Handling substance abuse in the work place

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Where to start with a piece like this? While what follow is personal, I mean for there to be a carryover into the workplace and offer a bit of personal wisdom learned from experience — my own and my family’s.

About four weeks ago my mother passed away quietly at her home in Lansing, Michigan. She was 94 and in failing health. Honestly, it was a blessing to have her leave us at this time as she was not having a good time, emotionally or physically. My sisters had been spending a lot of time going back and forth from their homes in Grand Rapids and Detroit these past two years and they were frankly exhausted from the attention my Mom required. My younger brother also lived with my mom. He cooked and cleaned and made sure she took her medicine, but was not up to some of the personal care she required, hence my sisters sharing that duty.

Of equal importance is knowing that while my brother is 66 years old, he is unemployed, cannot operate a vehicle, spends almost all his time in the house and can only carry on the most superficial of conversations when any of his siblings are around.

He is a recovering drug and alcohol addict and his experience has rendered him on the outside looking in at life.

My family is, I know now, not that unusual. Addiction runs in our family, from one generation to the next, from my grandfather to my father to myself and also my younger brother.

In my case I have been very blessed, after several clear instances of having a problem with alcohol from an early age, I found myself in a moment of blinding clarity at age 25 at my first AA meeting.

I say blessed because I had the painful experience of watching my father deal with his own alcoholism until I was age 14. The memories of his struggle, while not pleasant, were object lessons that I could recall some 11 years later when I surrendered to the reality of my situation.

I didn’t go down without a fight though, I stubbornly denied my problem, using my success in college and work to sustain my denial until it was just too obvious for me to deny any longer.

It was after one particular incident where I had no intention of overdoing it and ended up coming home completely blacked out. I looked into the future and saw clearly how my story was going to turn out if I didn’t get some help. That was some 46 years ago and even today I consider my recovery to be the greatest achievement of my life, and knowing what I know now about the disease, an entirely unpredictable outcome.

As of this moment, my brother is in a residential rehab in Manistee, Michigan.

My sisters took him there last Wednesday having found him in my mother’s home, fully intoxicated, after having been sober for three years. He admitted that he could not function on his own and he was prepared to surrender. As it turns out, my mother’s death may turn out to be the opening that he needs to get the help he requires. She was shielding him, protecting him from action that my sisters and I wanted to take that would have forced the issue of him requiring professional assistance.

We fought with her about the issue; in one instance she wouldn’t talk to me for six months, insisting that I didn’t love my brother, that he needed our understanding. That was her argument through two totaled cars and 18 months in jail, despite having had an alcoholic husband, older brother and father herself.

So where am I going with this?

I am trying to be graphic without being morbid, but this is nasty business. If you are an employer or a co-worker of someone you suspect has a problem with alcohol and/or drugs, trust your intuition. You don’t have to be a professional to recognize when these substances are interfering with someone’s life and you are not going to ruin someone’s life by bringing the question to someone who knows what they are doing.

I will say it as bluntly as I can. If you are correct in your suspicions know this, you are dealing with the devil and the devil does not make bargains. Do not try to be rational or understanding, that is the devil’s game, that’s a sucker’s game.

People cannot persist with this destructive behavior without collaborators, if anything, err on the side of being completely wrong, the worst thing that can happen for you is you lose an associate, employee or friend. For them, they could lose their life.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com. He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other

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