CONTENT NOTE: detailed discussion of substance abuse and trauma
I began drinking heavily during college when I took a semester off, moving from Boston back to Baltimore to stay with my father. His active alcoholism and prescription painkiller abuse had grown far worse since I’d left for college. I’d watched his addiction, anxiety, and depression progress my entire life, but now he wouldn’t even leave the house except for trips to the liquor store. He spent his days smoking cigars, drinking Coors Light, and watching TV Land. Addiction’s stronghold squeezed more life out of my father with every turn.
A semester off meant that I not only lacked the routine of my studies, but I had to endure living in a house full of trauma reminders. It was where my parents had spent most nights fighting so loudly that the house shook; I could hear them from three houses down the block. My mother had moved out by the time I returned, but I could still hear the echoes of their arguments from deep inside the walls.
I felt stuck, like someone pushed the pause button on my life. Rather than staying home with Dad, I reconnected with some high school friends and went out drinking every night. My father’s history had now become mine; this marked the start of my own cycles of use, abuse, hospitalization, sobriety, and relapse.
The origin of my own struggle with alcoholism mirrors that of so many others. And it did not end once I “grew up” and began my career as an educator. According to a national survey conducted from 2008-2012 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 5% of teachers in the U.S. abuse alcohol. Additionally, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 13% of people in the U.S. have increased their alcohol use. A 2019 poll in the United Kingdom indicated that 10% of teachers have received prescriptions for antidepressants due to job-related stress and 5% have been hospitalized.
Teachers face stressors such as budget cuts, violence, and scrutiny in the media as well as criticism from parents, school boards, and administrators. Educators face the additional pressure of being held up as role models, an often-impossible standard when teachers face secondary trauma, jam-packed schedules, and unreasonable expectations. Teacher burnout has resulted in a nationwide teacher shortage, with California alone entering the 2022-2023 school year with 50,000 vacancies.
The education field must make drastic changes to restore the profession to fully staffed schools, in part through prevention and management of mental health issues among teachers. This includes increasing (or establishing) supports for teachers struggling with mental health disorders, including substance abuse disorder.
Unions can play a key role in preventing substance use and assisting employees who seek help. The Wappingers Congress of Teachers—in response to the addiction-related deaths of educators, students, and alumni—has worked with school administrators to reduce the stigma of addiction in their district.
Additionally, 54% of civilian workers in the United States have access to employee assistance programs. I had the opportunity to speak with the program director of an EAP, where she has been employed since 1999. Requesting to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of her job, she shared that anyone employed where this support is offered can receive free, confidential counseling. Family members are also covered. EAP clinicians assess employees and determine whether to refer them for more intensive rehabilitation care.
Many educators nationwide can use the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take a leave of up to 12 weeks for a mental health condition. She emphasized that she has been fortunate enough to have never worked with an employee who “lost a job for seeking help,” though I’m sure those stories exist, especially for non-unionized workers. The most stressed employees she encounters are teachers, who struggle because of their schedules and “astronomical workloads.”
An anonymous Boston Teachers Union representative spoke with me about her experiences supporting educators who struggle with addiction. When a teacher she supported did not voluntarily enter hospital treatment for suicide ideation, the doctor had them involuntarily committed. It is a form of incarceration commonly enforced under Massachusetts law Section 35, which was recently challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. She has also received calls from educators who felt reluctant to speak with friends and family when they encountered the consequences of addiction, including as the risk of job loss from chronic absenteeism and hospitalization.
During that semester off, after a night out drinking, I drove the eighteen miles home to the suburbs, drunk the entire way. On a two-way street, I drove in the opposite lane where, had it not been two in the morning, there would have been busy oncoming traffic. I lucked out but, if I hadn’t, I could’ve at best totaled my car. At worst? I could have killed myself—or someone else—as a drunk driver. This should have been a wake-up call that I needed to stop the car and sober up. It should have caused me to question my drinking.
But because I was nineteen and didn’t fear death, I continued to drink through my final stint of college, at rock bars where my band played and fanboys plied me with drinks. I became a substitute teacher, believing that working with students might save me. Instead, I binged on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. I routinely blacked out in the shower, so I began only taking baths. When I became a fully certified teacher, I only drank on Saturday nights, but I binged heavily, often consuming 100 ounces of Yellow Tail in a night.
While teaching didn’t cure me, I felt sure that becoming a mother would. During my two pregnancies, I had no desire for alcohol. However, I started drinking again only a week or so after giving birth to each child. In my children’s preschool and kindergarten years, they loved to run, jump, and play. But their energy became a burden during the winter months in our small apartment. This was not only because of the confines of the space, but also due to a wretched neighbor who threatened to sue us and even called the police because of the noise my children made. I felt like I had to walk on eggshells in my own home, so I began to drink more and more.
One night, while plastered, I somehow managed to journal the things I did drunk, reading it, blacking out, and contacting friends I hadn’t seen in years on Facebook Messenger. When I read my journal the next day, I saw how undone I had become. I finally got sober on May 6th, 2021, through a combination of AA meetings, therapy appointments, and prescription drugs to manage my bipolar II disorder.
But does alcoholism really count as a disability? How do alcoholics fit into disability justice?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alcoholism constitutes a disability “if it substantially limits a major life activity (e.g., learning, concentrating, interacting with others, caring for oneself).” However, alcoholics only receive workplace protections and accommodations like flexible schedules for mental health appointments when we can still adequately perform our jobs. Once alcoholism impacts job performance, employers can “discipline, discharge, or deny employment.” Alcoholics face similar consequences to people with progressive disabilities; as the addict’s symptoms worsen, unemployment becomes more likely and, along with it, the loss of health insurance and other benefits.
Alcoholics very commonly have co-occurring mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They may use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, exacerbating their conditions in the long-term to gain temporary relief. Dyslexia and other learning disabilities also augment the risk of addiction. Additionally, chronic pain and alcohol use disorder often share a symbiotic relationship. Therefore, when we fight against the stigma attached to disability, we must acknowledge that a substantial number of people with disabilities are further stigmatized by substance abuse.
I finally opened up about my alcoholism in September 2021 when Motherwell published my essay titled “Starting the School Year Sober.” Two factors played a role in my taking the risk of submitting this essay: the story of an accomplished educator who faced serious addiction and my membership to the Boston Teachers Union.
I came across an article written by Jessica Dueñas, the 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, who left teaching after 13 years when she hit rock bottom. Jessica wrote about her dual life as an intensely dedicated and effective educator and a woman deep in the throes of stage four alcoholism. She was drinking a fifth of liquor daily, which resulted in her developing alcoholic liver disease. I admired Jessica for her vulnerability, but I was sad that such a talented educator left the profession, though I completely empathized with her decision. Reading her essay made me determined to not only be open about my sobriety, but also to continue teaching. It was important to me; I have, despite the immense pressures, found many moments of joy in my role as Mrs. Dines.
I spoke with Jessica about her struggle and her ideas for supporting teachers living with substance abuse disorder. Jessica, who runs a website called Bottomless to Sober, manages her sobriety through intensive therapy, online friendships, and friendships from her time at Alcoholics Anonymous. Jessica also believes that unions are essential to ensure that “[teachers] can come forward and no one can hurt [them].” She suggested that unions might create safer places for educators to unite around substance abuse and sobriety. They might also promote the fact that educators can use FMLA to access recovery services.
My own membership in the Boston Teachers Union encouraged me to share my story. As a union member—not an employee at-will—I felt that I could share my story without risking retaliation like job loss. My friends and colleagues praised my “bravery” for sharing my journey. However, admitting to struggling with alcoholism need not be considered brave. We need to normalize the ability to speak freely about alcohol and other substances, especially because alcohol use has dramatically increased during COVID.
Alcoholism and addiction don’t exist in a vacuum. Families can hand it down from generation to generation, through both brain chemistry and trauma. It’s also fueled by non-familial traumas and, relatedly, society’s failure to protect the oppressed, the most vulnerable. The pressure of living with it while simultaneously needing to hide our dependence traps its victims, only escaping its grip through the substances themselves. Over time, we increase our consumption just to temporarily blot ourselves out from the mounting pain and shame.
But there is a way out, even for teachers who fear that being public about substance abuse makes them less of a role model for their students. The truth is that many children and their parents encounter substance abuse and its effects. I believe that, when educators illuminate the width addiction’s reach, we become stronger role models by showing our vulnerability, our humanity.
I hope that, in the future, educators living with substance abuse disorder need not feel that telling their stories requires a great deal of fearlessness. But this can only happen if more of us talk about, write about, and promote means of garnering support for addiction.
However, this responsibility should not be left solely to individuals. Our governments, school systems, and other institutions must prioritize stress reduction, ensure that mental health resources reach every educator that they serve, and create safer environments that encourage vulnerability—without punishment. If these root causes were addressed, educators would be less at risk for abusing alcohol in the first place and less likely to experience the stigma of seeking support when they needed it.
When the debilitating effects of addiction are ignored, teachers will face poorer outcomes, whereas improving teacher wellness will lead to more positive, connected, and respected educators in our schools.
Jennifer Dines (she/her) is a Boston-based writer, bilingual education teacher, and mother of three. Her work has been published in Motherwell, Retrofied, Insider, and WBUR Cognoscenti. She is a recent alumna of the Grub Street Essay Incubator program. Check out her writing portfolio here. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.