Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Alcoholic Astronomer

The below is a guest contribution from a regular reader of our blog who wishes to remain anonymous.

It's been almost 12 years since I last drank alcohol. At this point most of my friends and colleagues have never seen me drink. When I first stopped drinking (probably because it was such a behavior change and I was in my early twenties) people asked me all the time why I wasn't drinking. These days, most people don't really seem to notice or care. But every once in a while, someone asks me why I'm not drinking. When they ask, I usually say one of the following (all of which are true): I don't like the way it affects me; I'm on a medication which conflicts with alcohol; alcoholism runs in my family; I just don't feel like drinking tonight. But sometimes (depending on my mood and how close I am with the person) I say the more honest answer: I used to drink and it was a problem. I find it easier to not drink at all than try to control my drinking.

Anyone can be an alcoholic, even a PhD astronomer.

Alcohol was my drug of choice for quite a long time. When I was drinking, I was funnier, prettier, happier, more relaxed, more social, less anxious, and overall just an easier person to be around. Alcohol worked very well for me for a long time. It made life easier and more fun. And then it started to cause problems. Eventually, alcohol stopped being a positive thing for me.

There are several alcoholics and drug addicts in my family, so I knew from an early age about the disease of addiction. Alcoholism is a progressive physical dependency and mental illness, which often runs in families. Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the US, first among people ages 15 to 49.

I had this list of behaviors and experiences that, in my mind, were symptoms of being an alcoholic. As long as I didn't experience anything on this list, I wasn't an alcoholic, and therefore could continue drinking. These were things like: driving while intoxicated; missing work or school due to alcohol; blacking-out; losing a relationship due to alcohol; engaging in unsafe behavior while intoxicated; having negative health effects due to alcohol. Slowly, I started checking off items on my list. Yet, I would always justify to myself that when something happened it wasn't because of drinking, but because of the situation: "I had to drive, it was an emergency." or "I didn't want to be friends with her anyway." Denial is a very powerful thing. 

Eventually, I got to a place where I had a lot of problems in my life, and there was a common connection between them. I kept trying to moderate and control my drinking, and sometimes it would work, but often I would end up getting a lot more intoxicated than I intended. I was blacking-out on a regular basis, forgetting hours of an evening even though I appeared completely cognizant to those around me. Ultimately, I had no way of predicting what would happen once I started drinking, and that scared me.

I tried to stop drinking on my own for several years, and I would always end up convincing myself that "this time it would be different." It wasn't until I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings that I was able to stop drinking entirely.

So why am I writing this? What does this have to do with astronomy?

First, I'd like to create some awareness around the fact that there are alcoholics and addicts among us, in our departments, labs, and classrooms. I know many academics who abuse substances. I also know many academics who are in recovery programs like AA. I find that people are surprised that someone as smart and successful as an astronomer can suffer from addiction. Many people are shocked when I tell them that I am an alcoholic. They say things like: "But you are a scientist!" "You seem so together!" "You are too young." I think society's stereotypes about what an alcoholic or drug addict looks like, can make us not recognize addiction in ourselves or those around us.

Second, many of us work on university campuses, where alcohol and drug abuse is incredibly common among our students. Yet as educators, many of us don't know how to recognize the symptoms of addiction in those around us, nor do we know the resources available to those who want to get help. One of the great gifts of Alcoholics Anonymous is that I am given the opportunity to help others who are still suffering from addiction. My past experiences, however bad, can be used to benefit others. I would love for other educators to take some time to learn about the resources available to students and staff at their university and in their community. I would also love for us to be more aware of the signs of addiction so that we can better recognize when those around us are struggling.

Finally, we as a community, are not particularly sensitive to the fact that many people do not drink for a variety of reasons, and some of us are not very comfortable in drinking situations. When I was deciding where to go to graduate school and visiting universities for their perspective student open-houses, many of the social events involved going to bars and drinking with current graduate students. While I understand that for the majority of perspective students this is a great way to socialize, for me (someone who was in early recovery at the time) it was very uncomfortable. When I was applying for post-docs and giving job talks, there were often dinners after the talks with people from the department. At some of these dinners, I was teased when I didn't want to drink. The winter AAS meetings have a "party" where attendees take over a bar for an evening. It is common for many people to get incredibly intoxicated at this event.

It would be great if there was a way for me to socialize and network with my fellow astronomers at an alternative event where people were not falling-down-drunk. As a graduate student I organized alternative events for the perspective students, which did not involve going to bars or drinking. I also never draw attention to, or question someone's choice to not drink at an event, and always make sure that there are a variety of non-alcoholic alternatives whenever I am hosting an event or party.

I would love for us as a community to be more aware of the ways we alienate those who don't drink, and try to be more inclusive. I would love for us to also know how to recognize the signs of addiction and provide resources and help to those around us who might need it.