“After twelve years of not drinking and at wedding on a Saturday night, I relapsed. What you hear about alcoholism being progressive, I found that was really true because by the next day, I was binging already. It took a matter of hours.”
My name is Jay Berger. I’m 63 years old. I was a lawyer for over thirty years. I graduated from college at Penn State. I’m a Nittany Lion. In 1974, I went straight to law school, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, graduated in 1977, passed the bar that summer, and proceeded to build a wonderful life for the next fifteen years. I got married in 1980. I practiced law for the first five years trying to find what I liked. I didn’t like practicing law a whole lot—didn’t like lawyers, didn’t like judges. I gravitated into real estate work and over the course of the decade in the ’80s, I built a very successful real estate practice, mortgage, business, title insurance. I bought a dream home with my wife and three children and three dogs in 1989 in Bryn Mawr and everything was wonderful.
In the early ’90s, I had been doing a lot of mortgage business with Fannie Mae, Federal National Mortgage Association and really had a business worth several million dollars. I got into a tremendous dispute with them in 1991. In 1992, after eighteen months of trying to resolve it and spending really several million dollars, I had to sue them in federal court–my company. I fell into despondency that year in 1992. I turned forty and I was in the process of losing everything because of this dispute and litigation. That is the first time that perhaps what was a seed of alcoholism surfaced. I guess it was the first major crisis of my life, so maybe it was dormant or latent. I always drank in college and as an adult I always had happy hour and I went out and I had all these weddings and things, but I never drank at any level that anyone would have figured was a problem level.
Suddenly, when I fell into this mess of litigation and this tremendous crisis in ’92, I started drinking in ways I never had before and I was forty. In the mornings, hiding the alcohol in my car, sneaking out at lunch, things I just had never done. Also, because of this litigation, I apparently was and obviously wasn’t handling it very well. I started seeing a psychologist, a therapist–someone to help me out through it. He recommended that I get on some medication so he sent me to a doctor who told me that no medication was going to help if I kept drinking.
After a little soul searching, I sat down with my wife and I admitted myself into a detox program, [which was] only five days. It wasn’t anything like the twenty-eight or thirty, whatever they do now or ninety or 100 years or whatever any of that stuff is, but I went into a five-day detox in October of ’92. I came out and I didn’t have a drop to drink for the next twelve years. Over those twelve years, I spent six years fighting that Fannie Mae litigation that was filed in ’92. It didn’t end until the latter part of the decade after summary judgments and appeals. The bottom line is after about six or seven years, I came away with nothing which I still don’t get, but that’s neither here nor there right now.
In the early part of the 2000s, I was still doing okay. The mortgage business and practice was a fraction of what it had been after that litigation but I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t in any trouble. I still was a lawyer and a mortgage banker and then title insurance agent and a husband and a father, but somewhere there in the early part of the new millennium, that’s where instead of trying to rebuild, now I’m almost fifty years old, in the course of my business, I was still handling a lot of mortgage funds, some of which related to funds that would have been due to Fannie Mae. Having been, I guess, so angry at them–now this is not an excuse but it’s an explanation–I started doing things with those mortgage funds that I shouldn’t have been doing.
That went on for a few years but in 2004, the house of cards collapsed and my financial juggling and shell game was discovered. I was confronted on a Thursday in October of 2004. Two days later on a Saturday night after I was confronted, I was at a wedding with my whole family and my wife and cousins, and I was despondent because I knew that once I was found out that I was in big trouble. After twelve years of not drinking and at wedding on a Saturday night, I relapsed. What you hear about alcoholism being progressive, I found that was really true because by the next day, I was binging already. It took a matter of hours. I hadn’t drank for twelve years and in twelve hours, I was binging. Two days maybe to go through a half gallon of vodka.
Over the next three years, that went on on an off and on basis. I was saturating my body with alcohol and I even switched to beer or wine for a couple of days to give myself a break but I just couldn’t handle anything. I was being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney. The FBI was knocking down my door. My marriage was collapsing because of this. I was trying to still be the good father that I was because I was a great father and being a dad was the greatest joy and success of my life. I just saw it all running down the drain because of my stupidity. Not to mention what I still feel was a bad result in the case but, nonetheless, I didn’t deal with that result properly.
In 2007, I was charged with a single count of fraud on a financial institution. I plead guilty because that’s all you can do these days. You can’t go to trial anymore. That’s another story. In 2008, I was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison. I left on June 2nd of 2008. From that relapse in October of 2004 until the day of my sentencing, I basically drank. Other than those small periods of abstinence, I drank including the day of sentencing and imprisonment. Once I went into prison, I was essentially forced into not drinking which in hindsight was a good thing. Not that I want to be in prison but I did stop drinking. For five days I was drying out. It was unbelievable what was pouring out of my body but I could feel myself getting… my system cleaning out and my head clearing.
I spend the next four and a half years in prison, federal prison, transferred in different places. The reason [for the] four-and-a-half-year sentence… six and a half became four and a half years, it was actually closer to five if you count halfway house but I’ll get to that. I was actually in custody, in confinement, full confinement for fifty-three months. I got ten months off for good time but I got nine months off because I qualified for a program, an early release program that is 500 hours over a nine-month period that addresses drug and alcohol abuse. That’s the only program offered in federal prison that has any value at all. Federal prison is nothing but punitive. Prison is nothing but punitive despite what people may hear.
This program did offer, one of the few things, and because I had such a record of drinking, I actually qualified for a program. It’s unbelievable because people who didn’t have a drug or alcohol problem didn’t qualify and they couldn’t get time off. It’s backwards, but I qualify and I got nine months off my sentence for getting through that program and ten months off for good conduct so I got nineteen months off of a seventy-eight-month sentence. Then, six more months in halfway house, so that’s fifty-three months.
The drug and alcohol program that was offered as an early release program in prison was more than just a twelve-step type of program. It addressed thinking and behaviors, more cognitive in nature, and I found that much more valuable than any program that only focuses on twelve steps. This was broader. We examined what conduct and thinking and behavior landed us in prison especially someone like me who was already well in his late ’50s and had never done anything wrong ever. I preferred looking at those issues and examining those issues than just the traditional step programs.
I left federal prison in October. I got a lot of things that happened over these years in October. I left federal prison in October of ’12 so it’s two-and-a-half years ago. I went to a halfway house but I was out after fifty-three months. Even though I hadn’t had anything to drink in the four and a half years that I was in, aside from the fact that you could always take the risk and probably get alcohol in prison if you wanted it, I wasn’t interested in that because you get caught in something like that and those nineteen months that I got off of my sentence would have been gone in a flash. To me, that wasn’t worth the risk.
That was an imposed sobriety period. When I first got out, even though I hadn’t had anything to drink in fifty-three months, I was concerned that, in effect, it was like my first day because I was… even though I was in a halfway house, I could leave the halfway house. I could go to work. I could go to buy necessities. They do a lot of tests, blood and urine, and you got to be careful of that but plenty of guys were partaking but not me.
Now, after I was done with the halfway house in April of ’13 and it’s now been two years, a little over two years and I haven’t had anything to drink. I don’t go to a whole lot of meetings of any kind but I still haven’t had anything to drink. I am trying to reinvent myself. Actually, I lost my law license but after five years, which just ended, I’m eligible to seek reinstatement. No guarantee I’ll get it but I’m eligible and I’m doing a lot of work on that.
I’m also trying to get certifications. I got this information from another lawyer who did what I did and I’m seeking certification, two certifications offered in Pennsylvania. One is the CRS, which is Certified Recovery Specialist, and one is the CPS, which is Certified Peer Specialist, which is broader than just recovery, which sounds more like what that program was like.
I’m in the middle with taking trainings for both to get those certifications because if I don’t get those certifications and possibly get reinstated as an attorney, I would then have a blend of licenses that address the intertwining of substance abuse with criminal justice issues. It’s as common as a day is long. All of a sudden combining my state certifications with my life experience, I could probably hold myself out pretty much as an expert in this field, maybe make some use of the last decade of trouble that I’ve had from a personal gratification standpoint but also financial.
I’m having a very tough time finding jobs with the history of alcoholism and now a criminal—a federal offense on my record. But in these areas, it might be one of the few areas where this experience actually could be an asset in an odd way just like it was in getting in the program in prison.
I did write a book about all of this. I did it partly because I went away in June of ’08 and all of the things I did wrong stemmed from my failed six-year battle against Fannie Mae. In September of ’08, three months after I arrived in federal prison, Fannie Mae collapsed and the country went into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They went to Congress for $400 billion–almost half a trillion dollars. No one got in any trouble and I was sitting in federal prison. I got mad so I started writing.
[From] September of ’09 until I was done in ’12, I wrote and wrote and wrote. When I got back, I edited it or tried to. We’re still editing but I published the first edition of a book about all of this. I talk about all of it—not just my position on criminal justice—but the alcohol and what made me do my crime and the rest and the drug and alcohol program that was offered. I wrote about all of it. That’s what prompted the book. Hopefully by the end of this year, I’ll have all these things in place and maybe I can begin a second career at sixty-three years old.
When I came back, my marriage of twenty-nine years was over because of all the trouble I had. I came back to where I grew up here in Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I came back to two ninety-year-old parents and they’re both still here now at age ninety-three. My mother’s not doing well. She’s in a nursing home. I have my father with me. I am taking care of them as I do all of this.
Of course, having been married my whole adult life, that’s now a new challenge, too—being single for the first time since the ’70s disco days. It’s a new life, not one that I’m necessarily happy to be in because I didn’t think that at sixty=three this is where I would have been. It’s taken me some time since I got out of prison but I’m getting a little better now reconciling the fact that I just have to try to rebuild from here.
I have three kids. I have a thirty-year-old son and two daughters ages twenty-seven and twenty-four. The relationship is good. I often wonder if it’s where it would be had I not had this happen. I think, my kids know what a loving and caring father I was. I was always there. I was not out drinking with the boys and playing cards and doing all those things. I was home all the time. I was always at all their events even in events that I was the only dad there. I was a nurturer, and maybe the nurturer. While that isn’t maybe traditionally typical, that was the case with me.
They were heartbroken and sad and upset and even angry but the relationships are okay. Now, none of them are local. Sometimes I feel that’s a disconnect and maybe then I blame it on what happened—what I did—but I have enough people reminding me that they’re not adolescents anymore or teenagers, that they’re adults and that they’re living on their own in cities far away. My one daughter’s in Los Angeles, [but] now they’re living their own lives so I try to rely on that although I still can’t get it out of my head that that’s maybe only part of the reason, not the full reason. But this week I spoke to all three of them. I remind myself too that I only spoke to my parents at that age maybe once a week.
The alcohol is always a concern. In retrospect, I can see that it was crisis-driven in ’92 and again in ’04. I do have an awareness of that and I have to be careful if or when things go bad, because apparently that’s the trigger for me. When things are calm and things are good, no problem. It’s when something really bad happens that I go back to that crutch. That’s the story.
Photographs taken at Jay’s home in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.