From meth addiction to federal judge, Mary Beth O’ Connor proves there is more than one way to recover

Writer and recovery advocate Mary Beth O’ Connor

For Trenton native, Mary Beth O’ Connor, childhood abuse and other traumas led to substance use disorder beginning with alcohol at age 12, she spent several years abusing various drugs. She found methamphetamine at 16 and started shooting up at 17. Mary Beth struggled with meth until she was 32 years old.

By incorporating ideas from multiple sources to build a secular (not 12-step or faith based) recovery plan that works for her, Mary Beth has been sober since 1994. She used similar techniques to address her trauma and related anxiety. Mary Beth is a board member for LifeRing Secular Recovery and She Recovers Foundation, a non-profit movement dedicated to redefining recovery, inspiring hope, ending stigma and empowering women in or seeking recovery to increase their recovery capital, heal themselves and help other women to do the same. She speaks on behalf of these organizations, about multiple paths to recovery, and about all topics related to substance use disorder and recovery. She also speaks about sexual abuse and rape, child abuse, domestic violence, PTSD, and anxiety.

Mary Beth’s memoir, From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction (HCI Books, $16.95),was released in January. On the heels of a promotional book tour including a stop at the Trenton Free Public Library for a Q&A and book signing in April, Trenton Journal Founder and Publisher, Kenneth Miles, recently sat down with Mary Beth to discuss growing up in New Jersey, secular recovery, and how she went from active addiction to becoming a federal judge.   

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Thank you for talking with the Trenton Journal. You have a remarkable story. Can you walk us through the catalyst of writing your memoir?

The catalyst was when I was appointed a judge in 2014. I had 20 years of sobriety at that point, I went to law school [when I was] six years sober. So at 39 years old, it was a career change for me. I was appointed as a federal administrative law judge. I mean, it’s not the Supreme Court, but it was still an achievement. It’s a very competitive process. Thousands of people applied and I was in the first group of 70 that were hired. And so it was really a time of reflection like how the heck did I actually go from somebody who was shooting meth in high school [and] in addiction until 32. It’s not like my addiction was a short run, it lasted a long time [before I] became a judge. And so I started thinking about the arc of my life, but also whether my story could be of any value in part because I didn’t do my recovery the 12 Step way.

Do you remember the first time you shot meth and what led you to making that decision?

[My] first drug was alcohol, Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine. My girlfriend and I, drank it out of these Flintstones glasses that used to have grape jelly in it. I remember her telling me she was coming with it. She brought it over on her banna seat bicycle to my house, because my parents were out. And it was a positive experience. I grew up in a house filled with stress and abuse and trauma and tension. And when I drank that Boone’s Farm, it was like I could sort of take a deep breath. [She and I] were laying on the floor, giggling and telling silly jokes, cracking each other up and that captured my attention. [I felt like] ‘this makes me feel better. I want more of this.’ My sophomore year of high school, there was an acid around called Windowpane and then I picked up meth for the first time when I was 16. It was really starting to flood the Central Jersey market for the first time and then I shot it within six months. I was shooting meth at 17 for the rest of [my time] in high school.

Did you have anyone in your family who noticed a change in your behavior when you began using drugs and alcohol?

I don’t know when they noticed. I assumed at some point they knew that I was drinking and maybe smoking pot, but they never said anything. My assumption was that they just didn’t want to make the emotional investment that it would have required in order to have to address it. The only time that [my parents] did something was when I got arrested when I was 18 for meth. My mother did try to find me help [then] because the lawyer recommended that I go see a psychiatrist. I went to some psychiatrists [in Princeton] who knew nothing about substance use disorder and who told me I was depressed and [offered me] some antidepressants.  I don’t think they suspected I was shooting meth.

What do you remember about the last day you used drugs? What your turning point?

It was more of a process. When I was 32, I had been using [drugs] for 20 years, and I had been using meth for basically 15 of those 20 years. I was starting [to] have a lot of physical problems. My body was showing strain. I really couldn’t hold a job. I had been working my way down the corporate ladder.  I just couldn’t even get the energy together to put together a new resume. Plus, I was just hopeless beyond hope and my partner was ready to throw me out. I had to call around and find a program that would take me. I was on a waitlist for 10 weeks until my name got to the top. The last time that I used [drugs] was the day before I went [into treatment].

How were you able to function in active addiction? 

Mary Beth O’ Connor at the Trenton Free Public Library

I had a bachelors degree and good grades, but my resume was getting worse over time. I was lucky because I was living with somebody [who] had a regular full time job, he was reliable. I had a relatively stable home life, even though I was unstable. 

What was the process of becoming a federal judge and what were your duties? 

[Becoming a judge] was a really competitive process. They open up the testing process like every three years for the federal government, and literally like 5,500 people applied. They test and they cut and I’m like 1,200 made it through to the end, and I was in the first group of 70 because my scores were so high. It was a real moment of achievement that I had gotten something that wasn’t even on my radar when I got sober. The most important part of recovery is living without all the chaos and without the obsession; being a good partner to my husband and good at being there for my family and for my friends. On one hand it was a great moment of happiness, but on the other hand, it [was] really just a job. The agency that I worked for was the Social Security Administration. So all of my cases were related to SSA and mostly what I saw were disability cases from people that had applied for benefits and had been denied twice. [When applicants applied] it was the only time they were gonna get a hearing. I was a Social Security Administration, administrative law judge.

Tell me about the secular path to recovery, what does that entail and how did you choose that path? 

When I went into rehab they would do a step study and all of the anonymous 12 Steps are faith-based. You have to agree that there’s a higher power that you turn your will and your life over to. Well, I’m an atheist, and I was not going to turn my life over like that. I didn’t like the powerless idea or even the focus on defects. I had multiple problems with the program. They told me over and over vehemently and adamantly, I had to comply or was going to fail. You can’t recover without a higher power so what I decided was that I was just going to look for the parts that I could use and ignore everything else. I found Women for Sobriety, which is the first modern secular recovery program that focuses on building up your competence and confidence. You don’t introduce yourself by saying, ‘I’m Mary Beth, and I’m an addict’. The introduction is, ‘I’m Mary Beth, and I’m a competent woman,’ and that felt really empowering.

What are your thoughts about needle exchange programs? 

I used [drugs] at needle exchanges in San Francisco in the late 80s, early 90s. It wasn’t legal, but it was tolerated. HIV was exploding. San Francisco allowed a third party group to do a needle exchange twice a week. A van would pull up at a certain area so we would line up and the cops would just drive by and they didn’t interfere. When I got sober I did not have HIV. I did not have Hep C. I did not have any blood borne disease partly out of luck, but partly out of the needle exchange. I understand that [it] can seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that it’s a type of harm reduction to keep people alive until they are ready for sobriety. Statistics show that when people participate in harm reduction activities, their odds of going into treatment are actually three to five times higher, even if they never get sober.


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