Further Reading

I was concerned about my alcohol consumption, and now I am forced into treatment. What should I do?

Dear Mr. Peele:

I have worked for my current employer for 20 years, and have progressed steadily to my current position of vice president and tax counsel. I am a tax attorney. My company has regular formal performance reviews and "360 reviews." I am a top performer and was compensated accordingly. I have not missed a day of work for many years, in fact I consistently fail to use my allotted vacation due to my job demands. I do not come to work late.

I am a 49 year old woman, single mother and typical overachiever type A personality. Recently, I have become concerned regarding my drinking pattern. Since living in Europe on a company assignment for several years, I have continued the habit of having 2 glasses of wine with dinner. However, I have been reading that this amount of drinking is excessive, especially for women, and have become concerned about my long term health, especially as I am a single parent of a teenager.

I called our state attorney alcohol assistance program, anticipating some decent advice, and discussed my drinking pattern with the recovered alcoholic representative. He told me I needed to immediately enter a detox program, as an inpatient, and then go through a rigorous 12 step program, "90 meetings in 90 days", etc. The first step of this was to go to a treatment facility and have a formal assessment. This alarmed me. As my daughter was going to be at summer camp for a 2 week period, however, and I had plenty of vacation, I decided to go ahead with the plan, called our confidential employee assistance program, and they referred me to a local treatment facility where I made an appointment. They told me that, if the assessment warranted, I could expect to be in hospital for 3 days for detox. During this time I would not have access to telephones and could not bring my lap top to keep up with e-mails.

Due to the responsible nature of my position, and the fact that I am never out of reach from the company, even on vacation, I decided to tell my supervisor, the Senior VP of Finance, the situation. I told her to keep the information confidential, and I scheduled my calendar accordingly. She told me that she was sympathetic, but that she would need to tell "the appropriate persons" about my problem. I told her that the two things had nothing to do with each other.

Work went on as normal, when the Director of HR called me in the afternoon and told me that, in light of my alcohol abuse, I would need to follow certain company policies after my return to work. He referred me to a corporate policy which prohibits "being un der the influence of and or suffering from the effects of alcohol on Company business." I told him I had never done either of these things, and that this policy did not apply to my situation. He said that anytime the company "became aware" of an employee with a substance abuse problem, they apply this policy. He then directed me to the company doctor for an alcohol and drug test, and told me I was relieved of duty and not to return until the company doctor cleared me for work. At this point I was very upset. However I went for the alcohol breath test, which was negative, of course, and the drug test, which I do not have back as yet. I do not take any drugs so I know this will not be a problem. They then gave me a document intended for employees who are going to be out on extended disability, and which requires me to attend AA meetings and other prescribed treatment, have drug and alcohol tests twice a month for 3 years. If I refuse any of this I will be fired.

I am hoping you can refer me to a good attorney who can help me with this issue, or offer any other suggestions. Thanks and sorry for the long e-mail.

Alice


Alice:

Unfortunately, this is a textbook case of what happens when you report yourself for a substance abuse problem to assistance programs for professionals, made so much extremely worse in your case because you are so far from having an alcohol problem.

In the first place, two glasses of wine nightly is not excessive. Government agencies have been forced to accept that mo derate alcohol consumption is healthy and reduces heart disease, thereby increasing life expectancy for middle-aged and ol der Americans, among whom heart disease is the number one killer. But, not wanting to look like they are encouraging drinking too much, government agencies apply extremely cautious definitions of mo derate drinking -- 1 drink daily for women and 2 for men. These recommendations are pegged to the level of drinking at which life expectancy is maximized, and do not indicate the limits at which drinking definitively becomes harmful. Moreover, there is actually data to suggest -- particularly for fiftyish and ol der men and women, when heart disease becomes such a dominant health concern, that higher levels of drinking may maximize, or certainly not reduce, life expectancy. Other countries have higher recommended or allowable levels of drinking.

Thus, to discover that you as a near-50-year-old woman has two glasses of wine nightly while performing her work and parental roles exceptionally well indicates that you are nowhere near being a problem drinker. That you began to consi der this a possibility indicates that you may be a little too literal, but also points out the dangers of the government's sharp demarcation of "healthy" levels of drinking.

Of course, when you took the next step of reporting your concerns about yourself, you were dragged into the strange world of American employee assistance. Dominated by recovering alcoholics, who like to brag that "There is no in-between -- like pregnancy, you are either alcoholic or not," they put you in the alcoholic category, however poorly you fit. From there, you must enter treatment, join AA, and subscribe to all the tenets of the 12 steps. To object is to indicate you are in denial, but more importantly to show you are not cooperating with your treatment so that you suffer employment or licensure penalties.

From this point, I can often be helpful by writing a forensic report on your behalf, and testifying before professional boards, as I have done for many physicians and attorneys. You probably need to hire an attorney (I am also an attorney in New Jersey and New York, and have represented people in this role).

Somehow, you have entered a world where you are fighting for your professional and possibly personal existence, when all you wanted to do was to explore whether you were drinking a healthy amount. It is a scary, often irrational battle. But you have to believe that good will and reason will prevail, and that you will survive professionally.

Stanton