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From Chardonnay to Namaste: My Journey Toward Well-being

Contributing Author: Susan Broderick, Senior Attorney, NDAA

Having served as a prosecutor for 14 years in Manhattan, I am keenly aware of the “work hard, play hard” life of a prosecutor. I did both well (or so I thought), but eventually the “playing” began to take its toll. While I never drank during the day or at work, I used alcohol as both a social crutch and something to take the edge off a tough day. When you are dealing with homicides, sex crimes and child abuse, there are a lot of tough days.

My drinking problem did not start when I became a prosecutor. I knew that I had a problem with alcohol (and it started way back when I first started drinking), but I honestly did not think I could stop. Nor did I think I wanted to and frankly, I could not imagine a life without alcohol.

I also tried to rationalize things. How could I be an alcoholic? I had been promoted to a Deputy Bureau Chief in the Manhattan DA’s office, for God’s sake! I would also look to the fact that I had not gotten a DWI during my years in NYC. The fact that I did not have a car was something that I chose not to think about. I had a very selective memory.

For a long time, I did not think that my drinking affected my job performance. In fact, I considered it the fuel that motivated me through the tough days, and I spent countless afternoons sitting in court and thinking about the Chardonnay and cigarette that I would have after work. I felt I needed alcohol at night as much as I needed coffee in the morning. It helped me relax after a hard day and get back to fighting crime the next.

But finally, after yet another embarrassing Saturday night, I knew something had to be done. I cried as I walked into a church basement on a muggy Sunday afternoon in July of 2001 and soon admitted in front of a room full of strangers that I had a problem with alcohol. While it was a bit terrifying, I also felt a tremendous sense of relief that I was finally being honest.

I have not had a drink since that day and I know that left to my own devices that would have not been possible. I was very fortunate to connect with people who drank the way I drank, who now were not drinking and were happy. They represented “living proof” that I too could do this. I also knew that there was something much greater than me at play and my faith became instrumental to my sobriety as well.

I also knew that I had to find a way to deal with the “edge” that was still there. I realized that the edge had more to do with me and my responses and reactions than it did with outside events. Taking alcohol out of the picture was good for my body, mind, and spirit, but that void had to be replaced with positive coping strategies to maintain my serenity. The cases I was handling would not be changing, so I had to change — inside and out.

I went to my first yoga class during the second year of sobriety. I was not gung-ho about this new endeavor and was quite skeptical as to whether a Type A personality like me could ever truly achieve serenity. During that first class I suspiciously looked at the others in the room and was awkwardly trying to figure out the poses that the others seemed to flow through. During the meditation portion at the end, I was basically just obsessing about the awkwardness with my eyes shut.

I did return the next day, but only because I had signed up for a 30-day package and I wanted to get my money’s worth. And while I do not remember the exact moment, somewhere during those 30 days, I began to experience an inner calm and feel at ease. I began looking forward to the classes and felt completely different as I walked home from the studio. When the package expired, I became a yearly member and would go on to attend workshops and retreats as well. Today, my yoga practice is essential to maintaining a sense of calm and well-being.

While not everyone turns to Chardonnay and cigarettes to take off the edge, it is common to turn to things such as alcohol, food, or the Internet to get through difficult times. The irony is that these sources of “relief” can become compulsive and soon create their own problems. The good news is that there are truly healthy ways to deal with the stress and “health and wellness” issues are gaining momentum. Whether it is yoga, meditation, writing, music, or another activity that brings joy and peace, we can transform our responses to stress and strengthen our resiliency.

Given the current and unprecedented challenges prosecutors face across the country and as a profession, our own well-being is truly an issue that must be prioritized. The role of the prosecutor is perhaps the most powerful in the justice system and there is enormous responsibility that comes with this position, both inside and outside of the courtroom. If we want to achieve our true potential, we must also recognize that we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves, inside and out as well. As we are advised on airplanes, put your mask on first before helping others. We cannot be at our best if we are ignoring our own well-being. By incorporating positive strategies to cope with stress, we can not only survive, but thrive.

I am thrilled to be a member of NDAA’s Prosecutor Well-being Task Force and I believe that it could not come at a more opportune time. Not only are we finally shining a light on issues that have silently challenged our profession for decades but are simultaneously shattering the stigma associated with addressing these issues. I would be remiss if I did not mention that September is National Recovery Month, in recognition of the 23 million Americans that are achieving recovery. I know that my own sobriety has allowed me to flourish in ways that I never thought possible and connect with others across the country and the world who are on this same journey. My sobriety has created a sense of aliveness and joy that I never experienced while drinking and I hope that my message can reach those who may be out there suffering in silence. For anyone who thinks that they may have a problem, please do not hesitate to reach out to me and I will do whatever I can to help. My email is sbroderick@ndaajustice.org.

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The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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