Assistant Merrimack County Attorney recounts struggle with alcohol and mental health

  • Assistant Merrimack  County Attorney Brendan Cahalin —Courtesy

  • Assistant Merrimack County Attorney Brendan Cahalin with his wife Dana and son Mason. Courtesy

NH Bar News
Published: 2/21/2021 4:45:49 PM

For Assistant Merrimack County Attorney Brendan Cahalin, alcohol was a powerful and effective way of coping with life’s problems – and then it stopped working.

Like many professionals, Cahalin, 32, turned to alcohol at a young age and later in life he used it to avoid difficult feelings. This avoidance led him in and out of numerous psychiatric wards, detox and recovery facilities, and sober houses. And it nearly cost him his relationships with family and his life.

“I disconnect from anything that is unpleasant. If I am upset, sad, angry, afraid, really anything, I push it aside and push it down. Maybe I distract myself with something like video games, TV, or something else. Whatever I can do to not acknowledge my emotions and allow myself to feel,” Cahalin says. “I was raised in a family that put a face on – that everything is fine – and nobody really talked about feelings. Then I became interested in going to law school, which is a perfect fit for someone who has trouble connecting with emotions.”

Being an attorney, as with other professionals, Cahalin says, attracts a certain type of person who knows how to avoid their feelings.

“A lot of doctors have the same issue. You take someone who is prone to that thinking and then you send them to school and they teach you to park your emotions at the door. I had experiences with professors in law school screaming at me and you’re just expected to sit there and take it and smile and nod. I’ve had judges screaming at me and you’re not supposed to show emotion. You have to be studious, diligent and just leave your emotions outside the courtroom.”

While alcohol and drugs can help people avoid their feelings and emotions in the short term, in the long term, they’re unsustainable and “maladaptive coping mechanisms,” Cahalin says.

Cahalin, who has been an attorney for six years and currently handles cases in Merrimack County’s drug court, first reached out to the New Hampshire Lawyers Assistance Program (NHLAP) in 2016 while working for the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office. At the time, he was sharing an office with Terri Harrington, who later moved from her position there to become director of NHLAP.

“That was one of the first times I reached out. It took me a number of years after that to get my act together. I was battling severe alcohol and mental health issues at the time and I couldn’t work,” Cahalin says.

The addiction spiral

Today Cahalin has been sober for over 18 months, but getting there hasn’t been easy. He concedes that if it wasn’t for the help and support of his wife, his parents, and his former boss at the Merrimack County Attorney’s Office, he may not have survived.

To understand his story and his recovery, it’s important to go back.

Cahalin’s alcohol and mental health problems have evolved since his childhood, growing up in Beverly, Mass., where he says he had a normal childhood with friends and parents who cared for him.

His first memory of using alcohol and other substances began occurring around the time his parents divorced when he was 13.

“I was hanging out with a group of kids and we’d always go into our parents’ liquor cabinet and grab a bottle. They’d feel the effects of the alcohol, but I wouldn’t feel anything. So, one day I made a conscious decision that I’m going to feel it and the first time I really felt the effects of it I ended up in the hospital because I couldn’t stop throwing up.”

Cahalin was 14 years old that day and doesn’t know why he didn’t feel the effects the same way his friends did.

“I’m very Irish, so it might be something of the Irish curse,” he says. “But that initial experience of getting sick should have been a warning. There is a history of substance misuse in my family. I didn’t realize it at the time. I remember my dad, who’s a doctor, on the way to the hospital asking me why I did it. I told him I just wanted to feel different.”

Flash forward to high school and Cahalin’s life appears typical. While he never received straight A’s, school came easy for him, and when it came time for college, he chose Northeastern, where his father worked.

Cahalin says there were days he wouldn’t make the drive into Boston because he was hung over, but his grades remained good. Then, during his senior year, his drinking grew worse.

“I’d applied and been accepted to law school. It was a slow progression that was catching up with me. I was drinking a lot every day, at night, playing video games with friends. I started skipping more and more classes. I missed a test and squeaked by with a D in a class that I needed to graduate.”

After graduating from Northeastern, Cahalin started law school at the University of Massachusetts School of Law where he says it was, “work hard and play hard.”

As his drinking progressed during law school Cahalin describes days when he woke up shaky with withdrawal symptoms. People in his life were telling him he was drinking too much, but he says he brushed it off, and as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, he graduated with his JD degree in 2014.

“After graduating from law school, I worked for a debt collection company doing small claims work and it was awful. That was around the time I began drinking in the morning, which was a first. That was a line I didn’t want to cross.”

This was still 2014 and Cahalin was living with his girlfriend, Dana, who he’d been dating since he was 14. “We were supposed to get married that year and she started mentioning my drinking more and more. It caused arguments. So, I would hide it,” he says. “I’d get a handle of vodka and put it in my backpack and when no one was looking I’d chug out of the bottle. I thought it would be okay as long as I got my work done. But it grew worse and worse.”

Cahalin was studying for the bar exam and writing motions and briefs for the debt collection company when he began experiencing mental health challenges. Doctors prescribed tranquilizers and combined with the alcohol, they worked for a while. Eventually, he and Dana were married and the couple had a son, Mason, who was born in March of 2016.

This was the year he began the job at the Rockingham County Attorney’s office. Dana recalls that this was around the time when she noticed things falling apart.

Shortly after Mason was born, Cahalin began experiencing numbness in his legs and chest and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“My mental health was deteriorating. My son was just born, I had a new job – I just went off the rail. I couldn’t stop and my MS was getting worse. I thought my family would be better off without me and I told my wife I didn’t love her anymore. And that was when I checked myself into a psych ward for the first time.”

Dana says she has known alcohol was a problem for her husband long before he ever admitted it.

“He’d never stay sober for very long and I’d always know,” she says, adding that by the end of 2016 the situation was growing desperate for her husband. “There were a lot of days I wasn’t sure how I was going to stay married to this person.”

The gauntlet of recovery

While in the hospital, Cahalin was encouraged to attend an outpatient program for alcohol and substance abuse. He attended his first AA meeting around that time and says he wanted nothing to do with it.

“I was a lifelong atheist and they’re talking about higher powers and I thought ‘this is a cult’ – but there was one guy whose message kept me interested and engaged.”

It would be over two years before that message would begin to sink in. By 2017, Cahalin was separated from his family, bouncing in and out of residential treatment programs and psych wards in Massachusetts, and living with his mother in Beverly. He had also resigned from his job with Rockingham County that year.

“I was in really bad shape,” Cahalin says. “I was essentially homeless. I’d moved in with my mother and I was sleeping in a spare bedroom. I’d resigned from Rockingham because I just couldn’t go in to work anymore.”

Dana says the choice for Brendan to leave was the right one at the time.

“I wasn’t going to have my son watch that lifestyle,” she says.

Cahalin’s mother had heard about a place in Plymouth called the Plymouth House Recovery Center, and she coordinated a month-long treatment for her son.

“One day I awoke from a stupor and my mother said, ‘there’s a truck downstairs and you’re going to detox,’” Cahalin says. “It was in Maine and it was the most beautiful detox I’ve ever seen. But while there I’m looking at the shower curtains thinking, ‘how can I end it.’ Then I was told ‘you’re going to this place called the Plymouth House,’ and I told my mom I’m not going. I ended up there against my will and pretty quickly I noticed there was something different about this place.”

Matthew Howe, program director at the Plymouth House, as it is often called, has seen many professionals like Cahalin, in his 13 years as a recovery specialist.

“The top four are attorney, physician, nurse, firefighter. And probably number five would be therapist or social worker,” Howe says.

Howe, who has been sober for 18 years, supervises the direct care staff at the Plymouth House, works one on one with clients, and facilitates groups.

The Plymouth House is a 12-step recovery program where guests stay for one month. Howe says the goal is to get people through the first seven steps and that staff are all trained in 12-step recovery.

The Plymouth House focuses a lot of attention on family integration and emphasizes a philosophy of well-being that teaches guests how to recognize and acknowledge “stressors which are inherent to human existence,” according to Howe.

He likens the work he does to reverse engineering a person’s “game plan on life.”

“A big part of what we do here is reverse engineering all of your tactics that you use to negotiate life to see which ones aren’t working, and once we know which ones aren’t working then we can work on changing those behaviors.”

And that’s the ultimate goal of recovery, Howe says, explaining that addiction has far less to do with drugs and alcohol than it does with a lack of coping mechanisms.

“At the heart of the 12-step program philosophy is that the real problem isn’t the alcohol or the drugs. The first order problem is that ‘I don’t have sufficient coping mechanisms,’ ” he says. “Recovery is about finding better ways to live without drugs and alcohol.”

Cahalin’s initial experience at the Plymouth House was a first step on a long road to recovery. After completing the program in August 2018, he remained sober for nearly a year before relapsing in 2019.

“What I discovered at the Plymouth House was that alcohol wasn’t my problem, it was me. It was the way I was thinking and acting in the world – the way I responded to life,” Cahalin says. “The way they asked me to engage with that worked for me and Matt Howe was really crucial towards my recovery.”

With a newfound sense of meaning and confidence after completing his first round at the Plymouth House, Cahalin sought work as an attorney while living apart from his wife and son in a sober living facility.

His sponsor at the time encouraged him to tell them the truth when applying for work and Cahalin says that was what he did.

Then Merrimack County Attorney Robin Davis says it was Cahalin’s honesty that impressed her when making the decision to hire him.

“His honesty in that interview demonstrated real progress in his recovery. He wasn’t lying to himself any longer, and to be able to have fortitude to go to your potential employer and say, ‘This is where I’m at.’ For me it took strength and integrity to do that,” Davis says. “I saw that as someone who could be the type of prosecutor I was looking for.”

Things were getting better in 2018, Cahalin recalls. He was rebuilding relationships and spending more time with his wife and son, but one of his character defects, he says, is thinking he’s special, “and that I can do things differently.”

A bumped flight

In August 2019, one week shy of one year of sobriety, Cahalin found himself instinctively picking up a drink at an airport bar while waiting for a flight to Alabama where he was to attend a training in cyber-crimes prosecution.

“I drank the rest of that night. My wife could tell that I’d relapsed, and I drank for days at the hotel alone,” he says. “I thought I was going to lose my job and family and I’d go out to the balcony to smoke a cigarette, look over the balcony edge and think ‘Maybe I should just do it’ because I’m not getting back to where I was before.”

His father arrived first and Cahalin went outside to smoke a cigarette. “Dad followed me out, and I fell on the ground and passed out. EMTs came and as they were putting me in the ambulance I told them to just let me die. so that led to a psych ward in Alabama ... which was wonderful.”

Davis says she feels responsible for sending Cahalin on the trip but that at the time Brendan had become a good asset to the office.

“He had been going day to day,” she says, “encountering people in the drug court who were struggling with their addiction. He was gone 24 hours. Then rumors started that he hadn’t shown up for the training. His wife called me and told me he was in the hospital.”

Davis says she reminded Dana to focus on her family and reassured her that Cahalin wouldn’t be losing his job.

“I told her I didn’t know what was going on but that he needed to call me. I spoke to his mother as well and he had a support system that really made me feel like this was something he could get over quickly. It turned out to be longer than we thought.”

Cahalin returned to the Plymouth House for the second time in August of 2019 and he has been sober since then.

There is no ‘bottom’ in life

Howe says he’s very familiar with return guests like Cahalin.

“It’s very common. Because there seems to be this phenomenon. We try to figure out what’s the least I can do and still get sober. And a lot of us have to go out and test it,” he says. “And it’s a rigged game – you’re always going to lose because the only way to figure out what the least you can do is, is to reach that threshold, and then you’re drinking again. Lots of people are successful on their second stay because they’ve internally surrendered to the idea that they are going to go all the way.”

But according to Howe, this surrender isn’t the result of what people often refer to as “the bottom.”

“The concept of reaching the bottom is absurd. The universe is in no danger of running out of bad shit that can happen to you. It’s not like there can’t be more bad stuff. The pain and misery of that way of life, of addiction, has to coincide with a lack of other good options.”

Honesty and compassion

Davis, who left the Merrimack County Attorney’s office in January, says she is proud of Cahalin for the work he did and for the courage he displayed in the face of a very difficult situation.

“He said he could do it, and he really has been a success since then,” she says.

While it may be difficult to understand why Cahalin wasn’t fired, for Davis it’s simple.

“It would have been hard to speak about the importance of rehabilitation and not bestow that on my employees,” she says. “He’s a very good attorney. He’s very smart, very diligent. I’m very familiar with addiction, and relapse is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. It’s unfortunate he had to be in the spotlight for it though because lots of people knew what was going on.”

Cahalin’s gratitude for the compassion he has received from his wife and family, as well as his former boss and co-workers, is clear.

“Robin was amazing. She made my situation a lot easier. The Judge wrote me a note as well and people at work were wishing me the best during my recovery. My wife and all of my family has been very supportive. I’m extremely lucky.”

Dealing with her husband’s sickness hasn’t been easy for Dana and she says there were plenty of times when people would say to her, “I don’t know why you stay.”

“There were a lot of days I wasn’t sure how I was going to stay married to this person, but as cheesy as it might sound I came back to our wedding vows, ‘in sickness and in health…’,” she says. “Brendan was sick, he was suffering with an illness and needed serious help. Did I think about moving on, sure. But I’m so glad I didn’t because the person I married was still in there – he was just very sick.”

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