Why you can’t ‘out-smart’ addiction

Lisa Smith | April 2020 | 7 minutes

This is Lisa's story: "Smart, successful people like me don’t become addicted - right?"

I was sure that I could get it under control myself. My drinking, that is. After all, I was a lawyer with a high-level job at a prestigious firm. Smart, successful people like me didn’t become addicted, I thought. Right?

Wrong, it turns out. Toppling previously held prejudices, it’s now oft-documented that there’s a correlation between a high IQ and high alcohol consumption. One particular study found that women who have a degree are more likely to drink daily. Another found that a fifth of American attorneys drink hazardously; far higher than the Stateside average.

I learned this the hard way. As a junior lawyer at a New York City megafirm, my enjoyment of (and tolerance for) alcohol was welcomed. Any week night that I was lucky enough to work a so-called ‘half day’ (meaning I left my desk around 7pm), there would be a group of similarly fortunate lawyers looking to go out for cocktails. Because these impromptu gatherings frequently included a firm partner, the drinks were both endless and free. Who could pass that up?

Toppling previously held prejudices, it’s now oft-documented that there’s a correlation between a high IQ and high alcohol consumption.

I’d belly up to the bar at one of the firm’s regular nearby haunts and go drink for drink - and shot for shot - with my colleagues. Boozing away the day’s pressures and anxieties while scoring points with more senior lawyers who could influence my career became a way of life, and a seemingly successful one at that.

Standing in my tailored business suit and four-inch heels, I would occasionally steal a glance at my watch. It was a devil’s bargain, after all. Come 9am the next morning, I would be expected to be at my desk and ready for another day of intense pressure and never-ending demands.

In a ‘work hard / play hard’ environment, hangovers are no excuse for being late or off sick. This was true even after the most debauched client entertainment dinners, firm celebrations, and, frequently, on weekends. We had a joke: If you don’t show up for work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday.

Confident and together as I acted, this lifestyle poured kerosene on my pre-existing fire of insecurity, anxiety, and fear. I began drinking every night. The bottom fell out of my sophisticated façade when I would get home from work at midnight, stand in front of my refrigerator in my underwear and slam a few beers to put me to sleep. With a heavy dose of gallows humour, I called this ‘Happy Hour’.

Confident and together as I acted, this lifestyle poured kerosene on my pre-existing fire of insecurity, anxiety, and fear. I began drinking every night.

Fortunately, when I was finally in enough pain, I found recovery. I told my family and friends, but not my firm. Getting sober is a highly personal decision, and one I was lucky to make on my terms. I had thought I was ‘high functioning’, but that’s an unsustainable myth. If I had gotten done for drink driving, missed a meeting because I overslept, or crossed the line at an office event, suddenly I wouldn’t have been so high functioning. In fact, I could have been fired or worse.

Now, in our 24/7-connected world, a work hard/play hard ethic is even more dangerous as the two overlap. Lying on a sunbed on a picturesque beach loses its restorative benefits when you have one hand on the phone waiting for it to vibrate with an email that might summon you inside for a conference call. Yet, we’re expected to do just that, without suffering from the physical and mental health problems that are likely to result.

The irony for me was that I became more successful in the corporate world once I stopped drinking. I became present and engaged at the office, not hungover or obsessing over when I could drink next. Not long after getting sober, I was able to take a bigger job previously beyond my reach.

The irony for me was that I became more successful in the corporate world once I stopped drinking. I became present and engaged at the office, not hungover or obsessing over when I could drink next.

I also surrounded myself outside the office with people who understood what I was going through. Armed with their tips, tools, and support, I was able to navigate the ‘play hard’ part of corporate life with a clear head, no hangovers and no regrets.

I may have been wrong when I thought I was too smart for addiction, but I know I’m right when I say that sobriety was my ticket up the corporate ladder.