The morning I decided to check myself into a psychiatric hospital for a medicated detox, my biggest fear wasn’t that I had no idea what I’d find behind the doors of its locked-down unit. It wasn’t telling my friends and family about the ‘round-the-clock alcohol and cocaine addiction I had been hiding. It wasn’t even the idea that I might not be able to drink again. No, my biggest fear was that my law firm would find out that I had a substance use problem.
I was terrified of the stigma surrounding addiction in the office. As in so many other industries, in law firms, alcoholism and addiction are too frequently viewed as weaknesses or moral failings. I’d heard people in the workplace make fun of “drunks” and worse. On top of that, big firms have historically had a dangerous “work hard/play hard” ethic. It’s a bullshit way of telling employees, “Don’t just work 70 hours a week. Also spend a chunk of your personal time bonding over drinks with your colleagues and clients.” In the bar telling war stories until 2 a.m.? Great. See you at 9 a.m. sharp and be ready to work yet another 12-hour-plus day.
This lifestyle is somehow not expected to take a toll on your physical or mental health, either. If you can’t handle it and you show cracks, you probably just can’t cut it. It’s not the job—it’s you. And the worst part about stigmatizing addiction and mental health challenges is that it discourages people from getting critical, life-saving help when they’re struggling.
In the bar telling war stories until 2 a.m.? Great. See you at 9 a.m. sharp and be ready to work yet another 12-hour-plus day.
I spent five days in the hospital and then went straight back to work, refusing longer inpatient treatment because I was too afraid to tell my firm I needed to go away for a month. Of course, if I’d needed surgery or treatment for another physical problem, I wouldn’t have thought twice. But go out for a month to go to rehab? I’d never seen it done before, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the first to do it.
Upon my return to the office, I made up a lie about why I’d been out the week before. I gladly accepted compliments from coworkers about how much better I looked. “Yes!” I wanted to answer. “Isn’t it amazing what can happen when you stop ingesting wine by the double bottle and cocaine quite possibly cut with laundry detergent?” But, somehow, the timing wasn’t right for that.
I was working on the administrative side of the law firm, having switched out of practicing law several years earlier when it became incompatible with my drinking. One or the other had to go and, at that time, it wasn’t going to be alcohol. No longer representing clients, I’d felt liberated in my drinking. I never would’ve guessed that one day I’d feel liberated in kicking booze to the curb instead.
I changed jobs after about a year sober. I kept my sobriety to myself, sharing it with only a handful of colleagues to whom I grew close over the years at my new firm. It was my business and no one else’s. Then, a couple years ago, when I had the opportunity to publish my book, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, about my downward spiral and eventual recovery, I took it. But it meant going public with my story, so I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best at work.
A lot of people in my office knew that I wrote in my spare time, but few knew what I wrote about. I started visiting my colleagues’ offices, knocking on their doors and sticking my head in. “Hey,” I would say, “I wanted to let you know that my book is being published.” When that was met with congratulations and excitement, I would walk in, shut the office door and say, “Now, let me tell you what it’s about….”
The responses I received were revelatory. I expected stunned silence or open discomfort, but I was wrong. Yes, I got a lot of questions, ranging from, “How long ago did that happen?” to “Did you ever get arrested?”
But I also got overwhelming understanding and compassion. Several times, before I could even get my story out, a colleague would interrupt me to talk about their friend or their cousin or their law school roommate. It quickly became apparent when I spoke about my substance use and mental health challenges that no one was hearing about these issues for the first time. Many had one degree of separation from someone who struggled. Who knew?
I heard things like, “You could have told us,” and “We would have wanted to help you.”
What was most eye opening, though, was hearing from former colleagues at the firm I’d been at when I bottomed out. I feared their reactions more than any others’. I’d been drunk and high in the office. I’d carried cocaine in the office. What would they think when they read about it? I assumed best case, I’d never hear from them; worst case, they’d lambaste me publicly in response to the story.
Once again, I assumed wrong. Of course, I don’t know how every individual personally reacted, but the people who reached out to me were incredible. I heard things like, “You could have told us,” and “We would have wanted to help you.”
Still, no one was more surprised than me when they invited me to visit the firm and tell my story to their attorneys and staff. They wanted to raise awareness and hopefully prevent others from going through a similar experience alone. I was terrified, but mostly grateful and honored, the day I spoke.
My decision to open up in the office does not mean I would recommend anyone else do the same. Getting sober is an intensely personal decision. Sharing that information with others is equally personal. Particularly in early recovery, when sobriety is at its most fragile, there’s no need to fill everyone in and add additional pressure to your decision not to drink. That’s how I had handled it for ten years, straight up to the point at which if I didn’t tell them, they might learn about it on a trip to their local bookstore. I had to get ahead of the story.
Then after my book came out, it took me a while to process the fact that several of my colleagues had actually read it. There were now senior partners in my firm who knew the raw details: my breast reduction; the bad sex I had in college; that special evening I fell off a bar stool moving in to kiss an unreceptive guy on a blind date. They saw it all.
But they also saw me pick myself up. They saw me ask for help and receive it. They saw me finding gratitude in little things, like learning how to put on pajamas and go to sleep at night instead of passing out, which had been my practice for years. They saw me show up, one day after the next, for my sobriety, for my job and for my life.
I have chosen to shout from the rooftops about my addiction and recovery. It’s certainly not for everyone. But over the last few years, two things have become crystal clear to me. First, the stigma surrounding these issues in the workplace must be smashed if we want people to get appropriate help. And second, our colleagues and friends may be more ready than ever—and certainly more ready than I ever expected—to offer that help and support us along the way.