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Ten Jobs That Will Drive You to Drink

Do certain occupations push people into drug and alcohol abuse? Or are addictive personalities attracted to certain careers?

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Addictive Careers: Maybe you should have stuck with Accounting Photo

By Kristen McGuiness

01/04/12

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At first, being a musician and an addict didn’t go hand in hand for DH Peligro, the famously dreadlocked drummer for the Dead Kennedys (and former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers). “I became a musician for the music,” he says. “It was the one thing I could focus on and the one thing that gave me relief.” But drugs and alcohol were around his St. Louis neighborhood when he was growing up and he first drank at 15 and smoked pot at 17. Then, as he got into the club scene, “hanging out before, during, and after the shows,” he made the acquaintance of harder drugs.

While conventional wisdom holds that certain professions attract addicts more than others, there’s no data to back that claim. In fact, Dr. David Friedman, a neuroscientist and professor of physiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, says that it’s the ink some careers create—rather than the careers themselves—that cause such a perception. “Obviously, famous people hit the news when they get into trouble so we see a lot about them in the media,” Friedman says. “But it’s not clear that those professions necessarily attract addicts.”

Those who choose to become artists and athletes "often seek these poles of intensity and find those kinds of draws through their professions."

While Friedman concedes that many artists and writers are known for heavy pursuit of chemical highs and lows, he says that “when you break down the risk factors for addiction—genetics, environmental factors, starting early—none of them suggest that some professions might be more vulnerable to addiction.”

In fact, a 2007 study by SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association) found that the "glamor" professions—arts, entertainment, media, etc.—rank only third in the list of professions with the highest addiction rates. The riskiest career choice is—contrary to popular opinion—the restaurant industry. Here's SAMSHA's top 10, based on data from 2002 to 2004:

Top 10 Most Addiction-Prone Careers
1. Food preparation and serving (17.4%)
2. Construction (15.1%)
3. Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media (12.4%)
4. Sales (9.6%)
5. Installation, maintenance, and repair (9.5%)
6. Farming, Fishing and Forestry (8.7%) 
7. Transportation and Material-Moving (8.4%)
8. Cleaning and Maintenance (8.2%)
9. Personal Care and Service (7.7%)
10. Office and Administrative Support (7.5%) 

One thing most of these professions have in common, the SAMSHA study explains, is a low incidence of drug testing. Makes sense, but is it really that simple?

No, says Susan Raeburn, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Walnut Creek and the co-author of Creative RecoveryRaeburn has done a great deal of research on the idea of the “artistic personality”—what she calls “people who have big appetites for things.” And she’s found that those who choose to become artists and athletes “often seek these poles of intensity and find those kinds of draws through their professions. We refer to them as thrill seekers,” she says, “because they are people who have a lot of accelerator and not much brake.”

Nancy, a 35-year-old novelist in San Francisco whose cutting-edge style attests to her creativity, was one of those thrill seekers. But, she says, she often felt that the risks—related to drugs, in particular—that she took in her personal life were the ones she most feared taking in her creative one. Now seven years sober, Nancy found professional success only once she was able to put down the bottle. “I guess I always just had this creative energy in me—or maybe it was just nervous energy,” she says. “Either way, I was always a little wild. Once I found drinking and drugs, that became my outlet. But it also stopped my need to produce creatively. I turned to drugs to get that energy out and when I did that, I slowly stopped writing.”

Peligro had a similar experience. “It was killing me not to have a creative outlet,” the drummer recalls. “That had always been how I had been able to breathe. It was when I wasn’t in a band that I started using harder drugs and started getting really messed up.”

Of course, an artist’s lifestyle can be just as damaging as his or her personality. “Often the elements of being a professional musician can become a risk factor,” says Raeburn, listing such dangers as “the pacing and lifestyle demands which are out of sync with the person’s needs, the periods of boredom alternating with periods of intense work, the way they can get isolated from family and friends, and the unrestrained access to alcohol, drugs and sex.”

“If someone started out with the proclivity toward addiction, after a while, the exposure alone can push them over that line into being addictive,” she says. “I think it’s important that artists understand these facts. Because many people believe creativity has to be self-destructive and think they need to buy into that in order to be an artist or athlete or whatever.”

Nancy confesses that the notion of being an alcoholic writer was actually part of her plan. “I remember when I graduated college, I almost moved to Key West so I could drink and write like Hemingway,” she recalls. “I used to think that I wouldn’t be able to be creative without drugs and alcohol. It was only when I got sober that I realized what a lie that was.”

Outside of the arts, perhaps the second-most glamorous field notorious for addicts is medicine. Says Friedman, “One of the greatest risk factors for drug abuse is easy availability, so when we talk about those in the medical field—doctors and nurses—we are looking at a real problem.” Yet the SAMHSA study ranks "health-care practitioners" at no. 16, with a 6.1% rate of abuse.

If alcohol abuse seems to be less common among doctors than in many other professions, when you dig a little deeper into the data, certain arresting patterns appear. According to an August 2008 article in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, “physicians may display a higher misuse of prescription opioids” and “anesthesiology residents appear to have one of the highest known incidences of addiction to pharmaceutical substances of all groups of health care providers.”

The authors estimate that 1.6% of US anesthesiology residents—just starting out, that is—are drug abusers. Why? "A combination of workplace stress inherent in this demanding profession (i.e., assuming responsibility for the safe induction, maintenance, and emergence of the anesthetized, paralyzed, often critically ill surgical patient), theorized second-hand occupational exposure and sensitization to the effect of opioids, and the ready availability of potent drugs used to anesthetize patients (particularly narcotics).” 

Barrett, a 42-year old medical sales executive in Pennsylvania, was one of the 1.6%. Now working in medical sales, the tall and handsome Barrett still walks with the confidence of an MD as he explains to me that he never really drank or used drugs until he was in medical school. “I joined anesthesia because it catered well to my technical side and I thought it would provide a high income-to-work ratio,” he says. “It wasn’t until I started interning that I started using the drugs, and it didn’t last very long. Internship hours are not very conducive to being a drug addict.”

After being arrested on drug possession charges with drugs from the hospital as well as other street drugs, Barrett saw his future in anesthesiology go down the drain. It was then that he was sent to a rehab for medical professionals—and was shocked to discover that he was not alone. “I honestly had such a level of naivety,” he says. “I thought I was the only doctor dealing with this stuff. It wasn't until I was in treatment that I was able to see the extent of addiction in the field of medicine.” According to Barrett, “There isn't adequate information in medical school about proper medical billing, let alone addiction—I had a clinical understanding from my psychiatric rotation but understood very little from the addict's perspective.” 

It’s the people who bring their risk factors to the job that are most prone to fall victim to addiction.

Barrett paid a high price for his addiction: losing his license to practice. He has since gotten sober and found a meaningful career in medical sales. While he says that he never thought “this is where my life would take me, I also didn’t grow up thinking I would become an addict. I thought I would be a doctor.”

So what is it about these professions—arts, medicine, and some would add insurance, sales, journalism, and a host of others—that attract addicts? Friedman holds that it’s the people who bring their risk factors to the job. “If you look at a profession and see people in it who have drug problems,” he says, “you have to assume they would have had them no matter what profession they were in.”

With anecdotal evidence the only support for the widespread addictions-cause-addiction notion, the neuroscientist says it's merely a hypothesis waiting for a proof. “This is the kind of thing that the National Institute of Mental Health will never pay anyone to do research on,” Raeburn says. “But I do think that people in the arts and entertainment industries have a lot of unique circumstances that other industries don’t have—a lot of stressors that lead them to want to have transcendental experiences. And they have people offering them things that aren’t offered to most of us." 

As for doctors, Friedman explains that although the medical community is aware of its high rate of addiction, it's only beginning to come to grips with the addressing the causes. “We’re well aware of the risks in our own communities but it’s really hard to get people to call one of their own on their behavior,” he says. “Doctors have done a terrible job asking their patients about drug and alcohol use—let alone each other.” 

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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