I am your colleague who doesn’t drink

I may have been sober for double-digit years. Or I may have quit this morning, desperately hoping yesterday was my last drunk.

I may have been one of the 102,000 U.S. adults who seek treatment for alcoholism this year. That may have saved me from being one of the 3 million people around the world who die this year from alcohol-related causes.

I may have begun abusing drugs by taking Adderall as a “study drug” in college. Or I may have gotten hooked on crystal meth so I could hold down two blue-collar jobs in the recession. Or I may be struggling to free myself from the deadly undertow of opioid addiction.

Whether I work with you in a boardroom or emergency room or situation room or courtroom, someday you may walk into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room in a church or community center looking for help with your drinking, and find me there. I will help you.

I may have been sexually harassed, which happens much more often at a hard-drinking workplace. Or I may be one of the 11% of workers who have embarrassed themselves while drunk at an office party.

It may threaten my sobriety, serenity, and life when the office emphasizes drinking in work-related social activities. Or it may not faze me a bit. I may in fact enjoy being the designated driver.

My past drinking, abuse of expense accounts, and lost productivity may have cost the company dearly, part of the $249 billion annual cost of drinking in the United States. If I am in recovery, that experience may help save a coworker from going through the same costly pattern.

I may relapse, as 40%-60% of alcoholics and drug addicts do. Or I may be among the 13% of American adults who have never had a drink or a craving in my life.

When you casually lament a hangover or recount binge drinking it may unnerve me. Or I may get a kick out of it and tell you that you are an amateur.

Substance abuse by US industry

When I run out for an hour at lunch and return relaxed, I may have gone to my AA home group at the church down the street. Or I may think AA is creepy.

I may have run out at lunch to a temple or mosque to observe my faith. Or I may not be religious.

I may need an ally at work when booze comes up. Or I may be so comfortable that I can happily pour others drinks, like Sam Malone on “Cheers.”

I may be one of the 19% of hotel and restaurant workers who abuse drugs and alcohol. Or I may be one of the 5% of teachers who do.

I may be an alcoholic writer, like William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Or I may have feared I couldn’t writer sober, only to document my struggle in a bestseller.

Our employer may be a large, woke tech company with an employee assistance program that can arrange in-patient residential treatment for 28 days. Or a hard-drinking brogrammer startup with no HR support. (See excellent Medium post by Sarah Jane Coffey here).

Drinking may be against my religion. Or it may have led me to a higher power through AA.

The whole office may know I don’t drink. Or no one might.

When shouts ring out on a Thursday or Friday that everyone at our workplace needs to or has to, or really should drink alcohol, I may or may not speak up to tell you that alcohol landed me in the hospital or jail.

I may or may not speak up to tell you that I feel awkward and unsafe when peer pressure to do something that would endanger me is yelled at me in front of others while I work.

But whatever else I may or may not do, I don’t drink and I do work here. If those two facts need to be reconciled, we have some heavy lifting to do.

I drank the first quarter-century of my working life, beginning with my first job at 17. I had my last drink on March 13, 2006.



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Jeff Elder

Jeff Elder

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist now writing crypto and cybersecurity. The Paris Review praised my Johnny Cash post.