In part two of this recovery pitfalls series, I’ll be talking about work and careers in recovery. As I discussed in the first part, anything that we try to replace a program of recovery with will lead to trouble. Nothing external to the self can fix whatever internal spiritual problems exist.

For most people, work is a fact of life. We need to have our basic needs taken care of like food and shelter and have to be able to pay the bills. We want to attain financial security that offers peace of mind that we won’t be left broke by unexpected health care expenses or property damage. We want to send our kids to college and have income for improving our quality of life. If we’re lucky, we’ve found something that we love doing.

In active addiction, jobs and careers typically suffer. Like the other areas of our lives, work heads down a steady decline. My own experience is a good example of what can happen. When I first moved to San Diego after graduating from college, I landed a good job in management at a large hotel downtown. The hard-partying lifestyle that I lead in school wasn’t going to slow down on the account of a job so it continued as strongly as ever. I acted unprofessionally in every way, having relationships with subordinates, showing up to work hung over or loaded, drinking on the job, acting inappropriately at work functions, the list goes on. This job had potential for a great career path through the company but all the responsibility was affecting what I wanted to do. After a few years, I was told to start actually doing my job or to resign. I think my bosses saw that I had potential to do the job well but that I just refused to.

For the next several years after my resignation, I bounced around from restaurant to restaurant working as a server. I really didn’t like the work but I liked the social lifestyle of going out and partying with coworkers after night shifts and the daily cash tips were great for spending on drugs. There was easy access to alcohol at work and drinking there was normal for me. Two years was the average amount of time it took for me to get burned out at one place and move on to another. As I got closer to my breaking point, my performance would slip and I would call in sick more frequently. I was usually too hung over or wanted to party that night.

The years went by, the drugs got harder, and more and more of my money was spent on them. I wasn’t making enough money to support my habit so I started stealing from my employers. I couldn’t make it through a whole shift at work without doing heroin so I would smoke it in the bathrooms or run out to my car on a break. Quitting jobs turned into getting fired from them. I got to a point where I was not in any kind of mind state to try and improve my work situation by finding something I enjoyed doing which paid me more. I was un-hirable.

Except for a few brief periods of time where I was collecting unemployment, I did always have a job. I don’t remember where, but I heard someone say that for many addicts, the job is often the last thing to be lost in addiction. We are able to maintain it even after losing family, relationships, a house, etc. Besides funding our disease it becomes a point of pride. After losing everything else we can tell ourselves that at least we can still hold down a job so maybe things aren’t that bad.

That faulty logic can apply in recovery as well. If we’re not working a program and unhappy with other parts of our lives we might tell ourselves that at least we have a job so things are alright. We can become consumed with a job and put all our effort and energy towards it. If we are performing well at work but neglecting other areas of life, our identity can become the job.

A good salary makes life easier for ourselves and our families but it comes with its own problems. There isn’t anything wrong with material wealth in and of itself. The problem is if nice things are used to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. Material things shouldn’t be used to feel better through comparison with people who don’t have as much. If we make it a competition, we’re always going to be disappointed by people who have more. Net worth doesn’t equal self-worth. This kind of categorization keeps us in a divisive state of mind, an us/them mentality. In recovery, we try to be open and accepting and avoid cutting ourselves off from other people based on superficial criteria.

Certain jobs come with power and status. Sometimes the influence is limited to within the company or organization and sometimes it can be felt in the external community and beyond. Pride is something that many addicts struggle with. We either have too much or too little. Having a high-powered career can exaggerate the ego to dangerous levels and give someone a distorted sense of self-importance. Power and status can give rise to a sense of entitlement. Our position and money can make us feel like we have the right to do whatever we want and that we’re exceptions to the rules. When power is abused for personal gain it hurts others and often will hurt ourselves in the long run. If our pride grows to the point of using power illegally it can cost us the job or even our freedom.

Celebrities are great examples of how money and station can’t prevent addiction or protect from a relapse. There is an ever-growing list of famous actors and musicians who have died from overdoses. There are countless autobiographies and television shows in which celebrities share their stories of addiction. In recent years there have been several tragic celebrity suicides linked to addiction, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and Anthony Bourdain, to name a few (I can’t say whether or not they were working a program but my point is that fame and money won’t make you ok). Having a lot of money can be dangerous for both potential and recovering addicts in poor spiritual condition. A well-funded habit/relapse can go on for a long time and purchasing large amounts of drugs creates a higher risk of overdose and legal issues. Addiction does not discriminate.

It can take years to gain back what was lost in addiction. It’s also amazing at how far we can go when we’re clean and not getting loaded. There’s a saying in recovery about everything we have gained back being able to fit into a spoon. All of it can disappear with incredible rapidity after a relapse. The car, the house, the significant other, the high-salary position; all of it can fit in a spoon or a pipe or a bottle and be gone before you know it. I’ve seen it happen, it’s truly frightening how quickly everything can be lost again with a relapse. I’ve heard other addicts share in meetings about being clean for years, building their lives back up and then losing it all in a matter of months or even weeks.

It’s possible to lose all these things while in recovery too. Just because we’re clean doesn’t mean that we’re not going to experience pain and loss. Despite our best efforts, we may not be as successful as we thought we would be. Some people have more problems in recovery than they did in active addiction. We’re not using drugs anymore so we can’t numb out our feelings anymore. That’s why a recovery program is so important. If we’ve made a job our recovery, what happens when we lose that job or don’t get the promotion that we wanted? When we’ve lost something or everything in life, what we’re left with is ourselves and we need to be ok with that if we are to stay clean.

Labor statistics show that most of the world’s working population will spend a third of their life at work. Liking or even loving what we do for work is a goal we should work towards. An active recovery program helps us in that endeavor. Being open and honest about who we are and what we want will guide us towards the right job. Learning to walk through fear and being willing to make mistakes provides us with opportunities. Staying spiritually grounded will keep us optimistic and determined when opportunities don’t work out. When we apply recovery principles to working rather than thinking of them as a separate entity, we give ourselves the best chance for success.