Content warning: This story contains references to drugs and alcohol that might be triggering for some survivors.
"Not to Fit a Mold," Tom Dickson
I don’t often think of myself as a survivor. Just someone who has experienced some challenges I tend to avoid discussing, especially in professional circles. I am going to break that silence today.
First off, I am the child of an alcoholic – but that is only part of the story I am here to tell. The background is certainly helpful in understanding other factors, so here it goes. In middle school, I found out my Father had started drinking to excess on a regular basis. To my recollection, my Dad was never the type to drink. I can remember having the same one or two beers sitting in the fridge for 6 months or more; asking my Mom why we even kept them in there if no one ever touched them. He maybe had one drink every year; maybe. I never knew why it started at the time, but later I found out my Father had repressed memories of some unresolved childhood trauma. We think he did it to cope and dull the pain, but to be honest I don’t think anyone will every really know.
I have tons of adolescent stories of sneaking into his truck at night and stealing his alcohol in order to throw it out, of learning how to remove his keys from his belt while he was passed out so I could hide them, and in once instance, of carefully taking a loaded gun out of his hand while he lay unconscious in an armchair. Even after repeated attempts at counseling, interventions, and the support of his family, my father always returned to his alcohol. His alcoholism ruined a marriage, distanced him from his children, lost the family home, forfeited generations of family heirlooms and antiques, all his other possessions, and finally the respect of friends and family. My contact with him evaporated back around 2006 when he stopped replying to emails. I don’t know if he is still alive or not. I check the obituaries every couple of months, but haven’t found anything.
Around 5th or 6th grade, before my Dad became an alcoholic, I started going to punk concerts with my cousins. They introduced me to the world of punk and the philosophy of Straight Edge.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Straight Edge, it is a punk philosophy centered on the primary tenants of self-respect, respect for the beliefs of others, and most importantly in abstaining from drugs, smoking, and alcohol. Some take it to varying levels beyond potentially inclusive of abstaining from sex, caffeine, over-the-counter medicine, meat, and more. Let’s not get bogged down with the details; however we should talk about what the choice to not have alcohol has on one’s life.
HIGH SCHOOL & COLLEGE
In high school and college the mindset and scripts were nearly the same. You have people waiting around trying to find you slipping up, they purposely offer you drinks (or drugs), and they corner you into having arguments on the merits of inebriation. You constantly avoid the majority of parties just to avoid having to be someone else’s designated driver, to not deal with drunk people, to avoid being on clean-up duty after the latest drunken accident, and to not be the responsible talking to the cops and neighbors. Given my family history, I cannot sit by and watch others hurt themselves, so I inevitably will get involved. I also worry. I worry their control will falter and they will lose everything. Just like my Father.
The most awkward is not being puked on, urinated upon, or yelled at by the intoxicated. It is simply in dancing the dance of avoiding explanations about your family history to every new acquaintance at the party. You can avoid the parties. Eventually if you stop going the invites stop as well. And if I am fully honest, this model doesn’t stop once you graduate.
MY PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCES
At times it feels like in the student affairs setting alcohol can be as pervasive with staff as it is among the students. Offices have happy hours as team-builders, host officially scheduled office meetings at local bars, retreats have drinks, and celebrations of accomplishments and events are out at the local taverns. Even professional networking outings and tweetups are done over a happy hour or in a bar.
If you go, you end up not drinking and inevitably have to explain why. You can come up with an excuse and not be genuine to yourself or honest to them. Or you can tell the truth and you leave everyone feeling awkward.
If you don’t attend, just like in high school or college, over time the invitations dry up and the network is cut off. In many circles, the social friends of administrators are the ones who have extra time to articulate their goals, plans, and ideas. Many of these discussions and decisions are made ‘over drinks’ and frequently, somehow, magically turn into promotions for those with access. If I choose not to attend, I cut off that professional avenue. If I do attend, I have to explain why I am not drinking.
Alcohol is just as pervasive inside the office as well. I regularly have to attend functions with donors, alumni, senior administration, and faculty. The majority of the time there are options for alcohol. A few years ago my college even implemented a happy hour in the middle of an afternoon during the doctoral student orientation week. A cash bar was open for any students, faculty, and staff. From the faculty and other administrators, I regularly get a few bottles of wine each December.
Rarely does a day go by where references to needing coffee (mornings) and a drink (afternoons) isn’t mentioned. Right now on social media some higher education professional in my feed is posting a photo of themselves out with their colleagues, friends, or families out at a bar. I don’t feel like this is discrimination, but I can sometimes feel left out. For some quick stats on the subject - my twitter feed, filtering for only my personal contacts, had 31 references to ‘beer’ and 12 to ‘drink’ (alcohol) just today….today! Three of those included pictures. Two included references to supervisors drinking with staff. Most of the statements were made about going out for drinks to relieve stress or as a reward for suffering through workplace frustrations. It seems to be everywhere.
If you know me or meet me, please know I am not against drinking or being around those who do. Know however that I will continue to worry for my friends and colleagues. Especially those who rely upon it. I have concerns they will need help and they might not get it. I also am selfishly concerned that my own career has/is being stunted because I am not going to have access to those side conversations that become increasingly vital in advancing ones career. Above all else, I will continue to agonize over what the loss of control could mean. I worry if they became an alcoholic, their friends, family, colleagues, and students will lose respect for them as others and I once did for my Father.
About the art:
So I made this painting for Tom a few months ago as he wanted a straight edge-themed piece for his office. Being straight edge, myself, I was very excited to make this piece for Tom!
I love this classic Straight Edge credo. It's something I think about every day when it comes to how I live my life and I'm so thankful to have a punk mentor in the field that knows where I am coming from and supports my lifestyle.
This piece was done in my typical splatter style with the not-so subtle edge X in the middle of the piece. This piece gave me so much strength while creating it, especially knowing it was going to a home that would love it and share a proud story behind it.
Thank you, Tom. For your inspiration to stay clean in a society that tries to make us compromise that value.