Lisa Smith is a former practicing lawyer and the author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar, her memoir of addiction and recovery in the world of New York City corporate law. She works with law firms and other organizations to break stigma and address substance use and mental health disorders in the workplace. Smith has been in recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction since 2004, when she went into in patient treatment and she credit that and out patient treatment, a 12 step recovery program and a combination of therapy and medication for her depression.
Alcohol and cocaine fueled the start of Smith’s career, but getting clean—and sharing her story—propelled her forward.
Lisa Smith started her day April 5, 2004, the same as any other: unbearably hungover and propped up on a mix of booze and cocaine.
That particular routine had been standard for eight months. The heavy drinking started a decade earlier. The life of a young attorney in New York City was hard for everyone, she reasoned. A long day was washed down by a glass of wine or two. Colleagues flooded the bar after closing a deal or winning a big hearing.
Her work was outstanding. She excelled in law school and landed a coveted associate position at New York law firm Shearman & Sterling.
Her addiction came as a series of compromises: “I’m not an alcoholic; I don’t drink during the day,” she would tell herself until she began coupling her lunches with a few beers. “Ok, well I don’t drink during the morning,” kept up the illusion for awhile. Eventually, her hangovers were so rough that she started drinking in the morning. She found it smoothed her out. When even the alcohol wasn’t enough to straighten her out for work, she added cocaine to the routine.
She had long known she was an alcoholic. But she didn’t care. She ceased contributing to her retirement at 32 because she thought she wouldn’t live past 40. She worked from home to hide her addiction.
But that Monday morning, her body decided it had enough. Walking out of her door, she was hit with the sudden feeling of being overwhelmed. Her world was spinning. She thought she was dying.
She wasn’t dying. It wasn’t an overdose or a heart attack. She had a panic attack.
Faced with what she thought was certain death, Smith had a change of heart.
“For all the times leading up to that where I would wake up in the morning and wish I hadn’t woken up,” she said. “In that moment when I actually thought, ‘this is it, I am dying,’ something snapped in me, and I said, ‘no, I want to live.’”
Doctors diagnosed her with clinical depression and put her on medication. Outpatient rehab treatment and a 12-step program followed. Looking back, Smith saw her depression intertwined with her descent into addiction.
“By nature, I was always a gloomy, anxious kid,” she said. “Kids would be lining up for a roller coaster and be all excited, and all I could picture was the cart crashing to the ground.”
At an early age, Smith found reprieve in food, sneaking away to gorge on sweets. Alcohol came into her life by way of high school, and she took to it immediately. She developed a reputation for partying hard and blacking out, although she always thrived academically.
The trend followed her to an undergraduate degree at Northwestern University, then to law school, where she made editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Law Review.
She began drinking nightly her first year as an associate. Practicing law is stressful. The hours are long, and there’s always an adversary, she said. The legal industry is drowning in alcohol. Drinking lubricates conversations at stuffy galas; clients are won over wine.
Two things set Smith apart: Her then-undiagnosed depression and a genetic predisposition. Her maternal grandfather died of alcoholism. Alcohol, not networking, brought Smith to legal events. She would organize her day around drinking, planning out the hours she had to be in meetings so she knew when she could get away. She was regularly vomiting blood. Her blase attitude toward her addiction was fueled by suicidal tendencies.
Smith kept working while in recovery but kept a low profile. In her last three years at Shearman she began working in practice development. By the time she bottomed out in 2004, she had taken a client development position at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. A year after hitting her lowest point, she moved to Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler as marketing director. She didn’t bring up her sobriety when she interviewed at the firm. It wasn’t their business, she felt, and she shared her story with a select few.
Smith said that she was lucky that sobriety stuck. It helped that her doctor correctly diagnosed her the first time, which is rare.
“I felt relieved,” she said.
She takes her medication “religiously,” although she still experiences depressive episodes. She was also fortunate that she was able to come home each day to a nice apartment and hold on to a lucrative job. For many, recovery comes with court dates and fees, an imploding social life. She wasn’t forced to quit drugs and alcohol; she wanted to.
She wrote privately about her experience. She found it cathartic. Deep into a bender, she would always tell herself she would write a book. And after arriving at Patterson in 2005, Smith compiled her writing and landed a book deal for her memoir, “A Girl Walks Out of a Bar.”
While she was elated, she knew the truth would have to come out. She made her way from partner to partner to share her story. During those conversations, her fear melted away.
“I was nervous. I didn’t know how I would be perceived,” Smith said. “What I found in that process was that inevitably people would say before I finished my story, ‘oh, my cousin. My roommate. My neighbor.’ Everybody knew somebody. And a lot of people I told had questions. They have this issue in their lives in some form. And they want to help.”
Smith is not advocating to abolish booze from the profession. Instead, she wants attorneys who are too afraid to ask for help to come out into the open. She wants law firms to look at addiction from a risk-management perspective. At the very least, she wants an open conversation. A person is only high-functioning for as long as they can keep up the illusion and avoid catastrophic mistakes, she said.
“They’re high-functioning, but also high-risk,” she said. “You’re high-function until you miss a big hearing, or mess up a contract.”
Smith has also found that, while successful, alcohol held her back from reaching her full potential. All of the days she worked from home could have been spent in the office brainstorming with colleagues.
Smith is now a deputy executive of client relations at Patterson, a job she was elevated to five years ago. She has been sober for 15 years. And sobriety has become part of her identity. She co-hosts a podcast, Recovery Rocks, and tours the country giving speeches at law firms, bar associations and law schools.
“It’s important for us to raise our hands and put a name and a face to it,” she said. “It shouldn’t be incumbent on the people who struggle with these issues to find the solution.”
This story is part of a special report on mental health and the legal profession from Law.com: Minds over Matters.
We wanted to help delve into why depression and substance abuse are so pervasive in the legal industry.
Ervin Gonzalez, was a top Miami civil lawyer, beloved partner of the prominent Coral Gables law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, and renowned for not only his charismatic and warm demeanor but as “a trusted, go-to trial attorney.” Despite his stellar reputation and an enviable record of 33 verdicts of at least $1 million or more, Gonzalez committed suicide in June 2017.
At 38, Lisa Smith was living in a bright, beautiful New York City apartment and had a high-powered job at the prestigious Manhattan firm Pillsbury Winthrop. She also drank day and night and turned to cocaine to “straighten up enough” to perform her duties at the firm.
Experts say that Gonzalez and Smith aren’t isolated cases. Not by a long shot.
A Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 professions revealed that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs, while the landmark 2016 American Bar Association (ABA) and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study determined that 28% of licensed, employed lawyers suffer depression. The study also showed that 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety and 21% qualify as problem drinkers.
Attorney Patrick R. Krill, lead author of the ABA/Hazelden study and a recognized authority of addiction and mental health issues in the legal profession, says the data “paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”
Krill points to the impact of the experience of the profession, which begins even before the J.D.’s are awarded. And Smith, now Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and author of the addiction memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, can attest to that, highlighting the very different dynamic of law school.
“Instead of being in school with friends, we found ourselves pitted against each other all the time, particularly with the use of the Socratic method,” Smith says. “We were constantly being ranked and there was this sense of ‘my gain is your loss’ that permeated our entire experience. It was a different kind of pressure to succeed and a much more pronounced level of stress than I had previously faced.”
That stress skyrockets when graduates are launched into practice. Smith by her own admission had always done “everything right.” An exemplary high school record lead to admission into Northwestern University. After receiving her B.A., she then went off to the Rutgers School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Law Review, graduated at the top her class, and ultimately landed a job at a prestigious law firm in New York City…along with 90 other highly qualified first-year associates.
“I was a perfectionist, and I always did well. And now [at the firm] I was competing against all of these people whose credentials were equally as good as mine,” she recalls. “It was a very charged, very competitive environment.”
Not to mention demanding. Deadlines, long hours, excessive workloads, and client pressures together make the practice of law one of the most stressful careers.
This unrelenting pressure, Krill notes, puts lawyers at odds with the types of things one does to support mental health, such as rest (actual sleep or downtime for recharging), exercise, and quality social connections.
The tendency to prioritize winning and achievement rather than well-being and happiness also compromises mental health.
Yet, despite the deficit in mental health, lawyers are not feeling sufficiently supported to seek help. According to Whitney Hawkins, a licensed psychotherapist in Miami, the majority of lawyers continue to feel isolated and shameful when they are unable to measure up to unreachable standards in the legal community.
“Lawyers are fearful that if they share they’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse they will be seen as incompetent or unable to complete their duties at work,” she says.
Smith concurs. While she has since gone public about her addiction and depression, she only did five days of detox before returning to work.
“I was really terrified of the stigma,” she says. “The day I checked into detox, I told work I had a medical emergency and would be out for five days. I knew that because of HIPAA, I could safely be out for five days without a doctor’s notice. Any longer would require that I admit to what was really going on.”
Although Smith had been privately struggling with addiction and depression for 10 years, she was still highly regarded as a respected, trusted, and smart member of the team.
“I couldn’t risk becoming someone, who in their eyes, was weak, deficient, and unreliable,” she says.
Today, however, momentum is building around lawyer mental health and well-being, particularly in response to The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which was prompted by the ABA/Hazelden study.
The Path to Lawyer Well-Being is a 72-page report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being that outlines recommendations around what needs to be done in order to address and improve lawyers’ well-being. The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes:
“Identifying stakeholders and the role each can play in reducing the toxicity in the legal profession; eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors; emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence; educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues; and taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.”
Since its publication, the report has been carefully reviewed across the country and states are starting to form task forces to roll out recommendations. The Florida Bar, for example, has already launched a new Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness.
Also, last month the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates adopted a resolution “urging bar associations, law schools, lawyer licensing agencies, and legal employers to step up efforts to help attorneys with mental health and substance abuse issues.”
Krill is hopeful.
“After decades of refusing to acknowledge our profession’s problem with depression and addiction, we finally seem to be moving in the right direction,” he says. “Truly improving lawyers’ well-being requires long-term culture change. At the end of the day, lawyers are humans. We must focus on their well-being.”
These podcasts will leave you feeling inspired, informed, and less alone
One of the most important parts of my recovery has always been to keep learning. I continue to expand what I know about sobriety and how to handle my new life sans alcohol. Although everyone comes on the sobriety journey for different reasons, there’s one thing that I bet all of us can agree on: the importance of learning about sobriety and recovery.
That’s where listening to a great recovery podcast (or 12!) can come in.
We sober folks are major beneficiaries of the podcast boom because there are so many great shows that focus on life after alcohol and drugs. This growing medium is a powerful way to hear other’s recovery stories and learn from their journey.
The best part, though? You can do it all from the convenience of your own home or during your commute to work… or any other time that you need a little time to escape. Below are some of our favorite recovery podcasts that you simply have to check out and subscribe to.
Jes Valentine and Kate Zander are two friends who gave up drinking and started a podcast. This fairly new venture was started because they were sick of going to a bar and watching their friends get drunk. So, instead, they’re on a mission to create a community about getting sober, talking shit and, yes, drinking seltzer.
We love this podcast so much that we’ve featured Valentine and Zander on Saturday Scaries!
Recommended episode: “13- Princess Fomo And The Babysitters Club”
Annie Grace, the author of The Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life, hosts a podcast of the same name. In the 150-plus episodes of the show (so far), Grace gives listeners insightful information on how to stay sober, answers reader questions and features stories by This Naked Mind coaches, and members of her community.
Some of the episodes discuss alcohol withdrawals, the link between drinking and binge eating, how to deal with loneliness and so much more.
Recommended episode: “EP 130: Reader Question – How to deal with loneliness?”
The really exciting thing about this podcast is that the two friends come from different generations—one is a Gen X lawyer in 12-Step recovery, and the other is a millennial who found recovery through blogging—which gives them plenty to talk about as they discuss the issues for those of us who struggle and recover. They have different perspectives, of course, but also find much in common—and you’ll find much in common with them as you listen.
Recommended episode: “Episode 14: Sober Sex”
Another great buddy podcast on our list is the EDIT podcast hosted by Aidan Donnelley Rowley and Jolene Park. In this podcast, the two friends aim to talk about why they made an “Early Exit” from the drinking life as well as what it means when you live inside of the gray area of drinking.
They also discuss the ongoing edits- or changes- that they are making in their own lives, such as talking about social media, grief, relationships and the moderation question.
Recommended episode: “#Dry Life + Social Media”
Jean M. is a sober woman who started The Bubble Hour podcast because she wanted to break down the walls of stigma and denial around alcohol use disorder. In her podcast, which has more than 200 episodes, she invites guests on to discuss the various areas of sobriety and recovery that affect all of us today. This can mean talking about anything from early recovery to how to plan for a new year to celebrating your soberversary.
Recommended episode: “Kate’s Story: Alcohol-free by choice”
Another popular recovery podcast that has upward of 200 episodes is Recovery Elevator. In this one, each episode focuses on a particular aspect in recovery. Recovery Elevator emphasizes how to overcome difficult parts of sobriety while also making room for the good parts.
For instance, a recent episode talks about the “joy of missing out” and how that can be one of the most powerful forces in recovery. Other highlights include the mindset of sobriety, the calories of alcohol and how normal drinkers view addiction.
Recommended episode: “RE 204: Should I Avoid Social Events Where Alcohol Will Be Present?”
Sondra Primeaux and Tammi Salas host this weekly show. Their aim is to explore all of the topics that are related to creativity in sobriety. Cool, right?
Here’s their thinking: “When an addiction is removed, there is a void that is left.” This show’s aim is to find ways to fill that void through creative pursuits. In each episode, they interview someone in recovery about their sober journey and creative pursuits.
Recommended episode: “Episode 88 – Before The Relapse”
This podcast is all about #mommyingsober: It’s perfect for women who are committed to both their sobriety and their kids. Although the show isn’t currently releasing new episodes, the archives are incredibly rich if you’re a mother in recovery.
In fact, you might be surprised to find that parenting is a lot like recovery. “It’s a beautiful, challenging, exhausting and rewarding process that provides the sweetest moments of joy,” podcast host Annika wrote on the official podcast website.
Recommended episode: “Episode 17: Help a Mother Out”
Want to listen to a super-relatable podcast on sobriety and recovery? Then tune in each week to A Sober Girls Guide.
Jessica Jeboult hosts these insightful conversations about mental health, self-development, wellness, and spirituality and their influence the recovery journey. She’s hosted fantastic guests including Taryn Strong of She Recovers and Martha Duke of Recovering Out Loud.
Recommended episode: “A Sober Girls Mom”
It’s common to have the fear of missing out when first entering recovery. It may seem as if everyone you know is out to happy hour and you’re, well, not.
But every Tuesday, Recovery Happy Hour reminds us what sobriety is really about: bettering ourselves. It encourages its listeners to embrace the joy of missing out instead. Each episode features inspiring stories of life beyond the bottle, such as dating in sobriety, the #newyearnewme lie and more.
Recommended episode: “Episode 36 – Dating in Sobriety”
Rachel Hart is a life coach who hosts the Take a Break From Drinking podcast. She aims to help women take a break from drinking so that “they can learn how to relax, have fun and feel confident without a glass in hand.”
Episodes, which are released every Tuesday, focus on things such as mastering the urge to drink, drinking and the emotional tunnel vision, how drinking prevents you from creating a future (one I can personally relate to), and more.
Recommended episode: “Catastrophizing”
12. Home Podcast
From 2015 until 2018, these two awesome women teamed up to ask the big questions of life, answered through the lens of addiction recovery. With more than 100 episodes, The Home Podcast’s archives have so much on exploring our hearts, relationships, life, love and the universe at large.
Recommended episode: “Episode 107: How to Begin”
Disclosure: Hip Sobriety is the parent company of The Temper.
There’s so much in each of these shows, and every one is fantastic for its own unique reason. Plus, because many of these launch on a weekly basis, you may find that there is a never-ending supply of great information on handling your sobriety, embracing the joy of missing out and recovering from whatever addictions of your past.
Whether you took an early exit from drinking, someone who has hit rock bottom, or a person that came to sobriety for other reasons, there’s definitely a podcast here to love (and listen to on repeat) for you.
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.
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.