I am typically very open about my mental illnesses. I write this blog, talk plainly about it to my friends, and am upfront and maybe even loud about it with doctors and pharmacies. Work, however is a different thing altogether. I have one coworker who knows why I don’t drink and that I have a mood disorder, though we haven’t gone into details. Other than her, all that my coworkers know is that I don’t drink. And my boss and HR know that I have been out in the past due to “mental health issues”.
My employer is really great to their employees, having two large all office events a year and several small events at each office annually as well. They are generous with time-off, and through programs and committees actively try to help employees grow professionally and personally. For some of us working from home one or two days a week is possible. My direct supervisor is great to work for. She is friendly, encourages me to voice any and all ideas, and supports me should issues arise. She is also flexible with scheduling, such as if I need to leave early or request time off fairly last minute.
Although I think it is great that my employer throws such large parties twice a year, these events are really hard for me. The parties take place during a work day and therefore are mandatory. They always have a bar and everyone receives two drink tickets at arrival. Each party is obviously a very large crowd; and everyone seems to know each other. My position in the company, however, requires me to work with a very small number of people. The combination of people (social anxiety) and alcohol makes my time there a challenge.
In the past when social situations made me anxious, I drank. I would have one, two, maybe ten drinks and feel comfortable talking to everyone and anyone. Of course, this was problematic, see the ten drinks reference above. I have been sober for the entire time I have been with this company so they have never experienced that side of me, which is good. I could not have lasted at this job if I was still drinking.
One year at my previous employers holiday party I had so much to drink I made a giant fool of myself and then passed out on the front stoop of the house we were living in, hitting my head on the door. I am happy to keep nights like that in the past.
Simply put, my problem with these parties is that I’m often not comfortable around alcohol, I’m not comfortable in social situations, and these two factors combined can cause increased anxiety and cravings that last for days after the party.
I have known that alcoholism is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from the beginning (attorney husband and all); and that skipping a party would absolutely be a “reasonable accommodation”. But I have also been scared to bring it up and really haven’t wanted to go into it with an official disclosure; my employer has always been so reasonable I didn’t feel like it was necessary or appropriate to be so formal about it. The problem is that someone who can’t go to a party in part due to social anxiety will also have a hard time talking about not being able to go.
For the summer 2019 event I missed the party due to a doctors appointment that I happened to schedule the same day. For the Christmas party of 2019 I felt like it would be hard to skip with a weak excuse again. I spoke in depth with my therapist, who agreed it might not be the best place for me to be; and we practiced what I might say to my boss. I spoke to my psychiatrist, he did not want me to go and gave wording suggestions and rationalized that they would obviously be fine with it. I spoke with my husband who also didn’t want me to go and provided support while trying to suppress his urge to talk about it too much from a legal perspective.
I was so scared, but I had a list of people behind me and so going into a meeting with my boss I felt supported. When a recent meeting with my boss was closing up, I told her I had one more thing to talk about. I told her I’m a recovering alcoholic and events like the party are particularly difficult for me, and so I thought it would be best for me to stay home and work instead of attending the party. She said okay, and that I had to do what was best for me and then discussed switching my work from home day that week. She then moved the conversation to other topics, showing that she did not judge me as I was worried she would. She may or may not have already assumed that I was a recovering alcoholic based on my lack of drinking; either way I did not feel the stigma I was so worried about.