The lessons of recovery can help you meet your goals and get your career where you want it to be
by Lisa Smith
Before I got sober, I thought my career was all it could be. I worked in business development at a law firm in New York City, I had recently received a generous raise and bonus, and I had fantastic colleagues. Never mind that the reason I worked in business development, as opposed to actually practicing law, was that after I’d been a capital markets lawyer for five years, my drinking had gotten to the point where I couldn’t handle the responsibilities of becoming a more senior lawyer.
The next level of practicing law would have meant taking on more responsibility, supervising teams of junior lawyers, and shining in front of clients, all of which were exciting prospects to my colleagues at the firm. These functions, however, required a level of both commitment and presence that I was unable to muster. At that point, my drinking and numbing out left me barely able to handle the long hours of the much less challenging junior-lawyer work to which I was accustomed. I had also drank my self-confidence away, so I was sure that even if I wanted to advance, I would fail.
Constantly beating myself up about not being able to cut back my drinking did that to me. On a daily basis, I was either hungover or obsessing about getting home to a glass of wine. So I jumped out of practicing without thinking twice. I landed in a solid place, but I would languish there. When I got sober eight years after making that professional shift, I kept my status to myself in the office. I was afraid of the stigma of addiction to drugs and alcohol.
I had always been one of the bigger drinkers in the office, but law firms are full of big drinkers, so I didn’t stand out in particular. If people knew that I had gotten sober, though, I would be under a microscope. What would they think of me if I relapsed? I didn’t need that kind of pressure, especially in the early days. It was no one’s business but my own. When anyone asked why I wasn’t drinking at a firm function, I told them I had started taking medication I couldn’t combine with alcohol. No one asked the next question about what kind of medication. And this story had the benefit of being true. I was taking antidepressants, as I still do today.
The first few months were shaky. I was still figuring out basic things, such as how to take my clothes to the dry cleaner without having a drink first. Walking home from the subway station after a full day of work without being sucked into the vortex of the corner bar was a major achievement. Getting to the next step in my career was not exactly a priority.
But a funny thing happened as I started taking in more of what recovery had to offer. The same tools I was learning to avoid reactivating my standing weekly order at the local liquor store, a case of Yellow Tail Cabernet and a giant bottle of Absolut Citron, started helping me perform better at work. And by “performing better” I mean showing up on time, focusing on what was in front of me, and learning how to handle situations that I used to drink over.
The same tools I was learning to avoid reactivating my standing weekly order at the local liquor store, a case of Yellow Tail Cabernet and a giant bottle of Absolut Citron, started helping me perform better at work
I always had been good at understanding the expectations of my job and making sure that I executed projects well. But I also had been strictly reactive, dealing only with what came across my desk. No one ever asked more from me and I certainly had not been offering to go the extra mile. Without a brutal morning hangover or a need to duck out for a drink at lunch, I was able to launch proactive initiatives, like developing new ways to reach out to clients, instead of just struggling through whatever I had to accomplish before I could head to happy hour.
Ten months into sobriety, I accepted a next-level job at another firm. I told neither firm about my recovery at that point. Again, it was no one’s business but my own. But I knew that my climb up the corporate ladder, which continued from there, was only possible in sobriety.
I knew that my climb up the corporate ladder, which continued from there, was only possible in sobriety.
If you’re thinking about your career at this point, which like everything else is secondary to your recovery, you may find these tips helpful:
1. Own What You’re Capable of and Use It.
Unless you’re committed to the concept of reincarnation (which I like to believe in), this is your time. Is there a promotion you want? A different job? A total career change? Think about it. Then work on it, the same way you work on your recovery. You didn’t get sober to be miserable. Once we stop drinking and using, we regain the ability to make choices in our lives. I never imagined I could have anything more or different than what I had already. I’m not saying sobriety will enable you to do anything—I guess I’ll never have a baby with Mick Jagger—but I learned I had a lot of other dreams that went from being completely impossible to potentially attainable. Before I got sober, I would sit on a barstool and slur, “I’m gonna write a book.” In recovery, I wrote a book.
2. Accept What You Can’t Control.
Yes, maybe the other person up for that big promotion got it, when you felt you deserved it. You can dwell on it, drink over it, or accept it and figure out how best to go forward. If you pick the third option, you can plot your next move. Should you talk to your boss about how the next promotion might be yours? Should you consider a transfer to another department or a move to another company altogether? Should you run off with your favorite barista and start a coffee shop in Tahiti? If you’re willing to accept what can’t be changed, you can figure out what can be and plan a course of action. It’s a lot better than rotting with resentment or complaining about it with a wine glass in your hand.
3. Take Mental Pauses.
Early in recovery, I heard people say that 10% of life is what happens and 90% is how we react to it. We all have situations at work that make us want to burn the place down (yeah, I know that that’s not just me). When I would react in the moment, perhaps firing off a passive aggressive or openly hostile email, I would often come to regret it. In my paranoid, shaky, and hungover state I took everything personally and felt the need to respond immediately to what I perceived as incoming attacks.
In recovery, I have learned, much to my surprise, that it’s not all about me. The things people do and say in the office (or anywhere) often have nothing to do with me personally. I need to take a break and think before responding, not after. It’s a concept sobriety taught me called, “restraint of pen and tongue” and it’s a gift in the workplace. The way I’ve heard it put is to ask three questions: 1) Does it need to be said? 2) Does it need to be said by me? 3) Does it need to be said by me right now? When the answer to any of those questions has been no, I have benefited from not reacting immediately to something that would have set me off before I got sober.
4. Don’t Get Sucked Into Office Drama.
Office politics are dangerous. They can be more “Game of Thrones” than “Parks and Recreation.” When I was drinking, I spent many nights at the bar getting pulled into the quicksand of backstabbing, alliances, and other people’s agendas. When the gossip flowed as freely as the chardonnay, I jumped in because I wanted to be liked. Trading in office dirt was an easy way to do it, but I never felt good about it the next day.
Recovery taught me to keep the focus on myself and not to worry about people-pleasing with everyone else. In fact, I learned that what other people think of me is none of my business. It’s what I think of myself and my actions that counts. Now I have boundaries I can bring to the workplace. Want me pick up cupcakes for the birthday of the lady I know stole my black cherry yogurt from the office refrigerator last week? OK, I’ll do it to be a team player. But want me to join in with colleagues to undermine someone else, whether or not I think they deserve it? I’ll take a pass. Not taking the low road keeps my head in a good place which is critical to keeping me sober and performing well at work.
5. Accept That You Deserve To Succeed.
This was a tough one for me to get my head around. My drinking and drug use left my self-esteem somewhere at the bottom of a recycling bin full of empty wine and vodka bottles. Slowly, though, through doing the work of recovery, I realized I wasn’t the worthless loser I had believed myself to be. And I realized that getting sober is a big fucking deal. I began taking credit for making the change and believing in myself. You should do the same. Own the fact that you are a badass, you deserve to succeed, and you are up to whatever challenge lies ahead.
I realized that getting sober is a big fucking deal. I began taking credit for making the change and believing in myself. You should do the same.
And, let’s be honest. When climbing the corporate ladder, at least in the legal industry, we are competing with men for the best projects and the biggest promotions, not to mention equal pay. I have yet to meet the man who doesn’t come at these situations firmly believing he has every right to be there and every right to get to the next level. If we don’t do the same, we put ourselves at an instant disadvantage. Next time you close an important sale or get something else big at work done, when someone commends you for it, don’t say, “Oh, it wasn’t so big,” or, “I got lucky.” Say, “thank you. I worked really hard on that.”
Again, you didn’t get sober to be miserable. You also didn’t get sober to sell yourself short. Go crush it out there because you deserve it.