I no longer feel the need to be entirely transparent about my status as a person in recovery. I am not ashamed of it—I wouldn’t be posting all about it on the Internet if I was—but I enjoy the option of going incognito. I value the choice to keep private the most intimate parts of myself when I choose to do so. I am no longer defined by my addiction. Instead, my experience with addiction and status as a person in recovery is an integrated part of my identity, and sits beside other parts of who I am, making me a dynamic and complete person.
Early on, I felt a need to out myself in almost every interaction. Part of this had to do with the fact that when I first got clean and sober, my recovery was all I had. My addiction had whittled me down to nothing, so when I came out of it, I didn’t know what I enjoyed, I didn’t know what I was good at, what I was interested in. Another part of this need to tell was rooted in the paranoid fear that people could see through me. I had the feeling that people could tell by my very presence that something wasn’t right with me, and I thought I’d better explain it before they judged me without the facts. This feeling was a total projection, stemming from the fact that I didn’t feel right with myself, but it led to a number of awkward conversations with people I barely knew in moments that were inappropriate for the sharing of my most intimate self. Nowadays, I choose what, how much, and to whom I share simply because I can.
A few weeks ago, however, I was placed in a position where I didn’t really have a choice about keeping my recovery private. I mean, I always have a choice, but there are times when being open makes more sense than keeping my past in private. This happens from time to time, and I have learned to deal with it in a way that seems to work for me.
The opportunity to share came shortly after a job interview with a non-profit in the city where I live. The interview went well, I was called back and offered the job, and asked to come in and sign papers so they could pull a background check. After the background check came back, I received a call from the woman who interviewed me, who had found some things that, in her words, “concerned her.”
Like many people, I brought a criminal record with me into recovery. Even after a decade of walking this path, the record follows me. In a strange way, I have come to appreciate it the way you might appreciate an austere old teacher. It keeps me humble, and reminds me of where I come from. In all honestly, my record is not that bad. It hits all the usual spots—possession, shoplifting, driving without a license, and a few other minor things like trespassing. If my record does anything, it simply makes clear that I am a person who has struggled with addiction. Though there are things in my past that I regret, none of them appear on my record.
Either way, I can’t say that the opportunity to explain myself to my future employer was a welcomed one. I actually resent the fact that my record, which captures the first three years of my adult life, continues to pop up every time I apply for a new job. I resent the fact that as a thirty-year-old man with a master’s degree, plenty of credentials and job experience, and a solid ten-year block of law-abiding behavior, I am still explaining actions that I took as a teenager…but this is the nature of our criminal justice system.
Despite the work I have done to clean up and come to terms with my past, explaining it does bring up emotions that are unpleasant and frustrating. For me, the frustration is rooted in the idea that my past has the power to prevent me from moving forward in the present moment. In situations like the one I found myself in—on the phone with a potential employer—going into the ridiculousness of the criminal justice system or some other rant is not the right move.
Instead, I have developed a stock response that I use in these situations, which allows me to express myself clearly despite frustration, fear, shame, embarrassment, anger or whatever other emotions bubble up. It goes something like this:
"I am a person in long-term recovery who has made mistakes, but I’ve done everything I can to make those mistakes right by living well and serving others."
If you are a person in recovery, it makes sense to have a response when put on the spot. This one works for me because it reframes things in a positive light. Instead of going into my addiction story, or asking for pity, or trying to explain away things that I am actually responsible for, it simplifies. I like the phrase “long term recovery” because it is totally subjective and works across the board. When I was three months sober, long term was true considering I couldn’t stay sober for a single day until I found recovery. The stock response also doesn’t shirk responsibility—I have made mistakes—to the contrary, it assumes responsibility. Finally, it points to who I am today, a person who makes things right, lives well, and serves others.
After I said this, the woman thanked me and told me she would talk to HR and get back to me as soon as possible. I hung up still feeling frustrated, but I knew I’d done what I could do. If they wouldn’t hire me because of what they’d found, it probably wasn’t the kind of organization I wanted to work for anyways. A good employer is going to see you as a person, not as a piece of paper with a list of mistakes on it. The fact that you have turned your life around should be seen as a strength and indicator of future growth. As people in recovery, we don’t need to subject ourselves to people and environments that are oppressive. We almost always have a choice here, too.
Ultimately, I ended up getting the job, and just finished my first week. Though I would have preferred sharing my past at a more convenient time (if at all) I feel fine knowing that she has a sense of where I come from. Any information I choose to share beyond this is up to me. And so it is with you. I don’t write any of this to suggest you should be ashamed or afraid of sharing, only to say that you don’t owe anyone an explanation. If you are comfortable sharing your story, go for it. If you’d rather go incognito, that is quite all right. And if you find yourself in a situation like I did where you can’t avoid opening that door, I think it’s a good idea to have thought about how to frame your recovery in a way that is comfortable for you.
I’d love to hear about your experiences and your responses to situations like this. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below!