I am 16 months out of an intensely abusive relationship with alcohol. At home, my wife helps me stay sober by supporting me and encouraging me to drink flavored seltzer water instead of the craft beers I used to down at every opportunity. But for the majority of my waking hours, I am constantly tempted to drink — at work, where alcohol is everywhere.
I work at a digital design firm. There's a stereotype that all design and tech firms have a keg on tap at the office. My office one-upped the keg and went with an Arkeg: basically what happens when a video game arcade and a keg make a baby. There is also a refrigerator stocked with beer that employees have access to at any time.
What I've experienced isn't unique to the tech field, though: Most industries have their own issues with alcohol. Here's what it's like to be an alcohol abuser in a hard-drinking workplace — and what offices like mine can do to create a healthier environment for people who struggle with alcohol.
How work made it easy for me to drink too much
Before I got sober, I would often grab a beer or two at noon, then have another beer or two just before leaving for the day. I might drink a couple extra on Friday just to make sure I was heading into the weekend on a positive note. I had survived another week in the rat race, so I deserved these drinks. We all deserve all the drinks, right?
The office beer refrigerator wasn't the only way to drink at work. I would also attend after-hours client meetings, which included drinks before, during, and possibly after a meal. If we were up for it, the drinking might continue at additional venues. This behavior makes a lot of sense from a business perspective — clients and potential clients get chattier, happier, and potentially a lot looser with their money when lubricated with alcohol.
I had one goal at these events — get drunk and go unnoticed. I learned to find the beer with the highest ABV (alcohol by volume, listed conveniently next to each drink on the menu) and order it. Ask the waiter to keep them coming if they saw my glass empty. I knew the bill would come out and unfold like an ancient scroll, and my drinks would blend right in with everything else the group had ordered.
And then there was traveling for work. I had a ritual — I'd show up at the airport and grab a couple drinks. Then I'd hope I'd get upgraded to first class and have a few free drinks on the plane. Then I'd land, check in at the hotel, and hit the hotel bar; nothing to do anyway until the next day. Depending on what I was traveling for, I'd spend the next day with clients and the next evening drinking with them. If I wasn't going out with clients in the evening, I'd drink myself into a stupor in the hotel bar again, or whatever restaurant I chose.
Coming home, I'd repeat the airport ritual. Eventually I knew all the bars at the airports I'd visit most frequently. It felt familiar, like something to look forward to when traveling away from my loved ones. The airport bar — a little piece of home away from home.
I usually wasn't the one footing the bill for my drinks when I traveled for work, which made it easier to overindulge — put it on the company card!
It seemed like all my co-workers were as in love with alcohol as I was. We talked craft beer, downloaded apps to track the beers we drank, discussed when a limited release was coming out and what bars carried what on tap.
I also assumed I was the only one having any real issue with drinking and its consequences. I didn't want to talk about it and ruin the mood. I worried that if people found out about my issues there would be no room for me at the table.
How things changed after I quit drinking
I got sober because I wanted my life back. I needed a lot of support, which I received through paid counseling, support group meetings, and from family and friends.
Adjusting to work has been a long, difficult process. I've gone through four stages over the past 16 months of sobriety.
Stage 1: Hiding
At first, I avoided drinking-focused work situations. I felt so vulnerable to failing at sobriety, I had to hide from opportunities to drink. I attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at lunch. I worked from home whenever possible. I removed myself from the conversation whenever it turned to grabbing drinks.
I didn't want anyone to know I'd stopped drinking. When our office got a shiny new kegerator, I posted a picture of it to Facebook the day it arrived; I wanted to show the crew I was still a part of things.
Some of my peers noticed I wasn't going out as much, so I told them I was "taking a break from drinking." I spun this more as a challenge to myself than as a problem I was trying to solve. "I just feel more energy in the morning when I haven't been drinking the night before," I said. I told one colleague I had traveled with on numerous occasions, "I'm just staying away from drinking for now." "There are so many calories in the beers I drink," I told another.
I survived another week in the rat race, so I deserved these drinks. We all deserve all the drinks, right?
Despite my cheery exterior, I felt mopey and sad. I felt disconnected from my colleagues. I had no reference point for what not drinking at my work looked like. Sure, there must have been people not drinking — but nobody openly stated they were refraining from drinking and would support the efforts of anyone else not drinking. I felt like a child. "I can't do things like the big kids," I would only half-kid my fiancée, telling her I skipped out on a work happy hour. "I can't be a responsible adult," I said. "I'm broken."
Stage 2: Being angry
My attitude eventually switched from sadness to resentment at how easy it was to drink at work. Now I was mad I couldn't drink; mad that others could. I'd get revenge. They'll all see, I'd think, I'll sober up and then get drunk as fuck because I can. You know, because after I'm sober long enough, I'll be able to get drunk again. Duh.
I still avoided most situations where drinking was the norm, but it was impossible to stay away from after-hours client meetings. I was the guy who ordered seltzer, tonic, or mineral water. This was embarrassing to me in front of my colleagues. I would tell them, almost apologetically, that I was staying away from drinking. The reasons would change as often as the days of the week: Sometimes I'd say I was honoring my pregnant wife who was also abstaining, sometimes I'd use my more-energy-in-the-morning spiel, and other times I'd say I wrote better when I didn't drink. I'd started experiencing great success at writing by then, so the excuse worked. I'd say anything except, "I have a problem, and I think it is better for me not to drink."
Stage 3: Accepting that drinking isn't for me
I realized I'd shifted from anger to acceptance when it came time for our holiday beer swap. I'd initially signed up for it because I didn't want to stick out for not participating. But then I decided I didn't want to spend time or money looking for a craft beer for my colleagues — I wouldn't benefit from getting the beer, and I didn't want to stand around and watch everyone exchanging the beer.
Much to my surprise, I felt confident in my decision not to participate in the beer exchange. I was experiencing so much success with writing and work-related projects, and I wanted to keep the momentum going — I wouldn't drink, I wouldn't care what others did.
I poured my energy into writing, publishing a dozen articles and getting a book deal. My confidence in refraining from drinking grew with the success I was experiencing professionally. I'd always written, and I'd usually been rejected when attempting to publish. This all started to change as I reached my stride in sobriety. One article would be accepted, then another, then five more. Each article opened another door; each article was another building block for my confidence. Who was going to tell me sobriety wasn't working for me? No one, but I still didn't bring it up in conversation, except to occasionally reiterate that I had more energy, more focus for writing, when I stayed sober.
Stage 4: Determined to make a change
I began to feel drastically different as my sobriety approached a year. I became reflective. I understood, statistically, that there were at least three or four people at my work and dozens more I interact with professionally outside the office who experience issues with alcohol abuse.
I wanted to speak up to help others — but I had no idea how. Then I realized, "I'm getting published everywhere I try in industry-related publications. My industry has a drinking problem. Why don't I put together an article that gives my colleagues some insight into the issue from a personal perspective, along with real ideas for change?" So I wrote an essay for Model View Culture, an online journal aimed at the tech and design community.
I never considered having a conversation with my colleagues as a group or one on one — not without having something published to fall back on. I have always been more comfortable thinking and expressing myself through writing or presenting to large groups. Small groups and one-on-one encounters are too intimate for me; I really need to be comfortable to feel exposed like that.
I didn't want anyone to know I'd stopped drinking. When our office got a shiny new kegerator, I posted a picture of it to Facebook.
A week before the article was to be published, I sat down with one of the owners of the firm where I work. He was floored to hear I struggled with alcohol; how could he not have seen it with me working so close to him, he mused. I told him I was very private, that I had wanted it to be a secret — both when I was drinking and as I was sobering up — but now it was time for me to give back to those in need. He agreed and gave the full support of the company in me sharing my story. In sharing my story with colleagues, I have invited them to have the one-on-one conversation with me that I felt unable to have when I was first experiencing sobriety. I know making myself available could be critical to someone who might be searching for support.
What employers can do to decrease alcohol abuse
Here are five concrete steps, regardless of industry, to make workplaces more accepting of sobriety and supportive of those who struggle with alcohol abuse:
Let people know that not drinking is okay
When I first stopped drinking, I felt alone at work. I needed a model for sober behavior. I needed to know that it was okay to be sober, even at company events that might involve drinking.
How can workplaces do this? They can literally tell people it is okay to abstain from drinking. They can provide nonalcoholic options that don't seem like they come from the Island of Misfit Toys. Here are some other tips from Kara Sowles.
Acknowledge that some people struggle with alcohol abuse
These people are real; they are your colleagues, their parents, and their siblings. They might be your parents or siblings.
Talk about it in the company newsletter, post about it on the company message board, and offer an ear if a colleague does want to discuss an alcohol-related issue. Remove yourself from the situation if you feel you will become judgmental or biased against the person.
Send the message that alcohol abuse isn't funny
Let's not have every joke center on how funny it is to go out drinking and cause trouble. Let's not assume drinking to excess is fun, or the reason to attend an event. We can tell people drinking is fine, and that getting out of hand will lead to getting uninvited to future events. Getting out of hand will result in losing access to the kegerator.
If you think you have staff with a drinking problem, you need to give them access to support
Stop offering free alcohol
Shifting the cultural expectation to BYO or cash bar is a better standard than providing an open bar for staff for an evening of socializing. Sure, free alcohol seems like a nice thing to offer, but it has a real and potentially deadly unseen cost for those prone to alcohol abuse. I think attaching a monetary cost to drinking will reduce the amount of drinking done at work events.
Support people who are struggling
Support is the key — and potentially only meaningful — factor in recovery. If you think you have staff with a drinking problem, you need to give them access to support. This can include counseling covered by health insurance, employee assistance plans, and time to attend support group meetings. Large employers can create an alcohol abuse support group. For an alcohol abuser, nothing compares to the support provided by people who have walked a similar path.
This is a conversation worth having: How are we promoting alcohol abuse, and how can we support recovery? I will do my part to continue the conversation, and I hope you can join me.