In January, I posted a request on Facebook and Twitter for resources related to mental illness and academia. I had been contacted by a reader recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, who was seeking information. The response to my request was greater than I expected, and many expressed a wish for a list of the resources I discovered. I eventually compiled such a list and posted it on the blog in this post, Mental Illness and the Academy. I also asked for guest posts on the subject. I feel it’s important and yet too often shrouded in secrecy and shame. Today’s post is the first guest post in the series. I expect at least one more. Thank you, reader, for your willingness to share.
When discussing mental health issues, I think a discussion about substance abuse or alcohol abuse is warranted. Like mental illness, there is stigma associated with addiction.
Beginning in high school, it was pretty clear to me that I had a drug problem. I managed to pull together decent grades in high school and went to a good college. In college, my drug and alcohol use progressed and I was unable to maintain my grades. By my sophomore year, I had been arrested a few times and my grades had plummeted causing me to lose my scholarship. Thankfully, I was admitted into a drug diversion program, which afforded me opportunities for inpatient substance abuse treatment. When I completed the diversion program, my criminal charges were dropped (though the arrests are still on my record). Although the road to recovery was much more complicated then I can describe here (12 step groups, relapses, numerous treatment centers), I was able to complete college and set my hopes toward graduate school.
Being a recovering addict in graduate school has certainly had its challenges, but I think it has also afforded me some benefits. Probably one of the most challenging things is feeling like an outsider within the group of graduate students. It seems that even in graduate school, one of the “go to” social activities is heading out to the bar. Although I can be comfortable in a bar, I know that my time in bars should be limited. I often must balance the desire to be a part of the group and what I know I “ought” to be doing instead (staying away from bars!).
Even if I could avoid hanging out with other graduate students, it seems that alcohol is also the center of many department and professional development activities. There is generally alcohol at department parties or following an invited speaker. At national conferences and poster sessions, there is almost always alcohol being served. Part of professional development is to attend to these events; and unlike hanging out with graduate students, it is in my professional best interest to attend these events.
Please do not get me wrong. I know that the world will continue to drink even if I do not and I do not expect the professional world to change for me. I merely describe this to provide my perspective about the dissonance I feel at these events and the added challenges of being a recovering addict in academia.
Although I have had a lot of practice over the years with feeling comfortable without having a drink, my thoughts at these events typically vacillate between professional development thoughts (“I must network”, “I must present my research clearly”) and addiction thoughts (“I would love to drink with everyone else”). I think these feelings stem from a number of things. I want to fit in just like everyone else and sometimes I get tired of responding to the question “why aren’t you drinking?” (mostly asked by other graduate students, not professionals) Also, these events tend to be fairly anxiety-provoking and at times it would be comforting to have a drink to ease my nerves. Finally, as is the case with most people in recovery, no matter how long I have been abstinent from drugs and alcohol (and no matter how horrible my life was when I drank and used drugs) there is still that desire to get smashed.
Another challenge I have faced as a recovering addict in academia is how to balance my school/ work and recovery (as well as all the other typical obligations). Recovery is a lifelong process. I think a common misconception (it was for me at least) is that once someone has gone through treatment, they are “cured”. However, 12-step recovery groups encourage lifelong participation that includes meetings, service committees, and helping other recovering addicts. At times, the demands of graduate school/academia and the time I need to devote to recovery activities can interfere with each other.
Despite these struggles, I have been a productive graduate student. I have been nominated for and received several grants, research awards, and teaching awards. I have successfully developed a program of research and publication history. Sometimes, I think my experiences as a recovering addict in 12-Step recovery have contributed to my success. For one, I am a survivor who overcame several obstacles to arrive to where I am today. To stay clean I had to learn some new skills such as persistence, commitment, service, humility, and self-acceptance—all characteristics that are important to a successful academic life! And despite the fact that at times I am jealous of my graduate student peers who relive stress on Friday night at the bar, I think being a recovering addict has taught be how to use other coping strategies to manage stress—and I never have hangovers on Saturday!
Most of the research I have read suggests that stigma associated with addiction may be stronger than stigmas for mental illness (perhaps because it is perceived as a “choice”). Thus, I have also struggled with whether I should disclose my past. I have told a few graduate students and my advisor (who I knew would be understanding). I think, at least for me, it has been helpful having a handful of people who know why I do not drink alcohol. It helps me remain accountable and also allows me to speak honestly about how I am feeling—which are both important for recovery. At times, I have also been forced to disclose the information to explain my criminal charges and academic blemishes as an undergraduate. As far as I can tell, the disclosure has not affected my graduate school career; however, I can’t help but think about how disclosure may affect my future career goals as an academic.