Career

I Was an Addict at Work and HR Didn’t Know What to Do

Thankfully, most companies now have Employee Assistance Programs to help workers get help, but they still have a long way to go.

In my late twenties, I was not what anyone would call a model employee.

It was 1999 and I was an editor at a fashion website, a position I was both qualified and unqualified for — qualified because I’d worked at national magazines and unqualified because I was at that point a raging cocaine addict. Many mornings I’d show up having stayed up all night the evening before. I’d be shaking, wreaking of the alcohol I’d had to imbibe in order to not get too high all night and occasionally needing to dip into the bathroom for a bump so I didn’t crash.

Through a series of incidents too confusing and unbelievable to even document, I ended up being reported to human resources by a guy I’d dated who wrote for the website. He told her in an email in words I will never forget because she read them to me: “Anna is pulling the wool over your eyes; she is a cocaine addict who does drugs at work.”

When she read this to me as I sat alongside my direct supervisor, I went cold. I was coming off a long night and could still feel the cocaine drip going down the back of my throat. And so I did something that no innocent person would: I started sobbing and screamed, “Give me a drug test now!”

“No,” she said, to my great relief and shock. “We believe you.”

Why they didn’t test me is anyone’s guess. If I wasn’t a drug addict, then I was at the very least insane. But here’s what they did instead: they told me they were firing my writer ex and hiring me an assistant. Seemed like a great deal! But then, once the “assistant” started, it quickly became apparent that she had been hired not to report to me but to manage me. I was relegated to administrative work. I knew they were trying the old make-her-so-miserable-that-she-quits.

As it so happened, I got a job offer within a few weeks — to edit a new celebrity website. (Despite the fact I was remarkably unemployable and barely functioning, this was when everyone was launching websites, so even the barely functioning were being handed good jobs).

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, I decided — on my own — to get sober within a few weeks of starting that new job. I knew I’d lose the position if I went away for 30 days, and so I signed up for outpatient rehab on the westside of L.A., agreeing to show up there most evenings at 5 p.m. Crossing town at rush hour was no easy feat, even 20 years ago, and so I needed to ask my supervisor if I could leave at 4 p.m. those days.

Here’s what I remember: I told him I was newly sober and needed to leave early to get to my outpatient rehab meetings. He said yes. I don’t think he knew what else to say. In retrospect, he was really very cool about it all.

Depending on your point of view, I was either very lucky or very unlucky when it came to being an addict in the workplace; at no point did anyone ask me if I had a problem or wanted help, and no one suggested rehab or a 12-step meeting.

And so I got sober and did my editing job a hell of a lot better than I had at the fashion website. There was no cocaine in the bathrooms or loudly screaming, “Drug test me now!” There were just a lot of smoking breaks and leaving at 4 p.m.

Depending on your point of view, I was either very lucky or very unlucky when it came to being an addict in the workplace; at no point did anyone ask me if I had a problem or wanted help, and no one suggested rehab or a 12-step meeting. Still, I was able to get sober with the support of my employer.

While the situation has changed drastically over the past 20 years — most companies now have Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPS, in place to provide free, confidential help for anyone suffering from a mental health issue — the workplace is still struggling to adequately address addiction.

“Less than six percent of employees go to EAP for mental health issues,” says Fay Zenoff, a woman in long-term recovery and the executive director of Open Recovery, a nonprofit that works to end the stigma of addiction. “The EAP model is not sufficient to address the enormity of the issue.”

Zenoff recounts a time she approached a financial services firm and offered to do a workplace audit focused on their readiness to address alcoholism and support recovery. “I said, ‘We can look at your benefits, culture, policies, management practices and physical environment to help you identify ways to better support people so they can feel safe coming forward.’ And the head of HR I was talking with said, ‘We don’t have that problem here. No one has come forward to say they need help.’ I said, ‘That’s because of stigma. To illustrate the prevalence of the problem,  I can put in front of you an employee in your ranks who is struggling to help a loved one and I can put you in touch with a former managing director who was getting promotions while drunk on the job.’ But he declined.” 

That company, Zenoff argues, is hardly the only one that doesn’t handle alcoholism appropriately. As a manager in an organization, “I underwent mandatory training on sexual harassment and on financial impropriety,” she says. “I have no recollection of training on how to identify the signs of alcoholism.” When she got sober 12 years ago, she recalls sharing with her direct manager that she was in recovery but “my manager clearly didn’t understand it; she wanted to compare our drinking styles. I finally said at one point when we were going out for drinks with a client at 2 in the afternoon, ‘Can we just have frozen yogurt instead?’ I was shot a don’t-you-dare-bring-that-up look.”

But it’s not all bad news — and we have the millennials to thank for it. “People in their 30s are getting into more senior leadership positions and they grew up hearing about mental health disorders, so the stigma is decreasing,” says Lisa Smith, a practicing attorney and recovery advocate who’s also the bestselling author of the memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

When Smith speaks at law schools, she says that students tell her they’re reticent to work at big firms because they don’t want to work around the clock and risk an array of mental health issues. Says Smith, “Sought-after employees don’t want to go somewhere that doesn’t offer support for mental health issues.”

Still, Smith admits that the issue of alcoholism for women in the workplace is much more dire than it is for men — at least in certain professions. “There’s added pressure in the old boys’ club professions — women have broken in but they have to try even harder to belong,” she says. “You have to be the one who’s willing to go out with the client on a Tuesday night because that’s the way it’s always been. And alcohol affects women differently: we’re more sensitive to it.”

That being said, things have improved greatly since the time that Smith, Zenoff and I found sobriety. “I knew about EAP and knew insurance would cover treatment, but I ignored it because of the stigma,” Smith says of when she got sober 15 years ago. “EAPs have been in place for decades; what’s changing is the way employees engage with it. Companies are trying to promote a culture of help seeking. And that means things are getting better. Slowly.”

Anna David is a journalist, TedX speaker, and the author of eight books about addiction, recovery and relationships. Through her company, Light Hustle Publishing, she offers coaching and online and destination workshops to help people share their stories and increase their credibility by publishing books.