Becoming Unknowable—Antisocial in Sobriety

By Nick Short 09/20/15

The burnout rate for behavioral and mental healthcare professionals is notoriously high.

Antisocial in Sobriety

I have long had a pervasive fear of other people. As a child, I would flush red at the slightest bit of attention, clinging to my mother’s leg, convinced the onlooker’s gaze could cut me to the quick and affect my instant unraveling. As I aged, I developed different coping mechanisms for mitigating my hypersensitivity, and while they were more effective than being tied to apron strings, they involved establishing and maintaining a certain measure of distance. Drinking and using were fantastic interim solutions, but as with most entering recovery, implicitly had to go. Subsequently, I found my most frequently employed methods of controlling my human interactions came from affecting a level of aloofness, a sort of “over it” persona that protected me from appearing to care too much about anything (despite really caring deeply about most things). I would titrate information, rarely letting more than one person know a particular part of me, and seldom letting those persons overlap.

Service had become weaponized as a means for obliterating my self-judgments, avoiding my fears, and warding off others.

This, I deemed a strategy of great utility, as it constructed a particular projection over which I exercised executive control. I honed an acerbic, other-directed sense of humor that further removed me from having to address mental or emotional connection and discomfort, with the side benefit of those strangers being put down being my (faux) move up. And then, one providential day, I discovered the convenience of being busy—importantly, self-martyringly, unreachably busy. For the last three years, I’ve used my professional overextension as a smokescreen, a hologram of a good recovering individual doing good work with active addicts and alcoholics. Through my high-stress, nonprofit and private sector work environments, I was afforded an endless number of ridiculous anecdotes and absurd stories, which I unfailingly used to deflect any questions about anything too personal.

Several months ago dawned the realization that I had no idea how I felt, what I thought, what interested me, or what I wanted. I knew only that I had overdeveloped a very specialized skillset, resulting in fatigue, resentment and isolation. If I wasn’t launching a bitter polemic about something work-related, I had nothing to say. If I wasn’t making a cutting joke about someone’s appearance/skills/intellect, I had nothing to say. I found that I had constricted the scope of my life to a very narrow focus, and the less I allowed myself to be known, the more fraudulent I felt. And if I had a period of time with nothing scheduled, I immediately felt absolutely useless. I realized I had conflated my being of professional service as qualitatively informing my value.

The burnout rate of behavioral and mental healthcare professionals proves notoriously high, with the need for self-care commonly touted as critical to sustaining work in the field and one’s own sanity. New(er) substance abuse counselors may find themselves confusing treatment provision with personal recovery work, and may well hit a point of not wishing to discuss anything related to recovery whatsoever, after prattling on for 60-plus hours per week about drugs and alcohol. I found myself in a position of isolation, but not in the way I had intended. I developed a disdain for alcoholics, bristling at their complaints and concerns, shuddering at the idea of helping a newcomer for free when all of my time was used to work with them professionally.

This, of course, bears distinguishing that 12-step programs massively differ from treatment provision in a clinical setting, or non-clinical recovery services in a private setting. Despite whichever provisions and structures an entity implements to differentiate one from the other, the constant exposure seems enough to mire even the most boundary-conscientious in the muck of over-involvement. In my experience, this saturation can rear its head in numerous ways, both directly and indirectly affecting negative outcomes for the provider.

I want to return to an earlier sobriety—a laying-down of assumptions and ego.

At the two-year point of working in nonprofit, I found myself both bitterly resentful of management and perpetually disheartened by clients. The agency’s constant financial strain and numerous impending state audits presented ongoing pressure to provide clinical services with rapid frequency more in a bid for fiscal viability than clinical effectiveness. The organization’s comptroller became more involved in multidisciplinary team meetings than the clinical director, prioritizing the need to bill for more sessions over the quality and content of those sessions. Client progress became less important than frequency and length of session, and a certain level of recidivism was excused and even welcomed as it furthered the agency’s financial agenda.

This seemed to compound with and cement the already rampant risk factors for recidivism among the demographic being served, contributing to the ever-increasing discouragement of clinical staff. Our team would work unpaid overtime into the weekends, perhaps in a spirit that began as good-heartedness but progressively contorted into a competitive martyrdom. My once-reluctant distancing from family and friends shape-shifted into both a badge of honor and defensive decoy, wielded as proof that I was a good person, a noble person, and that my years of alcohol and drug use were now redeemed in being used for productive purpose. My consistent projection of this very particular image seemed effective in preventing further inquiry into the state of my well-being and personal recovery while furthering the disparity between how I presented and how I actually felt.

At age 23, I found myself disconnected from a sense of purpose and the fellowship that helped me to maintain my sobriety. Since I was already spending all of my time with drug addicts and alcoholics, I figured I may as well make some more money doing it, and contacted a friend who’d been working as a private sober coach for several years. She quoted lofty hourly rates and self-made schedules, intrinsically motivated clients from wealthy families and a certain amount of sleek New York glamour, appearing to present the silver bullet solution to all of my current posting’s woes.

Through her, I landed with a private non-clinical recovery company, the entirety of which from site-to-staff maintained a high level of attractive fanciness and glossy appeal. Sold at interview on the vague promise that I could easily make six-figures inside of the year, and ego-appeased to be accepted into such an exclusive environment, I doubled-down on my workaholism, avowing that this would be the payoff for years of emotional and financial struggle.

Setting about to the business of proving my clout, I presented with broad-ranging availability and an opportunity-hungry attitude. I took on new tasks with voracity and conviction, certain that ground level hustle would result in advancement, and my superiors were all too happy to capitalize upon my need to be needed. Despite the early days’ crazy-making scenarios, and frankly frightening array of client-demonstrated self-destructive behavior, I remained motivated by a sense of self-importance, public perception, greed and vanity. When I did wrangle a pocket of time to call my family or see a friend, my outlandish anecdotes served to buffer any honest discussion of my life and maintained my meticulously curated outward focus.

The further along this career path I traveled, however, the further I moved from my personal recovery. I still attended meetings, though with progressively decreasing frequency and increasing professionalized analysis in inverse proportion. While fortunate that my diminishing ability to hear a message—for hypercriticism of its technical accuracy and fear of emotional relation—did not result in relapsing on alcohol or drugs, it did serve to highlight my limited emotional sobriety. I knew that my personal and professional efficacy would only diminish were I to continue operating at such a high rate of output, and that I stood little chance against my own depression without making a change.

Eventually, it was my untended personal recovery and ironically wellness-impeding work environment that affected my resignation. I had averaged 100-hour weeks for several years, and now found myself profoundly fatigued, deeply depressed, markedly thinner, chronically stressed and in constant anxious expectation of impending unseen crisis. While I had hoped that to be the worst of it, what I had failed to fully realize prior to completely inhabiting the quiet of unemployment was the effort and force with which I had used my career to avoid myself. I had hitched my self-worth and sense of security to a fixed professional identity centered on solving other peoples’ problems, to the preclusion of addressing my own. Service—once that primary 12-step tenet, catalyst and perpetuator of my personal sobriety—had become weaponized as a means for obliterating my self-judgments, avoiding my fears, and warding off others.

The last several years have shown me the lengths to which I am willing to go in order to accommodate my fears and cushion my character defects. Now, unemployed and unsure of next steps, I want to return to an earlier sobriety—a laying-down of assumptions and ego, a leaning-into, a confronting, and an allowing for the vulnerability of being known.

Nick Short is a pseudonym for a writer and former behavioral healthcare professional based in New York.

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