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Navigating Employment in Sobriety

It is often said that being in active addiction is a full-time job: the energy funneled into fantasizing, procuring, using, and recovering from the effects of using can take a great deal out of you, leaving little bandwidth for anything else. Some can pass off as “functional” substance abusers and hold onto their jobs, but eventually their habits may start showing. One of the great benefits of recovery is the ability to show up for employment in a sober manner: with respect, diligence, courtesy, and boundaries. However, simply being sober doesn’t automatically make you a great employee if old character defenses come along with you. Employing the tools learned from recovery can help you thrive in whatever work environment you land in. Read on to get a sense of the challenges and joys of navigating jobs and careers in sobriety--whether you’re working for yourself or someone else in an office, the service industry, a corporation, or an amalgam of all of these.


Employment in Substance Use Disorder

The first instances of employment during my substance use disorder were shifts at the front desk of the college library and university publishing press. I had a late night Friday shift at the library, so I’d bring booze with me and sip as I “worked” and leave my shifts in a blackout as campus police did their nightly walk to close the library. I dreaded shelving books, so I’d lazily scatter them around pretending others were using them. I would show up to the university press in a marijuana haze, often late and often in shambles, trying to make up for lost time. These patterns post-graduation at prestigious companies and organizations and though I never got fired while using, the degree to which I slacked and stopped showing up (in all sense of the phrase) was embarrassing but inevitable.


My first few jobs in early sobriety, however, were challenging in their own ways. When I received criticism, I would have a tendency to take it personally, and instead of looking at it as an opportunity to improve, I’d rebel and start slipping even more and be asked to leave or step my game up. Or I’d show up sleep-deprived, which would feel like being mildly drunk all over again. Each of these experiences was incredibly humbling, and I’d learn something new from each experience that I could bring into the next job.


Employment Tips Learned From Recovery

Being in recovery meetings is akin to being in a sandbox: I learn how to take care of my needs, listen to others’ needs, and ask for assistance when required--skills directly transferable to the workplace. In addition to learning how to be of service, I’ve learned how to show up imperfectly and that “done is better than perfect” when procrastinating on a project. As with fellows in recovery meetings, I don’t have to be good friends with everyone at work; however, I need to be respectful, friendly, and cordial, which lines up with the 12-Step Tradition of “principles over personalities.” In the 12-Step Program Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), certain traits of adult children are read out in the Laundry List, such as fear of authority, having guilt feelings when standing up for yourself, or becoming an approval seeker. These are just a few of the traits that can wreak havoc when it comes to navigating different power dynamics, setting work boundaries, and staying true to one’s intergity.


I’ve always found it helpful to share about work difficulties with recovery friends, especially since work could easily overtake my life if left unchecked. However, I’m grateful that in these conversations I was always reminded to prioritize recovery and that I would lose anything I put before my sobriety. I could easily slip into a work day without taking a proper lunch break or taking a really long one; it took me a while to figure out balance and find my sea legs in different jobs as I also navigated a rhythm and plan for communicating with my boss(es) that matched all of our needs. Whether you experience bouts of work addiction or work avoidance, it’s worth exploring the emotional reasons behind these compulsions.


Employment Resources

A wonderful program to look into if you’re job hunting is Employment Program for Recovering Alcoholics (EPRA), a vocational rehabilitation program for those in substance use disorder recovery in New York City. EPRA is especially helpful if you’re just starting out and don’t know where to pivot. Temp agencies are also a great option. Don’t be shy about sharing your employment search with your support network (someone might be able to connect you to someone they know in a field that you might be interested in).


When you get to a good place in your sobriety, you may feel inspired to take on a job in the recovery field, which can look like getting certified to be a sober coach or interventionist, working at a recovery-related nonprofit, or even writing for websites that focus on mental health and addiction recovery. The options are endless. Recovery-related jobs are a rewarding experience in and of themselves, as I can be open about my sobriety in a refreshing, honest way. It was a direct way to give back in a manner that went beyond the small recovery world I started off in.


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No matter how challenging a situation may be at work, it can always be taken care of in sobriety with a proper plan--whether that looks like talking to someone in the HR department, your boss, or simply sharing with a co-worker. It is possible to hang out with your co-workers outside of work without picking up a substance, too. It may not be easy at first, but as you gain confidence in your ability as a sober employee and your sense of self-worth, you’ll learn to excel at work and leave a place of employment when it starts to no longer feel like a good fit. It’s also OK to not know what you want to do as you’re allowed to try on as many jobs until you find one that fits you well.

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