Every year, thousands of white-collar professionals enter treatment for addiction to alcohol and drugs. In treatment they are taught new skills for living productive and fulfilled lives without mind-altering substances. After completing a 30- to 90-day inpatient program, possibly with some additional time in a less restrictive sober living community, they return to work.
In their absence, not much has changed back at the office; the expectations and associated stress have continued without a break. These newly sober professionals are inserted back into a culture from where they came and where they drank.
When they reenter the workplace, they are a stranger in a once-familiar environment. Colleagues will ask questions about where they’ve been over the past month or so, why they’re suddenly not drinking when in the past they always drank, and why they seem somehow different now.
If you’re newly sober, here is what to expect: The very first question you may encounter from your colleagues is “where have you been?” It’s not even 8:30 and you are already faced with a major decision: to be honest about your absence, or offer an alternate explanation, such as a sick parent in Arizona. You may choose the latter, which is completely your right to do. As a person in recovery, you are entitled to protect your anonymity, but this does require keeping your story straight later, which may cause additional stress.
The truth also carries consequences, such as being judged, and, of course, the fact that you’ve been to rehab will circulate around the office quickly. Right off the bat, some people will know where you’ve been, others will pretend not to know, and the rest are clueless. There will be a fourth group: people who have been to rehab themselves and are currently sober, or have a spouse, child, or parents who are sober, or are struggling to get sober. These are your brothers and sisters in arms and your allies.
This situation is a double-edged sword: on one hand, you are entitled to your anonymity, but if you don’t completely own your sobriety and your new way of life, you may lose it.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a person is allowed to take medical leave without providing specific details, as long as they’ve been diagnosed by the appropriate professional. Diagnosed addicts are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so the now-sober addict should not let concern for their individual rights get in the way of their sobriety.
Personally, I have always been willing to share my story openly, and it has served me well. However, this is a decision you will have to make for yourself.
Being away in treatment is actually a break from workplace stress and expectations, deadlines, commitments, and responsibilities. Basically it means having to do stuff you don’t feel like doing. You’ll have to remember you’re the one who has hopefully changed, not the boss and not your colleagues.
Because addiction of any kind is a spiritual malady, you’ve probably done some work in this area while in treatment, and now that you’re back you may feel your professional environment is not conducive to spiritual development; you may find yourself questioning your career. It’s probably a good idea to speak to your sponsor about this and not make any big decisions for at least a year. You have a long way to go before your feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Before getting sober you may have been that guy who got drunk at company outings and acted inappropriately with your female colleagues. Maybe it was one too many visits with the human resources director that led to being in treatment in the first place. Or maybe you’re that girl who got drunk and made out with every guy in the company.
Past behaviors will have to be considered and sometimes be answered for. The good news is that getting sober is kind of a mea culpa, and if you’re smart, you’ll use this opportunity to put these old behaviors and your previous reputation behind you.
The company party, dinner with clients, and business trips will still be part of the deal, and these may have been times in the past when you looked forward to misbehaving. It’s easy to think home rules don’t apply when in Vegas at the annual convention, but let me assure you, this is when you must be super-vigilant.
Plan in advance to attend local meetings; stay in close contact with your sponsor and other members of AA. Some travelers ask for the minibar to be cleared from the room prior to arriving. Don’t put yourself in a tempting position in the first place.
Some people who are new in recovery think it’s a test of strength to go face to face with their drug of choice and abstain. Let me assure you, there is no valor in tempting your addiction(s); you will lose, and due to the progressive nature of addiction, it will be worse if you relapse.
After you’ve been sober for a few months, you’ll start to gain clarity about your past and the best way to navigate your new way of life. In my sobriety, I’ve heard hundreds of workplace stories, and these are some of the issues with which newly sober people must deal. The good news is there are many people who have walked the path before and will help you navigate the challenges of a sober life.