Do Startups Have a Drinking Problem?
I was three months into my first startup gig, as a community manager at a small company in Boulder, and we had just closed a Series A round of funding. To celebrate, we gathered for a customary champagne toast in lieu of our 9:30 a.m. team standup. By this time, my non-drinker status was well-known amongst the team; I declined my colleague’s offers of post-work drinks, beer from the office fridge. Of course, I’d been peppered with a litany of questions, but had never felt unwelcome.
As one of the founders was pouring the bubbly liquid into glasses, I quietly mentioned that I would be passing on the champagne, but could we just pour some water in the toasting glass for me? He was visibly irritated, giving me a disappointed look, and pushing it in front of the small handful of other employees.
“Seriously? You won’t even have this small glass to celebrate with us? This is a huge deal for us.”
He handed the glass to me. The only thing between me — a sober alcoholic, terrified of not fitting in — and my boss — a man, whom I deeply feared confronting — was a glass of alcohol.
“It’s just a tiny drink. To celebrate.”
My eyes circled the rim. I began to sweat. I could just take the drink. No one outside my colleagues would ever need to know. Surely it would not constitute a relapse. Certainly an exception existed for that kind of situation.
I set the glass back on the counter. A meek rebuttal escaped my lips. “I really never drink. Can I just have water please?”
Snatching the glass off the granite, he rolled his eyes. “Fine. Whatever.”
He ceremoniously dumped my share of the pour down the drain. He refilled the glass with water and pushed it across the counter back at me. Meanwhile, one of my colleagues, an engineer, had stepped up to the counter next to me.
“Yeah, I, um, really don’t want to drink right now either. Can I have water too?”
The founder glared at him, then exploded. “Are you fucking serious? Really?” He raised the glass high above the sink as he dumped the contents. Another engineer piped up, “Hey, don’t waste it, I’ll drink it!” The founder replied, “That’s not the point.”
As we toasted our glasses and took our ceremonial sips, I swore I could still feel a recognizable sense of warmth as the liquid moved down my throat.
I endured that environment for nine more months until burning out in a full mental collapse.
I knew drinking was a staple of startup culture before I set foot in my first startup event. I had seen #startuplife Tweets about heavy partying following intense periods of overwork, boasts of inebriation at SXSW parties, the rotating craft brew kegs listed on perk pages. I had read various company’s “drunkalog” posts, recapping their beer pong matches or alcohol-fueled outings. I knew that if I worked at startups I would be around a lot of alcohol. But I had also decided early in my sobriety that if I was going to stay sober, I wouldn’t be staying home waiting for the world to sober up with me. Besides, I regularly attended live music, meeting friends for happy hour, even dancing sober; all in environments built for heavy drinking.
By the time I was hired at a startup I had become petrified that if anyone at the company found out that I was an alcoholic, I would be deemed unemployable and unfriendable. My plan was to play it cool when drinking came up at events or in the workplace. I’d wait until disclosure was necessary, and would then say, “No thank you. I don’t drink.” Not make a big deal of it. But this would prove to rarely quell the inquiry. My abstinence almost always came with follow-ups:
“Are you pregnant?” “No.”
“So like never? Never ever? But what about…” “No. No. No.”
“What do you do for fun?” “Lots of stuff.”
“Why?” “I just don’t.”
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t work at all.
At my next startup gig, one year later, I decided I would fully disclose my alcoholism with my manager. Being candid about my past, I hoped, would help prevent another uncomfortable situation. The new role required regular travel to socialize with startups, investors, and other tech influencers around the world. I understood that part of my job was to be a good host to clients, which might entail attending events where alcohol was served. But I didn’t have a problem with it: I felt strong in my sobriety and neutral toward alcohol; it simply was not for me.
My first international trip was to Argentina, a country I had fantasized about visiting for years. The conference started with a client dinner at a nice steakhouse. We began placing orders for the family style meal, when my boss suddenly announced to the room that I wouldn’t be eating meat. People began to chuckle, saying things like, “How can you be in Argentina and not try the meat!?” “You’re not going to try the beef? You don’t know what you’re missing!” Then, my boss added, “Yeah, she doesn’t drink either. I mean, what the fuck is wrong with her?” Several people laughed alongside my boss.
“Thanks for letting us know who’s on asshole duty!” I mustered. I quickly changed the subject, lest our dinner be deemed an awkward failure.
That evening I struggled to fall asleep, swimming in embarrassment and shame. The excitement around my new position had evaporated. I tried to cultivate compassion for my boss’s comment. Surely it was a momentary lapse in judgement — maybe he was making up for his own insecurities? I could swear I had seen a tinge of immediate remorse in his eye. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I been naive to believe that others wouldn’t care if I wasn’t drinking?
After that trip, my boss and I were never in sync again.
The first time I poured alcohol into my body seeking escape was on New Years Eve, 2001.
The prior year had been a blur. I was in my sophomore year studying in industrial design at the University of Cincinnati when I began experiencing terrible migraines. An MRI revealed I needed brain surgery. It was serious, but not life-threatening, so I decided to have the surgery over Christmas break, planning to jump back into school for second semester. But six weeks after the operation, a new chronic pain set in to my occipital nerves, as well as a debilitating depression. Unable to resume normal life, my parents pulled me out of school and I returned to my childhood home in Cleveland for a miserable existence of shuffling between medical appointments. Almost a full year passed. I recall little of it.
As the holidays approached I convinced my parents that a trip to Cincinnati to ring in the New Year surrounded by my friends would be good for me. I arrived elated to spend time with them reconnecting, but it quickly felt bittersweet. I couldn’t escape the feeling that things had changed. I had changed. My friends were now a year ahead of me in school. They were looking forward to exciting design co-ops in exotic locations. My outlook remained bleak. There was no plan in place for me to even return to college. I don’t remember what it was I drank that night, because it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I devoured alcohol with no regard for anything but a feeling: the moment at which everything would stop and the world would melt away. Respite. Relief. Escape.
I chased the feeling I had that New Year’s night for the next seven years. I put it above everything else: family, career, relationships, health. When the first boyfriend I truly loved suggested that marriage could be on the horizon, I sabotaged the relationship. I couldn’t conceive how I would be able to drink the way I wanted locked into that kind of commitment.
I dreamt of building a solid career, but couldn’t muster the energy to start. I went from dead-end administrative job to dead-end administrative job. The longer I drank, the more elusive my desired sensation of relief and escape became, before slipping fully out of reach. Unable to control the amount I drank once I started drinking, I would breeze from sober to blacked out in less than 30 minutes. My life became formulaic: Wake up. Swear I’m never drinking again. Throw up a few times. Choke back a few ibuprofen. Drive to work. Be miserable. Drive to the liquor store. Rush home to drink alone. Oblivion. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Yes, I’m an alcoholic. In a way, I was born with it; the disease is hereditary. I don’t think I’m an alcoholic because of things that happened to me, but I do believe that for whatever reason, that New Year’s night flipped the switch for my “alcoholic” gene. I no longer had a choice in how much or when I drank.
Up until this point, I’ve been highly selective about whom I share this with and when I share, slowly opening up a little more, a little sooner. (If you know me and I’ve never told you, I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me. I swear. It’s just that I was afraid.) I’m not ashamed of being an alcoholic. It’s a huge part of the crucible that’s made me, me. It’s etched somewhere deep into my DNA, a part of the building block of who I am. I just always seem to find a reason to let my hesitations win: I’m afraid you won’t invite me to the party. Or happy hour. Or team-building wine tasting. Or the ski weekend. Or the party bus. Or SXSW.
As I dried out, I quickly learned that to maintain my sobriety and feel well, it was necessary for me to take a look at the causes and conditions of why I was willing to regularly poison myself to change the way I felt.
Startups are hard. Really fucking hard. 95% of startups will fail. We work long hours in an attempt to innovate faster, ship products sooner, outrun competitors and preserve limited venture funding. We juggle multiple roles and responsibilities in an effort to keep teams small and nimble. When things go wrong, we pull sleepless nights, perform Herculean support feats and bend over backwards to retain early adopters. We forgo vacations, skip workouts, answer emails on our phones during family time and are expertly skilled at eating lunch while getting shit done. It’s only natural that we would want to find convenient ways to blow off steam, de-stress, or ease fears.
To be clear, I am not anti-drinking. Plenty of companies, events and organizations use and serve alcohol in a perfectly healthy, adult fashion. What I am uncomfortable with is the prevalence of talk, events, and company cultures seemingly centered around heavy and/or binge drinking.
It’s buying a keg or having a built-in bar instead of articulating company culture.
It’s calling a happy hour to make up for a shift in company strategy.
It’s a drinking-focused group outing — sailing with champagne, bowling with a beer in hand, an afternoon wine tasting — to quell feelings of burnout.
It’s mandating that clients be taken out for a night of drinking to make things right after a glitchy product release.
It’s the suggestion that a team member should have a drink to relax after sharing that they’re overwhelmed and stressed out.
The problem is that when alcohol is your solution, you’re playing a dangerous game. It’s not a question of if a heavy drinking culture will result in HR violations or if capable, competent team members will feel ostracized, but when. To say nothing of the lost opportunity to create authentic, honest relationships amongst your team.
As a non-drinker, I’ve been hesitant to say anything too loudly, too boldly lest someone label me an abolitionist. I’m not. Truly. But the longer I work in startups, the more I hear from those around me that they are uncomfortable, too. I hear concerns from more drinkers than non, and those concerns are becoming more and more frequent. Friends and colleagues who enjoy having a glass of wine or beer from the office fridge mention they are uncomfortable that there are events that feel like getting drunk is a company mandate. If they’re not drinking hard enough, they’re not dedicated. Is it okay not to feel comfortable, or safe, when their colleagues are drunk around them?
I think it’s time for a broad, honest discussion around alcohol and work. So, you tell me: Do startups have a drinking problem? Tell me why or why not. What is the role of alcohol in your work life? Do you or your colleagues turn to alcohol when stressed or burnt out? Do you or your company use alcohol to avoid hard conversations? Do you feel comfortable drinking heavily around your coworkers? How do we support colleagues who struggle with a drinking problem?
If you’ve worked at a startup — or another company with an alcohol-fueled culture — and have experienced anything like what I shared, tell me about it. And if you disagree with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Click the response button below to start writing.
Following the popularity of this post and volume of responses, I captured some additional thoughts here.
(Image via PetaPixel)