The UX of Alcohol Abuse: Reflections on a Year of Sobriety

A cautionary tale to individuals and organizations, a call to action to be more proactive against alcohol abuse, and the start of a dialogue within our community.

by Victor Yocco on July 20th, 2015

November 2013

I went back to the cooler to grab another ice-cold beer. If I hurried, I would be able to slam this down and then pump a cup of the higher ABV beer from the keg before the next speaker started. I was at a small event, but doubted anyone would notice I had gone back for sixths; or was it sevenths? Who cares? Hopefully other people were enjoying as much alcohol as I was. There was probably a 12-pack worth of beer for each person at the event. Plus, I had done such a good job not drinking all day at work. I showed up to the UX meetup sober! I deserved this.

April 2014

“My name is Victor, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Close-up of a light, bubbly beer glass.

Photo CC-BY Will Keightley, filtered.

I felt hollow as the words left my mouth. It was nothing like the profound moment of realization I had expected; no heavenly display of angels emerged to lift my heavy heart, no cheering from the throngs of other anonymous alcoholics. Just the same emptiness I felt seconds before making a claim I had only heard on TV shows and movies; a joke in group introductions.

I didn’t know if I was an alcoholic.

There were a lot of things I did know. I knew I drank until I blacked out up to four times a week, and had been doing so for the past year. I knew my relationship with my fiancé was a mess. I knew I had no money in savings, that I spent more money on alcohol than I did on clothes, food, or anything else. I knew I was suffering constant anxiety and heartburn. I knew I felt I was failing at life, personally and professionally. I knew I had seen the second counselor in as many days, the same response: “I can’t work with you until you agree to stop drinking.”

I knew if you asked me what was good in my life I would have only one thing to say: I was working with A List Apart to publish an article. I woke up everyday hoping for a status update from my editor. I loved writing. I obsessed over it in the rare moments when I wasn’t obsessing over when I could get drunk again. When I was drunk, I would think about how I was going to write a book someday. Maybe the next day.

I bought into the myth of alcohol-fueled creativity; I was fully invested in a refrigerator full of it, but greatness remained elusive. Where was the brilliant drunk author inside of me? I would feel inspired to create somewhere around drink two or three; not once did I stop there. At drink four and more I would feel angry, regretful, sad, sick, tired. None of those feelings conducive to creativity.

Photo of a sticker on a metal wall reading 'We are drinkers with writing problems', and a doodle of a bottle and spilled glass.

Photo CC-BY Daniel Lobo, filtered.

This happened almost every day.

There are far fewer drunks creating brilliant works than we are led to believe.

Sitting in front of the second counselor, a stern bald man a foot taller than me, I realized none of these assholes were going to give me what I was paying them for: to tell me I could keep drinking and find a way to make the rest of my life OK again.

I was done. I had to be.

I wanted the life I couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle.

July 2015  

I have over one full year of sobriety; not a single slip, not a drop of alcohol. I wake up confident. I signed a book deal, a life-long goal. I have published over 15 articles on UX research and strategy. I have presented at a number of professional conferences and UX organization events.

I have purchased a house and have a savings account deeper than it has been in a decade. Best of all, I have married the woman who was my fiancé when I was a drunk piece of shit, and we now have a beautiful daughter on her way towards shattering glass ceilings.

Am I an alcoholic? I still don’t know. I’m not interested in finding out.

Alcohol as Culture

I am sharing my story so others like me might be encouraged to seek help, and our field might better support those of us susceptible to abusing alcohol live a fuller and healthier life. Digital design and tech in general has a culture of promoting alcohol use, and we all stand to benefit from proactively addressing the issue of alcohol abuse.

I fully support those who are capable of having a drink or two and calling it quits having the right to do so. But the reason I am writing about this is to bring attention to the less pleasant side of a culture that includes easy access to alcohol, and encourages drinking as a means of socializing, staying later at work, and attending pseudo-leisure events where work is frequently discussed. There are a number of us (the CDC estimates 1 in 6 Americans binge drink 4 or more times a month) that are not very good at holding back once we choose to imbibe. For us, these opportunities to engage in drinking turn into obsessions that lead to self destruction, financially and physically, harming our family and friends, and relegating us to a shadowy world, keeping our drinking a guarded secret from all but our closest confidants… unless something terrible happens that makes it all public.

For us, there is nothing positive that comes from having easy access to a drink.

Should you (the you of digital design fields) care? I want to argue that the answer is yes. As a field, we should care about reducing the incidence of alcohol abuse so that we remain as productive and healthy a population as possible. When we highlight the availability of alcohol as a main attraction to our events, or as major workplace perks, we risk becoming a field of self-affirming caricatures – a flock of bearded white dudes holding our growlers of craft beer, getting cool points where our stuffy business or government clients tend to lose them. Doesn’t “Your work sounds just like Google!” simply translate to: “You have ping-pong tables and beer at your work! Wow!”?

Rows and rows of alcohol on the shelves of a bar.

Photo CC-BY Travis Wise, filtered.

As individuals, we should care about ourselves and the 1 in 6 individuals we work with that might be prone to binge drinking at any or every event they attend. These are the individuals we will have to pretend we didn’t see reaching for that 7th drink when we find out they drove home later that night and crashed their cars. These are the individuals we will be consoling when they lose their families due to drunken foolishness. If you don’t give a fuck about the human side of the equation, the CDC estimates excessive drinking costs America 225 billion dollars in crime, medical care, and lost productivity annually. And as alcohol is frequently used to facilitate sexual assault, we need to think critically about our culture of alcohol and its role in widespread harassment and abuse against marginalized people in our community.

I have seen acts of kindness from my colleagues that make my heart swell, so I know that many of you care deeply about the health and safety of your colleagues and their families. I’m not asking you to put a lock on the beer fridge at work, or to dump out the bottles of champagne kept on hand for a new client celebration.

I am saying that if you are going to have a culture that includes, and to some extent deifies alcohol, you need to take responsibility for the side effects that come with that culture. That includes providing a safe environment for all of your employees, and the family members greeting them when they will stagger home drunk.

I am asking you to keep an open mind, and engage in a healthy dialogue around reducing the number of individuals in our field that have or will suffer from situations similar to myself. I promise there are many others like me among our ranks, or that will be joining us in years to come.

Ways for design firms to support sobriety and reduce the occurrence of alcohol abuse

There are many things that digital design focused firms (or all firms) can do to help staff members prone to abusing alcohol, and those who are alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, or sober, to have a safer, more supportive and more welcoming environment, with more choices and agency. I urge you to get creative with the opportunities and have fun with it. Much like what is said about including accessibility in your design, it doesn’t have to be extra work to make your culture sober-friendly, and it will improve everyone’s experience as a byproduct.

Hold events at places other than bars – consider venues that don’t serve alcohol, particularly if you are holding an event that is during work hours. When you focus on alcohol as the main activity, such as meeting in a bar, it becomes a barrier to participation for those hoping to refrain from alcohol. On the other hand, removing alcohol as the focal point presents opportunities for everyone – those who wish to stay sober and engage in the activity alone, and those wishing to participate in the activity and drink alcohol.

I have experienced some of the most meaningful connections with, and learning about, my coworkers at company sponsored events not held at bars:

  • Volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity site – side by side with my colleagues, we worked as a crew to assist with constructing homes. I learned more about teamwork and my colleagues’ talents and quirks than I ever would have sitting in a bar.
  • Softball – while alcohol is available to those who choose to drink, the focus of our team is to lose by as few runs as possible. I have learned a lot about the competitive nature of my colleagues, gotten moderate amounts of exercise, and gotten to recap experiences that never included hitting the beer cooler five times or more.

Image of a bare wood infrastructure against the sky.

Photo CC-BY Martin Pettitt, filtered.

Some other ideas for staff activities that remove the focus from alcohol include:

  • Everything other than sitting at a bar
  • Lunch or dinner at a restaurant known for more than their beer selection
  • Playing board games as teams
  • Staff curated and juried art shows
  • Video game tournaments
  • Trust falls, trust falls, trust falls

Talk responsibility – Make responsible things like having a designated driver a standard topic of conversation. Some individuals might find it easier to say they are a designated driver as a reason for not drinking at an event serving alcohol. Don’t harass the person choosing not to take a drink at an event; do the opposite and discourage anyone from driving. Holding an after hours drinking-focused event? Provide roundtrip cab, Lyft, Uber, bus, or train fare for every person attending. Yup, it is your responsibility.

Offer health insurance and EAPs – Offer insurance that covers substance abuse counseling and treatment and look into providing an employee assistance program for staff seeking help. Make sure your employees are aware of these benefits and how to use them. According to the LA Times, confidentiality and short term counseling are inherent parts of any EAP; however, only 4 to 6% of people with access to an EAP use their program due to lack of awareness of the associated benefits and the guarantee of confidentiality.

Support employees that express they have an issue – Consider allowing staff to have a flexible schedule if they come in late after a morning support group meeting, or want to attend a support meeting mid-day. There are support meetings throughout the day in most cities. If you know your employee is trying to do a meeting every day, make sure they prioritize that in their schedule. You benefit from having a productive and healthy workforce. Don’t treat staff differently if they choose not to attend an event held at a bar, and don’t expect a response to the question “Why aren’t you drinking?”

I did not make my employer aware of my issue. I did let some of my colleagues know that I was struggling personally and that I was seeking ways to improve myself. I knew that if I told my employer I would be supported, but I was afraid of having stigma attached to my potential to grow in the field. So, if someone on your staff tells you they have a problem, don’t ever assume it was easy for them to do so. I have a year of success and a stockpile of accomplishments under my belt, and writing this article with the knowledge my colleagues will read it causes mini-panic attacks with each keystroke. However, I know that celebrating my sobriety is worthless if I don’t turn around and try to give back to those suffering in silence.

Do not accept alcohol abuse as the norm – It isn’t a joke if Jenny is always drinking beer at noon and working on her fourth by the end of the day. It is sign of trouble. We often tell jokes and recount stories that seem to reflect the good times associated with getting shit-faced. These stories become company lore, and eventually take on a life of their own. Young, impressionable staff might see the smiles on senior staff faces as they recount “the guy that puked on the dancefloor” story, and misinterpret this as admiration for such an act. In reality, we all look back and say that guy was pretty embarrassing, and if we were that guy, we are thankful we are still here to recount the story.

It is OK to tell someone you think they’ve had enough to drink at a company event. It is OK to tell someone it is embarrassing to you and to your company when they act drunkenly foolish in public. It isn’t cutting loose or blowing off steam. Really. It isn’t. If you wouldn’t want your staff engaging in a behavior in front of the board of directors of your biggest client, you shouldn’t accept it in front of friends and family at the company picnic.

I’m not asking you to babysit your staff or to take away everyone’s fun because some of us can’t get with the program and have a good time. The above suggestions will help set the tone among your staff that we aren’t all cookie cutter in our ability to handle alcohol, and that is OK. We need to diversify our image of who we are in design and tech fields, and this includes looking at sobriety as a healthy option that is just as logical as vegetarianism.

Ways for the field to support sobriety and reduce the occurrence of alcohol abuse

Row of soda bottles on a shelf.

Photo CC-BY Scooter Lowrimore, filtered.

I believe there are many ways our field can reduce alcohol abuse. I am keenly aware of the effort our conferences and professional groups go through to make it known drinking alcohol (usually for free) will be a part of an event. Unfortunately, as vice-chair of a local organization, I have not been practicing what I preach here. Many of our events include alcohol, though not copious amounts per capita. I have tweeted, even since being sober, that we offer free alcohol at our events. I take responsibility for this, and will not do so again in the future. I want to set a better example moving forward. I believe we only reduce the diversity we say we are striving to achieve when we host events and put out calls for folks to attend just because we have free alcohol.

Here are some tips for what I’d like to see more of in the future from design focused conferences, organizations, and publications:

Talk about it – Maybe as a part of Geek Mental Help Week. This year we saw a convergence of some of the major publications in UX and digital design to support increasing exposure of mental illness issues in our field. I think alcohol and other drug abuse are mental health issues that need to be part of the discussion. We should strive to make these topics a real part of the dialogue of our field. You’d be surprised who suffers from mental illness; you’d be surprised who abuses alcohol. Let’s learn more about each other in an atmosphere of safety and acceptance.

Support groups – We should have support meetings as options at conferences, rather than relegating issues of alcohol abuse to the shadows. If this isn’t an option, conferences should publish a list of venues and times for local AA and other support group meetings. I see that some conferences are doing this already, and I applaud that. I am also aware that onsite support is a standing practice among other fields where high stress and powerful positions often go hand in hand with excessive drinking. Proactively addressing the issue is not a sign of weakness.

Provide sober options – Follow the five tips Kara Sowles provides for including non-alcoholic drinks at events. Provide opportunities where alcohol is not the focus, or at least provide decent soft drinks at events. I’m a huge fan of ice-cold flavored seltzer water. Have some on hand if I’m going to be around.

Give recognition – Promote companies providing EAPs and decent mental health coverage for their employees. One way we can accomplish this is by publicly acknowledging the efforts of specific organizations making strides towards providing staff with access to these essential elements for reducing alcohol abuse. Perhaps we can create an award for the most inclusive organization or workplace that provides a holistically healthy experience for their staff, and include considerations for reducing alcohol abuse as part of the criteria.

My clearly placed call to action button

Broken beer bottle on the ground.

Photo CC-BY Erich Ferdinand, cropped and filtered.

Please don’t mistake this for a story about how I’ve overcome adversity and am now holier than thou. I’m not, or else I would have named this article “How I beat alcohol abuse and you can too.” If this article bothers you, you are reading it wrong. I’m not telling anyone that can handle it not to drink. I am telling you to stop drinking if you can’t handle it.

If you have a problem with that, I completely understand. I was in your position not that long ago.

I’m not perfect. I still think about drinking when I’m in a bar and catch a whiff of spilled beer, or while the lady sitting next to me on the plane as I type this is drinking her Baileys and coffee. And when I think about drinking, I’m still thinking about 10 beers or a bathtub full of Baileys. I, personally, cannot have just one drink. And that is one of my biggest takeaways from the AA meetings I attended: I’ll never have the second drink if I don’t take the first. I hold onto that dearly when I experience a craving.

Take this piece for what I want it to be, a cautionary tale to individuals and organizations, a call to action to be more proactive against alcohol abuse, and the start of a dialogue within our community. Alcohol (and other drug) abuse hurts our image, hurts our bottom line, and hurts our colleagues and their families. We need to address this issue as seriously as we tackle the functionality and usability of the products we design.

Finally, if you are struggling or think someone else is struggling with alcohol, but are afraid to start this conversation with your employer, feel free to pass this article along and let me do the initial talking for you. You won’t regret starting a responsible dialogue. Below I have listed some additional resources for help and for some facts on alcohol abuse. If all else fails, send me an email or tweet. Take care.