Working with an Alcoholic
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Working with an Alcoholic

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This post was originally published on April 17, 2014.

I’ll never forget the day that I met Jim during my training week at my very first corporate job. I’d just logged onto my computer when out of nowhere, a head with ruddy pink cheeks and a plastic toothy smile popped up over the wall of my cube.

“Hello!” the head chirped as I nearly jumped out of my chair sideways. “My name is Jim, Senior Vice President of Facilities Management and I’d like to personally welcome you to the team.” Jim had the charisma of Bill Clinton and was about as convincing as a sleazy used car salesman.

“Nice to meet you Jim,” I replied as I shook his dangling hand.

He stood there for a good 10 minutes and held me captive as he droned on about the importance of being a team player and corporate due diligence. He also added with pride, “I have an open door, Dawn. If you ever have an issue come and see me, I’m always here for you.”

His welcome felt a bit too rehearsed—borderline phony—for my taste but then again, I thought, maybe I was just being a cynical New Yorker? Maybe he was just being nice and there was no need for me to try and decode him just yet.

The first major project I was assigned required millions of dollars, an extended workday and lots of input and guidance from Jim. But after a few weeks, I found myself spending less time actually working and more time pacing and grumbling outside the open door of Jim’s forever empty office. I would see him briefly in the morning making his rounds, showing his face to all of the people that mattered. But by the time noon rolled around, he would vanish, leaving me with a stack of papers that needed his approval and timelines that needed his attention.

I made several attempts to lure him back to the office by scheduling our project meetings later in the afternoon but it never worked. He’d either have an assistant sit in for him or dial in from some secret location. One day, flustered and desperate after yet another pacing session, I bumped into a co-worker in the bathroom one day and asked her what the deal was with Jim.

She smirked and rolled her eyes. “You mean how he’s never around?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

She paused, tilted her head back, opened her mouth and tipped the edge of an invisible glass against her lips. Her eyes crossed and her red tongue flopped against her cheek, “That’s where Jim is every day.”

I can’t say that I was surprised by her answer; I had my suspicions about him from the start and he certainly wasn’t the first alcoholic that left me pacing like a caged tiger. There had been plenty of times in high school where after a long night of drinking, my dad would just disappear or blatantly forget to pick me up from whatever part-time job I had at the time. Once, after pacing a deserted mall parking for what felt like an eternity, with no cell phone or sign of my dad, I made the executive decision to walk home. By the time I reached my front door some two hours later, my feet were bloodied, blistered and numb, my hair was plastered to my forehead with sweat and my shins were covered with layers of grit and dirt from the road. When I found my dad, he was passed out and drooling, his arms and legs spread like a dopey starfish in the center of his bed, his car keys tossed carelessly on the top of his dresser. There was no point in waking him up to argue. I was too tired and flustered for the drama, anyway. And besides, it would be much easier for me to just keep a stash of cab money in my bag for the inevitable next time.

As the months passed, Jim’s behavior became increasingly unmanageable and transparent. Drinking on the clock with vendors soon led to illicit drugs and rumors of sexual harassment. A co-worker confided in me once about a drunken lunch excursion that went horribly wrong, “He begged me to have sex with him,” she whispered.

My jaw dropped. “What the hell were you doing with him?” I asked. “You know his deal.”

“I know, I know,” she said to the floor. “But it’s not like it was just the two of us—there were other people there.”

I knew the answer to my next question but I had to ask, “So, you’re going to HR, right?”

Her face went sour, “Well no,” she said. “I mean, he apologized the next day and besides I don’t want to risk my job…I just bought a house.”

I tried to talk her into telling someone. I even offered to tag along for support if she did but still she refused. So after she made me promise that I would let it go and not tell a soul, I set up a meeting with the one and only person that I thought would take up my cause: my boss.

When I met with Carmen in her office, she was huddled behind a mountain of collated Power Point presentations and highlighted Excel spread sheets. I sat across from her, my hips teetering on the edge of an orange padded chair, and told her everything that my co-worker had told me.

Her response was infuriating. “Are you sure that she’s not making the whole thing up?” she asked.

I held my breath for a few seconds and leaned in closer. I could feel cold blood rushing to my face. “Carmen,” I said. “You’ve got to know that Jim has a serious problem. Please tell me you know that.”

There was a long and awkward pause as she rolled her shoulders back, tucked her hair behind her ears and folded her hands tightly on her desk. “Well between you and me, it’s never been formally addressed,” she said. “But everyone kinda knows that he has a problem.”

We locked eyes and I shook my head in disbelief. “Well if everybody knows, then why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?”

Carmen just raised her palms in the air and shrugged her shoulders in a what-can-I-do gesture. “It’s better if you just leave this one alone, Dawn,” she said. “Promise me you’ll do that.” I nodded and headed back to my desk feeling powerless and defeated. But she was right about one thing—I needed to let it go.

Eventually I realized that I wasn’t cut out for the soul-starving corporate world of super-sized egos, futile org charts and water cooler twaddle so I left the company. Right before I did, Jim was relocated to another building, closer to his boss, where he would be under constant supervision. I don’t know if the move was instigated by his “problem” or not but I sincerely hope that he got the help he needed.

Now that I’ve had some distance from the situation, I’ve learned that the trappings of addiction can unfold and thrive just about anywhere. In my immediate family, we’ve always pretended that addiction doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if a cousin, brother or uncle has landed back in jail, scored another DUI or is living in a crack house; we deal with it by checking out and folding away in shame, keeping their problems at a quiet distance. I always assumed that this was because my family is inadequate and lacks loving concern. But after working with Jim, I realized I’d been wrong. My colleagues, with their Ivy League educations, six-figure salaries and fancy Vice President titles, didn’t handle Jim’s addiction any better than the blue-collar folks in my family that never graduated from high school. I guess whether an addict is sitting across from you in a project meeting in a pin-striped suit or wearing a stained wife beater while passed out in your living room amidst a pile of Budweiser beer cans, that person—and the people gathered around—are all just doing the best they can, with what they have, until they know how to do better.

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About Author

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.