Due to the recreational nature of alcohol and drugs, it's easy to justify your use as normal. You might tell yourself that everyone does it or that you're just taking the edge off—that it actually enhances your life somehow. Although you may occasionally find yourself a little taken aback at the sight of empty cans or bottles in the recycling bin or surprised that a statistic puts you outside of the range of normal, it's hard to determine the exact moment when a bad habit becomes a big problem.
Substance abuse can result in a series of small but seemingly disconnected symptoms that are easy to blame on the stressors of life. However, in these cases it's often the drug or alcohol abuse causing your problems at home and at work, affecting your professional reputation and stifling career growth. Take an objective look at your relationship with alcohol and drugs and determine if it's time to set limits or seek help.
Signs of "Slippery Slope" Thinking
The insidious nature of addiction can seduce you into rationalizing behavior you previously avoided. Here are some scenarios to watch out for:
- You find yourself heading to the bar or liquor store after work more than usual and justify it to yourself by thinking, "Well, everyone else does it, so it can't be that bad," or "I deserve this after a long day."
- You find drinking or using has become your response to all emotional states: You drink or use to celebrate a victory, console yourself after a loss and liven things up when you feel bored.
- You black out after drinking too much at a company picnic or holiday party, unable to remember what you said or did, and rationalize it as "just overdoing it."
Substance Abuse Off the Clock
While it can seem like what you do outside of work has no effect on you at the office, consider how your habits have impacted your performance lately. Have you been showing up late and leaving early? Had trouble focusing? Experienced conflict with co-workers? Turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with workplace stress can wind up hurting your performance much more than it helps. Here's how to recognize if you're developing an addiction that is affecting your work:
- Increase in lateness and/or missed days
- Decrease in concentration due to being preoccupied with use
- Turning in work late or incomplete
- Drop in productivity
- Drinking/using before coming to work, at lunch time or during breaks
- Secretiveness or negative attitude towards the job, workplace and other employees
- Feeling you need, rather than want, your drug of choice
- Feeling guilty or ashamed about your drinking/using habits
- Lying to others or hiding your drinking habits
- Having friends or family members who are worried about your drinking
- Needing to drink in order to relax or feel better
- "Blacking out" or forgetting what you did while you were drinking
- Regularly drinking more than you intended to
Creating limits on how much, where, or when you drink or use can be useful if you are highly disciplined and accountable—but there's a good chance you may not be. A good litmus test for this is to abstain from all use for 30 days and see what happens. If you stop for a month and find you can take it or leave it when it comes to your drug of choice, setting limits should be easy. If, on the other hand, you find yourself craving it, becoming grouchy and irritable, or if you secretly start to use, that's an indication of dependency. This will make enforcing limits difficult and you may need to evaluate other options such as support or treatment.
The First Step
Evaluate if substance abuse is an issue in your life with the following questions from Alcoholics Anonymous (substitute alcohol with your drug of choice, if necessary):
- Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or more but only lasted for a couple of days?
- Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking and stop telling you what to do?
- Have you ever switched from one kind of drink to another in the hope that this would keep you from getting drunk?
- Have you had a drink upon awakening in the morning during the past year?
- Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?
- Have you had problems connected with drinking during the past year?
- Has your drinking caused trouble at home?
- Do you ever try to get "extra" drinks at a party because you do not get enough?
- Do you tell yourself you can stop drinking any time you want to, even though you keep getting drunk when you don't mean to?
- Have you missed days of work or school because of drinking?
- Do you have "blackouts"?
- Have you ever felt that your life would be better if you did not drink?
While only you can decide whether drinking/using is an issue for you, if you answered yes to four or more of these questions, chances are you have a problem. In that case, the next step is to get some more information. Ask a good friend or family member if they've noticed a change in your behavior recently. Search online for resources; AA has a confidential website with a trove of helpful information, assessments and referral options. Finally, reach out to a support community or someone who formerly had a substance abuse problem to share your experience and get their perspective.
Evaluate recreational drug or alcohol use like any other endeavor you'd invest time and energy on and make sure it's not affecting your life or career in ways you're failing to recognize. Consider your personal and professional goals—and if you don't have any, set some—and see if your current habits are in alignment with what you're hoping to achieve in the future. If you're unable to take a break or impose healthy limits, seek the help and support you need to be your best version of you.
Dr. Rod Amiri specializes in addiction psychiatry. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Board of Addiction Medicine. He has received the Patients' Choice award every year since 2008, representing less than 5 percent of active physicians in the United States. He serves patients and families at Malibu Hills Treatment Center, a luxury rehab facility located in Malibu, California.
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