMA Network Open. American adults reported drinking 14% more often during the pandemic. The rise in frequency of drinking among women was even more striking, up 17% compared to the previous year.
The epidemic of drinking came with its own shocking death toll. That same year a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that alcohol-related deaths among 16- to 65-year-olds exceeded the number of deaths from the virus.
If not for that 1984 intervention, Gwilliam knows he could easily have become another alcohol-related morbidity and mortality statistic. “My liver was starting to give out. The signs were there.”
That was 38 years ago. Since then, he has become a tireless evangelist for helping lawyers — and anyone else who would listen — find their way back from alcohol use disorders. “My whole world changed when I quit drinking.” He gives lectures, talks at conferences and consults one-to-one with colleagues. His 2007 book, “Getting a Winning Verdict in My Personal Life: A Trial Lawyer Finds His Soul” (Pavior Publishing), is a candid reckoning of a life rebuilt. “It’s a lawyer’s story, but it’s also a human story.”
He often bases his lectures, seminars and columns around a question he considers both fundamental and rhetorical to any successful recovery: Am I drinking too much?
“ ‘Am I drinking too much?’ is really a rhetorical question,” he said. “A rhetorical question is one that answers itself. If you’re asking yourself the question, the answer is yes.”
His next question is, what are you going to do about it? On the answer, he is unequivocal. “Get help,” whether that means rehab, Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery or confidential groups geared toward specific professions. “Each of us has to find our own way to stay connected to who we are and deal with our own stresses.”
What keeps him going are the potential ripple effects for the greater good. “I have long considered myself to be a holistic lawyer,” he said. “I know that sounds strange to a lot of people, but I always look at the whole person, not just as a lawyer, or a client. With lawyers, I’m interested in how they can become better human beings. With clients, I want to help them overcome issues of injustice, or injury, or being mistreated in some way.”
And Gwilliam notes, although COVID-19 has downshifted from cataclysmic pandemic to manageable endemic, the stresses that come with work, family, one’s health and life in general will always be with us.
As will the temptation to modulate them with alcohol, or opioids, or fill-in-the-blank. “No matter how busy or active we are, we must find time to take care of ourselves. Otherwise, we will fail in caring for others.”