“Lisa Smith ’88 on Walking Out of a Bar and Into Advocacy”
Northwestern Intersections with Cassie Petoskey
She never received a poor performance evaluation throughout her successful career in the legal industry, even through years of alcohol and drug addiction. Lisa Smith later had a panic attack and checked herself into rehab. She found herself writing to her family about her situation and recently published her book “Girl Walks Out of a Bar: A Memoir,” about her descent into and recovery from addiction. Tune in for insights from Smith’s experiences in overcoming adversity as well as from her two successful careers as a lawyer and as an author.
Starting with this week’s episode with Lisa Smith ’88, I wanted to share with our listeners more about the interview experience and some of the themes that come up throughout my conversations.
I was thinking back to my interview with Lisa in October 2018 and was intrigued by how much of Lisa’s personal life ended up impacting her professional life: for example, she now has a second career as an author and an advocate because of her experience personally overcoming addiction.
I come from a social work background where we often talk about the importance of separating your personal life from your professional life; that way, you can leave your work at the office and not have to constantly worry about your clients or cases. It is meant to be a defense against burnout. On the other hand, there is a mindfulness concept where you let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and focus on that feeling, instead of just trying not to feel it at all. It challenges people to recognize how their experiences outside the office influence who we are inside the office. Is this how our personal and professional lives should work, too?
Lisa is clearly passionate about sharing who she is both personally and professionally. It’s so common in her line of work that people hide their personal challenges and mental health issues from colleagues. She saw firsthand how hiding who she was in her personal life from her co-workers ended up perpetuating her challenges. Lisa is now looking forward to sharing her story and doing more advocacy work so that future generations have a healthy relationship with who they are in the many different aspects of their lives. I was inspired after hearing Lisa’s honesty around her story of recovery, I hope you are, too.
[MUSIC PLAYING] CASSIE PETOSKEY: Welcome to Northwestern Intersections, a Northwestern network podcast where we talk to alumni about their careers. We’ll hear what they’ve done right, what they’ve done wrong, and the stories behind both. I’m Cassie Petoskey, with the Northwestern Alumni Association Career Advancement team. And today, I’m speaking with Lisa Smith.
Lisa Smith is Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap and author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar, the story of her descent into and recovery from high-functioning alcoholism and drug addiction. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Lisa.
LISA SMITH: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And we’re so excited here well you’re up to at Patterson Belknap. But before we get into that, we like to start our episodes off a little later with, what was your first job?
LISA SMITH: My first job out of Northwestern, I actually went straight on to law school from Northwestern. I went back to New Jersey, where I grew up, and went to Rutgers Law School. And I worked, while I was there over the summers, first, at an environmental engineering firm, and then at a law firm after my second year in law school and have been working in law firms ever since.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: So starting law school right after undergrad, I’m sure you were with fellow classmates who did the same thing, were from undergrad and classmates who came in from work world. What were some of the things that you felt like you learned in law school that you still use today? Because I know with law, school and reality are two different things.
LISA SMITH: So different, yeah. I think that I learned a lot about managing time, for one, which had been something I’d certainly learned at Northwestern but really had to figure out. And I also had to get over my fear of public speaking. Because in law school, everything, from day one, is on the Socratic method, where we’re called on right away. And I had had some small classes and seminars at Northwestern, so I was used to speaking in a group setting, but just not in the group the size of a law school class.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Interesting. That has to be intimidating coming into law school.
LISA SMITH: It was. And it was funny because I had one professor in a contracts class who would lay out a hypothetical, and he would sort of get carried away, and he’d start adding all these facts, talking about a scenario and wandering around the room. And he would be wandering further and further from his seating chart, where he picked who to call from, and every time he did that, I knew it was going to be me. Because when he finally stopped, he would just go oh, oh, Miss Smith, because he knew there was a Smith in the audience. So as soon as I heard him going off on one of those tangents, I had to really focus.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And have something in your head to say.
LISA SMITH: Yes! I knew I was going to get called on, yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh my goodness. So it seems like those are both– managing your time and public speaking seem like really valuable skills. Did you use both of those in your first role after graduating law school?
LISA SMITH: Yes. So I went right on from law school into practice. I took a position as an associate at a big New York law firm. It was and still is a global firm. And it was a big transition from law school, which, with all its intensity, was still school and was still something that I didn’t feel as much was on the line for as the first time I got staffed on a transaction at the law firm and really seeing dollars and cents on the line, and having clients, and the stakes getting raised to that level.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and I’ve heard– I have a few friends that went on to big firms. It’s an interesting culture, right? So how did you adapt to big firm life coming out of law school?
LISA SMITH: Not well. That’s sort of where the other part of my story begins. So I had a history of always being somebody who liked to go out and party. And I was definitely a party person at Northwestern, certainly in law school.
And when I got into life in a big New York City firm, my drinking, that’s when I became a daily drinker, actually, was my first year as a junior associate, as a way to cope with the intense stress. I wasn’t aware of it at the time; I became aware much later that I had been walking around with an undiagnosed major depressive disorder that I had been self-medicating since the time I was a kid and self-medicated with food. I think sugar was the first substance I abused.
And so when I got into the law firm, it was kind of this convergence of my tendency toward self-medication and the extra stress. And there is also addiction and mental health issues up and down both sides of my family. So all of that kind of– that was the perfect storm.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And looking back, when did you realize you were self medicating something that was a deeper-rooted depressive disorder?
LISA SMITH: I didn’t honestly till when I got sober, which was–
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Wow.
LISA SMITH: –yeah, more than 10 years later from when I started drinking on a daily basis. I had always been kind of a gloomy kid. I was definitely always glass half full. I had this kind of anxiety. I was always nervous about what other people were thinking about me, but also about what was going to happen next. Somebody might look at something like a roller coaster, another kid might look at a roller coaster and get all excited, and I would picture the car falling out of the sky. So I had a lot of these kinds of anxiety issues, and I also had a lot of just general sadness that, certainly with alcohol and later drugs, made it go away, just shut up the voice that was constantly in the back of my head.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and eventually, that voice came to you and told you, this is enough?
LISA SMITH: Yeah, well, really, it was– so it was more than a 10-year slide of– and it’s interesting because I talk about the book being about high-functioning because I continued– I never got a negative review. I never had anything negative happen in the office. I did, after 5 and 1/2 years of practice, I was in the corporate finance practice of the firm that I was at, and it was incredibly intense. And it wasn’t something that I loved. I had wanted to do environmental law and had started at the firm in that capacity. But when the need became greater on the corporate side, they just moved us, the junior people, over to the corporate side.
And so I really felt out of my element and wasn’t enjoying. And that carried through the first five years. I think it was about 5 and 1/2 years that I practiced. And then I had an opportunity to switch over to stay at the firm, but to switch over into a role on the administrative side, working with the partners to help develop business. And as soon as I heard that, I said, sign me up. If I can get out of this practice I’m miserable in, and that sounds like more interesting thing to do, and the hours will be way more reasonable, so I thought I could get my drinking under control that way, that I won’t be so stressed out, I won’t feel like I have to drink as much.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: The external stressors will be less, and so your internal stressors, you may be able to handle it better?
LISA SMITH: Right. But I now know that I had already crossed that line. Because what happened was I just started sort of drinking earlier. And it didn’t get better with that. I continued to do well. I did fine there. I stayed at that firm. I was there a total of almost 10 years.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Wow.
LISA SMITH: And then, I left to get married and moved out of state. And then, I was gone for about two years. And then, I came back when that didn’t work out, which is something that, unfortunately, happens to a lot of people who are struggling with these issues is that we do think that some external thing will fix it. We do think, if I just get a different job, if I just get married, if I do these things, then I can get this other thing under control. Especially for people who are functioning at a decent level and not failing, you think I went to Northwestern. I graduated at the top of my law school class. I got this job. I can do things. I can get this under control. The idea of, I can handle it is really– which I had all along. I kept saying to myself, I’m going to get this under control. I can definitely get this under control.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Well, especially as you’re still getting great performance reviews, you’re thinking it’s not affecting my career.
LISA SMITH: Right. How bad could it be?
CASSIE PETOSKEY: I’m fine.
LISA SMITH: Right.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah.
LISA SMITH: How bad could it be? And you know there are things that go on in large law firms, like I had– my office was a disaster, but no one ever said anything to me about that because there are a lot of lawyers whose offices are a disaster, whereas if you walk down the halls of corporate America, that might not– you know, that might be a red flag to someone– kept really weird hours, I would send in work at 3:00 in the morning, and instead of the partner saying to me, why are you doing this non-urgent work at 3:00 in the morning, I work hear, thanks for staying up last night and doing that. Work from home today.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, it’s the industry. It’s acceptable in that industry.
LISA SMITH: It’s this work-hard, play-hard dynamic that is really dangerous. It certainly had nothing to do with the firms I was at and the people I worked with. I was at great firms the whole time. I worked with great people the whole time. But that whole culture– and it’s actually something– law firm culture that is being addressed now in a real way, which is great because I’m really fortunate to be part of that discussion.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, which is amazing and such a great outcome from your experience, that you’re going to change this for the future. But when you first started writing and wrote your book, it was still– there was still a stigma– or maybe there was. Was there still a stigma that this– you know, don’t talk about mental health? Don’t talk about addiction and these issues, where everything’s fine?
LISA SMITH: Right, nothing to look at here. Yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, well, what happened was, I got help finally in 2004. And I had been– at that point, my addiction had– my drinking had changed from, I only drink at night to, well, I drink at lunch, but that’s OK because a lot of people drink at lunch. But at least I never drink in the morning. That’s something that real alcoholics do.
And then came the morning that I was so sick with a hangover and had to be in the office for a meeting that I realized– my shaking was so bad. It was bad. I was really physically sick at the end. But I realized that the only thing that was going to straighten me out to appear normal would be to drink in the morning.
So I remember taking that drink that morning, which was a year and a half before I got sober– so, really, at the back end of everything, and thinking, OK, yeah, so this is who I am. This is what I am. And I’m just going to have to live with it. And I figured– it’s funny. I’m out here for the reunion for my class, and it’s our 30th reunion.
And I was thinking about that and the fact that during the years I was working before I got sober, at a certain point when I was drinking so much, I just said, you know, I’m not going to live very long. I think I’m going to be dead by 40. And I stopped contributing to my 401(k). Because I was like, why would I save money for 65? Like, I’m not going to live to be 65. So looking back on that– coming back here and being in Evanston and everything and looking around thinking about that, it’s really– it feels really amazing.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, and what your future now holds.
LISA SMITH: Hopefully.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. Well, and where you are now compared to where you thought you’d be.
LISA SMITH: Yeah. But you asked about the stigma, and the stigma is very real. And the stigma was very real and keeps people from asking for help. We’re working on breaking it in the industry, but we still have a long way to go. But what happened to me was it was a morning that I was on my way into the office, and I thought– that point, I was drinking and using cocaine around the clock.
And the cocaine was not for fun. The cocaine was to counter the effects of the alcohol, so I wouldn’t be slurring, and I wouldn’t be falling asleep. It was so I could show up when I needed to show up. And I had been up pretty much all weekend drinking and using. And then, I went, on Monday morning, to get out to work. I was in my work outfit, and makeup on, New York Times in one hand, laptop in the other.
And I, all of a sudden, got overwhelmed. Like, I felt like I finally was having a heart attack or had a cocaine overdose, whatever it was, just overwhelmed. I now know it was a panic attack. But in that moment was when I said, oh, I think I’m actually going to die right now. I think I don’t want to die.
And I went back into my apartment and called my doctor. And I said, here’s what’s happening. I think I need to go to an inpatient detox or something. And he was like, no, no. I just saw you recently, and you’re fine. And I said, no, you don’t know these things.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: So your doctor–
LISA SMITH: Yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: –this was your doctor, who–
LISA SMITH: Who I’d been lying to, who I had never told. But nothing had been showing up in my tests. Then, I told him how much I was drinking and using and that it was 24/7. I couldn’t get out of bed without drinking.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: So then once you told him this–
LISA SMITH: Then he said, you need to go to inpatient today. And the first thing, I did before I even called my family and my friends– because they didn’t know– I emailed my law firm, and I said, just want to let you know. I’m going to be out this week. I had a medical emergency over the weekend, but I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be in the hospital, but it’s all going to be good. I’ll see you next Monday. So I’ll be out of touch, but I’ll see you next Monday.
And I knew that if I went out for five days, I could call in sick– you know, have five sick days. If I stayed out that sixth day, I would need to have a doctor’s note to show where– you know, what was going on, what I was doing. And I wasn’t willing to do that. So I should have gone from the five day– I had a medicated five-day detox. And then, I should have gone right to like a 30-day rehab or a two-month rehab or something. I had the insurance. I had the ability to do it. But I was not willing to tell my law firm, so I went straight back to work–
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh my gosh.
LISA SMITH: –which is really– you know, I went– one thing that was good was that when– that day, I felt truly done, so I was OK with– you know, I wanted to do whatever I could do, so I was willing at that point. So I went to intensive outpatient rehab two nights a week. And I started going to 12-step meetings and all of that. But I never told anybody in the office because of the stigma. I had left the office that Friday as a reliable, capable, smart member of the team.
What if I came back 30 days later having been to rehab? What are they going to think of me? That somehow I’m defective, or weak, or unreliable? And I wasn’t willing to risk it. And that was in 2004, so it’s only just turning now, I think, a bit. But my goal with all of the speaking and writing stuff that I do is for the next lawyer in my position sitting on that cot in the psych ward hospital, the psych hospital, to, instead of saying no, no, I have to go back to work, for that person to say, yes, thank you. I’m going to go for 30 days or 60 days.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And it’s OK. And I can then come back to a career and be successful, just like I was before.
LISA SMITH: Right. And that’s part of why it’s important, I think, and has been recently for breaking the stigma for people like me who have come out the other side so far and went back into successful careers in law firms and went back to being a partner in a law firm some people have. And those people are now starting to speak up more and more as the scope of the problem among lawyers has come into sharper focus.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, because you’re not alone, and this is a part of the working world.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, and I had no sober references. I knew no one in recovery. I saw people all the time, you break your leg, you go out. You need some sort of medical treatment, you go out. In my firm, some circumstances, if you become a parent, you’re out for six months. And people say, that’s great. Go do it. But I had never seen anybody say, I’m suffering from depression. I need to go into treatment. I have a substance use disorder. I need to go into treatment, and I’ll be back. And I wasn’t going to be the first.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right. And so you went to outpatient two nights a week.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, for about a year.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And was that what you needed?
LISA SMITH: Yeah, that and 12-step.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: OK.
LISA SMITH: And also, I think the biggest thing is when I was in the hospital, which was a really crazy story. I met with the psychiatrist each day, and we would talk about why I drink, how I drink, going all the way back to the food thing when I was a kid, and I used to– you know, he was really trying to figure out–
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Piece it all together.
LISA SMITH: –right, why was I– why was I doing this to myself. And at the end of my stay, he said, listen, I think you are a very smart woman with a very big, serious problem. And if you don’t stop drinking, you’re going to die. And he said, I believe that you’ve been drinking– from what you’ve been telling me, that you have major depressive disorder, and you have been self-medicating yourself the whole time since you were a kid. And now, we’re going to start you on antidepressants, and you’re going to treat that chemical imbalance in your brain that way instead of with drugs and alcohol.
And I was incredibly fortunate because he got my diagnosis right. The medication I was put on in the hospital actually worked. So many people struggle with getting the right diagnosis, getting the right medication. I mean, some people never get that. And I was fortunate to get it. Then I went back. I was really willing to do whatever people told me to do to stay sober. I wasn’t one of these people who had to go in because I had a DUI or I was court ordered–
CASSIE PETOSKEY: There wasn’t this external–
LISA SMITH: Right. I hadn’t lost my job. I hadn’t alienated my family. So I went back to a nice apartment in New York City, a very nice job, a supportive family and friends. So I really had the benefit of these things. If anybody was set up for success– so I was fortunate that way. Not everybody has that. And I think that’s something that we have to be able to acknowledge in trying to get people the help they need.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. And now coming back to your firm– because I remember the first time we spoke, when you told me about how you eventually had to tell your organization because you wrote a book.
LISA SMITH: Yes.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: I guess when you wrote your book, you basically had to tell your organization that this was going to come out, but how did you have the courage to write, and then to tell your organization at a time when there was the stigma?
LISA SMITH: Well, it was– it certainly has never felt like [? ours, ?] for sure. You know, I had never written, but I always was a huge reader, and I started as soon as I got out of detox reading every addiction memoir I could find. And I didn’t find my story, like the person who is in a professional career, and hasn’t lost everything, and still goes so far down this path. And I had to tell my family and friends what was going on. And they knew.
My mother said, well, yeah, you drink too much, but do you really need to be hospitalized? A lot of it happens behind closed doors. You know, I could go to dinner with all my friends, who I’m still friends, we’re a very tight bunch, and we’d have a few drinks and go home. They didn’t see me go home, and then open another bottle of wine and drink it, and then pull the cocaine out. So people weren’t aware.
And so when I got out of the detox– and the detox story itself is pretty out there, what happened, and where I landed, and how I landed. The bottom line is my doctor, who I called and said, where can I go, he didn’t know what he was doing, either. And he was like, well, based on my insurance, you, can go to these two places. I picked one, and it was the worst psych hospital in Manhattan.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh no.
LISA SMITH: I mean, maybe in a way that was good for me, but it was. And I had to sign in on a 72-hour lockdown to be treated. And bottom line of that story is, don’t ask your gastroenterologist where to go to detox because he doesn’t know. Yeah, so anyway, so when I got out of the hospital, you know, I had not gone– it had been well more than 10 years since I had woken up in the morning not having drank the night before.
So I would wake up at 5:00 in the morning, and I would be like, oh my god. I would reach over– because I used to put a glass of vodka, or wine, or whatever it was on my nightstand because I would need it before I could get out of bed. And then, I would reach over in the morning out of reflex because it had been so many years and realized that I had club soda in the glass. And it was like, Groundhog Day, this realization of like, oh my god. I didn’t drink last night. And it’s the best day ever. And then, I would jump out of bed. But it was like 5:00 in the morning. So what do you do?
So I just started writing down the story of what happened in the hospital. Because like I said, I was pretty out there. And all my family and friends were like, what happened? Why didn’t you tell us? We could have helped you. Some of them were a little upset and hurt that I hadn’t. And I just started writing in the morning as a way to– I would be like, here, read this, after the 10th time that I had been explaining the story.
So it was a way to explain to my family and friends what happened, but it was much more than that, I realized. It was a way for me to process what happened myself. And it was cathartic. And it helped me figure things out. And I became like a 5:00 AM writer. I didn’t tell anybody about it. My family and friends knew, but I kept everything out of the workplace. And they had told me– in rehab, they said, you know, you need to get honest if you’re going to get sober. And that means telling your employer. Your employer should understand that you’re in early recovery.
And I was like, no, they really don’t need to know. I said, I will tell my family, my friends, I will shout it from the rooftops. I will not tell my law firm. And I think that was the right thing, frankly, for me at that time. It’s a very personal decision. For everyone who does it, it’s different. But for me, it would’ve felt like added pressure, and why put that on myself?
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, that wasn’t the right time for you.
LISA SMITH: No, no.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Eventually, you got to the right time.
LISA SMITH: Yeah. So what happened was, 10 months into recovery, all of a sudden, I figured out that I could do a next-level job, that while I was doing really well at the job I had, it wasn’t the most challenging job I could do. And so I left the firm I was out at that time, and I went– that was when I went to Patterson Belknap. And I went in as the Director of Business Development– because that’s what I’ve been doing since I had switched over. I never stopped working. And I didn’t tell anybody because it wasn’t any of their business. They didn’t need to know anything. And I just kept my writing thing. I started going to workshops. And I had never taken writing courses at Northwestern.
So I started going to NYU at night, taking night courses. And I got in a workshop. And over the years at Patterson, people that I became friendly with, the partners, it’s just an incredible firm. Some of the partners that I became friendly with, I had shared my story with. But certainly, it was not well known. And I wrote the book over 10 years.
And then, I had just been pretty– very recently promoted from Director of Business Development to Deputy Executive Director of the firm at that point when I got my book deal. And I sit on the management committee of the firm as part of my job. And all of a sudden, I had this book deal, with a very– I mean, I didn’t pull punches in the book. It is very raw. And I had to tell them. Like, this is going to be coming out.
And I had been really adamant about– my whole goal was always, like I said, with that next person sitting on the cot in the hospital in mind. Because I felt so alone in my addiction. Addiction is so isolating and so scary. And I was so afraid all those years. And I wanted to help the next person not feel that way, to know that they weren’t alone.
And so I knew I was going to own it. I was going to use my name. I was not going to fictionalize it. Because people had said that to me during the writing process. Well, you can use another name. But I wanted to be able to tell somebody it’s OK to be this and have this.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Exactly, that’s part of the power is to say, this was my story.
LISA SMITH: Exactly.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And I’m coming forward, even knowing the consequences of the stigma around it.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah. I knew I was in a great firm, but I had to start telling them. So I would– because of my position, I needed to start at the top. So I’d knock on a partner’s door and say, hey, you might have heard, my book’s going to be published. And they’d be like, yeah, that’s great. You know, people knew I wrote, but they hadn’t really dug into what I was writing. If they asked me what I was writing, I would say, I’m writing a memoir. It’s about a challenge I faced that, fortunately, is behind me now. And that was it. People don’t want to pry too much on that stuff.
So somebody would say, that’s great. Congratulations. We’re excited for you. And then, I would shut their door and I would say, now, let me tell you what it’s about. And oh, OK. And then, I would start the story, and they’d be listening. And I have to say, at least 80% of the time, I didn’t even get the whole story out. Because they would interrupt me and say, my law school roommate, my cousin, my father, my whoever had this, had that, died from this or that, or struggling, they’d have questions. And that’s when I realized, going from office to office, and getting that kind of response– and know I am part of it– may just be the function that I really am in a very special law firm– but I didn’t feel at all looked down on, stigmatized, anything when I told them that.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: That’s great.
LISA SMITH: There was surprise, but there wasn’t that sort of negative thing.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: They didn’t treat you differently?
LISA SMITH: No, or that I felt like I was being treated differently. And so it really– it amazed me that was how I learned how wide-reaching the problem really is and that everyone gets touched. Like you said, it’s like that. Like, oh, we don’t have that problem here, you know? Everybody’s got a story they’re just not talking about.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, right. They’re keeping it undercover because it’s isolating, so they think it’s just them, but it’s not.
LISA SMITH: Right.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: It’s more prevalent than that.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, and they all knew somebody.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. And that’s part of the power of your story, that you’re sharing this, and you’re doing a lot of advocacy work around this, is making sure people don’t feel alone in the future. And I know that you tell this story a lot. You have your own podcast, where you talk about these things, right?
LISA SMITH: Yeah, we just launched– my friend, who is another– a sober friend who is amazing. Her name is Tawny Lara. And we are very different. We bonded completely over rock music when we first met. And there’s so many good recovery groups out now. Like, we met in, basically, a recovery book club.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Cool.
LISA SMITH: Very cool. In New York, there’s a lot of that.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Very cool.
LISA SMITH: So anybody who wants to get in touch, let me know because I love connecting people.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: That’s great. So your podcast is about how you both had different ways of– because I was wondering this. Because you have such different ways of recovering from addiction and mental health, but you found each other.
LISA SMITH: Yes, completely. And yeah, and it was interesting because when we started talking about this, we just realized that this kind of conversation– you know, I am Gen-Xer, she’s a millennial. I’m literally her mother’s age. And I have always worked in a professional office. And she is a blogger and entrepreneur kind of person who does not work in a professional office. And I have always been a 12-step person. It’s the only way that was really available at that time. It was kind of that or nothing when I got sober.
She, one day, decided she needed to get sober and started a blog of my one-year sober, my sober journey. And she got sober by blogging and sharing her story. And there’s all these– I’ve now learned, because I’ve gotten connected– this entire online Instagram and Facebook communities where people connect.
And it’s interesting. Because 12-step is very much, to me, about being part of a community. I’m not alone. These people have the same feelings I feel. They get it when I tell my story. And now, that dynamic– and without the 12 steps but that part of it, that community, and that honest sharing feelings with each other is very much online as well.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and now, I’m curious because I know you do a lot of advocacy; you have a podcast where we talk about your story often. Is there anything different about sharing it with the Northwestern Network on this podcast?
LISA SMITH: It’s funny. Yeah. In a way, it’s not something I had ever expected. Because while I was sitting outside before we started talking, I was just scrolling through the people I’m going to see at the reunion. There’s the list of all the other names and all these people. I think about the person who I was then. And we all, obviously, were very different people when we were 22 years old.
But one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is the broad reach and the diversity of the Northwestern Network. We all do so many different things. I’m used to sort of talking to lawyers. Or I’m used to talking to people in recovery. The advocacy I’ve done has not been among the Northwestern community or a broader community of people who I know are doing great things. And some of the things– I read Northwestern Magazine, and I’m like, I think I just need to go back to bed. Let me see what some of the people do.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: It’s amazing.
LISA SMITH: It’s really amazing in that this community of really talented and really wonderful people to tell my story is– it sort of feels like telling it for the first time again in a way. And I see that even just talking on this podcast, like, it feels like, oh, this isn’t– but when I usually tell my story, it’s a whole different thing.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, right, talking to the Northwestern Network about your career story and your–
LISA SMITH: Yeah! And my career story’s so melded into my personal story, which now has become like the second career story.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. Interesting how you think about just the different angles of– you know, you are one person, but you’re talking to different groups of people and how it can influence differently.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, I think the people I ran around with at Northwestern would probably not be that shocked that I ended up in rehab.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: But now, talking about the Northwestern Network, coming back to campus, in what ways has the Northwestern Network impacted your career?
LISA SMITH: It’s been amazing. One of the most important things I think it’s done constantly is inspire me. I feel very proud when people ask me where I went to school. I’ve always felt that way. And I have made the most important friendships of my life here. I have had that– for me, coming from New York as an 18-year-old who had never been out of New York, meeting people from all over the country was totally new to me. I was used to people who looked, and sounded, and seemed just like I was. And I’ve carried with me that– I feel like I learned at Northwestern with my two closest friends from here were on my floor freshman year. And we see each other regularly. And–
CASSIE PETOSKEY: That’s amazing.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, oh, and we’re in touch constantly. And they and the other friends I made at Northwestern who came from just different parts of the country, different backgrounds and everything, and I saw the core root of what I thought was important to be as a person. I grew up a lot at Northwestern. It was the formative experience for me.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and now that you’re coming back for reunions, who are some of the people you’re most excited to see this weekend or even people and places?
LISA SMITH: People, and places. Well, we are actually having– our party is at the Kellogg Global space.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh, it’s amazing.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Such a good space.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, it’s going to be great. It’s going to be fun. So one of my good friends is not going to be here this weekend, but I’m staying with the other one downtown and seeing her. Always, we try to get together three or four times a year if we can.
And it feels like coming home. Like, coming back to Chicago feels like coming home. And it’s funny. Because scrolling through those names, I almost feel like, it’s like a night– when we were here, we called it “The Bar,” and then it was “The Gathering Place.” And I don’t even know what it is anymore. But the campus bar, Norris, it looks like the scene from the bar at night.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah.
LISA SMITH: But I’m looking forward to– I was in a sorority when I was here, and we’re having a get together on Saturday in Wilmette at someone’s house.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Cool.
LISA SMITH: So a lot of people I haven’t seen in ages and ages. So it’s going to be exciting.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah.
LISA SMITH: I have a ticket to the football game, but I’m not going to go because I’m going to be to cold.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: It is going to be a cold–
LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Fall has hit in the Midwest officially.
LISA SMITH: That’s right. That’s right.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: OK. And so Lisa, we have a lot of alumni come back to the Alumni Association. Now thinking of the years of experience that you have and just the advice that you may able to provide, what advice have you received that has really stuck with you throughout your years in law firms?
LISA SMITH: I have to say that the best piece of advice I received and that I still go back to was that day after I checked into the detox, they made me go– I didn’t know what I was doing, and they made me go to a 12-step meeting in the detox. And I was really– I was in heavy withdrawal, and I was medicated, and it was whatever.
But I sat down in that room, and there was a big whiteboard that had the schedule for the day up there and everything and what nurse was giving what meds at what time. And at the top of it, in green magic marker, I remember it written, it just said, get up, get dressed, get with the program. And I looked at that, and I was like, oh. I haven’t done that in a long time.
So when I think about pieces of advice that I’ve gathered over the years, when I feel stuck, when I feel frustrated, when I feel like I can’t do something or something’s just too hard, I’ve sort of translated that idea of get up, get dressed, and get with the program into, just keep showing up– just one foot in front of the other. It is just what’s in front of you right now.
In recovery, when I feel things are spinning out or I’m thinking I can’t be present where I am and I’m thinking two, three years down the road, for some reason, that makes no sense, always going back to the idea of, where are my feet? Where am I right now? Everything’s OK.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and I think a lot of alumni are coming back to the Alumni Association when they’re hitting a challenging point in their career, whether they’re trying to make a career transition or look for a job. And it just seems like, keep at it.
LISA SMITH: Just one foot in front of the other. It’s true. It’s true. And keep at it because I could have never imagined what was down the road. It was only possible by just continuing to show up today, show up today, show up today. And graduating from Northwestern, someone’s like, OK, so you’re going to go do really well in law school, and then you’re going to get a great job, and you’re going to go into this terrible spiral. As someone who drank a lot, and partied a lot, and relied on that, I thought that was one of the things that helped me achieve. Because I needed to blow off steam.
And if someone had told me that when you come back for your 30-year reunion, you’re going to be 14 and a half years sober, you’re going to have written a book, you’re going to be talking to other people out loud in public about being in recovery, I would’ve been, like, no, no, you have the wrong person. Maybe that’s the person down the road from me, but not me. Like, you can’t even imagine what’s going to happen. Like, there truly are so many possibilities. And I know, coming back and thinking about it, I remember being miserable in my job, stuck in my job, and that feeling of, where do I go next?
So I could see coming back to the Alumni Association at that point– and the idea of knowing that there are second acts, and being open about everything, about keeping an open mind on everything. There were a lot of things I had to do in early recovery that I would have been like, no, I don’t want to do that. And it’s like, but, you don’t know what’s on the other side. Just take that action.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right.
LISA SMITH: Just, taking action. And also just when you hear this in recovery all the time, which is letting go of things you can’t control. There are only the things you can control. Like, going on job interviews. Go on that interview, and then let go of the results. Because now, you’ve–
CASSIE PETOSKEY: It’s out of your hands.
LISA SMITH: Right, you’ve taken care of what you could do.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: No, that’s so true. And I am so glad that we were able to have you on the podcast to talk about your story and how inspiring it is. Because I know there are people going through challenging points in their lives and their careers out there listening. And I think it is such a great thing to talk about how you came out on the other side. And I know, looking at you and thinking of some things that you may be proud of, I have some things in my mind, but I’d love to hear from you what you’re most proud of in your life and in your career.
LISA SMITH: Most proud of, I would say, in my career, would be that I really do feel like I have been able to help other people, that I hear back a lot from people who have been able to identify with my story or just helped in some way. And that is all I ever wanted to do with that book is just help the next person. And so the book and the help that it’s been able to give some people just by being able to identify with someone else’s story is definitely the proudest thing I’ve done professionally.
I’d say personally the thing I’m most proud of– when I was– in those 10-plus years, 12 years, whatever it was of drinking every night, and being completely checked out, and really in my own pity party all the time, and just an unhappy person trying to put a face on and act like everything was great because everything should seem great, I really had to isolate myself in order to feed my addiction. And there are a lot of times with my family that I wasn’t able to show up.
So when my niece was born, I tell this story in the book– I have one brother two years younger than me. And when my niece was born, it was his first child, I had been on a two-day bender, and I hadn’t slept in like two days. And I was really just– really high, and really not in the right place. And I tried to get out to the hospital to be with them, and I couldn’t do it. And then, my drug dealer called. And I had the car I was in turn around and take me back to meet him, and I didn’t show up.
So when my nephew was born, and I was sober. Two years later, I was able to show up. But then the biggest one was in– I was about nine years, eight nine years sober, when my dad got sick with pancreatic cancer. And he got diagnosed, and 5 and 1/2 weeks later, he was gone
Well, I was there. I basically moved into the house. I did everything. I was with every doctor. You know, he went right on hospice. Everything. I was the one who, when it was time for the morphine, no one could do it. And he wanted it, and I was able to– we had it there, and I was able to give him the morphine. So to show up to see my dad through that was– oh, I don’t think I could be more proud of anything.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh, you made me cry.
We get emotional on this podcast, I guess. Career stories. But it’s– you know, you can’t separate who you are as a person from your career. Like you said, this is your story. Whether it’s your career story or personal story, it all comes together and blurs together. You can’t separate that.
LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: So that is really impactful, I’m sure, in your life. And you’ll carry that.
LISA SMITH: Yes, yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: –forever as part of you. It’s pretty amazing to think how many different things you’ve done and different jobs and roles within law firms.
LISA SMITH: Yeah.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And I’m wondering what other career advice that you may have to share with the Northwestern Network.
LISA SMITH: Yeah. I think the career advice that has helped me definitely has been, sometimes especially in pressured situations, people want to make their mark, people want to say the right thing or be the person who gets something done first or who does– always trying to outshine other people. And I watched a lot of that as a young associate and throughout my career. And I think one of the things that can really help is to really just stop worrying about what the person in the next office is up to so much and thinking about what your role is.
There’s definitely– in big law firms, in any big industry, the workplace can be really political. And the people who tend to– I see stick around, the longest have the least controversy, do well, get promoted, move through the ranks, are the people who don’t engage in the small stuff, people who keep their eye on the bigger picture and are not– you’re not going to love everybody you work with, by far. But you are expected to figure out a way to work together, and get along, and not worry so much.
You know, as a kid, and I carried this with me until I learned it much later in my career, I was always so terrified of what everybody else was thinking about me. I was thinking about what I would say in terms of how you were going to respond to it, as opposed of thinking about what I wanted to say, and what I thought, and what I felt would be a contribution. I was always trying to figure out what the person across from me wanted to hear. And I think we shortchange ourselves when we don’t go in and say– and especially, you know, there’s a lot that imposter syndrome, and people feeling like I’m somewhere that I don’t belong.
And I would say– and it has been true in all of my 30 years out of Northwestern, you are where you are because you deserve to be there. You’ve got there. It wasn’t a fluke. You know what I mean? I always felt like I was doing well despite myself, not because of myself. And especially for women, too, confidence is not cockiness.
Confidence is not being the loudest voice in the room. Confidence is something we all should have because we’ve done things that have gotten us to a great place. We can do great things, but we have to trust ourselves, and own our stories, and really not be worried about impressions all the time and putting on a face.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: And you exemplify owning it to me. Like, I’m just hearing– I’m scribbling down all these notes because it’s such great advice– having this confidence, trusting yourself, and really owning who you are and not thinking about what other people are thinking.
LISA SMITH: I have a lot of people in the workplace, all through my career, or certainly by the time I was 10 years out of law school or something, that people would say, I don’t feel like I belong. I’m nervous to speak. And I’ve got to be in this meeting, and so-and-so’s gonna be there. And I’m not going to feel comfortable saying it. And what I always would tell people is, you’re in that room for a reason. People don’t land in that room by accident. You have a seat at the table because you should be sitting at the table. And that’s a really easy thing to forget.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, especially when you’re anxious and you’re thinking about all these different things, come back to, you’re here for a reason.
LISA SMITH: You’re here for a reason. You’re here because this is the place you’re supposed to be right now. You punched your ticket. You earned it. You get to own it.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, we’ve uncovered so many great bits of advice throughout your story, and I just want to thank you so much for sharing, and owning it, and for being here with us today. So thank you again.
LISA SMITH: Thank you so much. I’m really honored, and it’s a privilege to be here.
CASSIE PETOSKEY: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode of Northwestern Intersections. To find more information about the podcast, please visit northwestern.edu/intersections. Have a great rest of your day, and Go, Cats.