I just got off the phone with a dear, dear friend. Larissa is in her late 30s, holds a graduate degree and works as a teacher, where she is seen by her students and peers as insightful, creative and a dynamite professional. Her classroom is always abuzz with excitement, and her students routinely say she’s the best educator they’ve ever had. Larissa has been married for 15 years, has a couple of great kids, and does volunteer work in her community, focusing on the elderly. In that, she is also highly valued and seen as near-saintly. She is smart and charming and any number of other adjectives.
One word in the previous paragraph is wrong, though, and must be amended. “Works as a teacher” is actually “worked as a teacher.” Friday, Larissa was fired from her teaching job — despite all her gifts — because Larissa is also a drunk, an alcoholic. There had been warning signs and written warnings, hand-wringing and hand-holding, pie-crust promises to change and repeated breakage of those pie crusts. Larissa has been to rehab three or four times, during the summer and during the school year. She’s stopped drinking plenty of times, but hasn’t figured out a way to stay stopped. Yesterday, Larissa’s students smelled stale alcohol on her breath, reported it to her principal, and she was fired. As she should have been.
As was I. Fourteen years ago, I was allowed to resign from one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, running an alternative high school program in a dynamic community with engaged kids. I just couldn’t control my drinking, couldn’t stop drinking, and couldn’t stop lying about my drinking. I was where Larissa is today, and it took me another three years of sinking before I finally found myself homeless. Then, I found my solution.
Talking with Larissa was like listening to tapes of me all those years ago.
“I never drank at school.”
(Although I drank enough almost every night to still be legally drunk when I drove into work.)
“Some people just metabolize alcohol in a smellier way than most.”
(Of course, some people just don’t drink, or don’t drink on work nights, or don’t drink enough to worry about metabolizing times.)
“Who are they to judge what I do on my own time?”
(Even if their concern is the ways what I do on my own time affects students, parents and co-workers.)
“I’m going to see a lawyer, because alcoholism is a disease. They wouldn’t fire me for having diabetes.”
(Unless I continued to take too much insulin or refused to eat so I was passing out in the classroom, acting shaky or confused or falling asleep regularly.)
“If it weren’t for my husband/kids/neighbors/parents/ad nauseum, I wouldn’t need to drink.”
(Although I would, because I’m an alcoholic, gifted at finding targets to drink at.)
“They’re jealous of what a good job I do, and how much the kids like me.”
(That may be, but they’re also worried about my judgment and decision-making, impaired as I am by booze.)
Larissa will find another job. She’s insightful and gifted and attractive, and that’s what her references will say. They won’t say she’s a drunk. They won’t want to damage her opportunities because “She’s so great when she’s not drinking. If it weren’t for that . . .” Unfortunately, those ellipses never end without change, and that change doesn’t seem to come without work on our part.
No one ever passed on that truth about me, either. After all I was creative and energetic, if not attractive. From that lost job of mine, I eventually got a teaching job at a residential school, until I got fired from there, if not for drinking then for behavior brought on by drinking. Then I got a job as a clerk/salesman. Then I got homeless.
Larissa is cursed by good luck and bad genes. She’s got everything she needs to be successful — except for the ability to stay away from that first drink.
Larissa and I are both smart and charming, too goddamned smart and charming for our own good when it comes to booze. There, all the gifts and talents in the world won’t keep us sober, although they can keep us from getting sober.