As a little kid, Christopher Poulos would stand in his grandfather’s basement reading through the attorney’s old legal case books.
“I realized that all cases are people’s stories, they tell the stories of people’s lives, and I was fascinated,” Poulos, 35, told The Epoch Times.
He had dreams of becoming a lawyer himself one day. But before he could achieve that, he had to overcome addiction, incarceration, and the stigma they brought.
Poulos grew up in Maine with his mother and stepfather. When he was about 12 years old, he began drinking and smoking marijuana, as well as taking prescribed medication such as Ritalin, then later Adderall and sleeping pills, for ADHD.
“My brain literally formed from early teen years on a cocktail of prescription medications and self-medicating both with those and with other substances,” Poulos said.
A series of tragedies only exacerbated matters.
During high school, he worked with his stepfather as a commercial fisherman. One day, his stepfather was lost at sea.
“We believe [his boat] was struck by a tanker, and the tanker didn’t report it. Either way, his boat was lost at sea and he did not survive,” Poulos explained.
Shortly after, a close friend was murdered at a party after a fight. Then a beloved family member passed away.
“Right around that same time, my grandfather, the attorney, died in my arms as I held him after a long battle with cancer,” Poulos recalled.
The traumas pushed him further into addiction.
“As a teenager, I never felt comfortable in my own skin. … As soon as I discovered substances, all of that anxiety, all of that fear, all of that pain and trauma went away,” he said. “That trauma that I experienced was pivotal in everything that followed.”
Months later, when Poulos was 18 years old, he wasn’t able to live at home any longer. He and his mother did not know a lot about addiction at the time, and struggled to contend with it.
“She felt that I could no longer live there as long as I was actively in the grips of it, and [she] didn’t know what else to do except to have me leave her home,” Poulos said.
Poulos spent the next few years sleeping on friends’ couches.
“Every day I didn’t know where I would be sleeping that evening,” Poulos recalled.
If he didn’t have any other options, he would go to the emergency room at the local hospital and sit in the waiting room for hours until someone eventually noticed him.
Instead of asking for help, he’d pretend to make a phone call to his mom, act like he’d made a mistake and was waiting at the wrong hospital, and run out into the cold.
“I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t have any place to go and I was addicted to drugs and was just trying to stay warm,” Poulos said.
Eventually, his grandmother took him in and he lived with her intermittently.
In his late teens and early twenties, his peer group started to gain access to cocaine and opiates.
At that point his addiction became unsustainable, and for a few months he began selling cocaine to support his habit and daily life.
The FBI Calls
At a certain point, the drugs and alcohol stopped working for him.
“When I was 24, I got to a point where I could no longer could find that relief from the substances,” Poulos explained.
In May 2007, he sought treatment and started his recovery. He’s been sober since.
Several months into his recovery, he moved back into his mother’s house. It seemed like things were looking up, but Poulos had a long journey ahead of him.
One day he received a call from a private number—it was the FBI. They told him his mother’s house was surrounded by federal agents.
Poulos was arrested and would ultimately be convicted of distribution of cocaine.
As he sat in the county jail after his arrest, his court-appointed attorney told him over the phone that there was very little chance he would receive bail. It was like he had already concluded that Poulos would be incarcerated.
“The way I felt when he was saying these things was that he was just like another cog on the machine towards incarceration,” Poulos recalled.
Using some money left to his family by his grandfather, Poulos was able to hire a private attorney.
His attorney called the prosecutor and told him that Poulos was already in recovery and had a job, and strong family and community ties. Furthermore, Poulos didn’t have the means to flee.
The prosecutor agreed, and allowed Poulos to be released until his trial and sentencing.
When he was leaving jail that day, he noticed that many lower income white people and people of color would not be able to be released on bail for similar charges.
“It was that exact moment when I left jail that day that I really became determined to actually become a lawyer,” he remembered.
Poulos was sentenced to almost three years in federal prison in September 2008. After serving his sentence, he was released from a halfway house in January 2011.
While at college, he was doing a federal work-study program at the University of Southern Maine Student Legal Services when he got the opportunity to meet the dean of the law school.
He wanted to apply to the law school and now he could find out if this would be possible.
During the meeting, the dean asked him what adversity he had faced in his life. So Poulos told him his story. When he got to the part about being incarcerated in federal prison, Poulos felt like the atmosphere changed.
“When I said that, it was like a wall was built between the two of us immediately. I felt like we might as well have been a million miles away,” Poulos recalled.
The dean was worried Poulos wouldn’t be able to practice law and suggested other career options.
Poulos felt crushed, but he was determined.
“I said ‘Dean, why didn’t the judge give me a life sentence?’ He looked at me surprised by my question, and said he didn’t know. So I said, ‘So why are you giving me a life sentence here today?’”
Poulos could see the dean reflecting on what he’d said. “You have a great point,” Poulos remembers the dean replying.
Ultimately, the admissions committee unanimously voted in Poulos’s favor. The same dean voted in his favor too and became a great supporter.
“It felt awesome. It was surreal, but awesome,” Poulos remembered. “It also felt like I was being reclaimed by society. It felt like I was not going to be labeled an outcast for the rest of my life based on my past.”
Poulos started law school in the fall of 2013 and graduated with honors in the spring of 2016. He remained quiet about his past with the exception of telling a couple of friends.
The White House
During his second year of law school Poulos was presented with a huge opportunity.
He was working with a substance use disorder task force in Portland, Maine.
At one of the meetings he learned that the Director of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, was going to come and present to their committee.
During the presentation, Botticelli shared that he was in long-term recovery from addiction, and that he had been arrested in the past.
“My mouth dropped open when he spoke openly about this stuff because I thought we were supposed to hide everything. Anything bad in our past we’re supposed to just keep it quiet, keep it quiet so it doesn’t harm our careers,” Poulos recalled.
Lawyers and admissions people had told him that being open about his past might cost him an opportunity.
Poulos approached Botticelli after the meeting, and told him about his past. He told him that he was in law school, and that he’d love to come to Washington, D.C.
After some discussion, he received an offer to intern at the White House for a semester. But first he had to pass the security background check.
“As you can imagine it wasn’t exactly routine,” Poulos said.
Months later, Poulos was driving through Massachusetts on his way to Maine when he received a call from a private number.
It was the Secret Service telling him that he had been cleared for the internship.
Poulos leaped out of his car in the parking lot of Papa Gino’s Pizza in Worcester, Massachusetts, and jumped for joy.
“It was absolutely phenomenal. Of all the moments, I think I recognize that that was the biggest,” Poulos said.
When he had his fingerprints taken the first day, the woman taking them asked if he had ever had his fingerprints taken before.
Poulos responded: “Yeah. Every time I’ve been arrested.”
Everyone in the room laughed and thought he was joking. He just smiled.
Becoming a licensed attorney, however, was much harder.
Poulos passed the bar exam, but because of his felony drug-trafficking conviction, he had to prove he was of “good character and fitness” to be admitted.
It became a roughly nine month process, including a two-day hearing with the Maine Board of Bar Examiners.
“It was the most stressful thing that I’ve experienced. … It was more stressful than prison going through that,” Poulos recalled.
Despite the assistant attorney general arguing Poulos should not be admitted to the bar, the board voted in his favor 5–1 in spring 2017.
Poulos was admitted in June of 2017.
“It felt like the culmination of decades of work since I was a kid,” Poulos said.
In fact, Poulos was recently sworn in as a member of the federal bar in the same courthouse that he was sentenced in.
Poulos is now the head of the Reentry Council in Washington State. He makes policy recommendations to elected officials and also spends time with incarcerated individuals listening to their concerns and providing them guidance.
“It’s just the perfect balance for me to be able to impact policy, but also truly stay plugged in to the people who are actually experiencing these issues on a daily basis still,” he said.
If you have an uplifting story you’d like to share, write to Andrew Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org