Educators and Addiction: The Silence Will Kill You

Photo by Sérgio Alves Santos on Unsplash

As an educator, I’m sure many of you can identify with stress, anxiety, and burnout. They are no strangers to our profession. We can often feel undervalued, underappreciated, underpaid, and more.Our feelings are more often than not met with “Well, you knew you weren’t going to get rich being a teacher” or “ It’s for the kids.” or my favorite, “You do get three months off during the summer and have every paid holiday under the sun.”

All of those responses have the potential to induce shame and guilt as well as a strong desire to engage in a passionate rebuttal. Generally speaking, I don’t pick up on those insinuations that I live an easy life, have it made and barely work for the money I make. However, if you’re anything like me, those kinds of comments can occasionally sneak into our minds and still burn a few hours later. Your inner critic jumps in, and you begin to self-sabotage. “I am in for the kids after all.” “I DO make a decent living.” “It’s not THAT bad.” So, we dig in and go back for more trying to keep the kids in mind. All the while, the toxic message that we are not enough, doing enough, or being enough sits in our subconscious minds and simmers.

But the continued cultural belief- at least in the US- is that teachers make too much, work only 9 months a year and only work from 8–3 is so prevalent. Even some school boards will accept and underscore these misaligned beliefs. So what’s a teacher to do? Scroll through any social media page, and you’ll be met with memes that make a mockery out of drinking, normalize happy hours (regardless of whether they are in person or on Zoom- not to mention at 10 am- and project the belief that everyone is doing it and it’s harmless. Until it’s not.

As a whole, problem drinking in society is on the rise. The pandemic has seen a huge increase in alcohol sales. According to the April 4, 2020 issue of Forbes magazine,Winc, a direct to consumer wine club, saw a 578% increase in new member sign ups during the week ending March 21. Sales during the same period increased by 49.6%. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Winc has added new members at an average rate of 2,102 a day versus the previous average rate of 207 new members a day (Macallef, 2020). Make no mistake that the increase in mental health issues and the amount of alcohol being consumed often go hand-in-hand.

As teachers, we not only have the overreaching stigma of being problem drinkers but also we have the added pressure in the various roles we play. We are teachers, mentors, coaches, facilitators, influencers, role models. All of these come with a heavy price tag: educators have to be held to a higher standard and must be more moral than the rest of the population. While I agree that, yes, we do play those roles and have a tremendous responsibility on our hands, we are at our core human beings. We are not infallible. The shame of having a disease or even a problematic drinking issue further pushes educators back into the proverbial closet and deprives them of the ability to seek the help they need.

I know it’s scary to ask for help. I’ve been there. I was petrified of having to go to rehab for fear of losing my job. And while I am well aware of the laws surrounding addiction and workplace firings, it didn’t set well with me that everyone would know my personal business. So I white- knuckled my way through my first several weeks of sobriety, keeping my personal journey a secret venting only in anonymous online groups or meetings and blogging under a pseudonym.

For me, at that particular time, it’s what I felt I had to do. I did not know of any support groups or recovery coaches specific to educators.

However, I no longer wish to be silent. I wish to recover out loud, and it is time for me to step out into the light. I am not ashamed of being me. I am a grateful woman in recovery from many issues. One of my passions in life is education; therefore, I am going to continue to teach the public about the need for educators to be able to admit they may have a problem and to be of service to them to assist them get help. By not dismissing the embedded beliefs that I “shouldn’t” have a problem with alcohol because I am a teacher or that I had to be better and to act better, kept me from getting the help I needed. Today, I have been in recovery for over six and a half years. I know I can be a role model to not only my fellow colleagues but also to the students I have in front of me. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 15 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder (alcohol.org, 2020). As the number continues to rise, so will the amount of children and families who are affected personally.

If you are an educator and would like to connect, you may reach me at lksmith.author@gmail.com. I’d love to help you on your journey.

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L.K. Smith

Wife. Parent. Former Teacher. Teen Advocate. Certified Life and Recovery Coach. Author of: Disconnect to Reconnect.