From the Podcast: Christopher Poulos: Setting Legal Policy While Living in Recovery
Christopher Poulos joined host Ashley Loeb Blassingame for Episode 12 of The Courage To Change: A Recovery Podcast to share his incredible story of recovery.
Christopher is an attorney and the Executive Director of The Washington Statewide Reentry Council, where he promotes equal access to the law and seeks to end mass incarceration, and the collateral consequences now facing the tens of millions of people with criminal convictions.
Prior to his appointment, he served as the Executive Director of Life of Purpose Treatment at the University of North Texas, where he was also an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice. During law school, he served at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and The Sentencing Project. Poulos has advised United States Senator Angus King, (I-Maine), on addiction and justice policy, and served on several task forces related to criminal justice policy. He graduated Cum Laude from the University of Maine School of Law, where he was President of the American Constitution Society and represented children facing criminal charges as a student attorney in the Juvenile Justice Clinic.
Now 12 years sober, Christopher built his impressive career after he overcame many obstacles, including tragic family losses, addiction, homelessness, and a federal incarceration.
We’ve edited the interview here for a quick read, and when you have the time, we encourage you to listen to the whole interview to hear all of Christopher’s story.
Christopher grew up in Maine with his mother, stepfather and younger half brother. He was also close to his maternal grandparents. At age 10 he met his birth father, who still suffers from severe untreated mental illness and substance abuse disorder; they’ve never been able to develop a healthy relationship.
Prescription Drugs Led To Other Drugs
Christopher started smoking cigarettes when he was a little kid. At 13 he was prescribed Ritalin and then later Adderall for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). However, he didn’t take the medication as prescribed.
“My friends and I would crush up and snort Ritalin and Adderall, smoke pot, and drink alcohol. Eventually, not that long after, we got into different pills, including opiates.”
As soon as he had a substance in his system, Christopher found relief from what he calls “any kind of feelings of inadequacy, discomfort, anything like that, social awkwardness, all of that just melted away as soon as [he] got the substance in my system.”
Three Deaths That Plummeted Christopher Into Heavy Using
When Christopher was a high school senior, three of the most important people to him died in quick succession.
First, one of his best friends was knifed after a drunken fistfight at a party. He describes that his best friend “got the better of the other kid” in the fistfight. Afterward the other kid lured his friend away from the party to supposedly make amends. “What no one knew was that the other young man had brought a kitchen knife with him and took [his] friend’s life.”
Shortly after that, Christopher’s stepfather, a commercial fisherman, was found dead, floating in the Atlantic Ocean off of Maine, after his fishing boat went missing at sea. They think a “tanker struck his boat down and didn’t report it.”
Two or three months later, Christopher’s grandfather died. Christopher “held [his] grandfather in [his] arms as he died after a long battle with cancer.” Within 60 days Christopher had lost his best friend and the two men who “were [his] father figures.” His substance abuse went from “already awful” to “completely unmanageable.”
As his substance abuse escalated, Christopher sunk deeper into shame. “I thought I was simply bad. I was a criminal. I was a loser. I was a scumbag. I was an addict. That’s how I thought of myself,” says Christopher. He, nor his mom, understood that addiction was treatable. Treatment “never happened for [him].” So he found himself “homeless, as a teenager, in Portland, Maine.” His deep shame repeatedly prevented him from asking for help.
Drug Use Leads To Drug Dealing
In his early 20s, Christopher started using cocaine, which he had a hard time financing. To be able to buy cocaine, he “started selling small amounts of cocaine to support [his] own habit. And within just months, not years, that grew to the level…that the federal government took an interest in [their] activities.”
The police finally tracked Christopher down after he “accidentally discharged a firearm in his apartment while [he] was intoxicated” through the ceiling into a neighbor’s apartment. He remains thankful that no one got hurt from his accident. While investigating the gunshot, the police thoroughly searched Christopher’s apartment. He knew he was in real trouble.
This turned out to be the pivotal moment for Christopher in understanding his addiction.
After unsuccessfully trying to reach lawyers to help him he went to a local bar and started drinking.
“I drank glass after glass of rum with just the tiniest hint of soda on top and I probably had eight pint glasses of rum, which normally I would be, even with the tolerance I had, you’re going to be drunk after that much alcohol.I didn’t feel a thing. My way of relief from that was not rectifying the situation, or making amends. It was simply pouring drugs and alcohol down my throat, or up my nose,or into my veins. And that day, it didn’t work. And that’s when everything began to shift for me.”
The Turning Point
He realized that he needed to “either die or seek help — professional help.” Christopher went to his psychiatrist and said “I’m addicted to opiates. I’m addicted to cocaine, and alcohol, and I don’t think I can stop.” But instead of telling the truth that he had used substances that day, he told his doctor that he hadn’t drank or used drugs in two weeks. And in response his doctor said, “Okay, so that means you don’t need detox or inpatient. We can just start you in intensive outpatient.” The doctor did not order detox.
Christopher went to his mother’s house, and even though she kicked him out when he was 18 years old, she welcomed him home to help him detox.
“We put a mattress on the floor of an empty bedroom in the family home. And for about three days straight I went through the process of having alcohol, benzos, opiates, and cocaine all leave my system simultaneously,” shares Christopher.
Of this incredibly dangerous scenario, he says:
“It was awful. I was hallucinating, I won’t share all the physical effects. If people are interested, they can Google it. But I do remember something that’s not that gross, but every few hours, I remember having to change the sheets just because they were drenched with sweat, and then flip the mattress over and remake the bed. And I remember hallucinating. I can say that through treatment, through a 12 step program, and through God’s grace, I have not had to have that experience again since then.” [Editor’s Note: please seek professional help if you are considering any type of detox. If you need to speak with a professional, call Lionrock at 1-800-258-6550]
About 10 months after Christopher stopped drinking and using any unprescribed drugs, he had a job and was in the process of getting back into college. That’s when federal law enforcement, which had been investigating him for several years, caught up to him. He was indicted on five federal charges for cocaine trafficking, cocaine distribution, and possession of a firearm. Since he had no money to hire an attorney, he got a court-appointed attorney, who did not advocate for him.
Christopher is quick to say that his criticism of his attorney is not criticism of all court-appointed attorneys: “I know a lot of them and they do amazing work, many of them.”
Because he was sober Christopher realized he was not being well represented and did call family and friends to help raise money to hire an attorney. With his own representation he was quickly released from the jail and given a much shorter sentence. Christopher “had to do almost three years, which would have been 10 if [he] didn’t have the attorney that [he] did.”
During his time he was “attracted to a group of guys, some older white guys, mostly older black guys, who had spent their time in prison often decades, learning how to take care of their minds, their bodies and their souls like they are temples. And that was something [he] had never been exposed to, or at least not interested in before. And so [he] started to really, really transform.”
During his incarceration Christopher also “got off of Adderall,” which he’d been on since he was 12.
Pursuing a Law Degree
After he had served his time in a string of federal facilities, Christopher pursued getting a law degree.
The day he was released from the temporary jail was the day he decided that he would become an attorney after he was done serving his time. He shares:
“I wouldn’t have even noticed this had I not already had some recovery under my belt, I normally would have just gone out and then right back into whatever I was doing, probably within minutes. But this time, I looked back at all the other folks that I was locked up with in the county jail, and thought I did just as bad if not worse than they did. There were mostly brown, black and lower income white people in there. And I felt terribly guilty that I was going home purely because of the privilege, the economic privilege that I happened to have on that day. And it was that moment that I vowed to become an attorney when I left jail.”
Getting accepted to law school is very difficult if you have committed a crime and served time in prison. In the podcast Christopher describes how he got mentored and built his confidence to pursue law school, despite many rejections and people trying to dissuade him from trying. Eventually, through a mentor, he met with the Dean of the law school, who also tried to dissuade him from pursuing a law degree. Christopher describes his response:
“I said, ‘Dean, why didn’t the judge give me a life sentence in prison?’ And he was surprised by my question. He said, ‘I’m not sure. Maybe it was your criminal record or the conduct. I don’t know.’ And so I said, ‘Then Dean, why are you giving me a life sentence here today?’”
By the time Christopher applied to law school having finished his college degree with a high GPA and a solid LSAT score, he was able to win over the admissions committee, which the Dean sat on, with a unanimous endorsement for his admission. The first day of law school the Dean “put his hand out, gave [him] a firm handshake, smiled, and said ‘Welcome. You’re part of this community now. You’re welcome here and you belong here.’”
Choosing a Legal Policy Career – A Life Changing Meeting
At law school Christopher became the President of the American Constitution Society. He also was a member of the Mayor of Portland’s Addiction Task Force. At one task force meeting at City Hall the guest speaker was Michael Botticelli, the director of drug policy for President Obama in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Botticelli introduced himself to the task force, “I’m Michael Botticelli, I’m in person in long term recovery from addiction, but also been arrested, been to jail, and I’m a gay married man.”
Christopher was immediately struck. He describes his reaction:
“That moment, that day completely changed my life and it redirected me from wanting to practice law, like in the courtrooms in the trenches every day to wanting to work on policy. I just immediately thought, Yes, we need people getting Joe out of jail on Tuesday. Absolutely. But maybe that’s not the role that I’m intended for, at least not right now. Maybe I can work on things that will impact 100,000 Joes in one signing of the signature.”
Christopher took the chance to approach Botticelli after the meeting which led him to become a law student intern at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Today, Christopher lives in Washington state with his partner and a German Shepherd puppy, and serves as Executive Director of The Washington Statewide Reentry Council. He spends time climbing mountains with other sober people, and raises money for recovery climbing with Recovery Beyond. Of climbing Christopher says, it’s “really engaging me right now to help me stay on a positive path.”
You can listen to Christopher’s full story of not giving up on The Courage To Change: A Recovery Podcast, Episode 12.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.