Recovery From Addiction and the Road to Academia (A Guest Post)

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.

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Recovery From Addiction and the Road to Academia (A Guest Post) — 15 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post – as a recovering alcoholic with relatively long term sobriety in the late stages of a PhD program, I think you’ve highlighted a number of key aspects of the challenges, but also possible benefits, of balancing grad school with ongoing recovery work. In my own case, I did one Master’s degree while still actively drinking (and was frankly lucky to pass) then a second and this PhD after several years in recovery. From the time I started this sober round of grad school, I was clear that for me, it is just not an option to play the game of sanity-sacrificing grad student. I think many times, in contrast to my peers, this has helped me to stay focused, prioritize, and keep myself from stressing out over the details, because the costs, for me, of going down that road are just too high.

    My own experience has been further complicated by the importance of fieldwork in my discipline, and the way that my alcoholism had to be considered as a factor in where, how, and on what topics I was able to conduct research. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was sympathetic about how my position would affect my work, as well as sponsors/supporters who were able to help me through some challenges via email, but it was a much more prominent concern during my fieldwork than I actually anticipated.

    I think that for disciplines that involve fieldwork or research abroad, addiction and mental health issues provide another set of challenges that have to be navigated in selecting an appropriate site, and in conducting the fieldwork itself. Given the stigma and the complex issues around disclosure and anonymity, however, it’s not easy to find a way to talk about it.

  2. “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!).”

    I can definitely relate to this, as well as most of this post. At one point I asked a fellow grad student why there wasn’t more socializing happening amongst grad students, to which he replied, “Well, there is, but you don’t drink.” Mind you, with over five year in the program and very active recovery and service, I’m more than comfortable being around others who are drinking provided I have a good reason for being there (this is especially true of departmental and professional functions). But this comment shows that other students may not feel the same way.

    On a completely different note, it is only thanks to my recovery that I have come so far in my graduate and professional career (after almost failing out of college my senior fall). After going on to complete a funded terminal MA (including a Master’s Thesis), I am now at one of the three elite Ivies working on my PhD. In this time, I’ve done incredibly well in my coursework, presented a paper at a regional conference, received a Mellon Fellowship in my second year of doctoral study, and made numerous connections via networking with senior scholars (I’ve met at least one senior scholar in my field who is in recovery and it has certainly brought us closer – you come to realize that all these supposed idols are, after all, just people like you and me, and most are very approachable), all the while keeping my sobriety and recovery first in my life. The benefits of a program recovery on one’s perspective vis-a-vis the academic life (serenity in adversity, patience, taking things a day at a time, seeing a much bigger picture of life that does not just consist of academia, remembering that I am not at the center of the universe) have been tremendous. I cannot imagine being in grad school without sobriety and recovery.

  3. These are incredibly brave posts. Thank you.

    The drinking culture of many graduate programs could easily be read as a maladaptive coping strategy for an unecessarily stressful and unsupportive work environment.

    As I find in so many other areas of life these days, there’s simply no practical or ethical reason for perpetuating environments that are not inclusive and supportive. We’ve all got our issues, vulnerabilities, as they say, and these are reflections of our humanity. There is nothing gained and everything lost when one is dismissed for an otherwise manageable bit of who they are.

  4. I know it can be hard to be the one not drinking, but during my grad school time I noticed many in the same boat as I was: I didn’t *start* drinking until after my prospectus was passed. Drinking was helpful for research (and I enjoy it), but I never felt unduly compelled to drink in the years before I drank.

    Stick to your guns. Get something non-alcoholic to partake in the social world and don’t let it limit you. If someone asks “why aren’t you drinking,” try to remember that it isn’t (usually) meant to be coercive or disdainful. Holding on to control of your narrative (“I don’t drink, but man this is a stiff ginger ale”) in whatever way works for you is key. Good luck to everyone out there!

  5. As others wrote, these are wonderful posts and comments.

    I’ve never had problems with alcohol and am no longer a graduate student, but I’m extremely disappointed by the heavy emphasis on drinking in my field. There’s no doubt that important bonding and networking goes on over drinks, especially among the senior PIs. It often goes late into the night at conferences and during visits. Part of this is truly cultural (i.e., some nationalities “practice” heavy drinking from a younger age and maintain the ability), but it’s not something I’m happy to see carried over, and I’m worried about how it affects diversity and informal collaboration networks. I’ve felt more peer pressure as a moderately drinking academic who likes to go to bed “early” (by 10:30) and sleep well (7-8 hours!) than I ever felt in college.

  6. “you think you can peal my sober word apart from my drunken word”
    — Jack Would Speak Through The Imperfect Medium of Alice [Notley]

  7. I can so relate to all of this. I am in my last few months of going up for tenure, and have struggled with the ups and downs of recovery for years. Honestly, I think the THINKING and reading blogs and obsessing about quitting and mental gymnastics about it has taken more time from my research than anything else. I’ve done well, but my book is dragging along and I need to turn it in (to the press waiting for it) in the next few weeks. I have been a huge sufferer of the “Imposter Syndrome” many times, and feel while I was drinking it was at it’s absolute worst (no duh!). I’m so glad I found this page, it’s hard to find alcoholics in academia, even though there are many, many, many – I’m sure. Thank you!

      • Thank you for everything. Did a first PhD with the highest regards. Many publications. Fifteen years of teaching behind me. Soon starting a second PhD. Still struggling with alcool…

  8. I am a current first year graduate student. I am an alcoholic. After my first semester of grad school, i went to rehab during winter break. Now, at the end of the second semester I am back to drinking and can’t make it three days sober. I pissed. It was one drink of wine and here I am. Not one person knows, almost everyone drinks amongst the grad students in my program but given certain aspects of its unique nature, many of the faculty do not. However, the faculty never hang with the students and vice-a-versa. My department is what you would call a ‘toxic’ grad department. I have zero support and there is a highschool like clicky mentality amongst the grad students- which always includes getting drinks. I limit myself to one or two but count the seconds till I get home some nights. At home I know I can drink in silence. I have tried to convince myself that I am not an alcohol, or justify it by saying “what I study is really tough! I deserve this” or if anyone in the department pisses me off I drink. I think… “how am I going to be sober in grad school?” The second I walk out of my department’s building there is a bar, turn the corner bar, students everywhere; drinking drinking drinking! All I want to do is get well so I can focus on my research. I just want to be able to do research without needing a drink. Help!

  9. It’s important to note that ‘relapse’ doesn’t only apply to returning to drug/alcohol abuse. It involves re-addressing a world of behaviors that can lead to substance abuse. For the most part, many relapse prevention groups focus on ‘people, places and things’ that need to be avoided in post-acute recovery. A good, simple way to view it is that all 12-step programs are relapse prevention-based by the fact that the collective experience helps prevent a return to past behavior. It’s obvious that it’s a long-term plan that really begins after initial treatment. Beyond merely quit drugs or drinking, you need to guide your new life on the premise that you will not have substances to turn to when things aren’t going that well…and the fact of the matter is that just because you’re sober, things won’t always be perfect!

  10. I’m a long term alcoholic currently working on my second masters. I’ve been to rehab twice and I’m 25 years old. I completed my first masters completed smashed, like you mentioned. But since then it’s gotten exponentially worse. I work in a medical laboratory and I can’t complete my lab work because my hands shake too bad. I have no choice but to drink every day before school. I need to go to detox but I don’t have enough to time between classes and it feels as though my academic career is ending, or my alcoholism is becoming worse than ever. My dream was to attend medical school but that seems impossible now. I maintained a 4.0 all throughout undergrad and my first masters. I’ve ruined all my professional, personal and romantic relationships. Alcohol will absolutely destroy your life. The only solution is to quit, which to us alcoholics I realize is near impossible.

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