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.