I'm Struggling To Get Sober, And Working In Academia Only Makes It Harder

I sit in a public library and stare at a blinking cursor in between sending I-can’t-do-this texts to friends. Shakespeare’s play “All’s Well That Ends Well” sits atop checked-out library books, all unopened. I lean my back against the hard, cool plastic chair and begin to panic. My book is due in a month, and I have 20,000 more words to write. I’ve already pushed the deadline back multiple times for various reasons, and this is the final push. I’m not even close to being done.

I take another look at the computer screen, at the bad writing I already have, and my mind drifts to the Food Lion across the street. I close my computer, pack up and head to my car. At the grocery store, I turn right and head straight to the chilly-beer aisle, eyes scanning the 12-packs behind the clear glass. I pick one up and head to the cashiers, wondering how many people they see buying beer at 11 a.m. When I get home, my husband glances up from his computer to assess the familiar scene, his eyebrows rising slightly as if to say, “Home already?” But he glances back down and I put the pack of beer softly on the counter. I slowly, painfully remove four bottles, careful not to clink them together. I go upstairs, lay the beers on the bed, get under the covers and scroll through my phone while I drink them in quick succession.

I start to feel a bit better, the relief slowly easing my clenched-up chest. I send joking text messages to friends. I scroll through Twitter. I don’t think about my book. Then my eyes grow heavy and I plug my phone in, put it aside and sleep till about 3:30 p.m. so I have time to pull myself together before my 6-year-old comes home. At 5, we’ll head to my in-laws, where I’ll start again, drinking three or four beers with dinner.

This evening, though, something shifts. I get in the car feeling bankrupt — physically, mentally and spiritually.

It is not just that I can’t write the book I must have for tenure, I think, I am killing myself over it.

I text my sober friend who knows I’m struggling, typing only “I feel really bad.” She doesn’t respond right away, and I realize that the text is not only alarming but also, truly, a message to myself.

When I first started writing this piece, I was militant about the presence of alcohol as an equity issue for people in recovery, for people for whom one glass is not enough — and its presence means obsession, distraction and anxiety.

I am far from the only academic who struggles with alcoholism or addiction. For this piece, I spoke to a handful of academics, and all but a few required they remain anonymous. It is a request that speaks to the strong stigma attached to addiction, despite the fact that it is a mental illness like any other — defined as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — and that many people who struggle with other mental illnesses also struggle with addiction. 

As Ed Simon writes in his piece “Darkness Visible: My Days of Alcoholism and Academic Sabotage,” the powerlessness of his addiction was acute.

“The knowledge that once I get that one drink, I can’t stop till I’ve had all of them,” he writes. “No logic can really make me stop.” 

Still, those of us who struggle with alcoholism and addiction have internalized the pervasive message that we are simply screw-ups. 

It certainly does not help addicts that academia is saturated with alcohol and other substances. To deal with the pressures of academia, many of us turn to these drugs. 

“We get paid zero dollars to do an unfathomable amount of work. Drug use is, in some ways, a utilitarian issue — some academics turn to stimulants to complete copious amounts of labor in the time they have,” said Olivia Snow, a scholar in sex work studies, referring to the pervasive abuse of stimulants in academia.

It is not a stretch to say that many academics use substances to survive unlivable conditions, the mountains of work placed on contingent faculty, for example.

There are also many aspects of academia that make it easy to nurse an addiction. The flexibility and the general lack of accountability in academic schedules allow addictions to flourish. If academics must be on campus only two or three days of the week, teaching for a handful of hours, if they get semester or yearlong sabbaticals to write, if book and article deadlines are years out and they are responsible for their own research output, it is far easier to arrange a schedule that suits high-functioning addicts. 

What’s more, academic events are soaked with alcohol: conferences, talks, post-event drinks with colleagues. I spoke with one associate professor in the U.K. about her disbelief over how ubiquitous alcohol is at professional events. She described dinners at her institution where every wine glass was prefilled so when students (undergraduates included) and faculty sat down, alcohol was already in front of them. 

“It’s an equity issue,” she told me, echoing what Sharrona H. Pearl said in an interview for The Chronicle for a piece about the “minefield” of attending academic conferences sober. Scholars could “be a little more attentive to what kinds of spaces we are creating, and who’s being excluded.”

When I first started writing this piece, I was militant about the presence of alcohol as an equity issue for people in recovery, for people for whom one glass is not enough — and its presence means obsession, distraction and anxiety. I wanted to embrace the role of sober killjoy; I didn’t want to nurse a seltzer with lime, pretending to drink so I made other academics feel more comfortable. I also didn’t want to feel left out, to know that the professionals drinking around me were getting to experience that warm buzz, the heat of alcohol moving down their throat, the bitter, tangy taste of red wine. 

But my sources reminded me that this kind of policing is not the point. As a doctoral student in classics told me, it’s not about reducing the amount of alcohol in academia but thinking more about “universal design,” a concept centered on reducing the stressors that would help everyone need fewer substances to calm their nerves.

Patrick Clement James, an instructor at West Chester University, started drinking in college and stopped in the second semester of his MFA program. 

“It’s more productive to be sober,” he said. “When I wrote while I was drunk, it was so self-indulgent and so sloppy; it was chaos on the page.” 

In his doctoral program, James had a work-study job that made him responsible for putting out and opening bottles of wine for events. He was at a point in his sobriety where this didn’t bother him, though, where he knew he couldn’t arrange the world to suit his fancy. In his early sobriety, he would work with his sponsor to “bookend” these kinds of events, contact this lifeline before he arrived and after he left, to hold himself accountable for his sobriety.

“I have to live in a world where I will be around alcohol, and I have worked really hard to get to a place where I can be around alcohol,” he said. 

There is a sense that artistry and intellectual discovery are aided by alcohol, but James noticed, as a sober observer, that when academics get drunk, they get stupid: “Nothing brilliant is going to be said. Interesting conversation is not going to happen. When you’re not drinking, you see it for what it is.” 

James made me wonder: What would a profession where we are fully present with each other look like? Where we don’t tamp down the intensity of being alive? 

“Sobriety is the wildest thing I’ve ever done,” James said. “I had to choose: being a writer or drinking. And I chose being a writer. Now I know I was choosing between life or death.”

In my conversation with James, I was inspired not just to recover but also to realize that the qualities of academics who struggle with addiction also make for good research, creativity and the ability to see the world in new ways. 

For James, alcohol was tied to wanting to change how he felt.

“I am a very romantic and sensitive person; it’s really hard to carry the burden of being creative,” he said. “A lot of people use alcohol to tamp that down. I have so much inside of me that I want to express and share.” 

Academics who struggle with addiction know the monumental amount of effort it takes to function, the immense willpower it takes to get out of bed with a hangover, shower and show up to work and do your best. They also do beautiful things in the world and are empathetic, compassionate people who know what it means to be judged, to walk around feeling isolated and alone, and, in turn, to see people as more than their failings. 

Sobriety is the wildest thing I’ve ever done. I had to choose: Being a writer or drinking. And I chose being a writer. Now I know I was choosing between life or death.Patrick Clement James, an instructor at West Chester University

It’s not that we want addicts to recover from who they are but to give them safe spaces to be open about their struggles and to, in turn, have the support necessary to put down the substances that plague them.

As Marya Hornbacher writes in “Sane,” a recovery handbook, it is necessary to “open your hands and let all the deceptions, denial, shame, and fear drop to the ground. Then walk away.”

How can we create spaces in academia in which we share the darkest, destructive parts of ourselves so we can then grow, change and transform in community?

There is a sense of belonging in recovery communities that academia would do well to cultivate. In these communities, sobriety is not something that can be achieved alone; people need the help and support of others to recover.

There is also a sense that radical honesty leads to growth in all aspects of life, including professionally. In being honest with ourselves and each other, the shame that accompanies addiction dies, writes professor and storyteller Brené Brown.

“I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure,” Brown writes. “The fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

Certainly, shame does not make for good research or intellectual discovery. It swallows the qualities we need to think clearly and creatively. So if we address the shame and stigma that haunts addiction, if we bring our struggles to light, we become more whole and more able to do the hard work academia requires, because intellectual work is hard work. It requires us to be fully present.

In recovery communities, there is a mandate to let go of resentments. I do not blame academia for my addiction. I am, however, arguing for a space where we can talk more freely about the addictions that plague us, a space that makes room for people in recovery instead of expecting them to go it alone.

Academia is a space where radical new research and ways of being in the world are discovered. In turn, we might model what a profession in recovery looks like: Hold our members who struggle close, speak to each other more honestly, allow space for more vulnerability and protect those among us who feel so deeply that they must run to cover up and silence themselves.

I am in the early days of recovery. I am determined. I know to be careful; I know how often relapse is a part of recovery. As one of my sources told me, “I just keep messing up.” I know how hard alcoholism is to manage because I have slipped at so many academic events, wanting to belong to a profession in which alcohol is so often at the center.

But I have hope for the first time in a long time that I can emerge out of the darkness of addiction into the light. I cannot do this if I am not radically honest about where I’ve been, though. And I believe that academia can be a profession that offers space to speak, whether this means more efforts to have recovery meetings at conferences (like the Modern Language Association’s inclusion of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings), for academics to simply be more mindful of who is excluded when professional activities center on alcohol or for more academics in positions of power to be honest about their struggles.

These would be radical developments and would serve as a model for other professions. It is exactly the kind of innovation and intellectual risk that academia purports to accomplish in the first place.