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.


Leonardo dos Santos said...

I also am not comfortable drinking in social events. And I think a good way to socialize that does not involve alcohol is games, either board or video games.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your brave post. A cousin of mine died young from alcohol-related illness, leaving behind a beautiful family. Alcoholism is a devastating disease for all involved and yet alcohol is ingrained in our culture - advertised as cool, or a treat when you deserve something special, but in reality a multi-billion dollar industry with a powerful political voice and slick advertising campaigns. Your point is well made that we should and must make the work place all inclusive, be sensitive to how excluding alcohol-related work socialising is and the wider problems that a drink-work culture creates.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear!

I've got the straight edge and have for about 5 years. No booze, no drugs, and I'm not an addict nor ever considered myself one. Most of my colleagues drink heavily and I'm absolutely uninterested in that, yet people are continually baffled by my enthusiastic refusal to imbibe with them, despite being highly educated, advanced-degree-holders. So, we don't hang out much. It's wild. Some people literally cannot imagine hanging out with other people off the clock without using substances, just like how some people literally cannot imagine why a woman wouldn't want to be told to smile or imagine eating a meal without meat. Ph. D. holders. WILD.

I feel that people are more likely to understand one's motives to not drink if there's a history of alcohol abuse or a tragic accident, and as a result, "I'm an alcoholic" or "my brother was killed by a drunk driver" is seen as a valid excuse to not drink during social events. On the other hand, "I've got the straight edge" or "I'm not drinking because 'get-f**ked-up-culture is a corny, annoying, anathema to me" (the hard, honest truth), and even "I don't drink" will elicit interrogations and social discomfort, and especially so the drunker everyone already is. But you're absolutely right that no matter how it's brought up, it's almost always a conversation that you just don't want to have. People don't really want to out themselves as alcoholics to people who they are meeting for the first time or have a professional relationship with, it's damn stigmatizing! Once, I can clearly remember, I felt it was just easier to pretend I was an addict because "people will just accept it and move on", albeit a little shocked, but then I'm lying to people for no real reason other than to make socializing less awkward in my own mind, which ended up backfiring because I still got the barrage of questions. But why should I have to explain myself to every single person with a Ph. D. that still has a small-minded mentality about alcoholism and alcohol's negative effects on people? Why isn't it the other way around? We're smart people, right? With all we know about alcohol's deleterious effects on public health, why are we the ones that have to continually explain ourselves and justify our sobriety, and even worse, be accused of "pushing your beliefs on other people." I see countless alcohol advertisements every day going about my daily business. Who's pushing beliefs on who?

When you boil it down, it's a core value to a lot of people that they should have the right to change their consciousness through substances, and it's one that fundamentally, no one can argue with. It's fruitless to try to convince people that their core values need to be adjusted. You make a great case that the physics/astronomy community needs to make space for people that don't drink, especially at conferences and large social events. However, that's not going to happen unless people who don't drink actually make some real noise about it by contacting organizing committees, and even better, if some people who do drink empathize and understand that more social events need to happen where alcohol is not a factor, or at the absolute minimum, the focus. Regarding our colleagues and students who have drinking or substance problems, sometimes an honest and extremely awkward conversation is is the only thing that registers with people. People are truly afraid of taking advantage of resources that are available, and of upsetting the delicate social balance that permeates our workplaces. A lot of us dealt with being social outcasts earlier in our lives, and bringing up issues with department culture, especially relating to substances is seen as a "square" thing to do. It's endlessly frustrating, but thanks to your post I'm going to give this some more thought in my institution and in my professional sphere.

Anonymous said...

Most Psychologists would tell you that in order to deal with a particular situation that you have a problem with be it an addiction, phobia, or otherwise -- one of the worst things to do is to eliminate and hide from those situations. A more positive response is always to find ways to engage in those situations without engaging in the behaviors which are a personal problem to you. The best way to prove that "you don't have to drink to be cool" is to be at the "cool event" while not drinking, and lead the modeling of that behavior for others.

Anonymous said...

You asked the question "What does this have to do with being a woman in astronomy?" ... but you didn't seem to answer that at all. Why can't men be having the same issues you described? I understand that you wanted this anonymously posed on the Women in Astronomy page, but it doesn't seem to have any gender relevant issues, and probably distracts men from considering the important issue of alcoholism within their field of study by excluding them from the scope of your comments?

John Rasmussen said...

'tis true.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately co-workers and colleagues can occasionally be pushy or insistent about offering alcohol; to anyone who has done that, even in jest or to be playful, take note! While I did not have to endure tough experiences like the author of this article, I did quit drinking while pregnant, the first few months of which was unannounced. This seemed to produce an annoying consternation and inquisitiveness in colleagues about why I would do such a thing as stop drinking. I understand it can be an important social aspect of after-hours work time, but it is not a necessity and can be an extremely sensitive issue.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Anonymous (5:10 AM): I read this blog post as a lived experience by a woman astronomer, and as such it is relevant and I'm happy to see it on this blog. Also, why would a man be "distracted" from the issue of alcoholism? Most people I know don't have a problem relating to an experience described by a person, no matter what the person's gender is.

Anonymous said...

Let me add my support for people who prefer not to drink alcohol. I agree that the alcohol culture is a real problem in astronomy. I'm often questioned, sometimes teased and occasionally pressured to drink alcohol. For the most part it doesn't bother me. But sometimes people do cross the line from being innocently insensitive to being aggressively inappropriate.

I struggle with what to do when I see situations that have the potential to become inappropriate. Should I say, "Have a good time without me. Please remember to limit your drinking and behave professionally."? Should I do more? I realize that I hold a minority viewpoint. I don't think it's wrong for people to have an occasional alcoholic drink, whether as individuals or in a group. But it's quite common for people to cross over the line for what I consider reasonable or appropriate to the side of unprofessional, inappropriate or even flat out dangerous.

My primary coping mechanism is to try to avoid situations where there is significant drinking. I go to dinners or receptions where some people drink, but I try not to participate in an event defined by the drinking, rather than by a meal or conversation. It's not uncommon that I feel a bit "left out" when people socialize and discuss science, over drinking, sometimes by choice, sometimes because people are trying to be nice by not inviting me. I tell myself it doesn't matter, since it's unlikely they'll do anything productive while drinking (even though part of me knows that sometimes there are valuable discussions there) and I probably wouldn't enjoy being with them anyway (which is grounded in my experience).

One unfortunate side effect of my choice to avoid such situations is that others (who may feel that they need to go along despite their discomfort around people drinking in excess) may feel even more isolated or pressured. And I'm not there to step in to help someone if things get inappropriate or dangerous. On the upside, I often try to form a group of people who go out for deserts and conversation, safe from the dangers of alcohol.

Recently, I asked a colleague whether she was comfortable with a situation (intending the question to be about gender issues). In the course of our discussion, I learned that she had been advised that people would expect her to drink during job interviews. I find that disturbing, but I don't know what to do about it. Even if no one on a faculty search committee would actually think less of a candidate who opts not to drink alcohol, the fact that some advisers are giving that advice testifies to how deep the alcohol problem is in the astronomy community. On the plus side, I can report that I declined every time I was offered alcohol while visiting graduate schools, making the rounds prior to my postdoc and during faculty interviews, and I still managed to land great positions.

To my fellow astronomers who prefer to avoid alcohol, please realize that: 1) you're not alone, 2) you can be a successful astronomer even if you opt out of "opportunities" to network over alcohol, and 3) at least some senior colleagues think more of you when you and your professional judgement when you decline alcohol in a professional setting such as a job interview.

Dustgrain said...

Thank you for this post, it's nice to know I'm not alone. I don't drink because I just don't like the taste of alcohol and I don't like to feel drunk and I feel exactly like you when people question my choice and sometimes even laugh at me.