From the Brink to the Bench
The Astounding Transformation of a Methamphetamine Junkie Turned Federal Judge
BY KIM WHITING
In 2014, twenty years into my sobriety, I zipped up my judge’s robe and looked in the mirror. I smiled at myself, as broadly as my muscles would allow. There was something about my hairstyle that reminded me of my fifth grade picture. Instead of feeling the pain of my younger self, I could see her jumping up and down in excitement. I felt proud. I’d really done it. I’d overcome all of it. This is who I was meant to be.
–Mary Beth O’Connor in From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction
When she was 12-years-old, Mary Beth O’Connor took her first life-altering sip of strawberry wine. Trying to escape a childhood of abuse and neglect, she says she suddenly felt euphoric and relaxed, and she started to get drunk as often as possible.
Then came pot, followed by pills, and trips on acid. At 16, she found her eventual drug of choice–methamphetamine. With her first sniff, she claims she experienced true joy for the very first time. Soon, O’Connor went from snorting to needles, shooting up meth on a daily basis for more than 16 years.
Writer, Recovery Advocate, and Former Federal Judge Mary Beth O’Connor
Three decades later, in her new memoir From Junkie to Judge, O’Connor now gives a detailed account of her first intravenous use of methamphetamine, taking readers into the disturbing world of drug use and abuse. It’s astounding that this same woman, after many years of serious addiction, would later overcome it and eventually rise to prominence as a federal judge.
Having watched others, I knew how to prepare the shot. I drew up a small amount of water and slowly squirted it onto the meth. With the flat end of the plunger, I crushed the particles until they dissolved into liquid. To avoid losing even one drop, I scraped the residue on the spoon’s inner rim and watched it flow toward the mixture. I wadded up a tiny piece of cotton, centered that ball in the speed puddle, then positioned the needle against it, to suck the elixir into the syringe. To remove any air bubbles, I flicked the plastic barrel and guided the crank to the top. Matt handed me his belt and I tied off my upper arm.
Bubba smacked the pit on my inner elbow to raise the blood vessels. I twice clenched and unclenched my hand before making a fist. I slammed my arm on the glass tabletop, almost knocking the ashtray to the floor. Bubba placed the works at an angle, tapping until the point punctured my skin. He wiggled the hypodermic a bit and then withdrew it.
“You have baby veins, so it’s easy to miss. You gotta push hard enough so they don’t roll. Not too hard or you’ll go through them.”
On the second try, as he eased the tip forward, a minute curl of blood penetrated the syringe. Bubba retracted the plunger and bright red fluid gushed in, mingling with the clear speed. I loosened the belt. He pulled back slightly until a fresh droplet emerged, indicating the needle remained in place. Bubba mainlined the blood-speed amalgam with one graceful stroke.
My muscles twitched as I visualized the drug racing toward my brain. An ether taste rose from my throat. I gazed upward and coughed. My eyes wobbled in their sockets. Spasms in my gut made me hunch over. Adrenaline and euphoria flooded every cell. A blaze ignited inside me and irradiated the room. Gripping Bubba’s thigh, I opened my mouth to describe the shimmering paint, gleaming mirror, and throbbing music but could not formulate the words, or even a thank-you.
I giggled and held up my palms the way a child does when spotting a stack of gifts. I clutched my seat as the glorious power flowed through me, and I wondered if this was what happiness felt like. I took a deep elated breath. And sang my new mantra.
“When can I do it again?”
O’Connor would soon descend into severe meth addiction, toiling in the underbelly of the intravenous drug world, before eventually entering rehab at age 32.
As a former psychotherapist who specialized in survivors of abuse and other trauma, and having worked the past decade with incarcerated men, I’ve seen firsthand how strongly a background of abuse, trauma, and/or neglect correlates with substance abuse and addiction. Even more powerfully, I’ve witnessed the cause and effect of low self-value with addiction.
Mary Beth O’Connor has experienced it all, and her ability to forge her own personal path to recovery intrigued me. I wanted to know what propelled her from rock bottom to such remarkable success. In her story, I was sure, were elements relatable and of benefit to almost all of us.
Whiting: Let’s start with your background and the elements that propelled you into serious addiction.
O’Connor: My mom was an unmarried teen when pregnant with me in 1961. Being part of an Irish Catholic family, her pregnancy was not well received by her parents, or my father, who abandoned her. She was sent to a convent for unmarried pregnant women the next state over. After I was born, my grandparents wouldn’t allow her in the house, so my mom dropped me off at a convent where I was raised for the first six months of my life.
At that point, she married my stepfather and took me out of the convent, but she was never focused on me, nor a little later, on my sister. We were fed and housed, but she never engaged or conversed with us or asked how we were. Her only interaction was to tell us what to do, or yell. She sometimes hit us as well. My stepfather adopted my sister and me. He was a nice man, but he and my mom divorced when I was four, and I only saw him a few times after that.
Mom took us to live with my great-grandmother for the three years it took her to marry my second stepfather. My great grandmother was kind and stable, and while living with her, I felt cared for and she disciplined in a reasonable way, which was a relief.
Having had three years of stability and relative peace made the transition to being raised by my mom and new stepdad all the more jarring. My second stepfather was really abusive. He was unpredictable and we never knew what would set him off. He also molested me when I was 12. My mom continued to be disconnected from us emotionally and only paid attention to us when she wanted us to do something, or we did something wrong.
Whiting: How do you remember feeling about yourself as a child?
O’Connor: It was obvious to me that my mom and second stepdad didn’t want me—and my adoptive stepfather hadn’t cared enough about me to stay connected after he split with my mom. I don’t think I felt loveable outside my relationship with my sister. I didn’t have innate self-worth. My value was conditional, based on performance.
The unpredictability of my life and my stepfather’s abuse made me highly anxious. I had OCD tendencies at a young age, and developed self-soothing techniques. For example, my fingers were each a character who talked with each other.
I felt that I was on my own, especially because I was the oldest child and my sister was tiny and quiet. I didn’t believe I could go to my mom for help or support. I feared making a mistake at school because it was the one place that I was special. My self-worth plummeted further with my stepfather’s abuse. Also, he had different rules than I’d had with my great-grandmother and this created more anxiety for me. It was hard to know how to do it right and it wasn’t long before I realized it wasn’t possible to avoid abuse.
By age 12, I was depressed as well as anxious. That’s when I began drinking. Drinking quelled my anxiety. I soon began using other drugs, to feel better or numb the pain, and by sixteen I was doing meth. By seventeen, I was using it intravenously.
Whiting: How many years total did you use?
O’Connor: I used meth from 1978 to 1994 and was caught only once, for possession of meth and syringes, when I was 18. I was a good student headed to college and didn’t have a prior criminal record, so the judge reduced the charges from a felony to disorderly person, which is below a misdemeanor. As a result, I was not incarcerated. And the judge ordered that my record be expunged if I did not get convicted for the next few years. I was also allowed to leave New Jersey to attend college in California, even though I was still on probation.
Had I been convicted of a felony I likely wouldn’t have gone to college. Had I been arrested repeatedly for drug possession, I likely wouldn’t have been able to be an attorney or a judge. The criminal justice system showed me a level of mercy that many don’t receive, and allowed me to build a life. I believe most of this mercy was a result of my being White and middleclass.
Whiting: In an L.A. Times Op Ed piece that you wrote, you maintain that White privilege was a big factor in your success, both in recovery and career. Tell us about that
O’Connor: Being White and female made it so that police didn’t suspect me of doing criminal things, like driving under the influence, or possessing narcotics. For 10 years after college, I had meth on me every day. The data shows that, had I been a different color, I would have been saddled with an extensive criminal record when I finally got sober.
Whiting: Were there incidents that stand out for you, when you were acting in a way that should have aroused suspicion with authorities, but probably because you were White middleclass female, did not?
O’Connor: I once hit a traffic blockade and a cop pulled me over to talk to me. Even though I had been up for three days and was twitchy with a scabby face, he didn’t seem suspicious. He just asked me what was going on. I told him I had gotten distracted and by the time I’d looked back at the road, it was too late to miss the traffic blockade. He looked at me, but he didn’t see the warning signs –he didn’t see them because he didn’t expect to see them. I twice hit another car. Both times were just mild fender-benders, but still, the police never suspected anything. I got tickets and that’s all.
Drug convictions break-up families, result in lost years spent in jail or prison, and for minority groups there is the trauma associated with knowing your community does not receive equal or fair treatment. I am aware that my success, a result of all the breaks I received as a White female, almost certainly would not have been possible had I been a different color.
Whiting: According to the Drug Policy Alliance “People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal legal system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.
O’Connor: Yes. Those selling small amounts of drugs to support their own drug use may go to jail for decades. This unequal enforcement ignores the universality of drug dependency, as well as the universal appeal of drugs themselves.
Whiting: When did you decide that you needed to get clean and sober?
O’Connor: I’d known that I was addicted for many years. At times, I’d look in the mirror and shout “you’re poisoning yourself.” I just couldn’t imagine a way out. By 32 years old, my body was showing the damage of 20 years of drugs use and I couldn’t hold a job. I was exhausted beyond measure, deep in depression and despair, and my partner was about to throw me out. I went to rehab not because I believed I could stop using, but just in case I could learn to do better
Whiting: People can only rise to the level of their self-value. The fact that you recovered from years of addiction and achieved such success in your career tells me there was likely an area of your life, besides having been cared about by your great-grandmother for three years, in which your self-value was nurtured.
O’Connor: I had my looks and brain going for me. Both got me certain gains. Throughout my school years, I got lots of positive attention from teachers. Teachers were astounded at how well I did. In elementary school, one teacher told the librarian that I could take out any book I wanted, whereas other kids were limited to only certain books.
Whiting: You’ve been sober since 1994, went to law school, worked at a large law firm, litigated class action suits for the federal government, and in 2014 you were appointed a federal administrative law judge, a position you held until 2020. What fueled your drive to go from longtime addict to such a high level of success?
O’Connor: I didn’t get sober and plan to be a judge. I started with a low-level admin job. I always focused on just the next right step. Because of the trauma I’d gone through, including rapes, I lived in constant anxiety during recovery. I hadn’t ever enjoyed my accomplishments, and I still didn’t enjoy them during recovery, because I was of the belief that even one mistake and things would explode. For a decade, I took antianxiety meds and participated in different kinds of therapy. Trauma recovery was the hardest part.
Whiting: You’re now the director of a secular recovery program called LifeRing, which promotes something called “recovery capital?” What is that?
O’Connor: Twelve-Step recovery programs focus on a person’s powerlessness and we focus on a person’s power to recover–the part of the person that wants to recover.
Whiting: Tell us about LifeRing’s emphasis on “the positive, practical present-day.”
O’Connor: We don’t do testimonials and look back on those times when we’ve been where and how we don’t want to be. We talk about what happened during that week, successes and slips, unexpected challenges that a person did or did not handle well, and we prepare for the upcoming week and possible challenges, such as a work event that includes alcohol. The conversation is about what the plan will be and what support they’ll utilize.
Whiting: How else does this type of program differ from Twelve-Step
O’Connor: When I began rehab, I was ordered to submit to the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. As an atheist, turning my life over to a higher power wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to agree that I was powerless, but I was told that I had a choice to comply or fail, so I created my own, personalized recovery program that combined ideas from multiple programs, including some AA concepts.
In this type of program, introducing ourselves as an addict or as having a disease is optional, as is tracking time being sober. If it’s helpful for a person’s recovery, people are welcome to do it, but it’s not part of the program. In the beginning I needed to say that I was an addict in order to get out of denial, and after eight months it didn’t feel right anymore. In my next group, we introduced ourselves as competent women, and that felt great, but it may have felt fake had I said that in the early stages.
Whiting: I’d like to share another excerpt from your book, one that highlights how that focus originated for you:
Most of the women lived upstairs, but I shared the downstairs bedroom with Kate. The next morning, she shook me awake. “Mary Beth, this is rehab, not a frigging vacation.” She tossed a bright blue paper onto the bed. “Here’s the schedule. Next up, AA/NA study group.”
I struggled into my striped jumpsuit and stumbled to Chrysalis’s kitchen. From a bag marked FOOD BANK, Kate handed me a bagel.
I stood tall. “Yup. I’ve never tried to quit.”
“Not to be rude, girl, but you look like you shoulda.”
I grabbed a coffee and made my way to the parlor, with its mishmash of furniture: golden couch with white cushions that almost fit, one blue armchair and one red, and eight folding chairs. The dozen residents ranged in age from barely adult to fifty. At thirty-two, I was a bit older than the median and was the most newly sober…
Kate recited the third step: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Then my comrades took turns reading the explanation in Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book. Lorraine, a ten years sober ex-nun, asked us to identify our higher power.
I raised my hand. “What if you’re an atheist?”
Lorraine leaned back and arched her eyebrows. “A lot of people don’t have religion in the beginning. And some people never develop faith in a traditional God. But you need to find a higher power.”
“Um, I don’t believe in any supernatural force.”
“A doorknob. Anything outside yourself.”
I puzzled over this for a second. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Mary Beth, I hear you’re a Berkeley grad and think you’re smarter than the average bear. But your best thinking got you here.”
“Lorraine, I promise you, it wasn’t my best thinking.”
She sputtered as she rose partway out of her chair. “Higher power or relapse.”
Despite a deep intake of breath, I managed to spit out, “You just said it’s impossible for me to stay clean.”
I asked all the counselors for data that proved only one path to recovery existed and this entailed some variant of God. They told me I was fighting the program. I grumbled to the other women about paying good money for treatment that wouldn’t work, and that rehab counselors should be educated enough to assist everyone. How could it be that no atheist ever got clean and sober? Why didn’t they research alternative approaches?
Whiting: If you had the power to change the criminal justice system, what changes would you make to how substance abuse/addiction cases are handled?
O’Connor: I would decriminalize personal use. If someone has a substance abuse disorder, we say it’s a disease, but also a crime. The way we regulate substance abuse has such a high level of discrimination. We know drug use is similar between Whites and minorities, yet it is minorities who are overwhelmingly convicted. In Portugal they have decriminalized drugs–and there is good data on the benefits to that—but funding for counseling and treatment was also increased, which had something to do with the positive results.
It’s still too early to see the results of Oregon’s decriminalization of drugs. But as it stands in the U.S. today, it is very difficult to get treatment. I spent 10 weeks waiting to get into rehab, and had to call every week to get up the wait list. If I had missed a call, I would’ve been bumped to bottom of list–and addicts aren’t typically organized or stable enough to make those calls, or don’t have a phone or a home to keep up on the calls.
Whiting: You say you’ve written your book –and come out as a former junkie—to reduce stigmas surrounding addiction and to help others recover.
O’Connor: Shooting meth is the bottom of the addiction barrel. Most people see those types of addicts as hopeless and undeserving of help and I want to say, “Those people are me.”
My goal in sharing my story, about the trauma and my meth addiction, is to reassure those struggling that recovery is possible and that their future can be amazing. Also, 30 percent of my book is about building a personalized and secular recovery plan that has resulted in 29 years, so far, of sobriety for me. I provide guidelines and a checklist, which will help others develop a plan suited to them. In addition, I explain how I tackled my post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety, because many in recovery from substances also have unaddressed mental health conditions.
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