A reader writes:
I’m hoping you can help me with this humiliating situation I’ve gotten myself into.
Two months ago at the company holiday party, I got blackout drunk and made a fool of myself. Nothing fireable, but I was literally falling-over drunk. I did some embarrassing drunk dancing, inappropriate joking around, and a LOT of cursing (not AT anyone, just in my speech, when I’m usually very buttoned-up at work).
I am so deeply ashamed and horrified at my behavior. I realized that I have a drinking problem and I need help. It’s been painful and difficult for me as I try to grapple with sobriety and confront my inner demons.
Meanwhile at work, no one will let it go. People love to quote the stupid things I said at me, or re-enact some of my stupid jokes. I knew I deserve teasing so I was braced for it, but it’s been two months and it’s not letting up. They do it publicly in our company-wide chat program and in meetings when I’m presenting a project I’ve worked hard on. I guess since I was a happy drunk, they think it’s harmless, but it makes me feel nauseous with shame. I’ve left work crying on multiple occasions. This is just a really hard time for me and I am constantly being reminded of my mistakes. My manager thinks it’s funny, so it’s not directly threatening my job, but how can they take me seriously when they’ve just been reminded how much of a mess I can be?
Before this I loved my job and my company. But now I dread going into work and I’m becoming depressed. I know I made this bed myself and I have to lie in it, but for how long? Do I have to just wait this out or is there a professional, reasonable way I can make this stop?
You can almost certainly make it stop!
I think you’re absolutely right that because you were a happy drunk, your coworkers have no idea how painful this episode has become for you or that it’s led you to realize that you have a drinking problem.
You have two options here: (1) Depending on what your manager is like, you might be able to enlist her in helping you put a stop to it. (2) If you’re willing to be candid with people, you could say something to them in the moment the next time it happens, and probably stamp it out that way.
If you’re willing to confide in your manager, you could say something like this: “I want to ask for your help in getting people to stop joking about what happened at the holiday party. I know people thought it was funny, but it’s become a tremendously painful reminder for me. I’m seeking help for drinking as a result of that incident, and it’s tough to hear it joked about. I know people wouldn’t do it if they realized that.”
This might make your manager see it in a different light and put a stop to it. Or, she might suggest that you tell people that yourself. (Or, if she’s not particular empathetic, she might tell you that this is a natural consequence of what happened and it will die down eventually. It probably really will die down eventually, but ideally as an advocate for people on her team, she’d help make that happen.)
If you choose to instead talk to coworkers about it directly, you could say something like this the next time someone makes a joke about the party: “I know you don’t realize this, but I’m actually working to stay sober and that night has become a painful reminder of why I need to. Can I ask for your help in leaving it behind? I’d really appreciate it.”
There’s potentially some downside to this approach — you’re sharing something personal at work that you might otherwise not share, it might make some people uncomfortable (funny drunk is easier to process than Alcohol Problem), and some people might even think it shows weakness or something gross like that. But if you’re getting nauseous with shame when they joke with you, this is probably the better approach than just letting it continue.
If you’re not comfortable revealing that, you could tackle it from a different angle, by saying something like, “I was braced for some teasing and I certainly brought it on myself, but it’s been two months. I’d really appreciate it if you could let it go.” Depending on your relationship with whoever you’re talking to, you could add, “I’m sure you don’t intend this, but when you joke about this while I’m presenting work, it makes it really hard for me to be taken seriously. I’m concerned that turning this into a long-running joke is doing real damage to me professionally.” (This part is a little tricky, because someone could argue that you brought that damage on yourself more than the jokes have done, but reasonable people should hear this and realize they need to stop.)
Also! I hope you’ll work on the shame element here. Shame can be useful in spurring you to do something about the situation — like seeing that there’s a problem and getting treatment — but it’s not very useful beyond that, and in your case, it sounds like the amount of shame you’re feeling is out of proportion to what happened. You drew the right lesson from the experience, and it would be okay to forgive yourself.