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Sober Jobs

If you bottomed out and lost everything—or if you desperately need a shift in environment—the working world may prove to be a challenge. Say hello to your inner barista.

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By Melissa Petro

07/15/12

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You may have once ruled your exciting, dynamic and incredibly competitive field so it could feel demeaning to consider doing something for work that you never would have considered before. It also may be necessary—not just because you need to pay your bills but also because you need to learn all-too-important lessons that you may have missed when you were chugging Absolut or sniffing glue. Lessons about things like humility, responsibility and still making time for your recovery. Welcome to the sober job.

One of the main reasons for a simple, easy job in early sobriety is that it keeps you focused on what’s most important. “What one does for a living,” says New York-based psychotherapist Christopher Murray, “is not as important as the fact that you just don’t drink or use.” In order to explain resume holes as you go seeking this position, Murray suggests speaking generally—offering up that you were, say, “taking time to pursue personal projects" or “attending to some medical issues” rather than opening up about your addiction and where it took you.  

Taking a job that isn’t in the field you were in or want to be in may have another practical benefit by allowing you to postpone major career decisions until you have more sober time—and thus more clarity. You may even be gainfully employed but want to leave your reckless past—and all its associated people, places and things—behind you. One thing is certain: now is not the time to fling yourself into a new career you’ve just decided you want that requires constant dedication. While the suggestion to make no big changes during your first year of sobriety to cut down on drama and focus on recovery is typically applied to quandaries regarding divorce, marriage, or cross-country moves, the same advice is also relevant when it comes to jobs.

“In order to maintain sobriety, I need to reinvent myself. I can’t lie for a living."

Consider the experience of JJ, a 44-year-old event photographer in New York City who’s been clean for three years and worked as a dog walker during his first year of sobriety. “It was the best thing for me during that time,” he says. “It kept me busy and constantly moving. And the love from all my furry buddies was just what I needed.” After a year and a half of walking 8-10 dogs a day, he joined forces with a sober friend who owns a vintage boutique in Harlem and ended up becoming an in-house photographer and social media networking specialist. He’s currently working toward his Bachelors degree in TV and Film Production and plans to write and direct his own web series. 

Murray points out that a sober job may help the newly recovering not only meet financial obligations but also to stay busy and be of service. For this reason, even people with the financial means to not work or to take time off may wish, instead, to find a sober job. On the second season of VH1’s Sober House, counselor Bob Forrest urged the group of celebrity housemates to try finding day-to-day jobs in order to help integrate them back into society. In his memoir Permanent Midnight, Jerry Stahl recounts how he went from writing for Moonlighting to working for McDonalds before rebuilding his career as a writer. Working a minimum wage, entry-level, part-time job can have truly surprising rewards. “The perspective gained by humble efforts can provide a rehabilitative period of re-adjustment and re-acclimation to normal life,” says Murray. 

Dan, a 34-year-old Warehouse Manager from Columbus, Ohio, can attest to that. A former sales representative for a large commercial corporation, Dan lost his job—and the phenomenal salary and benefits that came with it—to his addiction. Now nine months clean, he’s getting back into the workforce after some months of unemployment. His new job as a warehouse manager, he says, was “a major step down,” adding that he used to go to work in a suit and now comes home covered in dust. “The most challenging aspect of it has been having to accept the fact that I wasn't able to start where I left off,” he says. Even so, Dan says he’s never been happier. “Right now this is exactly what I need to be doing,” he says. “If I had a career in sales again, I’d have no time for recovery.” 

While some could certainly argue that an ideal job for the newly sober is one with little to no stress and limited or no access or exposure to alcohol, realistically speaking, the pursuit of any job that is "stress free" in this economy may be a difficult goal to fulfill. And those addicts and alcoholics fortunate to have kept their jobs might not have the luxury of quitting—even if it means being around booze. 

Wendy, a 30-year-old originally from Port St. Lucie, Florida, was working as a massage girl in a strip club in Manhattan—a job she preferred to her previous position as a stripper—when she entered a program of recovery for alcohol and prescription drugs. “When I was a stripper, my drinking, drug use, and insane behavior had spiraled out of control,” she recalls. “I thought that transitioning to the role of massage girl would help me get some stability in my life.” As a massage girl, Wendy dresses sexily and fraternizes with customers, selling back and shoulder massages (“We don’t give happy ending massages,” Wendy says, adding that “This is a common misconception”). Although she no longer had to get undressed and dance, she still got invited to sit and share drinks. When she kept using and drinking even after changing positions, she made the decision to get sober. Because she works in an environment where drinking is not only permitted but actually encouraged, Wendy says it is “truly a miracle” that she has managed to resist temptation. Now two-plus years clean, she continues to work part-time as a massage girl to supplement her income but has returned to the career she envisioned for herself before her drinking and using took off: working as a freelance visual artist and musician. “I know that I can’t be a massage girl forever,” Wendy says, “but for now I’ve shifted my perspective on the job and am using it to support myself while pursuing my dreams.”

Of course, the reasons for a necessary career shift aren’t always as clear as they are in Wendy’s case. Mike, a 34-year-old from Westchester, New York, began a promising career as an investment banker where he was working with clients that were eager to expand and spend money. “As the economy turned, I felt increasingly like I was pushing and manipulating people into doing things that weren’t in their best interest,” he admits. His job became that of a “hustler—scheming, scamming, and manipulating” people in ways that, he says, mirrored issues as an addict. “When I was active, I would manipulate people to get drugs and lie to cover up my habit,” he says. “I was never my true self.” Mike, who’s been clean and sober for just over a month, now says, “In order to maintain sobriety, I need to reinvent myself. I can’t lie for a living—even lies as simple and harmless as complimenting a client’s ugly tie could lead to more sinister ones, which in turn could jeopardize my sobriety.”

Ultimately, according to Mike, a sober job is just “hard, honest work.” He pauses and then adds, “Or maybe it doesn’t need to be hard. It just needs to be honest.”

Melissa Petro writes for Salon, Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Rumpus.net and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at xoJane and was a guest blogger at the feminist website, Bitch Magazine. She lives in New York City. She has previously written about sober sex, among other topics, for The Fix.

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