April is Alcohol Awareness Month, a national movement that began over 30 years ago. It draws attention to the causes and effects of alcoholism, focusing on ways those affected can get help. In thinking about this, I have been pondering what it means to be aware of alcohol addiction.
Is awareness enough, or should awareness lead us to action?
Over a decade ago, as my active alcohol addiction worsened, I was constantly paranoid that someone at work might notice and confront me. I was in the C-suite of a mid-size company and, for the most part, had been successful in my role despite simultaneously spiraling downward into addiction. Losing my career as a result of being ‘caught’ in my substance misuse was my greatest fear. Although I became more reckless as the descent accelerated, I was convinced that no one was aware that I had a problem because no one brought it to my attention.
There were many times in my final drinking years when I awoke to find that during the prior evening, I had engaged in texting or email dialogues with direct reports or with my boss, the CEO. Often in the light of day, these exchanges made me cringe, as my tone and words were not remotely what they would have been had I been sober. Occasionally I had to repair the damage, apologizing for and correcting what I had communicated while I was drunk. However, to my knowledge, none of these instances, nor any of the many work-related “social drinking” situations during which I over-imbibed, raised an awareness among others that I had a substance use problem. Or, if anyone was aware or suspected it, they did not say anything to me.
My response to the fact that no one at work ever approached me with concerns about my alcohol use is a paradox. On the one hand, I’m relieved that no one at work confronted me, as I lived in terror that my problem would no longer be my secret and that I would risk my job, status, income, and reputation. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if someone at work had said something to me out of concern if it would have motivated me to get help sooner.
I place absolutely no responsibility on anyone I worked with during those years of substance misuse; that is not at all my point here. But I do wonder about it.
The deep shame that I felt around my own keen awareness of my alcoholism, and the terror that I would be found out, meant that any type of confrontation about my behavior likely would have been met by denial and anger. Yet regardless, I have no doubt that being found out would have been akin to a sounding car alarm that just will not stop until the correct button on the remote is pushed. Knowing that someone was aware, that someone was concerned, that everything I feared I would lose was closer to becoming my reality would have produced shrill and repetitive thoughts in my head and quickly driven me to find the right button to make them stop. In my case, that button would have been treatment.
Knowing the signs of alcohol misuse and becoming aware of a problem in someone we care about, at work or elsewhere, is important. But awareness will only save lives if it leads to action. Having the kindness, compassion, and courage to say something to your loved one from a place of genuine concern could be an action that sounds the alarm for them and moves them toward recovery.
Lorri Detrick is a Shatterproof Ambassador.