I’m a grad student. I’m also an addict in recovery.
Reading Time: 7 minutes
My name is Sophie*. I mean, it’s not my real name, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
I’m a grad student. I’m also an addict in recovery. These two things can’t comfortably co-exist in a public or professional conversation. But I want to talk about it anyway, so for all intents and purposes you can just call me Sophie.
A lot of this is coming from firsthand experience, speculations, and opinions. Don’t take my word as gospel.
I got clean in 2013, when I was 21 and still an undergrad. When I tell people that story now, they file it under “acts of bravery” or “really knowing and being in control of one’s self.” When I tell people that story, it’s usually by the time we’ve hung out three times — after the first date, after a long and multi-layered discussion that we might be having in the corner at a party. And sure, some of my colleagues in academia know. Just some of them, when it eventually comes up. With almost six years of sobriety under my belt, it is in many ways ‘safer’ to break my anonymity and tell people about the fact that I am in recovery. We inhabit — for better or for worse — a world of neoliberal, meritocratic thought. People like results; they want concrete deliverables.
Even so, I keep that information close to the vest in my professional life. It’s not simply because of the potential repercussions born from misinformed, caricature-ish stereotypes of the delinquent and irresponsible addict. That’s certainly a part of it. There is a culture of using and drinking in North American graduate academia, as a social lubricant, a tool for networking, and a means to blow off steam. “I don’t drink” is what I usually say, and thankfully, since we’re all adults, people just nod and say, “That’s cool,” and we carry on the conversation. I am content to attend department mixers and post-mixer afterparties with a club soda in hand, but there is always this lingering feeling that I am on a different astral plane. I know I’m not networking in the same networks. I may be there and I may be talking about my work, but there is an impenetrability to the borders of those networks. And it is simply because I am not drinking, and they are, and however little or much their mental state is altered, my colleagues and I are having different conversations. My resolve not to drink also sends a subtle message, whether or not it’s intentional: I’m not capable or willing to take this interaction into the social world; I always take myself seriously.
For people who might not know, being social is a huge part of grad school. It’s so huge, and yet for whatever reason — at least in my experience — I never really got the memo beforehand. Don’t get me wrong, I had some understanding that I needed to sharpen my networking skills. Make the odd appearance at a talk or department event. Become a part-time extrovert. But I really didn’t clue into how important it was to be social. Over and above the professional reasons and the network building and all that, being social meant the opposite of being isolated. Isolation is what makes grad students miserable. I did not take classes last semester because I was recovering from a traumatic event, and therefore felt too disconnected and not enough a part of anything to participate in as many social events as I would have liked. The isolation felt like an anvil on my chest. I needed to be social for the sake of my mental and emotional survival. The overwhelming work of grad school is so preoccupying on so many levels that, if you’re not seen, people might — and often do — forget those who are never around.
All of which is to circuitously say that almost all social events that I attend as a grad student — on or off site — involve drinking. Being social is a big and important part of being a grad student.
Are you still with me? Ok, good. Let’s move along.
“But Sophie,” you might ask, “why don’t you just tell your colleagues that you’re in recovery? Surely they would get it.” Well, I could do that. But remember the little excursion I took through the awkward discrepancy in people’s levels of inebriation — which can range from stone-cold sober to being really, very out of it — during conversations that I often find myself in? Paradoxically, breaking my anonymity adds another layer of separation. I’ve grown close enough to some of my colleagues to disclose my recovery, among others. But even though they were always receptive and accepting, they still say weird stuff sometimes. Below, I’ve compiled a list of some conversation snippets to illustrate my point.
“I’m sure one day you’ll be able to drink again.”
In response to a coy suggestion I made to a friend that they don’t need to actually get drunk when they go out: “Oh yeah, I could, but it’s different with you. You’re very controlled.” (something to that effect)
“What were you addicted to?” or variations thereof.
“Your addiction doesn’t define you.”
Apart from the first statement, which I think we can all agree is a very messed-up thing to say to a recovering addict, you might be wondering what could be so bothersome about the others. I do want to stress that I don’t actually feel offended, or necessarily that bothered, but those statements highlight the more subtle ways that otherwise open-minded colleagues still misunderstand or caricaturize addiction.
Let’s start with the second statement and move down the list. “You’re very controlled” implies a couple of things. One, that I’m a control freak who is very mindful of what goes in and out of her body (the first part is true, but I am far from a ‘my body is a temple’ kind of person), and more importantly, that addiction is something I have control over. What’s lost here is the fact that the very reason I don’t drink or get high is because I am literally incapable of controlling myself. My choice not to partake is not born out of health consciousness, a desire to project an image of wellbeing, or to make people feel bad about their choice to indulge. My choice is a non-choice; it’s either stone cold sobriety or active addiction. My sobriety is a result of not being able to participate in something that others get to do. It’s survival, literally.
Let’s look at the next statement: “What were you addicted to?” Admittedly, depending on the person asking, it can be really tempting to tell the asker to fuck off. The question sometimes makes me feel like I’m being treated like a curiosity at the zoo. Once again, it misses the point, although this time it’s something I really can’t blame people for. There are still a lot of misconceptions about addiction, namely that it is almost always substance-specific. It can be that, but in my case and as is the case for my friends in recovery, it’s not like that at all. For us, being an addict preludes substance abuse. Addiction can be born of many circumstances. In my case, it evolved out of unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with depression, trauma, and poor self-worth. It’s also a very intimate question; really not the sort of thing that I feel comfortable talking about while I’m sitting on the floor of a friend’s apartment at a house party.
Onto the last one: “your addiction doesn’t define you.” Now, I completely understand that this one is coming from a good place and a desire to make me feel like I am not being judged. But it’s patently wrong. It’s a big part of my life that, for better or worse, I often need to keep hidden. It defines the friendships I make, the relationships I form, the activities I do (or don’t do). All of my close relationships formed outside of recovery circles start with establishing boundaries around drugs and alcohol (more the former). Don’t bring drugs to my house. Don’t show up to my house or to a one-on-one hangout high or drunk. Don’t ask me if I want any. Check in with me first before recounting a drug-related escapade from your undergraduate days. Saying that my addiction doesn’t define me is also unwittingly dismissive. Besides the fact that it elides something that, if otherwise not there, would make me a totally different person, it also signals an unwillingness or disinterest in trying to understand me.
“Your addiction doesn’t define you” reads as “I don’t care about the fact that you’re an addict; I like the other stuff about you. Your addiction doesn’t define you, because how could it? You’re so great otherwise.” It means you’re choosing not to acknowledge that part of me. The part of me that has caused me and the people I love grief. The part of me that would have derailed my academic career. The part of me that could not deal with the world of pain that I endured and that I also created. The part of me that brought me so much shame and desperation. That was really me. That still is me, because that is also the part of my life that made me stop in my tracks and want to change.
But if we’re not close friends, probable lovers, or fellow recovering addicts, I won’t be telling you any of this. Despite being a grad student in a progressive department with progressive peers, the term ‘addict in recovery’ is still an identity marker. It’s something that might perplex you. It might inspire admiration for my ability to be in control of myself. It might make you feel uneasy as you smoke a joint in front of me, wondering if you’re causing me harm or if I am judging you. It might be a part of myself that you don’t want me to feel defined by, because people don’t want to define themselves by bad stuff. Being an addict is still ‘bad.’ ‘Bad’ just holds different meanings now. ‘Bad’ is still contradictory; it doesn’t reflect the otherwise ‘successful’ person who is standing in front of you. ‘Bad’ is dysfunctional, lacking in tenacity, hopeless. It’s honestly just too much to explain. There is already enough separation between myself and the social world of grad school. In a sea of colleagues, faculty, and people I should probably know but for the life of me cannot remember, and many of whom are holding a drink, I often stand alone with my glass of club soda.
Written by Sophie*
*Not my real name