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5 Tips to Climb the Corporate Ladder in Sobriety

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON THE TEMPER.COM

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.

Travel for Work? 5 Tips to Do Sober Business Trips Successfully

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON THE TEMPER.COM

Work trips are so much better sober

by Lisa Smith

I dread traveling for work. Whether it’s for a conference or an out-of-town meeting, I’d rather stay home. I watch my colleagues as if they are creatures from another planet, buzzing around making dinner reservations and plans for tours in unfamiliar cities a month in advance. Look! I think. They will not rest until they find a way to spend 18 out of 24 hours in each other’s company! I love my work friends, but I’d prefer a pass on the extreme camaraderie.  

On the bright side, though, I can report that work trips are exponentially better in recovery than they were when I was drinking and using cocaine. At that time, as soon as I knew I’d be traveling, I could only think about the awful consequences I expected to suffer because I couldn’t control my drinking, not even in front of law firm partners to whom I reported. I knew I would try. And I knew I would fail.

I always promised myself I would say goodnight before I crossed the line into inebriation. But just as surely, I would wake up in a hotel room strewn with clothes from the bathroom to the bed, dirty glasses, and empty wine bottles stinking of stale cabernet.

I love my work friends, but I’d prefer a pass on the extreme camaraderie.  

My brutal hangover would be tinged with extra regret, shame, and recrimination as I would try to piece together what I said to whom the night before. How loud was I at the dinner table? How many people did I interrupt or shout over in order to tell them the all-too-personal story I thought they just had to hear? Do I need to worry about getting fired? Is there any more wine left in that bottle?

When I stopped drinking, the dread around work travel didn’t disappear. It just shape-shifted. My routine in early sobriety was carefully constructed to give me the best shot at not picking up a drink a day at a time. I woke up early, pounded coffee, went to an early morning 12-Step meeting, put in a full day at work, made it home in time to eat a decent dinner, and got to bed early.

Slowly but surely, I added in social events with people I wanted to be around in settings that didn’t threaten my sobriety. Life got bigger and better, with no small thanks to maintaining sobriety-focused routines. I learned I am a creature of habit and the healthy ones I developed became precious quickly. They remain precious 14 years later.

Business trips shake routines like snow globes. They generally start in an airport terminal, a place I consider to be a long bar with an extra-wide hallway. It can be downhill from there. Maybe I forget to pack toothpaste or bras or protein bars. Maybe my bag gets lost or I sit on the tarmac for three hours. There are so many opportunities for inconveniences and frustrations large and small. In the past, I called them “reasons.” Reasons for why I would be half in the bag before I even got on the plane, and fully loaded by the time I reached my hotel.  

Over the years, I’ve taken advice from others and learned how to cope with days of disrupted sleep, food that’s not normally on my menu, and endless hours of forced bonhomie with colleagues.

Here are a few ideas to help you stay sober and find some peace on the road:

1. Plan ahead.

I’m pretty good at expecting the worst, so it’s easy for me to imagine running into trouble. For example, at home, I don’t sleep with a mini-fridge full of tiny Jack Daniels and Absolut Vodka bottles eight feet from my head. Why would I want to subject myself to that under the stress of a work trip?

You can call the hotel in advance and ask that alcohol be removed from your room. Hotels get this request all the time. They’ve heard it before, they don’t ask questions, and they’re happy to do it.

2. Respect the things that keep you sober.

No matter what you do to avoid substance use—exercise, meditate, attend support group meetings—consider how you can keep to as much of your routine as possible while away. If I don’t have a plan for coffee when I inevitably wake up a 5 a.m., I can’t sleep the night before. I know this about myself, so I plan for it. I don’t try to “power through” not knowing where my morning jolt will be found.

However minor the thing may seem, if it helps keep you sober, it’s a big deal.

3. Don’t rush yourself.

It’s not always under your control, but when it is, try to avoid racing for your flight or train. I used to head to the airport early so I could start drinking. Now I do it so I don’t freak out if I hit traffic or a line at security that stretches to the terminal door.

4. Stay connected.

Whom do you regularly speak with at home? Your family? A sponsor or other sober friend? Your therapist? Plan specific times to talk while you’re away.

In my experience, “I’ll call you at 8:00 tonight,” works a lot better than, “I’ll call you when I can.” There’s less risk of not actually connecting and getting the benefit of the familiar voice ready to listen and support you.

5. Navigate the requisite booze-soaked events.

I have never taken a business trip that didn’t include cocktail parties, dinners, and/or other events that include alcohol. I pass on as many as I can, but that’s not always an option. If you can address any potential triggers beforehand, the event is easier to attend.

For me, being hungry and tired are massive triggers. It’s not that I think I’ll pick up a drink, but I will be miserable and uncomfortable. We didn’t get sober for that. Whenever possible, my work event pre-game is a nap and a protein bar. If possible, I also arrive late and leave early, two things I never would have considered before I got sober.

Much to my shock, I discovered not everyone drinks on these occasions. And often it has nothing to do with recovery.

Also, much to my shock, I discovered not everyone drinks on these occasions. And often it has nothing to do with recovery. People sip club soda and skip drinks at the bar after dinner for all kinds of reasons. I was relieved to learn I wasn’t the only one not drinking the wine. I was even more relieved not to be that annoying person badgering others into drinking so I could feel better about my own binging.

I will never get excited about business trips. That’s fine. I don’t have to be excited. I just have to show up, make my contributions to the effort, and most important, stay sober. Like so many other things in recovery, it gets easier over time. And I promise you that coming home with no hangovers and no regrets never gets old.

‘Tis the Season for Booze-Soaked Work Events

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON THE TEMPER.COM

Oy joy. Here’s how to put in your face time, and go home without regrets.

by Lisa Smith

A work party is never merely a work party — for many of us, professional success depends in part on at least appearing to enjoy yourself at the annual holiday bash, ones that feature all-you-can-drink alcohol. Some employers go to great expense to dress these up as sophisticated gatherings in fancy spaces with charming bites strategically arranged on pretty platters. Other orgs take over a neighborhood bar or office conference room, and stick an ice-filled metal tub loaded with beer in the corner.

However high-end (or not), these shindigs frequently devolve into the same thing: employer-sponsored binge drinking. And for those of us who nearly lost our lives to alcohol, they’re far from festive. I might sound like the Grinch, but I fucking hate these parties. And I’m done apologizing for that.

I work in the legal world, which is drenched in alcohol. A recent study of practicing lawyers revealed that 21% have an alcohol use disorder, which is more than twice the generally accepted figure of 9% of the U.S. population overall. I’m glad to say the profession, along with other heavy-drinking industries, is working hard to address these numbers, but drink-centered holiday parties, client dinners, team celebrations, recruiting events, and regular “happy hours” aren’t going anywhere soon. Of course, lawyers aren’t the only ones who mix professional life with often heavy drinking. It’s a popular cocktail in many fields.

I’m happy to say that in the decade since I stopped drinking, maintaining my sobriety at these command gatherings stopped being a stressor and actually became my superpower — and not only during this time of year. Below are a few ways you can shift your party plan so you can put in face-time and still look yourself in the eye the next day.

Before You Go: Write down What You’re Grateful For

Make a quick gratitude list before you head to the venue. It can even just be gratitude for the fact that you don’t have to live chained to the bottle or drugs anymore. But your list is likely to be much longer than that. Items on my list have ranged from small things like owning pajamas and going to bed at night like a normal person instead of passing out, to big things like holding down the job that both pays my rent and obligates me to show up at the party.

At the top of my list every time are the incredible community and sense of self-esteem I’ve found in recovery. I felt so alone and full of shame when I was drinking, I couldn’t imagine it could be different. When I reflect even briefly on the life I get to live as a sober woman, I know I am not missing out on anything. On the contrary, I am gaining everything good I have today. That makes it much easier for me to pick up the sparkling water instead of the champagne at the entrance to the party.

When I reflect even briefly on the life I get to live as a sober woman, I know I am not missing out on anything.

On Your Way: Find Your Peace

Getting your head in a good place will keep you centered when the cocktails start flowing. What works for me is keeping HALT in mind: try not to show up feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

If you are dealing with one of those feelings on your way, accept it, then address it as best you can: Call a sober friend, do a three-minute meditation from an app on your phone before you get out of the car, eat something healthy (I keep almonds and protein bars in my bag at all times for this purpose), or if HALT hits you at the party, excuse yourself and go home.

Before You Walk In: Know Your Exit Strategy

I used to be so tied to the bar at work events that when I got sober, the concept of arriving late and leaving early was revelatory. Who knew that could be a thing? Much to my surprise, people didn’t even seem to notice when I came and left. Turning my four-hour vodka marathon into a 45-minute seltzer-and-pineapple sprint barely registered with anyone. As I had done with so many situations while drinking, I overestimated my importance at the party to other people’s good time. Little did I know, how their evening went was up to them, not me.

Turning my four-hour vodka marathon into a 45-minute seltzer-and-pineapple sprint barely registered with anyone.

At the Party: Screw What Other People Think

Sure, bonding is usually done drink-in-hand, but it doesn’t have to be an alcoholic drink. Ever think you were the wittiest woman in accounts receivable, only to wake up the morning after the holiday party full of regret and maybe even with no memory of what you did? Yeah, so did I. Keep that feeling in mind as you walk through the door. By staying sober, you’re saving yourself a hangover, self-recrimination, and possible professional repercussions.

My experience is that not imbibing didn’t hurt my career—it helped it. I am able to show up, focus clearly, and be relied upon in ways I never could have before, even though I considered myself “high-functioning” when I was drinking.

It doesn’t matter if the people around me at office parties don’t understand why I don’t drink. I don’t owe them explanations. As I hear from my 12-step sponsor, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”

It doesn’t matter if the people around me at office parties don’t understand why I don’t drink. I don’t owe them explanations.

Toward the End: Grab Your Coat, Say “see Ya” 

At whatever point you’re ready to leave, a simple, “I need to get going,” is all that’s required—there’s no need for self-conscious explanations from people you think might care that you’re not sticking around drinking. You never have to apologize for being one of the early people to head out. You can just say, “see you Monday,” then go home for a head start on that good night’s sleep that leads into a hangover-free morning after. Picture ahead of time what you’ll do when you get home; maybe you’ll take a bath, read a book in bed, or watch some trashy television. Envisioning that comforting scene along with how you’ll feel the next morning is a real help in getting through challenging evenings.

All Season Long: Remember You’re Not Alone

It was hard for me to grasp at first, but there are very likely others around who are choosing not to drink. They may have reasons are different from your own—or not. Especially with weeknight parties, people may want to go home (sober) to their families or get to the gym early the next morning, or they may just not love drinking. Not everyone feels compelled to have alcohol at work events — I see that more and more.

One big reason some people don’t imbibe? They may take meds that are not to be mixed with alcohol. In early sobriety, this was how I explained my absence at happy hour to my drinking friends at work. And the medication part was true: I have been on antidepressants since I went to detox in 2004. But they didn’t need to know what kind of medication or why. Once again, I didn’t have to explain myself, and neither do you. The point is, odds are you’re not the only one choosing not to drink. After my first few booze-free office gatherings, I learned I was not sticking out the way I thought I was with my seltzer and pineapple.

These parties don’t need to be fun, and it’s ok if you don’t look forward to them. It’s called a “work event” for a reason.

One thing that’s really helped me? The realization that these parties don’t need to be fun, and it’s ok if you don’t look forward to them. It’s called a “work event” for a reason. I’m hopeful that over time, overindulgence and omnipresent alcohol will won’t be the norm at these things. But until that happens, try to remember one of my favorite things about sobriety: You will never wake up in the morning regretting the fact that you did not drink the night before.

Everyone In My Law Firm Knows I’m Sober (and I Don’t Care)

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON THE TEMPER

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.

Was I Ready for Sober Sex?

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON LIGHT HUSTLER

At one o’clock on a Sunday morning in 2005, I sped west toward Salt Lake City in a rented Ford Fiesta on Route I-80, escaping my friend’s wedding at a Park City yoga studio. I gripped the wheel as if it were a waterski handle. A pitch black sky surrounded me and I swore the car was on two wheels going around the tightest hairpin turns I’d ever encountered. I was 39 years old and had lived in New York City for 15 years. The closest I usually came to driving was standing in the front car of a subway train. That evening, however, called for drastic measures: I was following home the stop-in-the-street sexy French chef I met at the wedding.

It was my first “sober anniversary,” marking one year since I had used cocaine or alcohol. For the first time, I had navigated a wedding reception without so much as a sip of champagne or an ounce of regret. This next part of the evening, however, came with the highest degree of difficulty. My recovery program had strongly suggested waiting a year before entering into a new “relationship.” Sex with strangers had never been included in my definition of that term, but people in recovery thought otherwise. I had listened to their advice and kept my pants on.

When I first heard talk of a celibate year, though, I had bristled. Seriously? I was supposed to give up alcohol, drugs, and a year of sex? That was an awfully tall order. I decided at first to reserve judgment on whether to follow this particular suggestion. But to my surprise, I found in the early, most fragile days of recovery, getting naked with someone new while stone cold sober was unimaginable, downright scary. A whole host of new and tricky things called “feelings” started showing up in all facets of my life. Ten years of daily drinking had allowed me to shut them out so effectively that not even watching “The Way We Were,” my Achilles heel of movies, could make me cry. If I ever felt emotional or the least bit unhappy, a quick dry martini or three could fix that. Without the booze and cocaine, suddenly I was weeping at television commercials. These were confusing days. I had my hands full just figuring out how to avoid melting down when there was a line at the dry cleaner on Saturday morning. It was unlikely my fledgling sobriety could survive a ride on the emotional rollercoaster of a new relationship, or even a one-night stand.

But after a year spent healing and living a life that restored my self-esteem, I had reached a point where I could see sex possibly happening, albeit in an extremely dark room. Addiction had robbed me of the belief that I deserved anything clean and happy in life. It was the voice in my head that started telling me how awful I was from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning. By the end, self-loathing and desperation to shut the voice up led me to do anything necessary to continue drinking and using drugs all day while hiding it from everyone around me. I may somehow have been managing to do well at my big law firm job, but a high-functioning alcoholic and addict is still an alcoholic and addict first and foremost.

Over time, I had begun to like the person I saw in the mirror in the morning, something I never expected. I even thought I had something to offer other people, other than picking up the bar tab. I also missed having sex.

My friend Randi, the bride, must have sensed I was ready to hang up my chastity belt. At her Park City wedding, she seated me next to Pierre, a French chef. He was a six-foot plus stunner with electric blue eyes and better cheekbones than mine. I pictured him stepping out of a Moncler skiwear photo shoot, jauntily removing tinted goggles. I instantly berated myself for wearing a pink sequined Betsey Johnson dress instead of my standard pre-sobriety head-to-toe black. The dress that screamed “happy” to me in the store dressing room instead screamed “toddler beauty pageant” to me at the wedding.

Despite my questionable fashion choice, Pierre was immediately flirtatious and, in response, I was immediately petrified. How did people connect without drinking to relax? I was traumatized when he dragged me out onto the dance floor and started moving like he knew what he has doing. The jumping and fist pumping I performed at Red Hot Chili Peppers concerts could not help me in this situation. Who dances at a wedding, or anywhere else for that matter, without drinking?

After mercifully guiding me off the dance floor, Pierre attempted some conversation. Clueless, I decided to pretend I was someone charming and interesting despite not guzzling an Absolut Citron between sentences. I had learned in recovery that acting “as if” I could do something was a good way to face a new challenge. For example, I had learned to act “as if” I was someone who felt comfortable and competent in the office. When I was drinking and using drugs, I had felt like a fraud at work, just moments from being discovered and fired. After immersing myself in recovery for 12 months, I felt like I belonged at the conference room tables in my office high above Times Square.

Somehow, this approach worked in the romantic realm that night as well. Pierre turned out to be funny and thoughtful, two of my favorite traits. I acted impressed when he used a dessert spoon, a salt shaker and a votive candle to map out how much closer to the airport I would be the next day if I left from his house instead of the condo I had planned to crash at with four other women. In the true spirit of a one-night stand, we were both planning my morning departure before we left the wedding. Now this was familiar territory. My heart started to race and I fought back a sudden urge to kiss him on the spot. I remembered what it felt like to want to connect physically with an exciting new person.

But despite my enthusiasm, the idea of sober sex, whether with a serious boyfriend or a near-perfect stranger, seemed so intimate, so personal — and, therefore, so terrifying. Randi talked me through the reasons Pierre was the ideal partner for the inevitable first time. She identified three of them, specifically: 1) he was ridiculously attractive, 2) I would never have to see him again, and 3) he barely spoke English. I really could not ask for anything more. It was time to reactivate myself from the waist down.

A short time later, I was alternating between keeping my five-inch heels on and trying to drive barefoot. Neither was going well. I was sweating in a way no air conditioning could fix. As I struggled to keep Pierre’s taillights in view on the six-lane highway, a barrage of thoughts raced through my brain. What if I lost him? What if I didn’t? Why didn’t I bother to get a bikini wax before this trip? If I made it to his house and I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m., would I have enough time to shower and then likely get lost on my way to the airport for my 7:00 flight back to New York? Cell phone alarms were not a default then and I worried about whether Pierre might have two alarm clocks, so I could feel comfortably backed up. Missing my flight was not an option. Sobriety had gifted me with a fantastic new job and I needed to be there on time Monday morning.

I turned on the car radio and stabbed at the buttons. I stumbled upon the Rolling Stones’, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” one of my favorites. At the end of the song, the DJ came on. Just as I was about to switch the station he said, “Daylight savings time tonight. Don’t forget to move your clocks ahead one hour.” Wait, what? It was daylight savings time? If the DJ hadn’t said it, I never would have known. I wouldn’t have changed the alarm clock at Pierre’s house. I would have overslept and missed my flight. Thank you, DJ. Thank you. I took this happenstance as a sign from the universe, one I was meant to follow. I hit the gas.

When we finally got to Pierre’s driveway, my nervousness and sweating didn’t stop, but any ideas about changing my mind and finding a nearby motel were gone. As he carried my bags to the second floor, he said in heavily accented English, “I have three bedrooms here. If you would be more comfortable not sleeping in my room, you can use one of the others.”

“Oh, no. I’m sleeping with you, thanks,” I said way too quickly. Discussions of alternative sleeping arrangements had never been part of the deal in my pre-sobriety situations. My stomach churned with anxiety and anticipation. Did I seem too eager? Not eager enough? Was there lipstick on my teeth? Could I sneak in two more Altoids when he used the bathroom? Is this how sober people all feel when they’re with someone new?

Just when I thought my brain would never quiet down, Pierre kissed me. He pressed me up against the wall in the hallway and kissed me like he knew me. All of a sudden I was right there, in the moment. The stress and panicky thoughts slipped away. Almost instantly, I realized I didn’t even have to act “as if” I were someone who knew how to handle this situation. I could just relax and be my sober self.

When Saying No to a Boozy Work Event Isn’t an Option

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON WORKITHEALTH.COM

Handling an alcohol-laden work event is tricky in recovery. Lisa Smith, author of 'Girl Walks Out of a Bar,' shares her strategies for attending boozy work events in sobriety.

Before I got sober, I liked to think that I was the life of the party. At a work conference, retreat, or even just a meeting with a cocktail reception to follow, I would watch the clock and count the minutes until the bar opened. The closer it got to cocktail hour, the more impatient I was for the time to tick by.

Once I finally had a glass of vodka or wine in my hand, I felt both relieved and emboldened. I believed that when I heckled my colleagues into drinking more and faster, they liked it. They must have found my stories funny, even when I recounted them in a slurred and too-loud voice, right?

It wasn’t until I sobered up that I realized, while some people might have thought I was fun to be around, many others likely found me somewhere on the scale between annoying and completely inappropriate. It certainly wasn’t the look I had been going for.

I have a lot of gratitude around the fact that I don’t have to live like that anymore. But, of course, everyone else doesn’t stop drinking when we get sober. Navigating the brand new waters of nonalcoholic options at work parties and dinners felt like learning a new language.

Here are a few things I do to help me handle work festivities sober.

1. Arrive With Your Head In A Good Place

Over time, being around a crowd of people drinking at a party gets easier, but even once you’re used to it, it’s smart to take care of yourself before the cocktails start flowing. If you can greet the situation with as much peace as possible in your head, you’re halfway there. For me, this means making sure to get to a meeting the day of the dinner or party, talking to more sober friends, and trying to keep my prayer and meditation routine on track. The best defense can be a good offense.

Another good way to prepare is to think about HALT: if it can at all be avoided (and of course plenty of times it can’t), don’t go to the event feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

This can be easier said than done. For me, hunger is the worst. If I’m hungry, I’m a beast. Maybe I go overboard on this, but if I’m going to a dinner I know is going to be long and full of people pouring booze, I eat beforehand. I’d rather not say, “no, thank you,” in the voice of Darth Vader when the wine is being poured for the third time and I haven’t had anything to eat yet. I also keep snacks in my bag at all times. Not only do I have something to munch on at the ready, but also I have comfort in the fact that if the pangs start, I’m covered. It helps me avoid becoming obsessed with when we’re going to be served. The fewer obsessions, the better.

2. Remember You’re Not Alone

Despite the fact that I would have argued vehemently to the contrary before sobering up, there’s a strong chance you will not be the only person skipping the booze at a work party. For example, someone might be on medication. In early sobriety I told the people I used to drink with – the only ones who asked – that taking medication was the reason I wasn’t drinking. It had the benefit of being true; I have been on antidepressants since I entered detox in 2004. They are not supposed to mixed with alcohol.

Someone might be training for race or on a specific diet or doing something like Dry January or maybe it’s a Tuesday night and they just don’t want to drink tonight. Much to my surprise, there are in fact people who don’t equate work events with being compelled to drink. Especially at a large function, even if you don’t see them, just remembering you’re not the only one can be comforting.

3. Have An Exit Strategy

Here’s a fun fact I learned in sobriety: some people actually show up late to cocktail parties and leave early. I had no idea. But in all seriousness, having a good idea of when and how you would like the night to end can help. My mental plan might be something like, “Cocktails start at 6:00, and so I’ll show up at 6:30. I’m going to be back in my hotel room (or on my way home) at 8:00. Then I’m going to relax, watch ‘Law & Order’ reruns and get a good night’s sleep.” For me, standing in the middle of a group of people who are drinking is less unpleasant when I can hear the theme song to “Law & Order” in my head.

When it’s time to hit the road, a simple, “I need to get going,” is all anyone needs to hear. No apologies for leaving at an appropriate, yet still early time. The words, “Good night,” are a complete sentence.

Of course, even the best-laid plans can easily be derailed. But having a blueprint for the evening can make it less stressful. And as one of my favorite sayings goes, you will never wake up in the morning regretting the fact that you did not drink the night before.

Taking It on the Road: Tips for Sober Business Travelers

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON WORKITHEALTH.COM

Traveling for business?
Tips on how to stay sober from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

Only a few weeks after I got sober, I had to travel for a work conference. I would be ejected from my newly established recovery cocoon in New York City and parachuted like a first time skydiver into the great unknown of San Francisco four days. I was terrified.

Until I crashed out from alcohol and cocaine, drinking was, not surprisingly, a big part of my work trips. Drinking commenced at the airport the moment I passed through security. (I had convinced myself I was a “nervous flyer” and needed multiple drinks to relax me.) Drinking continued as soon as possible after I boarded the plane. I always bought two drinks at a time because, really, who knows when row 25 would be served again? As I handed over my credit card, I would give the flight attendant a tight smile. “Nervous flyer,” I would say, lest he think of me as some kind of drunk.

“Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking?

And, of course, once on the ground in another city, all bets were off. Isn’t a work trip a party at heart? It was time to put that work hard/play hard ethic into practice. I would push through my hangovers at the hotel gym in the morning, drink vats of coffee to power through the workday, and count the minutes until the cocktail party or happy hour began. Unfailingly, that set off a long evening of imbibing, which quite possibly included saying regrettable things to colleagues that would make me feel sick the next day.

Huh. Now that I put it that way, it doesn’t sound like such a great party. But it was the only way I knew. Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking? I had to attend the happy hours and the dinners. Was I really supposed to not drink alcohol at those kinds of events?  

I needed advice. So, I asked around and got suggestions. They helped immensely. I won’t pretend the first trip was easy, but it did end up being more manageable than I expected.

Here are a few ideas to help you stay sober on the road:

1. Plan ahead and bring your tools.

Ask yourself, “What helps me at home that I can recreate there?” One helpful thing is to call the hotel and ask in advance to have all alcohol removed from the room. At home, I don’t sleep two feet away from wine and vodka – why should I do that just because I’m in a hotel? Hotels get this request all the time for any number of reasons. They’ve heard it before, they don’t ask questions, and they’re happy to do it.

If you belong to 12-step or other support groups, research where nearby meetings are and pack any literature or meditation books you use. Figure out beforehand when you might exercise, where you can get coffee in the morning, or how else to recreate any part of your sober routine that’s important to you.

 

2. Leave yourself extra time.

Travel is stressful enough without feeling as if you might miss your flight or train. Pre-sobriety, I would leave for the airport early so I could start drinking. In sobriety, I learned to leave for the airport early so there was no need to panic if I hit traffic or a seemingly endless line at security.

 

3. Stay connected.

Your phone is your friend. Before you go, load it up with the numbers of people to whom you can reach out if the going gets tricky. Also load up on apps and online resources. It’s nice to know they’re at your fingertips. If you're a member of Workit Health, let your coach know about your trip so they can help you prepare.

 

4. Navigate the social events.

Almost invariably, business trips involve cocktail parties, dinners, or other events that include alcohol. It’s likely you’ll need to attend at least some of them. I have learned never to go to these events hungry, even the dinners, because if I’m hungry, I’m irritable and uncomfortable. I don’t stuff myself in advance, but I do my best to get on solid footing. If possible, I arrive late and leave early, something that, if alcohol were being served, would have been unimaginable before I got sober.

“Like so many other things in recovery, after your first sober work trip, the next ones aren’t as daunting.

Also, one of the most surprising things I’ve learned on work trips is that not all of my colleagues drink. And it’s not because they’re all in recovery. Back when I was leading the party charge, I managed to not notice the people who were sipping club soda or skipping after dinner drinks at the bar because they wanted to get up early for the gym, or because alcohol doesn’t agree with them, or because they prefer Diet Coke. Who knew such people existed? Now I take comfort in not being the only one passing on the wine. In fact, I realize that many people who push others to drink are trying to feel better themselves about their own drinking. I’m grateful not to play that role anymore.

 

Like so many other things in recovery, after your first sober work trip, the next ones aren’t as daunting. You may not look forward to them, but you can come home proud, with no hangovers and no regrets. And that never gets old.

Back to Work: Tips for Office Life in Early Recovery

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON WORKITHEALTH.COM

How can you stay sober during the transition back to work?
Tips from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

Sitting on my flimsy cot at the psychiatric hospital on the fifth and final day of my detox from alcohol and cocaine, I looked at the doctor in the chair at the foot of my bed and shook my head. “No,” I said. I sounded like a two-year old refusing to eat my peas, but I was actually a 38-year old lawyer refusing to take my doctor’s strong recommendation that I head straight to an inpatient rehab for at least 28 days. I would only agree to attend intensive outpatient treatment at night.

Forgoing inpatient rehab, my doctor stressed, put me at needless risk while my recovery was at its most fragile. I’ve always been a rule follower, so why did I ignore this directive? One reason: I feared the stigma of addiction in the workplace, which for me was a law firm.

As far as my colleagues knew, I had been out that week to deal with a “stomach issue.” If I were to stay out for longer than five days I would need to produce a doctor’s note and possibly consider a leave of absence. I wasn’t willing to do that.

When I left the office the previous Friday afternoon, my co-workers viewed me as a smart, hard-working, reliable member of the team. Sure, many of them had seen me drink a lot – some of them had sat on the barstool next to mine. But somehow I had kept my spiraling addiction under wraps. If I went away for a month, I was afraid the reason for my absence would spill out and I would be viewed as weak, defective, and even untrustworthy upon my return. I was determined to keep my personal reality out of my professional life.  

But how to do that? (It’s worth noting, 14 years later, I would strongly suggest to someone sitting on a hospital cot that they decide differently than I did and go to inpatient treatment.) Based on my experience, whether your colleagues know about your recovery or not, I have a few suggestions for re-entry into the workplace.

 

1. First Things First.

When I got sober, I was told anything I put in front of my recovery I would lose. That’s still true today. The most important thing I do on a daily basis is not pick up a drink or a drug. There are plenty of times I feel just “too busy” at work to break for a recovery meeting or other action essential to my mental health. A big project is due, so I feel the need to work late and skip my meeting. A colleague invites me to breakfast and I feel like I should accept, even though it means I won’t get to the gym, when regular exercise helps keep my depression at bay.

To counter these thoughts, I remember that just about every time I’ve heard a story of relapse, it had included the fact that the person’s recovery had taken a back seat. Of course, there may be people who can stay sober without prioritizing it above all else. I’m confident I’m not one of those people and I’m not interested in any experiments to confirm that fact.

 

2. Your Recovery is Your Business, No One Else’s.

Getting and staying sober is an incredibly personal decision. No one is “entitled” to know your story. I had no intention of relapsing, but what if I did? I was afraid sharing the fact of my addiction early on with my colleagues would add pressure, so I kept quiet.

Everyone’s story is different, though. For many, what brought us to recovery involved a situation in the workplace. I would still make the same suggestion. What you decide to share and with whom you decide you to share it (beyond those who unavoidably know) is entirely your decision.

 

3. “No,” Is a Complete Sentence.

Upon my return, I had no idea what to say to my work friends whom I liked, trusted, and often joined for drinks. So, I chalked up my new seltzer-and-cranberry-juice habit to “being on medication.” People nodded understandingly and no one questioned me further. In fact, I was taking antidepressants and instructed not to drink, so the truth did the trick.

When other people at cocktail parties or work dinners asked me, “Aren’t you drinking tonight?” I learned to answer, “No.” If they looked at me as if I had just spat in their Chardonnay, I would follow up with, “I’m just not drinking tonight.” I was pleasantly surprised at how often the conversation ended there. It turns out most people aren’t the way I was before I got sober, heckling and pressuring other people into drinking. I learned that others care a whole lot less about the beverage in my hand than I had ever imagined.

After detox, I realized I needed to chase sobriety every bit as much as I had chased drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t something I could do alone, but it also wasn’t something that had to involve people from the office.

In fact, the connections I made with my work colleagues, as a present, fully engaged team member grew stronger. So what if I missed some work lunches, skipped some cocktail parties, and ducked out earlier than usual for recovery meetings? There has never been a day those choices haven’t been worth it.

The Reality of High-Functioning Substance Abuse Among Lawyers

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON FLORIDABARJOURNAL.COM

The morning before I got sober, I downed nearly a bottle of red wine and snorted a few lines of cocaine as part of my regular routine getting ready for work. As I headed to my law firm, I felt sick, afraid, and alone. Now, more than 13 years later, thanks to important recent research and reporting conducted on lawyers, substance abuse, and mental health, I know I was wrong about being alone.

More than 20 years ago, I became an associate at a big New York City firm and almost simultaneously spiraled into alcoholism and drug addiction. I attribute this to my genetic predisposition toward addiction, my then-undiagnosed depressive disorder, and the intense and exhausting demands of my job. Many people can handle the pressures of a 24/7 work-hard-play-hard environment, but I am not one of them.

Though I knew I was in serious trouble for 10 years before I got sober in 2004, the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction in law firms played a significant role in my decision not to seek help. When I finally bottomed out, I was using drugs and alcohol around the clock. Somehow, I never lost a job or even received a negative performance review. My hours were odd, my office was a mess, and I frequently worked from home, but the same could be said for many lawyers who weren’t in the throes of addiction. I checked myself into a hospital for a medicated detoxification only because I thought I might die.

At the end of my stay in the detox unit, it was strongly suggested that I next head to a 28-day rehabilitation facility. I refused to go. I was unwilling to tell my law firm the truth of my illness. As a compromise, I attended outpatient rehab two nights a week. I returned to the office just a week and a day after checking into the hospital. My doctors were rightly concerned about my decision, considering I had just been diagnosed with a chronic brain disease. I have been extremely fortunate to remain sober since checking out of that detox, particularly in this profession.

Aspects of law firm culture beyond work pressures can prove challenging for people contending with substance-abuse issues, even when they are in recovery. Having spent more than 25 years working in law firms, I can count very few events at which alcohol was not served. We use it to entertain clients, form bonds among team members, and blow off steam at the end of the week. Does anyone want to feel left out at those important firm functions? While I am encouraged to see firms starting to examine the free-flowing nature of alcohol at all events, this practice cannot be expected to change overnight.

We need to have structured, consistent, and ongoing conversations about mental health and substance abuse in the legal profession. Attorneys and staff alike need to learn from their first day that there is confidential help available to them, both in the form of firm employee assistance programs (EAPs) and the lawyer assistance committees (LACs) of the bar associations in all 50 states. It is critical for people to know where to go when they feel overwhelmed, are experiencing a challenge in their personal life, or find they are looking to drugs or alcohol for relief and escape.

During the course of my career, I have seen plenty of people in law firms and other professions take leave for surgeries, medical treatments, and, of course, to have kids. Never have I seen anyone take a leave to go to rehab. When I was presented with the opportunity, I feared it would be seen as a weakness, not an illness, in an environment where strength, reliability, and stamina are prized. Now I want to use my voice and my story in any way I can to help break that stigma around addiction. I’d like to see the day that addiction will be treated just like any other medical condition, and the person who finds himself or herself where I was 13 years ago feels comfortable saying, “Yes, thank you; I will accept this help and go away to treatment to get healthy.”

Lisa Smith is a lawyer and a writer based in New York City. Her memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, recounts her descent into and recovery from high-functioning alcoholism and cocaine addiction in major international firms. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and Rutgers School of Law.