Safe spaces, alcoholism, and being a professor

This past week, my partner and I were invited to a regular lunch organized for people in recovery at the campus we are currently visiting. We were intrigued, but had no idea what to expect. Held on a different day each month (to include people with diverging schedules), the lunch takes place in a private room at the rather typically Victorian faculty club. The gathering is a decades old institution—and its future is insured by an endowment in the name of a former dean whose portfolio included matters related to addiction and recovery on campus. As I collected these details from my host (the current dean in that office), fourteen or so people gradually filtered into the room, made introductions, and took seats. Most of those arriving clearly knew each other: there was an ease and genuine warmth unusual for university events. The group was strikingly democratic. It included senior administrators, faculty, graduate students, and staff. (I’m not sure, however, if any of the university’s service or maintenance workers were present). After eating and chatting for twenty minutes, we went around and “checked in.” Some identified as alcoholics and/or addicts. Others described themselves as members of Al-Anon or other fellowships for people with relatives suffering from substance use disorder. People spoke candidly about their recovery and personal struggles, major life events, career changes, the stress of the first week of term, and balancing academic life with self-care. Each share was different. 

By the time my turn came, I was in awe. It was like a twelve step meeting, but also subtly different: the room was filled with people from my professional world, speaking about my everyday experiences, many of which I had not yet managed to articulate. After introducing myself, I described my nervousness about starting a new research project—the first since I stopped using—and the challenge of rethinking how to relate to the profession and exist in the space of the university as a person in recovery. After I finished, the well-dressed gentlemen next to me—by impression, a senior faculty member or administrator—began speaking. “There is a lot of talk about safe spaces right now,” he started. I cringed. Although ambivalent about the language of safe spaces, I am also exhausted with older white professors belittling the concerns that drive students to demand this kind of accommodation. My resentments had kicked in. He continued: “…but it is difficult to understand the need for these kinds of spaces until you find yourself desperately in need of one.” In an instant, these words changed how I understand the idea of safe spaces. I had completely failed to grasp what many of my students have been arguing for—and this failure touched on something that runs deep.    

I have struggled this last week—and through several drafts of this post—to formulate what I didn’t understand. I have taught for gender and ethnic studies programs my entire career and I have always supported campus spaces and services dedicated to students of color, black students, women, queer students, and—now that I am aware of the issue—students in recovery. It was not the principle of safe spaces that I didn’t grasp. It was something to do with the language of safety. I simply did not connect with the idea that the university could be a place—or, more modestly, provide spaces—of refuge and belonging. This was an emotional, rather than a cerebral, response. There are things that I enjoy about academic life (mainly, teaching and the time to do intellectual work). And, on the whole, universities have been very good to me. In sobriety, I am learning to feel gratitude for this fact. But I have always nurtured a basically antagonistic attitude toward the institution itself: its hierarchies and exclusions, its model of knowledge production, its involuted culture. Politics infused this stance. But so did unacknowledged and largely untreated trauma from my younger life. 

Almost instinctively, I projected subterranean pain and fear—sometimes in ways that were misdirected or self-serving—onto perceived failures of academia. Even as the system rewarded me, I felt that my presence was precarious, accidental, and somehow fake. Of course, I was far from alone in feeling this way. “Imposture syndrome” is pervasive among graduate students and junior faculty members, especially those from marginalized groups. (The language of “syndrome” individualizes this phenomenon in a way that deflects attention from those aspects of university culture that make so many incredibly talented people feel inadequate and unwelcome.) In my case, this feeling of apartness was certainly a response to ways I felt invisible or negated within some university spaces (with regards to mental illness, sexuality, and class). But it was also something I carried with me into every setting: a visceral, core anxiety.   

Like many alcoholics and addicts, I used because the pain of anxiety and isolation—intensified by surface academic success—was physically overwhelming. Drinking was also utilitarian. If you haven’t experienced social anxiety, it’s hard to capture the panic that I often feel in a room of more than four or five people: like I am being physically separated from my body and a fire alarm is blaring in the cracks that are spreading across my chest. Department socials, chatting with colleagues after talks, dinner parties, even office hours: I rarely confronted such occasions without a few drinks. And since I am an alcoholic, usually a few drinks would lead to more than a few more. (Parenthetically, teaching is a different experience. Since it’s a calibrated performance, and I am in a position of authority, I find that I can usually navigate classrooms spaces without booze—although I still get nauseated before walking into a lecture hall.) Addiction has a way of turning inward and cannibalizing its origins. My feelings of alienation fear became a license to use in ever increasing quantities even as it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I cultivated rejection. When sober, I sometimes responded to my anxiety by positioning myself as an outsider and (in a very masculine fashion) “fighting,” i.e. pushing aside, the supposed insiders and conformists. Through making amends, I have started to see instances when I belittled or ignored colleagues, especially women, in situations where I genuinely felt like I was under attack or somehow threatened. It’s not a pretty picture. When drinking, my erratic, self-centred, and pompous behaviour drove off friends. I was an asshole. 

A common experience among addicts is that a kind of gap or division starts to bifurcate our experience of reality. In the words of the rock band Jane’s Addiction, there is an “addict’s world” and a “straight world.” During the day, I embraced the masquerade and pretended to be a professor. I participated in the tidy, middle-class universe where people finish projects more-or-lees on deadline, fulfill work obligations, have families, vacation, save money, go to the dentist, do yoga, buy homes, and find some measure of security. At least, that’s how I imagined it as a sojourner. By the time I was locking my office door and leaving campus, that reality had vanished  into a haze. I stepped into my world: drinking myself to sleep most nights, blacking out, waking up in my own vomit, scoring and using drugs in dangerous places (as a graduate student—I stopped hard drugs while finishing my PhD), bulimia and cutting, burning through money before the next pay check came, missing classes and meetings because of hangovers, and placing myself and others in unsafe situations. I would then swear off booze for a week and rush frenetically to prepare classes, finish articles, pen letters of recommendation, and catch up on other obligations. This asymmetric cycle of binge drinking and binge working was my life. I genuinely cared about my students. In the beginning, I was also invested in my research and tried to write honestly and ethically. But overtime, I disassociated. I saw the straight world as pretence and bullshit. A hollow system that I was scamming like everyone else. Eventually, after years of reckless behaviour, I could no longer lie nor manipulate my way out of facing the damage that I was causing. The separation between my worlds collapsed, and it felt like everything fell apart.                         

At lunch, I sat together with a room of colleagues who would not be surprised by a single word that I have just written. They either live with this disease or have seen someone they love thrash in its grip. So they embraced me where I am at today. I don’t really know how to describe what this level of acceptance means to someone wrestling with the guilt and shame of early recovery. It was like being awash with sadness because you unexpectedly felt a new kind of joy and only then realize how much had been missing from your understanding of life. Something deep inside let go. I knew with absolute certainty that if I was in trouble, panicked, or in danger of relapsing, I could walk into any building on campus and there would be a person who understands. 

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