Hello! Who are you?
My name is Mary Beth O’Connor and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am 29 years sober from a methamphetamine addiction that began when I was 16 and lasted until 32. I also am in recovery from trauma-created PTSD and severe anxiety.
Six years into my recovery, I attended Berkeley Law school and at twenty years sober was appointed a federal administrative law judge.
I do consider myself happy at this point. I am in a supportive and loving marriage and have strong relationships with friends and family. I am retired and find my current activities to be rewarding and an opportunity for me to be of service to the recovery community.
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What is your struggle and when did it start?
I grew up with a mother who wasn’t bonded to me and, for many years, lived with a stepfather who was verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive.
As a result, with my first exposure to alcohol, drug use appealed to me as a pain-reduction and happiness-increasing activity. I started drinking at age 12, then moved on to pot, pills, and acid.
At 16, I found my drug of choice, methamphetamine, which I began shooting up at 17. I had a few years of somewhat reduced drug use for the first years of college, then slid back due to a multi-assailant rape and abusive boyfriend. I lived in increasing misery until I was 32. I also struggled with PTSD and severe anxiety but didn’t realize this until in therapy after I got sober.
How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?
After the initial period of joy and stress/pain relief, using drugs became compulsive and obsessive, despite the increasingly negative consequences.
As I destroyed myself professionally, and my physical and emotional health deteriorated, I felt miserable and hopeless. I saw no way out of this horrible existence.
I felt like I had no choice because, other than continuing to shoot meth, the only other options I saw were suicide or being institutionalized for a mental breakdown. I didn’t believe it was possible for me to stop drugs or to experience any happiness.
Although I tried to hide my deterioration, my partner, many friends, and my employers could see that something was amiss, although they didn’t know it was meth. Occasionally people tried to talk to me about it, but I brushed them off and avoided the conversations. Even doctors rarely raised the subject, and when they did, I similarly wiggled out of any serious discussion.
When I finally told a doctor how bad it was, he didn’t understand addiction and claimed I’d naturally stop if I took antidepressants, which I tried but of course, this failed.
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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?
At 32 years old, I had been using drugs for twenty years. I was having physical problems as a result of my lengthy methamphetamine use disorder and was exhausted beyond measure. I was hopeless and unable to function.
My partner was about to kick me out, so I went into rehab for my substance use disorder. The program wasn’t a good fit, though, as they insisted that the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous was the only way to attain sobriety.
I couldn’t agree with several of their foundational principles, such as turning my will and my life over to a higher power. But I took charge of my recovery and filtered everything they taught in classes and all the 12-step ideology through the filter of “will this work for me?”
I used those ideas I thought would contribute to my success and rejected all the others. I also actively sought out alternative programs and found several. I took the same approach with these new options, considering all the concepts and applying those I found useful.
This built up my confidence and competence, which helped me tackle all areas of my life. I used this approach in my therapy and other work on my PTSD and anxiety, for my professional development and in my relationships.
What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?
Write up a list of goals and then select 3 to 5 high-priority items. Research and consider a wide range of ideas that might help you overcome your struggles. Then analyze which will be useful to you at this point in time. Re-evaluate your plan every few months, noticing your successes and where you didn’t accomplish what you’d hoped. Update your list of priorities, goals, and plans, and do this regularly going forward.
Remember that most improvement is incremental. If you try to leap over the necessary steps, you might well fail or not gain all the benefits from a more systematic approach.
What is my next goal? What do I need to do to help me reach that goal? Then do it. Your motivation and your efforts are the most important factors in determining the outcome, although you often don’t have total control.
Try to find hope that you will succeed, perhaps by finding or reading about others who have done so. Doing the hard work is easier if you believe that you can achieve your goals and overcome your challenges. Doing the work is difficult at times, but giving up and living with your struggle or in your current situation forever is harder.
Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?
In my early recovery, I was selective about why I told. Over time, I shared with more people and in more depth.
I didn’t share my recovery from substances, my trauma, or my mental health history with anyone at work for over 20 years. I didn’t feel this was the business of my employer and didn’t want to have word get around the office if I told someone. I also was concerned about the stigma and uninformed judgment that might follow.
Once I retired, in 2020, I became fully open about my story. I announced in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that I was a former intravenous meth addict and a former judge.
I wrote my story in great detail in my memoir From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction. I speak regularly and openly on TV, radio, and podcasts, and at conferences and recovery houses. I talk about my addiction, my trauma history, and my recovery. I also educate these audiences about drugs, addiction, trauma, and recovery.
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?
When you’re in misery and pain, it can be difficult to see a way out. The only solution is to try. And, even with your best efforts, to accept that your recovery, from whatever struggle, will not be perfect or as fast as you wish.
If you can accept incremental improvement and see that your life is on an upward trajectory, this will make the process easier and more rewarding.
In addition, for most of us, seeking help from professionals, peers, family, or friends can be useful. This doesn’t mean they decide what plan will work for you, but rather that they might have good ideas to consider and that they can offer emotional support during the tough days.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?
Where can we go to learn more about you?
Currently, I am the author of the memoir From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction. I’ve also had essays published in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles, Times, Recovery Today, and others. I speak about many topics related to addiction and recovery, including peer support options. I’m on the board for LifeRing Secular Recovery and She Recovers Foundation.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
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