“How the heck did I do this, go from teenager shooting meth [and in pure agony over trauma] to a federal judge?” said Mary Beth O’Connor when asked to reflect on her inspirational journey leading up to the Saturday, April 8 promotion of her memoir, From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph over Trauma and Addiction, at the Bordentown library.
Sober for 29 years and counting, O’Connor spent a considerable portion of her early adulthood battling methamphetamine addiction.
“There was a flood of meth in the [Philadelphia] area, and it happened when I was in high school,” O’Connor said in a recent interview.
However, the author stressed how her childhood trauma and unstable family life contributed to her battle against the intravenous drug. Living with an abusive stepfather, both O’Connor and her sister suffered emotional, verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
“The data now shows that when you have a traumatic history, particularly when it’s ongoing, my odds of developing a substance abuse disorder were four to six times the national average,” O’Connor said.
Living in such an environment, O’Connor even developed techniques to lessen her odds of being abused at home: “I taught my sister that when we emptied the dishwasher we should put the dishes away one dish at a time so they didn’t clack.”
These volatile conditions led O’Connor to become first addicted to alcohol at age 12, then cannabis, and finally methamphetamine by her senior year at Bordentown High.
After moving away for college at the University of California at Los Angeles (later transferring to University of California at Berkeley) to study history, O’Connor described her first few years at college as much better than her senior year of high school. However, she was thrown back into serious use of methamphetamine by another traumatic event.
“I had a really life-threatening, multi-assailant rape in college, and then I moved in with a violent boyfriend, and I just could not hang on anymore.” said O’Connor. “And so in January of my senior year of college, I started using meth again, and I used until I was 32 years old.”
Due to the addiction spiraling out of control and the continued presence of trauma in her life, O’Connor was unable to continue onto graduate school or keep a job. After realizing how emotionally exhausted she was, O’Connor decided to go to rehab.
“When I was 32, I went to a long-term inpatient program and it was a 90-day minimum commitment and I ended up staying for five months,” she said.
However, O’Connor’s program was a 12-step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
“That was not a good fit for me, and so it was a real struggle when I went to rehab,” she said. “They told me in rehab that the 12-step model was the only way.”
O’Connor ended up reading all of the books on addiction rehabilitation available to her, and came up with her own recovery plan based on principles from both the 12-step program she was in and secular options she’d discovered in her own research, particularly stressing “the right next step” short-term goals as opposed to long-term intimidating goals.
Once she finished her rehab program, O’Connor set herself on the path to law school, first getting a part-time job. Eventually, she would move from being promoted to enrolling at law school at six and a half years sober.
“I’d always been told when I was younger that I was argumentative and verbal, although my family was very blue collar,” O’Connor said when asked to elaborate on her choice to go to law school. “For me, throughout my life, school had been the one place where I got a lot of positive attention, and I always did very well.”
O’Connor self-studied for the law school admission test while working and received a score in the 99th percentile. She was first admitted to UC Hastings Law School (now the University of California College of the Law at San Francisco), spending her first year of law school there and rising to third in a class of 400.
After transferring to UC Berkeley Law School, she graduated and received a job offer from a large law firm working mainly with class action lawsuits.
Then after gaining considerable experience, O’Connor finally rose to become an administrative federal law judge, where she mainly dealt with disability cases.
Today, O’Connor continues to inspire as the director, founding investor, and secretary for She Recovers Foundation, as well as the director for LifeRing Secular Recovery. As an integral part of these organizations, O’Connor continues to regularly speak about her journey to recovery.
Her memoir, which traces her early life to drug use to recovery, was published by HCI Books in January. In it, O’Connor stresses awareness of intravenous drug addiction and alternative routes to sobriety: her book, in fact, contains a checklist to assist in the process of overcoming addiction. She will discuss the book and her life experiences on Saturday, April 8 from 3 to 4 p.m. when she visits the Bordentown Library, 18 E. Union St., Bordentown, NJ 08505.
O’Connor further elaborated on her experience: “Being a former judge and a former IV meth addict, I came out to try and reduce the stigma around substance abuse, but especially around drugs that aren’t alcohol and also to talk about multiple paths to recovery,” she said.