Life and workplace demands collide to form the perfect storm
Reprinted from the How’s Work? Life in the Workplace issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (3), pp. 22-24
As a child I had no idea what I wanted to be. Whenever I thought of the future I drew a blank. Just one faint image would come into focus: me, in an apartment, in a big city, living independently in a tall building with an elevator. No particular job was discernible.
Where this has been dangerous is when I have staked all my value and self-worth on achieving and succeeding in the workplace—accepting nothing less than perfection and believing that's what I need to be in order to make it.
I've had the opportunity to work in a number of professions. Each has met my personal prerequisite of being demanding and high stress. Perfect! And each has come with its own satisfactions: manufacturing and production (1998–2012)—hitting production goals, challenging myself to exceed expectations; praise and bonuses for producing well. Sales and marketing (2013–17)—getting new accounts, seeing new market opportunities, meeting the needs of clients. Marine emergency services (2018–20)—working on the water, helping keep our coastal waters safe. What an adventure!
And what about the days when I wasn't winning or couldn't do the impossible? The losses stacked up. I'd file them away and stuff down my sense of failure. Combined with the stress of life and unresolved personal traumas that fueled my pursuit of perfection, this led to intense stress overload.
My personal life was very much the same. If I wasn’t on point and overachieving in every area, I didn’t feel satisfied. I started using substances in my early teens. It's been a cycle of sobriety and relapse ever since. When my work world collided with trouble in my personal world, it created a perfect storm. The only way out seemed to be using substances to numb my internal, tormenting obsession about not achieving perfection.
Tipping the scales too far
At first substances helped to achieve a measure of success by removing some of the emotions associated with feeling like a failure. But the relief from anxiety and depression was short-lived. I was only adding fuel to the fire—temporary relief that would become a raging inferno in no time. After a period of not taking care of my personal needs for rest and self-care, especially the need to nurture recovery, the end result was relapse.
The decision to use had negative implications in work and my personal life. Professionally, I would miss workdays. I’d become increasingly unreliable—I think of the different work environments where I put others at risk. Personally, I wasn’t able to be present with friends and family. Precious time I can't get back.
The imbalance between those two worlds was a critical error. I worked overtime shifts relentlessly and even took a second job at one point. The feeling of exhaustion was intense. I did not want to disappoint my employers. I felt trapped. I felt lonely. I felt the heavy burden of trying to maintain an ugly secret.
There is so much stigma around addiction and substance use in the workplace and in society as a whole. There are socially acceptable substances and those that come with negative stereotypes, assumptions and misinformation, like the myth that you have to hit “rock bottom” before you reach out. The toxic drug supply and opioid crisis show us we can't wait for rock bottom.
I felt ashamed and had a lot of fear of coming forward to my employers to acknowledge that I had a problem. What would they think? Would they trust me? Would they fire me? What would my co-workers think? What would this mean for future promotions?
Unmanageability. Denial. Obsession. I continued to use in silence. Having finally cracked under the pressure and surrendered to my addiction, I isolated myself from all support. Game over.
Back into balance
Over time I've completed several residential treatments, where I've dealt with underlying trauma that triggered drug misuse. Through my work experience I've also developed relationships that have assisted in my recovery journey. This has meant allowing others to get close enough to see underneath my exterior to the real Chris—Chris the person, not Chris the addict—who has hopes and big dreams. I’m so grateful for these relationships, which provide a safe place to share when I begin to feel overwhelmed.
The drive to meet and exceed workplace goals and achieve career success is still present. I am driven. It’s how I'm wired. I’m also a lifelong learner who loves people. I now work as a lived experience advisor for BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services and a community outreach worker with Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre on Vancouver Island, delivering food hampers to families in need. What helps me succeed today and not crumble under pressure is knowing when to rest and that it's OK to do so. I also recognize that I need balance. When I’m actively participating in recovery and keeping things manageable in my personal life, I am much more productive in the workplace and vice versa.
My co-workers and employers can be part of my support team. Creating a safe place to be open in the workplace is critical. This can be really challenging. There is so much fear around openly sharing that you’re struggling with substance misuse. I have been in work environments where it's the elephant in the room and nobody talks about it. It's very lonely and isolating, which only feeds the hopelessness.
I've also experienced a workplace where it is safe to share, and where I have received the much-needed support and encouragement that helped me to quickly get things back to safe harbour. People can get help through employee assistance programs (EAP) or recovery groups. As a co-worker I can also offer support by recognizing symptoms and being a person who checks in with others.
When met with genuine compassion and understanding without judgement, I no longer feel alone. I can't do it alone. In the workplace, where I spend so much time, my co-workers are often in the best position to throw out a lifeline. It starts with having the courage to come forward and be open about being in recovery.
About the author
Chris Lamoureux is a member of the Semiahmoo First Nation (in South Surrey White Rock). A survivor of concurrent PTSD and substance misuse, he is a proud father and volunteer in the mental health and recovery communities. A former BCIT student, Chris, now 42, has worked in the marine industry for the federal government