Three Things I Never Heard At Work Before I Got Sober

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Plenty of sober addicts and alcoholics I know don’t have a “before I got sober” and an  “after I got sober” story about work. They lost their jobs before the “after” started. I was fortunate to keep my job at a law firm, although I’m certain that when I checked myself into detox for alcohol and cocaine addiction, the clock was winding down on me.

Knowing nothing about rehab, I inadvertently landed in a seedy, scary New York City facility. But after five days of medicated detox, I physically felt like a human being again, albeit one that never wanted to return to a place where the mirrors are made of metal and the patients line up for meds. To avoid that, I would have to stay sober.

I felt strongly about not letting my firm know where I’d been. The stigma of addiction in the workplace can be real. After detox, I went straight back to the office as if I’d just been out sick. Even though more time in treatment would have been better, I stayed sober and things changed. I stopped casually covering my mouth in elevators in case I smelled of booze. When I walked into the lobby of the skyscraper where I worked I took off my sunglasses instead of wearing them all the way into my office to hide my bloodshot eyes. I no longer had to skulk around like a wasted Greta Garbo until I could close my office door.

Over time I heard three comments from co-workers that were as new to me as ordering seltzer instead of red wine at a work function. They helped me understand the subtle ways in which my addiction had shut me off from people, as well as how that could all be different in sobriety.

  1. “Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”
    While walking the fine line of feeding my addiction and trying to keep up with work, I learned to manage my time like a triage nurse on a battlefield. The most pressing tasks took precedent and everything else waited. The moment there wasn’t anything that I absolutely had to do on my desk, I was off to chase the next cocktail and line of coke. Post-detox, I wasn’t wrestling with the frantic obsession that previously had driven my day, counting the minutes until my next drink. I was present to respond to co-workers in real time, rather than pushing things off until a deadline loomed. When they thanked me for that, it felt good.
  2. “Can I ask your advice on something?”
    Big law firms can be easy places to fly under the radar and, as long as your work is done well and on time, to keep to yourself. That was what I did while I was using. Post-detox, though, I started to engage with my colleagues, even asking people, “Have you thought about this?” or “Maybe there’s another approach?” The first few times I was proactively asked for advice, I felt like looking around the room as if to ask, “Who? Me?” I had become not just someone who executed work, but someone who contributed ideas.
  3. “You’re so calm under stress.”
    This is my personal favorite because throughout my using I was closely tailed by two of addiction’s favorite sidekicks, fear and anxiety. The only way I knew how to deal with stress was through substance abuse.

Having gone through the hell of addiction and detox, though, what could really be so bad in the course of a normal workday?

One morning, I was coaching a partner at the firm who was nervous before making a presentation. I said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be great. You always are,” which was true. “Thank you,” she said. “You’re always so calm in these situations. It really helps.”

I smiled and thanked her. What I wanted to say was, “Well, I didn’t start today with half a bottle of cheap Cabernet, followed by several lines of cocaine and an anxiety attack, so I’m pretty much set to handle whatever comes up in the office.” And, thanks to everything I’ve learned and everyone I’ve met in sobriety, that holds true for the rest of my day as well.