Academics and Alcoholism

By Ed S. 08/16/18

Academics too often share a simultaneous denial and pride in their alcoholism, and the profession does little to dissuade such a sentiment, even with all the attendant problems it brings, preferring to interpret self-medication as mere collegiality.

Man is passed out on bed with glass of wine. A stack of books is next to the bed.
Sometimes if I was drunk enough and squinting with one eye, I could convince myself that I was a poet.

I’ve heard it repeated as a recovery truism that nobody is too dumb to stop drinking, but plenty of people are too smart. One supposes that’s the sort of thing intended to be helpful. I’ve no idea on the particular veracity of the claim, though I’ll say that people who are smarter (or think they’re smarter) can certainly generate some novel justifications for their alcoholism. 

When I was deep in my cups, after stopping for one drink after class that turned into a blackout which had me checking the soles of my shoes for evidence of which way I stumbled home, I could structure an argument with recourse to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic about how “alcoholism” was a construction of the medical-industrial complex.

After I woke up another countless time cringing as I recalled how I’d embarrassed myself yet again, it was only a short period until I was crafting a rationalization that drinking expressed an idyllic, pre-capitalist, medieval past that was based in revelry and joy.

While noticing that my hangovers seemed to go on a bit too long, or that my hands were a little bit too unsteady, or that I seemed less and less able to stop that second drink from sliding into that twelfth, I could wax philosophical about how intoxication evoked the Dionysian rites, for after all it was Plato in The Symposium (a booze-soaked party) who claimed that “For once touched by love, everyone becomes a poet,” and when I was getting my PhD in English what I loved was pints of lager, gin and tonic, and Jameson on the rocks, and sometimes if I was drunk enough and squinting with one eye, I could convince myself that I was a poet.

If I was smart, it certainly manifested itself in the same tired old story as any other alcoholic, even if my justifications seemed clever to me. Because whether or not it’s true that some people are too smart to quit drinking, many academics might enthusiastically agree that’s the case, the better to avoid church basements. Psychologists call this “rationalization”…

Lots of discussion is rightly had about the problems generated by substance abuse among undergraduates, but much less is had about alcoholism on the other side of the podium. Something is surprising about this – the cocktail hour is valorized in academe, especially in the humanities where with cracked pride there is a certain amount of cosplaying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, where the past tweedy imagined pleasures of sherry fueled conviviality run strong. Rebecca Schuman (who is not an alcoholic) writes in Slate about how this “campus alcohol epidemic, one largely ignored,” is often “heralded as an inextricable virtue of the Life of the Mind.”

But for alcoholic academics there are also often darker particulars for returning time and time again to the bottle. The unnaturalness of living in one’s head all of the time, the stress and intermingling of life and work so that it almost always feels like you’re stuck in the latter (and people think we get summers off!), the often incapacitating imposter syndrome. Professors aren’t the only alcoholics of course; there are plenty of alcoholic plumbers, alcoholic nurses, alcoholic accountants, alcoholic cops, alcoholic lawyers, alcoholic janitors. Yet academics too often share a simultaneous denial and pride in that alcoholism, and the profession does little to dissuade such a sentiment, even with all the attendant problems it brings, preferring to interpret self-medication as mere collegiality.

University of Notre Dame history professor Jon T. Coleman writes movingly of his own struggles with alcoholism in academe, explaining in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education that one of the “most sinister aspects of alcoholism was the intramural loathing it encouraged,” describing how he drank to “mute the feelings of guilt, failure, and panic that came from not being able to control my drinking,” despite having “graduated from college, earned a Ph.D., secured a job, won book awards, and received tenure from a top-tier university while engaging in a habitual behavior that rendered me a dumbass.”

In her remarkable new book The Recovering, Leslie Jamison similarly sees the appeal of annihilation and escape as central to the professorial preoccupation with self-destruction, explaining that drinking “plunged me into a darkness that seemed like honesty,” misinterpreting that “desperate drunk space underground” as “where the truth lived.” As a way of proffered hypothesis, that’s some of what fuels the alcohol problem among humanities scholars, a misapplied radical skepticism that’s suspicious of recovery-speak (which allows for convenient rationalizations). Combine this with the accumulated boozy romance of past generations, and one sees part of what motivates the problem.

Even now I’m hesitant to use the word “alcoholic” in describing myself, chaffing at the “One Day at a Time” folk-wisdom of 12-step philosophy, historicizing and critiquing recovery in a manner that at its worst could easily justify relapse (though it hasn’t yet). But a certain saving grace also is gifted from my vocation, for as an English professor nothing is more paramount than the sanctity of words, and if I’m not an alcoholic, then the word itself has no meaning. One of the bits of hard-earned wisdom I’ve been gifted through the haze is the understanding that if my disease isn’t my fault, it’s surely my responsibility. I believe that had I not been an academic with a drinking problem, I’d have had some other job and identity – with a similar drinking problem.

Even as a personal responsibility, the wider academy, because of its particular culture and history, must also do more to provide support for graduate students and faculty with substance abuse disorders. Graduate student Karen Kelsky in a guest blog for “The Professor is In” writes that the “stigma associated with addiction may be stronger than stigmas for mental illness,” in part because alcoholism is so often perceived as a “choice,” and not a complicated issue of heredity, acculturation, and brain chemistry. Even moderate drinkers face opprobrium in the wet groves of academe, with Shuman writing about how after she decided to quit excessive social drinking, she was “cut off socially” and that as she “drank less and less,” she was “accepted less and less by my peers.”

There needs to be a shift in how academe grapples with alcoholism, and with alcoholics. In the short term, a small start would be to provide alternative possibilities at conferences and symposia that are so often permeated by alcohol. Jeffrey J. Cohen, a scholar of medieval literature at Arizona State University (who is not an alcoholic himself) argues in The Chronicle of Higher Education that those “who arrange conference social events were alcohol is served must ensure that they are not the sole access provided to conference conviviality.”

In the long term, academics need to become more sensitive to and aware of the definitions of alcoholism and addiction. Kelsky writes of how a “common misconception… is that once someone has gone through treatment, they are ‘cured.’” Consequently, non-drinking graduate students and faculty are often shut out of professional opportunities, their self-care interpreted as being the behavior of a scold or a Puritan. With an important awareness of how difference is manifested for various marginalized groups in our culture, too often academics don’t extend the same consideration to those in recovery, or provide assistance for our colleagues in need.

Of course even if mental health and substance abuse care are woefully lacking in professional contexts, most fellow individual academics can and do respond to those in recovery with care and empathy. I first read Coleman’s essay after it was sent to me by a concerned colleague and I was able to recognize the malady, so eloquently described, as my own. I drank for two more years.

My thirst was unquenchable, simply confirming Coleman’s observation about being “Caught in a trap… [with] an inability to break loose.”

The kindness in being sent that essay had an effect, though, part of that arsenal in my spirit that I was able to drudge up after numerous shaky mornings haunted by fear, a little indication in which I knew that the center could not hold, and in which I could sometimes glimpse the awful grace of that thing called hope, which we alcoholics know as a “moment of clarity.” Coleman did break loose, and so have I for the time being, while always remembering that “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Three years after my bottom I still work on that first step sometimes, but I find that the organ which made those old rationalizations so evocative can be helpful in actual not drinking. I wake up sober in the morning, and I can reflect on the ways in which recovery bares the mark of the conversion narrative, I can trace the historical antecedents of 12-step groups, I can examine how important issues of race and gender affect how we discuss addiction and recovery. More than enough intellectualism in sobriety; actually, more than there ever was in the tantalizing hum of drunkenness. There can be, as it turns out, as much hope in the classrooms as there is in the rooms, occluded though it may seem, but for that I am grateful.

Ed S. is a widely published writer and an academic.

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Ed S. is a widely published writer and an academic.