Mary Beth O’Connor of ‘ She Recovers Foundation’ On How To Achieve Great Success After Recovering From An Addiction

An Interview with Penny Bauder

Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine

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Try to find just a little hope. I went into rehab hopeless and didn’t believe it was possible for me to stop using or find happiness. My recovery benefited from a change in outlook, which arose from seeing others succeed and seeing myself improve. As a result, I went from hopeless to somewhat hopeful to cautiously optimistic. I needed that hope to put forth the effort required to overcome my addiction and believe this can be an important component of recovery for others.

When people are trapped in a severe addiction it can feel like there is no way out and there is no hope for a better future. This is of course not true. Millions of people are in recovery from an addiction and they go on to lead successful, fulfilling and inspiring lives.

Authority Magazine started a new series about women who were able to achieve great success after recovering from an addiction. The premise of the series is to offer hope and inspiration to people who feel trapped in similar circumstances.

As a part of this series we had the pleasure to interview Mary Beth O’Connor.

For Mary Beth, childhood abuse and other traumas led to substance use disorder. She struggled with a methamphetamine addiction from 16 to 32 years old. By incorporating ideas from multiple sources to build a secular recovery plan that works for her, Mary Beth has accrued 27 years of sobriety.

Mary Beth is a Director for LifeRing Secular Recovery and She Recovers Foundation. Six years into recovery, she attended Berkeley Law. In 2014, Mary Beth was appointed a federal Administrative Law Judge, a position from which she retired in 2020.

Mary Beth can be reached at marybeth@junkietojudge.com or via her website junkietojudge.com.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I summarize my story as “childhood abuse led to childhood addiction.” Within my family, I suffered physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. I suffered neglect, in that none of my various parents paid any real attention to me. I also was abandoned as a baby, living in a nunnery for the first 6 months of my life. I felt unloved and unseen and was traumatized.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers how you were initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?

I took my first drink at age 12 and I loved it. Almost immediately, I began using alcohol as much as possible. I soon added in pot and pills, regularly using to excess. By mid-high school I dropped a lot of acid. And at 16 I found my drug of choice, methamphetamine. By 17, I was shooting speed.

All of my drug use helped with my pain. Sometimes I felt happy, in a way I hadn’t previously. Sometimes I felt numb, which I preferred over agony and rage. And the focus on using drugs, finding drugs, and planning drug-focused activities took up a lot of brain space, which helped me ignore the abuse and related emotions. With meth, I even enjoyed the crashes, after days awake, because this was the deep sleep of oblivion, which was a type of heaven to me.

As you know, addictions are often an attempt to mask an underlying problem. In your experience, what do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place? Can you explain?

I was doing my best to manage post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, from the trauma and neglect. I think it’s important to admit that, at first, drugs helped me. I was happier, I bonded to my drug buddies and the drugs, and I loved the distraction from my real life that drugs provided. The problem for me was that, pretty much from the beginning, I abused every mood-altering substance I came across. Plus, I never learned how to heal. So when new traumas hit me, such as two rapes in my late teens, I had no coping skills other than substance abuse.

Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?

In 1993, when I was 32 years old, and thus had been using for 20 years, I reached my lowest point. I was a UC Berkeley graduate who’d couldn’t hold a word processing job because my substance use disorder caused me to miss a lot of work and spend a lot of time in the bathroom shooting up. My body was breaking down in multiple ways. Emotionally, I was on the floor, hopeless and beyond miserable. My husband was at the end of his rope.

Was there a tipping point that made you decide that you needed to change? Can you please share the story?

At this lowest point, I was so broken I couldn’t summon the energy to even update my resume, much less land a new job. I knew my husband would kick me out soon. And I didn’t want to keep using, but also couldn’t imagine stopping. In an effort to take a break from my chaotic life and to pacify my husband, I went to rehab.

Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?

I thought I was checking myself into a medical facility, but it was a 12-step house. On my first day, I was ordered to turn my will and my life over to a higher power, which I told the counselors was impossible because I’m an atheist. Rather than find alternative approaches that might work for me, I was told, repeatedly, that if I didn’t submit to the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy, I would fail. For a couple weeks, I tried, but it was impossible for multiple reasons. I decided to keep my ears and mind open and pull out the teachings I thought would be useful for me. And ignore the rest.

Six months after rehab, I went to the library to try to find options to the 12-steps. I first learned of Women for Sobriety, then Rational Recovery (now SMART), and then Secular Organization for Sobriety (LifeRing Secular Recovery’s parent organization). I read all the materials for these programs and attended meetings. I never followed any one program, but rather pulled ideas out of all of them, including a few from AA. Although the terminology didn’t exist then, this approach is what LifeRing calls building a personal recovery program. My method also is consistent with She Recovers emphasis on multiple pathways to recovery.

By making my own recovery decisions, I learned that I could rely on my brain, my judgment, and my willingness to try hard to reach my goals. I then applied these skills to every area of my life, such as recovery from the trauma and professional development.

How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them? Can you please share a story about that?

When I was in rehab, my husband only visited for family counseling. During one session, he said he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive me and didn’t know if we were going to make it, which terrified me. I worried I’d waited too long to get treatment and had destroyed his love for me. When I went home, he did agree to couple’s counseling. We worked hard for several years to overcome the damage of my addiction. And we’re still together 27 years later.

When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?

Every day for over a year, I attended a meeting, of one type or another, or therapy. This kept me busy in the evenings and maintained focus on my recovery. At that point, I felt strong enough in my recovery to start dropping meetings, one by one, until I didn’t attend any meeting regularly by my 3-year sobriety anniversary. I only started regularly attending meetings again 20 years later when I joined the LifeRing board.

What positive habits have you incorporated into your life, post addiction, to keep you on the right path?

For those first three years, I abandoned my addiction-related habits, even smoking, and dropped or distanced myself from my drug buddies. I built positive habits, like going to work every day, setting goals, connecting with my husband, being more cooperative and less aggressive, and noticing my accomplishments.

Can you tell us a story about the success that you achieved after you began your recovery?

At 6 years sober, I went to law school and graduated from Berkeley Law in 2003. I worked at a large law firm for 4 years, mostly on complex business cases and class action litigation. To get a better work-life balance, I became an attorney for the federal government, also focusing on class actions. In 2014, I was appointed a federal Administrative Law Judge, from which I took early retirement in 2020.

I now focus on recovery advocacy. I am a Director for LifeRing Secular Recovery and am Director and Secretary for She Recovers Foundation. I speak on behalf of both organizations and about multiple pathways to recovery. In August 2020, The Wall Street Journal published my opinion piece, I Beat Addiction Without God. In November 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer published my opinion piece I was a federal judge, and I support Safehouse. Here’s why. I’ve also had memoir pieces published and recently finished a book-length memoir.

What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your current achievements? Please share both the positive and negative.

In early recovery, I carried negative traits from the abuse and the addiction, such as a tendency toward creating conflict and inability to work well with others. Over time, I improved in these areas. I can’t think of a positive addiction trait, except perhaps survival despite my trauma history.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five pieces of advice that you would give to a person who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?

Everyone is capable of recovery. I believe that, ultimately, the key to recovery is each individual’s motivation and efforts. I don’t believe those addicted are powerless, but rather encourage her to fight for her recovery.

Because of my trauma history, which many of those suffering with an addiction share, I was taught that no matter what I did, bad things happened. In recovery, I learned that my efforts have a significant impact on the likelihood of success. By making better choices, I learned to trust my ability to guide myself to a better and drug-free future. This confidence helped me improve in all areas of my life. I hope my experience can be reassuring to those still struggling.

Try to find just a little hope. I went into rehab hopeless and didn’t believe it was possible for me to stop using or find happiness. My recovery benefitted from a change in outlook, which arose from seeing others succeed and seeing myself improve. As a result, I went from hopeless to somewhat hopeful to cautiously optimistic. I needed that hope to put forth the effort required to overcome my addiction and believe this can be an important component of recovery for others.

In recovery, I learned to value incremental improvement. Seeing others put their lives together, step by step, modeled the reality of how the recovery process works. I adopted that approach to recovery in all areas of my life, including noticing and valuing each step forward. For those still struggling, I encourage you to notice the positive progression, even if you haven’t reached your recovery goals as of yet.

For me, I finally realized that it’s drugs or happiness. I could use OR I could be happy and productive. I had to make a choice because it was one or the other. I think sometimes people are stuck in their addiction, in part, because they don’t see or deny this reality. Facing this choice can make the answer clear.

Addiction is hard forever, while recovery is hard only for a while. So, yes, achieving recovery takes effort, often includes relapses or slips, and doesn’t change all aspects of your life overnight. But in time, sobriety is easier and life is easier. Addiction mostly just makes your life worse and worse.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to speak with Debbie De Luca Sheh, producer for 60 Minutes, to see if she has any interest in my From Junkie to Judge story.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is junkietojudge.com.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts