When Elizabeth Vargas, co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20, took a leave of absence to treat her addiction to alcohol, she was upfront and honest about the problem. “Like so many people, I am dealing with addiction,” she told PEOPLE in 2013. Vargas was treated for an alcohol addiction in November 2013 and then again in August 2014. She plans on releasing a memoir in the spring of 2016 about her struggles with alcohol.
The ABC community supported Vargas and her recovery. In fact, many people had uplifting comments to share with Vargas, saying that she was a strong, honest and brave woman. Some even shared their personal struggles with addiction, wishing Vargas the best in her own recovery. Unfortunately, many recovering addicts have a much different experience when returning to work, one filled with social animosity.
If you’re planning to return to work after a stay in a rehabilitation facility, you’re probably concerned about how your return to work will be received. Will your coworkers be pleased to see you? Will they praise you for your efforts to get clean and sober? Will you even tell them about your struggles? Or will people give you the cold shoulder and exclude you from future after-work events?
Although we’ve come a long way in understanding addiction, recognizing it as a brain disease and offering treatment that has long-term value, we still have a long way to go. With addiction comes a heavy stigma. Some still look at addiction as a character flaw; a weakness. As you re-enter the workplace, you can expect to be greeted by both types of people: those who are supportive and those who have strong opinions. You must learn to deal with both sets.
What to Tell People
First, let’s start with the basics. What will you tell people when you return to work? Your colleagues may or may not know where you’ve been. If you haven’t shared where you were, some may suspect or be talking about your whereabouts regardless. It’s entirely up to you as to what you want to share with coworkers. You can tell them the truth, or simply tell them that you were caring for a sick family member in Arizona.
If you choose the latter, keep in mind that you will need to keep your story straight later on, and this can cause additional stress. If you choose to tell the truth, there are consequences as well. You can’t control how people will react or the way that they think, so you must be prepared to handle all types of responses.
Thankfully, you’ve spent time in treatment so you may be better prepared to handle these responses than you realize. It’s common for some addicts to realize that their professional development is not conducive to their spiritual development, therefore they’re able to share their story without being affected by what others think or say.
Fitting Back In
In general, the people in your workplace will fall into one of these groups:
- Those who know where you’ve been
- Those who pretend to not know anything
- Those who are completely clueless you were gone
- Those who are dealing with similar problems at home
As you ease back into the work routine, it’s important to have colleagues that support you. The interesting part is that these people can support you in different ways; it doesn’t necessarily have to be with your recovery.
For example, your coworker John may pretend to not even notice that you were gone. He accepts your story and doesn’t ask any questions. But John is extremely helpful about getting you up to speed about what you’ve missed. Sarah, on the other hand, is dealing with a spouse who has an alcohol addiction. She’s an ally in this area, and you two share a special bond both inside and outside the workplace.
Over time, you’ll find that support comes in many packages and that people have a lot to offer – just in different ways.
Feeling Like a Stranger
One area where recovering addicts struggle is having to be a stranger in a familiar environment. It’s a weird feeling, and sometimes people can make it worse (even though they may not realize it).
For instance, say you were that guy who always got drunk at holiday parties and work events and did crazy things. Everyone got a laugh out of it and talked about it until the next night out. Now, your colleagues expect you to be the same fun guy when you’re out. It’s easy to feel out of place and judged by your colleagues for being a now-serious and different version of yourself.
Or, it’s possible that you may have gotten drunk at outside work affairs and ended up acting inappropriately toward female coworkers. It’s not going to be easy for them to forgive you, and they may not be convinced that you’ve changed. Without the numbing feeling of alcohol, you’re probably feeling that awkwardness for the first time.
Not to mention, you’ve just gone through a major transformation in your life when other people simply carried on with their day-to-day activities. You’ve gotten clean, been through therapy, learned new skills, had a spiritual awakening and got in touch with your inner self. You are a new person in a familiar environment.
Give Yourself Time
The best advice is to give yourself time. You will adapt to the work life and learn to settle into your new role, a role that you will appreciate much more than the crazy, drunk guy who can’t handle his liquor.
Attend outside work events carefully. As a newly recovering addict, it’s probably best to refrain from attending events where alcohol will be a focus. Lean on the people in your support system and focus on being the best you can be, one day at a time.
Perhaps you’ve been questioning your career choices as of lately, but don’t do anything yet. Spend at least the first year working on your recovery and getting back into the work routine. Too much too soon can create unnecessary stress and pressure, putting you at risk for relapse. You have plenty of time to change career paths if you’d like. For now, sobriety must come first.