‘Do I Have to Tell My Boss I’m Going to Rehab?’

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Dear Ana: 

So I’m absolutely an alcoholic — was going to AA and found it partially helpful, even got to 30 days in February 2020. I started my current job in March 2020, days before we were all sent home (the lucky ones, anyway). Before, I had been unemployed for over a year. I had almost had my car repossessed, everything in storage auctioned, etc. Which is to say, I am utterly terrified of losing my job.

However, I know that if I can’t stop drinking, I will ultimately lose it — and more. So I’ve finally made the long-overdue decision to go to rehab.

My question is this: How do I bring this up with my employer? I have the combined vacation and sick days to take at least one month paid and then I guess FMLA unpaid after that, if needed, but I am on a very small team (like seven people). Me being out that long really affects everyone’s workload and because they have to freelance out part of my work, we don’t get a profit-sharing bonus at the end of the year. And I know it’s ridiculous — if I were out for major surgery, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask. But I am so scared that when I say, “Hey, I need to take a month, possibly more, off,” I will get fired and then not have the insurance to cover rehab.

Anyway, any thoughts on the best way to bring this up? Do I talk to my boss first or just submit the time-off request and say it’s for medical reasons and not give any more details?

Working It

Dear Working It,

You have no legal or moral obligation to tell your boss why you need medical leave. (One hopes that this continues to be the case.) And rest assured, going to rehab is medical leave. Treatment for alcohol- and drug-abuse disorders is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act; it requires employers to allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to, in part, seek care “for a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.” What’s more, people with addiction disorders are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, on the legal front: You don’t have to tell your boss why you’re leaving; if your boss does find out and retaliates, you have legal recourse. Let’s hope you never have to know more than that about the law and addiction.

Still, your question isn’t just about legalities; it’s about what kind of explanations we do or don’t owe people when we seek recovery. When I am in my right mind, the answer to that issue is straightforward: Obviously, no one owes anyone an explanation for any kind of medical treatment, even if it means others having to make accommodations. Disruptions are a part of working with other humans. Your concern for your colleagues’ workload is admirable, but I know that you know they are better served in the long term by your sobriety. Go do your thing, end of discussion.

Simple, right?

But in the early days of seeking our sober path, a lot of us are haunted by the idea that we need to tell someone, maybe everyone, about it. Some people might seek (perhaps subconsciously) the pats on the back that come with turning over a new leaf. Me? I wanted the people I’d failed or hurt in some way (and it seemed like that was literally everyone) to know I was going to try to change. Though perhaps those two motivations aren’t that far apart.

The truth is, I thought that by telling people I was getting treatment/going to meetings, I would buy a little forgiveness in advance of actually doing the work of repair.

The very first time I decided to get sober, I remember calling up one long-suffering editor the next day and telling him everything was going to be different! I would meet every deadline! I would remember every phone call! My expense reports would not smell like bourbon! “There’s this thing called amends,” I told him, having read the 12 steps on the wall of a meeting a whole 24 hours earlier. “I will make amends to you.”

He was (and is) a great guy, and incredibly supportive. He remained supportive right through (and beyond) the day I went to rehab — about a year and many more blown deadlines later. What I wish I’d done was stick to the principle that served me well in the (belatedly delivered) writing I’d done for him: showing and not telling. In journalism, that means building a case through examples rather than assertions. In recovery, it means the same thing.

You may eventually want to explicitly tell employers and co-workers about your recovery. I’d consider waiting until you have a bit of sober time and it’s in a natural context: A social gathering is the obvious opportunity. However you handle letting people know you’re in recovery, consider this: Describe it (both to them and to yourself) as a journey you’re on — not just a statement about where you want to go.

You may also eventually make formal amends that require you to acknowledge that you used to drink (which is different from saying you’re in recovery, though people will probably figure it out). Navigating your career as a newly sober person is a great excuse to talk to other sober people about what they did.

To return to your concern about your co-workers: Even though you don’t owe them an explanation, it would be kind to thank them for their flexibility — either in advance or after. Just like you’d do if you were out because you had back surgery. Maybe a gift card? The real paying it back will be what you do with your recovery.

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‘Do I Have to Tell My Boss I’m Going to Rehab?’