Suzula Bidon was working in a federal prison kitchen for 12 cents an hour, the result of a drug habit that put her behind bars for 27 months, when she realized some of her fellow inmates could not identify an ear of unshucked corn. Another inmate asked her where spaghetti grew. They thought spaghetti grew out of the ground.
It was a tough lesson in class and privilege for Bidon, who grew up near Spooner, Wis., in a middle-class family and went to the elite Barnard College before losing it all to heroin and then methamphetamines.
“It was very humbling,” Bidon said. “I thought, who am I to squander all my abilities and opportunities and a higher power-given intelligence, who am I to squander that? It also just really showed me how broken our system was. I felt a duty, not in a bad way, that it’s up to me and people like me who have had these experiences to come back and make a difference.”
Bidon was sitting in her office in Roseville, where she specializes in DWI law since being certified as an attorney this spring. It has been a long journey from a prison inmate and drug addict to lawyer, a path taken via “con-air” prisoner transport, federal prisons, county jails, halfway houses and treatment centers.
It is a career trajectory she does not recommend, yet it has shaped her ability to help others and given legitimacy to what she now sees as her calling “to eradicate the stigma of addiction.”
Bidon can pull the crucial dates of that trajectory from memory. Her “clean date,” the first day she was sober, was April 23, 2008. She was discharged from federal supervised release, and her civil rights were restored, on Feb. 14, 2011. She started law school in August 2011.
Now working with the Ramsay Law Firm, Bidon loves to wrestle with the big questions, like the boundaries of unreasonable searches and seizures. But she also hopes to inspire clients whose lives are unraveling from addiction.
She would like to do even more, but that’s difficult because her criminal record has stuck to her, preventing her from getting jobs, security clearances and advisory board positions where her experiences would seem invaluable. To rectify that, she has recently tapped local mentors to recommend a presidential pardon.
One of those is Jay Quam, a judge in Hennepin County District Court who gave her an internship.
“Suzula is the success story I hope for every day in court,” said Quam. “Suzula is living proof that we should never give up on a person addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
Bidon’s story of addiction and redemption started with the use of alcohol and marijuana as a teen. She moved to New York to study at Barnard at age 17, and soon began experimenting with harder drugs “I tried everything but crack cocaine,” Bidon said. “I was never the kind of person to use drugs to get high and crazy; I just wanted to self-medicate my depression.”
Bidon got addicted to heroin, and graduated with a degree in theater while in a methadone treatment program. For several years, she struggled to maintain sobriety, bouncing in and out of treatment centers. She relapsed on meth about age 30, and at some point began sending small amounts to a friend in New York, until one day when he mysteriously asked if she could find him a couple of ounces of the drug.
“When you are an addict, your perception changes,” said Bidon. “There were all these crossroads when I would break my own moral values.”
It was a setup, of course, and she was busted and faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. By dumb luck, or what she now sees as “a higher power,” she got a judge who didn’t believe that long prison terms helped addicts. She got a year in federal prison in Pekin, Ill.
“Warehousing people in prison when they are addicts is like pressing pause,” Bidon said. After her release, her depression returned and she gained 50 pounds. She returned to drugs, even though she was being monitored, and was sentenced to another 18 months in prison.
“It is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence someone to 18 months for being an addict.” said Bidon. “[Yet] my final veil of denial fell. It hit me like a Mack truck. This is my life, this is a pattern, I have to change it. I feel like I had a spiritual awakening.”
While in prison for the second time, she began studying law, which helped her survive. “My hustle — you have to have something in prison so they won’t hurt you — was helping people with legal problems.”
Being a felon does not disqualify someone from becoming a lawyer, but Bidon found that the legal system does not understand the process of addiction very well. Though she graduated magna cum laude and got a high score on the bar exam, she had to negotiate adversarial hearings and urine tests before she was eventually licensed to practice, in May.
“I had disclosed everything; I’m an open book,” she said. “There is no way someone at my advanced stage of addiction could have handled law school. The level of ignorance of institutions on addictions is outrageous and egregious.”
Bidon said her craving for drugs is gone. “There is a balance. I have homeostasis,” she said.
To help accomplish that balance, Bidon created a course, Recovery Yoga, geared toward people struggling with addiction s or depression. It has become her Sunday ritual of renewal.
In her short stint as a lawyer, she sometimes discusses her background if clients have investigated her and bring it up, or when young people with addictions come in with parents.
“I refuse to keep my life in separate silos,” said Bidon. “I’ve had numerous parents tear up when I tell [their kids]: ‘I know you think your life is ruined, but I am in recovery too.’ It gives clients hope.”
“My whole life I just rebelled against everything. Now I see so clearly it’s time to share my experience to serve others with integrity. And stay clean,” Bidon said. “By doing that, my higher power has brought me abundance and shown me grace that I never imagined possible.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin