I’m ashamed of my past behavior at work — do I need to change fields?

A reader writes:

I have an ongoing concern that has a lot to do with mental health but also has to do with work. I am seeing a therapist regularly to deal with the mental health aspect but I’m hoping to get insight from you on the work piece of it.

I’m about seven years into my professional career and have intense anxiety daily about my performance. I was always a high performer and have been promoted many times. About two years ago, I left my previous position for a new position that was more money and allowed me to get back into a particular industry. Shortly before I started the job, I lost 160 pounds and found a new confidence I never had before. However, shortly after I started the job, things in my life took a bad turn … I had four deaths in my family, including two people who I was very close with, and my long-term relationship with my live-in SO ended. Because of splitting up our things and having to pay for the apartment myself, I also began to have significant financial issues too. The stress of all the change, especially the negative things, aggravated my already existing mental health issues, after having been relatively stable for about six years.

I’m not trying to make excuses, just trying to explain the “perfect storm” that developed that caused me to act on some of the impulsiveness that is common in those with my mental health issues. To add to all of the personal things going on, my new job had a culture that was extremely different than my previous workplace. For once, I wasn’t the youngest person — almost everyone working there was in their early 20s to mid 30s, many were “young professional” types who were unmarried and had no children. The culture ended up being one that centered around a lot of joking around, close friendships outside of work, happy hours and other alcohol fueled events, and romantic relationships. I was newly single and newly thin and confident — the environment was awesome! I was making friends, going out, having a great time!

However, as the negative things in my life started happening, I got deeper and deeper into the drinking with work friends and things quickly became unprofessional (not just for me, but for the sake of this post I’m going to focus on my behavior). I don’t want to be graphic but I think it’s important to give you an idea of exactly how inappropriate things became, because it’s necessary context. Some highlights include: giving one of the managers oral sex in the parking lot, getting black-out drunk in front of the director at a happy hour, attending my boss’s family functions, having a tumultuous and abusive five-month relationship with a different manager, making out with one of the facilities guys in a conference room at work, doing shots with my boss’s husband, sleeping with a supervisor that my best friend at work also slept with and ruining that friendship forever, getting hammered on lunch with a supervisor and returning to work drunk, heavy petting with a senior manager at a work function in front of multiple coworkers, smoking weed with coworkers and giving oral sex to another manager, who is now my current boyfriend, in my office. I became known amongst the management team as the happy hour go-to and a partier and people were constantly asking me to go out drinking with them. For additional context, I work in human resources so this kind of behavior is especially egregious.

It got to the point that I was drinking heavily 4-5 nights a week and I could no longer maintain my responsibilities. I started coming in late and skipping work frequently and became very depressed about my situation and especially guilty about my actions. Eventually, through therapy and substance abuse treatment, I was able to begin to piece things back together. It quickly became clear that I needed to get out of that work environment, both for my mental health and the sake of my career. So, I started a new job about six months ago. My behavior at my previous employer wasn’t known by those giving a reference so I didn’t have any difficultly landing a new job, even one that ended up being a promotion with more responsibility and a significant pay bump.

I’ve come far in my treatment but it’s a process. Since I’ve started this job, I haven’t done anything even remotely unprofessional. In fact, I probably come off a little cold sometimes because I’m so afraid of even making friends here at all. The worst part though is that I went from a high performer who was confident in her abilities to an average performer with crippling anxiety. Every day I wake up thinking about the horrible things I did and how I don’t deserve this job. I am so deeply ashamed of myself and feel guilty daily. I feel like I so thoroughly messed up at my last employer that I didn’t earn this. I’ve lost all confidence in my judgment and my abilities and I second-guess every single thing I do. I’m constantly worried I’ve made a mistake, even on mundane things. It’s similar to the feelings I’ve seen others describe about imposter syndrome except … maybe I really am an imposter? What kind of HR professional does the things I did? I’m considering backing out of this field all together and trying something new because I feel like I don’t deserve to do this anymore. Am I off-base or is there any coming back from this?

It sounds like you have come back from this.

Everywhere except your own mind, at least. (And to be fair, probably in the minds of people from your old job — although it’s likely that no individual person there knows the full list you presented here.)

And for what it’s worth, you must have done a good enough job there to land yourself the position you have now. I’m not saying that your extracurricular behavior there doesn’t matter. It does matter — but clearly you have enough strengths that didn’t have any trouble landing a great new job. That says something.

Everyone has a past. Some people’s pasts are weirder/more troubling/more embarrassing/harder to explain than others. We still all have them, and I suspect you’d be surprised by the weird/embarrassing stuff that people you really respect have in their pasts.

Luckily, we all have presents too, and our current-day selves have control over those.

It sounds like you’re dealing with an enormous amount of shame. Shame can be useful when it causes us to reassess our behavior and resolve to change it. But shame isn’t useful when it just hangs around making us feel horrible. It sounds like you have resolved to change your behavior — and have done that successfully — but you’re still mired in the shame and it’s paralyzing you.

If you accept that mental illnesses are diseases like any other, and I hope you do, then maybe it would help to put this in different terms. Imagine you know someone with a physical ailment that exhausted her and destroyed her focus at work, and while she fought the disease she ended up performing horribly for a year. And then she recovered, got the disease under control, started a new job, and went back to performing at her normal high level. Would you think, “She performed so badly while she was sick that she doesn’t deserve her new job and she should change fields because she can never be trusted again”? Or would you think, “She had an awful year, I’m so glad she’s recovered and is back to herself and back to being great at what she does”?

I know that when we’re talking about life choices, it can feel like the analogy doesn’t quite hold up, and that losing focus at work is different from oral sex in the parking lot. And sure, they’re different. But that difference is where so much of the shame and stigma around mental health comes from, and it’s cruel and damaging to people — as it’s currently being cruel and damaging to you.

You were sick. It affected the way you acted. You got it under control, and you’re working with a professional to keep it that way. You’re doing all the right things here (although if you haven’t yet apologized to anyone at your last job who deserves it, that might be worth doing too). You’re allowed to forgive yourself and move forward. I hope you will.

{ 261 comments… read them below }

  1. JokeyJules*

    it looks like you have moved on professionally, but not forgiven yourself from this. Follow Alison’s advice, and forgive yourself and move forward. Use these uncomfortable memories as guidance for future actions, and forgive yourself.

    You’re putting a lot of work into your own well-being and moving forward and you should be so proud of that! Keep your head up!

    1. Traveling Teacher*

      Yes! OP, you are working every day to keep your feet on steady ground. You are changing and have changed. I am so impressed that you had the clarity of mind and willpower to pull yourself out of a very toxic environment and even into a promotion. That’s incredible!

      I hope that, in time, you can forgive yourself, bit by bit, and welcome this fresh chapter in your life.

      1. Anon Druggie*

        Okay, I am in recovery and I heard far worse things from most people I know, including myself. It’s what happens. All of us deserve second chances. If anyone who ever made a mistake (or a hundred mistakes) never got a second chance, we would ALL be screwed forever.

        You need to forgive yourself, and if you need to go to therapy or continue therapy to do that, then do so. I would say it’s one of the most important things you could do for your professional life. Practice forgiving yourself and tell yourself that you do forgive yourself, even if you don’t mean it. I love Alison’s advice of looking at a person from the outside–I doubt you would judge a person will illnesses and triggers in an unhealthy environment for being human.

        Please come back and give us an update. Sending you a big virtual hug from someone who has been there and is on the other side. <3

        1. fiverx313*

          definitely therapy… it helped me get through a lot of my shame at things i’d done, and see more clearly the connection between my mental health issues, the things i was going through, and the lapses in judgment i was beating myself up for — and helped me learn to have the kind of compassion and empathy for myself that let me recast those memories with more sympathy for what i was going through, and move on past them. you worked hard to give yourself a chance to do things differently, and you are, and you deserve to forgive yourself too.

    2. Jules the 3rd*

      +1 OP This isn’t easy. Try to focus on your health, now, and try to forgive yourself. Alison’s right, you had a rough patch but you’ve better, and working to maintain your health.

      If it helps, maybe read some of the archives and articles about toxic workplaces, because that really was toxic. Really really really toxic.

    3. Alli525*

      Yes! Very much this. As someone who has dealt with waaaaay too much shame/guilt/anxiety over situations in my past (usually sexual ones, but I’ve also mentally beat myself up for yelling at a stranger in the street when I was having a bad day), therapy can help a lot if you have the resources for it. Find someone who can help you move forward and put things into perspective.

  2. Former Retail Manager*

    You’ve done a great job at moving on. Please forgive yourself. You’ve learned from your mistakes and corrected the behavior which is all that can really be asked. Congratulations on the new position and positive change!

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Good for you realizing that things were out of control and doing the hard work of fixing it.

    I agree 1000% with Alison’s advice.

    1. Specialk9*

      I loved this especially:
      “Shame can be useful when it causes us to reassess our behavior and resolve to change it. But shame isn’t useful when it just hangs around making us feel horrible.”

  4. Drew*

    When I read your letter, especially the last couple of paragraphs, I was thinking “This is a success story!” Because, dear letter writer, it IS. You’ve come through a horrible experience and survived, even thrived. You have a lot to be proud of. Don’t let regrets for the past overshadow the hard work you’ve done to get to where you are now.

    1. Harper the Other One*

      Yes, me too! By the end I was thinking how many people would not have made it through. OP, it may not feel that way, but this absolutely is a success story.

  5. Myrin*

    What lovely, compassionate, and clear-headed advice, Alison! I’m quite sure I’ve said this before already but really, I don’t think there are many advice givers or managers out there who manage to give answers like you do and I really, really admire that!

    1. Thursday Next*

      Echoing Myrin–Alison, you and Carolyn Hax are the two advice columnists whose advice is worth reading AND following. I’m always impressed by your balance and compassion.

      1. Colorado*

        That’s funny, I was thinking the same thing Myrin but you articulated it so well. I put Alison along the lines of Ask Polly, who is my personal favorite next to Carolyn Hax.

    2. bolistoli*

      I was thinking the same thing! Alison is always so kind and level-headed. OP, you do deserve the job you have. All of the past actions you described hurt you most of all. Keep working with your therapist, and make sure to tell her how you feel about all this, if you haven’t already. This kind of shame can be difficult to share, even with a brilliant therapist who you trust implicitly. But you deserve to get past this and when you do, you’ll be able to use this experience to show compassion to others who will need it. You are going to make it! For all the crap in the past, it’s clear you have what it takes to get better – all the way. :)

    3. Not So NewReader*

      OP, you just got one of Alison’s greatest answers. If I had to pick favorite posts this would be in my top five. Alison gave this one the best of her best. Print it out, tape it to your bathroom mirror and make yourself read it every morning until things start looking and feeling differently. ;)

      And I would like to point out that somehow you found AAM and you realized this would be The Place to talk about this. That is HUGE. In years to come you will see more and more just how big a deal it is. You have come a lot farther than you may realize.

    4. Thany*

      Alison’s advice is so compassionate but balanced. I am always amazed at her advice. I wish more people would respond that way. And the AAM comments are also so compassionate and empathetic. It’s one of the reasons I love this community.

    1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

      Yes – momofpeanut is exactly right. It’s okay that you felt shame and anxiety. You went through something terrible, and it is natural to have tremendous pain in that situation. Think of it like a wound. When you’re hurt it – well, it hurts.

      Now it’s time to heal. That will take time, and you won’t stop hurting right away. But it will get better. You’re already getting help and working hard. You don’t need to keep pulling out the stitches to be a good person. You already are one.

      1. Super B*

        Also, I think it’s not uncommon for people that have such a drastic physical change (you lost 160lbs!!!) to go through a phase when they go a little overboard with the partying and being sexual and doing things that they didn’t get to do pre-weight loss when they were less confident or popular. I think that is totally ok and it can even be healthy, like a way to ‘catch’ up with things you should’ve maybe done in college and left there. You just chose the wrong place to do it – and so did your colleagues. Don’t blame all this on you – your co-workers, managers and supervisors that took part on this were all pretty disfunctional. I bet when they look back at this one day they will be ashamed too.

        1. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

          Such a good point – these behaviors didn’t happen in a vacuum! Yes, they were not ideal for the workplace, but it’s great that you realized this is not the lifestyle you want. You should be so proud of yourself for getting help when you needed it, and for how you’ve been able to move on from a very difficult time in your life despite the influence of colleagues and friends who were also participating in negative behaviors. You can certainly remember what happened and use it as motivation for the future, but please don’t think that you have any less worth or value, as an employee or as a person, because of it.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Adding, the loss of four close people! Grief does so many different things with different people.

          OP, you are wise you KNOW you had the perfect storm. And that sums it up. While not an excuse, granted, the flip side of that is you are HUMAN.

          In addition to the hundred things you are doing to reweave your life, I would seriously recommend learning about grief. Learn the causes of grief, the symptoms of grief and learn what things are fairly common reactions. The next time you lose someone important to you, start pulling in the troops to help you. From my own life, I see grief getting harder as the decades roll by. So build a plan now of what you will do to help you. While taking quiet time is fine, being in isolation is not. Perhaps you could find a grief group, perhaps you could find a counselor or any other number of actions such as volunteering or donating. A cluster of losses like that would make the strongest person stagger. Back to the whole thing about we are all human. You are in therapy, perhaps your therapist would help you rough out an idea of how you will handle another significant loss differently in the future.

          Key point, I think if you get a rough idea of what you want to do differently in the future some of that impostor syndrome will shift for you.

        3. Specialk9*

          I really admire how much ownership OP is taking of this situation. (And how articulately she laid it out!)

          But I’m also struck by how very many managers took advantage of this hard-partying subordinate.
          -Manager let her give him head in work parking lot
          -Manager dated her (tumultuously and abusively) -Supervisor slept with her
          -Supervisor got drunk at lunch with her
          -Senior manager did public heavy petting with her
          -Manager got a blow job at work

          I’m really looking askance at all of them. I feel like you’re taking all this guilt and shame on, and not recognising how badly they acted.

          And I’m not sure why you feel guilty for going to your boss’ family function, or for sleeping with someone a friend also slept with but wasn’t exclusive with (one doesn’t get ‘dibs’ on humans, and your friend who broke off your friendship because of genital dibs was the one far out of line).

          Also, there’s more than a whiff of that sexist double standard and female shame in sexuality — you’re ok enough with that guy who had you blow him at work that you’re still dating him even after all this therapy/recovery work, but you’re heaping blame on your own head, seemingly alone. That seems unfair to you.

          So I guess my point is – awesome job owning your stuff, but I think you put more than your own stuff on your plate. A good bit of that doesn’t actually belong to you.

          1. Specialk9*

            I see that OP clarified below that they were also a manager, so peers to all but boss and senior manager.

  6. Dino*

    I hear a lot of pain and shame in your letter, OP. I just want to reiterate that we all have things in our pasts that seem incongruous with who we are now, but that sometimes those things that we’re ashamed of actually make us stronger and more effective in our chosen fields. For example, my family has lots of substance abuse issues and I’d say that 75% of the drug and alcohol counselors my loved ones have seen have also had a past of drug addiction, successfully dealt with their addiction, and then became kickass addiction counselors BECAUSE they know what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk. Maybe you can be that HR person who can be compassionate and empathetic to employees going through hard times and not acting like their usual selves, who is willing to give an honest reference to someone who spiraled but is trying to get on their feet again. Let yourself learn from your mistakes while also moving on. You deserve it.

    1. Jojo*

      Truth. My husband has 13 years clean, and is the clinical director of a drug rehab. He has some really, really awful stories. He’s done some really, really awful things. Those things don’t define who he is now, and every day that he helps others now is like making a living amends – it most certainly does NOT mean that he is not worthy of his job. You are in the same boat, here. You have used this, you have learned from this, but this does not have to define who you are today or what you are capable of!

    2. cleo*

      I was thinking the same thing. I hope the LW stays in HR and uses her experience for the good.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      This. There is a doc who got too involved with taking his own scripts. After the dust settled, he concluded that in some ways it makes him a better doctor because he can see more clearly what is going on with his patients in certain instances.

      BTW, OP, you could have ended up dead. I am so glad you got out before that happened. You are not done here, you have many more purposes on this planet, OP.

      1. Specialk9*

        Uhhh… Actually that one is really different from the others. A doctor who abused dispensing privilege would make a great addiction counselor… But I’m not sure they should have dispensing privileges again.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yeah, I don’t know what happened in court but apparently he did get the right to go back to using his prescription pad. And it was a while ago, so the laws or standard procedures have probably changed. (I hope.)

  7. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

    Oh boy, I can relate to some of this. I was a bit of a “wild child” at my former company and then went through a really tumultuous year (lots of deaths that I didn’t handle well) culminating in going home for lunch, getting drunk, and not showing up for three days. Not my best moment. I work in a completely different industry now (just by chance, I did’t intentionally avoid what I was doing before) and even now, if I happen to run into someone from the old days, I feel a twinge of shame. But you know what? They were right there doing that stuff with me, and we’ve all grown up since then. Well, I have – I assume they did too. And so have you. I promise, the farther out you get from all of this, the less it will weigh on you. If it doesn’t start to fade, then that’s something to keep working on. While it all seems fresh right now, I bet you won’t even remember lots of those people’s names in five years (and vice versa.)

    You’ve come a long way – don’t give up on yourself now.

    1. Elemeno P.*

      Yes, this. I also was a wild child in the early part of my career with my current company, also because of some tumultuous things in my life. It is embarrassing to think back on a lot of that time, but I have moved on and the other people have as well. I wondered how people could respect me after things I’d done, but I respected them after things they’d done; why should I be harder on myself?

      I still often see and interact with the people from those days…and we have all grown as people. The worst that happens is a (painfully embarrassing) “remember when” once in a while, and even then…nobody brings up the worst things. It’s okay. We all have pasts, and part of moving forward is learning from those pasts and forgiving ourselves.

    2. ladymoods*

      Yup. I can relate too. My first job after college was in a dysfunctional environment and I would go out drinking on at least a weekly basis with co-workers, and I had ‘relations’ with several of them. When I moved onto my current company I was very strict about social interaction with co-workers. After several years and a few role changes, I have learned how to set comfortable boundaries, know who my allies/friends are at work, and perform well in my job. I am not necessarily proud of what my younger self did but I no longer carry the shame. I was young, impulsive, and also dealing with some life changes and undiagnosed mental issues. OP didn’t hurt anyone else with her actions (at least from my reading of the letter). In time she can forgive herself too, one day at a time <3

  8. Let's Talk About Splett*

    If you aren’t in AA that might be an idea for talking with people who have been through this. Everyone I know who started their recovery as an adult has at least one story like yours.

    1. Millennial Lawyer*

      Agreed – I highly recommend AA, where there’s a support group of people who have been through really similar things and learn how to move forward!

      Also, I do recommend Alison’s advice at the end, and it’s part of the AA program – I think if you apologize to the former coworkers you think are owed one, even if they can’t forgive you or don’t know how, it may make it less painful to forgive yourself.

  9. Mary*

    OP, it’s OK to just live this down. Every day it’s further in your past. Every day you’ve got more in the “doing well” ledger to set alongside the “stuff that sucks”. It’s just going to keep receding further into the distance, and you don’t have to do anything to make that happen except keep doing good stuff.

    Also, remind yourself that while a lot of this behaviour is embarrassing and humiliating, none of it is actually malicious. I won’t say that nobody was hurt by your behaviour, but it doesn’t sound like hurting people, or even being careless of other people, was your thing. Maybe that’s one way to help you process: think about whether there is anyone you did hurt, and then do an act of contrition (give to charity, contact them once and apologise unless you have good reason to think they wouldn’t welcome it), and then breathe out. There are much worse things than embarrassing inappropriate public sex.

    1. Flinty*

      Very much agree with this. I think most reasonable people would see that you were mainly hurting yourself with your previous behavior, and be glad now that you are taking care of yourself.

    2. RVA Cat*

      One of those worse things is a manager exploiting a subordinate’s inebriation and vulnerability to receive said inappropriate public sex. OP, please forgive yourself for what your illness led you to do. The fact you pulled yourself out of that frathouse of a company makes you all the more qualified to be in HR. Just think, you have *earned* a job defending your colleagues from that kind of toxic culture.

      1. RVA Cat*

        I see from the OP’s posts that there they were peers. It’s still a gross thing for him to do – yet our messed up society dumps all the shame on the OP because Sexism.
        That place was two quacks away from Duck Club.

      2. SarcasticFringehead*

        Precisely. If OP is responsible for what she did, her former coworkers are also responsible for what they did. It seems like it must have been a pretty dysfunctional workplace already.

    3. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

      Honestly, embarrassing inappropriate public sex doesn’t even ping my radar as something from a person’s past that they should have any shame over. To me that falls under people reminiscing about “wild & crazy stories of youth” that people chuckle & shake their heads over when they’re older.

      And yes, like others here have said, it takes two (or more) to tango, and every one involved is responsible for their own behavior, and any shame involved would be equally shared.

    4. JSPA*

      Exactly! Even “relations” with the same person as your friend is, in the overall context of things, a problematic choice (at worst), not some sort of crime against all friendship.

      If you’ll forgive my flippancy, unless you give really terrible BJ’s, the only person who was potentially suffering there, was you (and your –very local– reputation at that company).

      Maybe there’s more to unpack. Maybe you did someone dirt while in HR, or backstabbed someone for purely personal reasons, or harassed people (who then had nobody to report to). But more likely, your sense of having gone careening around the curves is coloring your sense of what dealing with you was like, for those around you. Sure, I suppose you aided and abetted the bad behavior of others, if they were looking for an excuse to act out–but they did the same for (or rather, to) you.

      All in all, this reads like an extended night in Vegas. Terribly unprofessional in the sense that we normally draw firmer lines between private life and work life, public and private spaces, and between urges and our actions. But to a large extent, the reason for those lines is about SEEMING professional, thereby ensuring that people take us seriously. Those things are not, in fact, so terribly unprofessional in the core aspects of your profession (except for the “becoming unreliable / not showing up” at the end of the disease spiral).

      Thought experiment: if you were the most prudent and prudish and self-controlled person on the planet, but got everyone’s paperwork messed up, were cruel to people, abetted the formation of cliques, spread misinformation, didn’t file required reports…your core professionalism and your fitness for the job would be much more in doubt.

      So maybe consider your sense of “shoulds.” I’m not sure why it’s worse for someone in HR to be oversexed or drunk at work than someone in engineering, FWIW. Maybe you need to be able to tell yourself, now and for some weeks to come, “the mental issues and partying made a train wreck of my personal life, which bled over into my professional life, but throughout most of the crash, I managed to hold together my core responsibilities surprisingly well, because I actually am a responsible person who cares about people and who does HR well.” Because I’m pretty sure that’s the case.

      1. Mad Baggins*

        Well said. Jan Levinson on the Office got fired for not showing up to work and berating her coworkers, not for sleeping with Michael.

  10. Sarah Peterson*

    You should be proud of the changes you’ve made – you are a huge success to deal with all of that and come through to the other side committed to living the kind of life you really want to live. My divorce sent me down a spiraling road, and I can assure you other people have done things of which they’re ashamed when their lives are in dark places. You made it, congratulations, you deserve to be where you are and you deserve to be happy.

  11. saffytaffy*

    I know someone with a similar trajectory. When he was in denial about his addiction, I had very little respect for him and considered him unprofessional. Years later we met again in different departments at a different company, and he had gotten sober. The difference was OBVIOUS, and then over time it got reinforced again and again. And this was someone I didn’t like or respect. And he was more reserved, too- that’s okay. I think all of us who want strongly to be approved of can benefit from practicing making boundaries and being a little more reserved than feels natural.

  12. Hooba*

    The fact that OP met their current boyfriend in this situation, and that he’s a manager at her old job is probably contributing to some of these feelings. I can’t imagine it’s a fouvdation for a healthy relationship when it started with subordinate gave a manager oral sex in the office at work. Even though OP is in a new job now their boyfriend knows all about the things that happened at oldjob and OP hasn’t made a completely clean break.

    1. OP*

      Sorry – I should have been more clear in my letter – I was also a member of the management team (not exact title but equivalent to an HR Manager) so him and I were considered peers in the hierarchy.

      That said, I have been thinking about this too because we are constantly discussing people from there, since he still works at that company, and it’s not healthy for me. We broke up last night, only a few hours after I sent this letter.

      1. Lady Phoenix*

        I am glad. It is better to cut ALL ties with a conpany that was super toxic. Having a close one who is still talking about that company is a great way to bring back unwanted memories.

        If you do keep in contact with him or anyone else at that company, maintain a good boundary by saying, “I don’t want to talk about work/that company.” And enforcing it. If the person mentions it, tell them to change the subject… or leave.

      2. Anonym*

        Oh, gosh, big hugs OP!! You’ve really gone through a lot. Take care of yourself – you deserve the good in your life.

      3. Forking Great Username*

        Break ups are tough, but I think this one will make your mental health much easier to handle in the long run. I’m betting/hoping you’ll have an easier time leaving your shame in the past now that you don’t still have a constant reminder of it in your life.

      4. Harper the Other One*

        Breaking up is difficult but it sounds like it was the right choice for you. OP, add it to your list of good decisions!

      5. MissGirl*

        I’m sorry that you’re going through this turmoil. As I read this, I thought the boyfriend struck me as a possible red flag to pull you back in to old habits. Of course that depends on if he’s also recognized his own failings or if he’s still in them.

        My best friend is in recovery and I know she’s had to give up relationships that were a threat to her sobriety. Do what’s necessary to protect your health and your sobriety. Good luck.

      6. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I did ping on that in your letter and was wondering if it was holding you back.

        You should definitely be proud of yourself, OP. You’ve come a long way already.

      7. Old Admin*

        Even though breaking up is hard, and can trigger all sorts of anxiety, I have to add my agreement here.
        Your ex is a constant reminder of your past. The relationship kept the bad days fresh in your mind. This was the millstone around your neck that kept weighing you down.


      8. Observer*

        As much as it must have hurt to do it, I think it was a wise move to break up. Even without a power imbalance at play, the start of this relationship was not healthy, which would have made this less likely to be a healthy relationship anyway. Adding the constant reminder of the past is just an extra layer of totally not healthy. *Especially* if former boyfriend didn’t recognize the toxicity of the overall environment.

      9. TheCupcakeCounter*

        If I hadn’t read your mini-update I was going to mention the boyfriend probably isn’t helping you move past this since there is a constant reminder in your face. As tough as a breakup can be it really probably is for the best in this case as it is a step that will help you move past this.
        And I agree with many of the other posters that you have done a tremendous job recognizing what was happening and doing the VERY HARD work of getting yourself back on your desired path. Time to give yourself the gift of forgiveness and understanding.

      10. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        OP, I’m so staggered (in a good way) by how thoughtful, introspective, and action-oriented you are. At no point have you let yourself wallow, and you’re making difficult (and sometimes painful) decisions that are necessary to support your health.

        Calling your story an amazing example of grit would be underplaying how much you’ve accomplished in a relatively brief amount of time. It sounds like you’re still carrying a lot of guilt and shame (I suspect that’s residual vigilance, as well), but I hope that you’ll also be kind and gracious to yourself and celebrate everything you’ve achieved.

        1. PlainJane*

          All of this. Your self-awareness and willingness to face your past with unflinching honesty is impressive. Most people can’t or won’t go there. Kudos on the new job, and I hope you’re able to build a joyful life going forward.

          1. Specialk9*

            Yeah I’ve been taking mental notes here on how to face one’s own shit with complete grace and unflinching honesty. I’m in awe.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Yep, totally agree, OP.

          I have a saying, “sometimes we have to walk through the middle of the fire to get out of the fire”. Of course we don’t do this in a real fire, it’s just a metaphor. But sometimes it can seem like our lives are totally engulfed in flames. Then we walk through all the so. very. hard. stuff and find that we have gotten out of the fire and we are still intact.

          It’s pretty much clear to us reading here that you WILL make it, OP. You will land on your feet on this one and you will go on to have a full life and a full career.

      11. Specialk9*

        Oh gosh I’m so glad!! I wasn’t quite sure how to suggest that you consider that, but I was really thinking it!

  13. Snubble*

    HR is a profession, not a sacred calling. You don’t need an unblemished record to be allowed on the register. There are careers where an ethics breach can get you struck off for life, but HR isn’t one of them, and you don’t have to pretend it is. It sounds like you really care about your field, or you wouldn’t feel like you had to atone for betraying it. I officially give you permission to stay in the career you love.

    1. boo bot*

      Heck, you don’t even need an unblemished record for a sacred calling! :)

      Sometimes our own past mistakes give us a better capacity for compassion, and for seeing the whole picture of what someone is dealing with, and I think that is, in a roundabout way, a great background for an HR person. It is, after all, in the background. You sound amazing, OP. I wish you luck, but I don’t think you need it.

      1. Specialk9*

        And the clergypeople I know really struggle too! Those authority-intimacy dynamics can be so difficult to navigate.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Snubble, you remind me that I also know minsters who were pretty wild in an earlier day. Now that could be a sacred calling and they STILL went ahead with their career. Kind of gives you an idea of what you should do, right OP?

  14. Fiona*

    Would it be at all helpful to ALSO frame this as “I formerly worked in a dysfunctional work environment”?

    Because in a healthy work environment, it would honestly not have been possible to do all the things you describe. You are not the only one who acted unprofessionally and I’m worried you’re doing yourself a disservice by feeling like the perpetrator of awful behavior. A manager who allowed a report to perform oral sex on him in the parking lot? Honestly, HE is the one who might use a dose of shame? An environment where coworkers are comfortable getting wasted, smoking weed with HR? I’m not saying those things don’t happen and people don’t have romances and friendships outside of work, but what you’re describing is not only a personal perfect storm but also a professional one. Please lighten your burden a little bit by acknowledging that the work environment itself was problematic — and the move on. People start over all the time. You can too.

    1. OP*

      Sorry, to clarify – I was not a subordinate to any of these people other than the one I referred to as my boss. I was also a member of the management team (HR Manager). But, your point is very valid and something I’ve been reflecting about a lot.

      1. knitcrazybooknut*

        Wow. This is a lot for you to deal with. Please be sure to take care of yourself and call on all the resources you need while you process. It sounds like you’re doing that, and you are really assessing your life. It’s a tough thing to do — trust me, I’ve been there. I commend you on your clear self-analysis and your insight into your situation. I do want to encourage you to let your past go. Those were things you did, they were not a reflection on you as a person. Behavior is only a reflection of what you did at the time; when you change your behavior, you’re showing that you’re not the behavior, that you have the capacity to change. Stay the course; you can do this.

        And as an HR person, I can tell you I’ve seen worse. Sorry to say.

      2. Observer*

        Even without that piece, the whole thing was insanity. Fions is completely correct – what happened just shouldn’t have been possible.

    2. SoCalHR*

      I think this is an important point, Fiona. “I became known amongst the management team as the happy hour go-to and a partier and people were constantly asking me to go out drinking with them.” In a healthy company even one of these actions could have led to termination (not to be blunt OP), and the fact that it earned OP some ‘respect’ and a somewhat positive reputation certainly contributed to the behavior continuing.

      Sorry about your break up OP, but I hope it allows you to continue to work on, improve and forgive yourself.

    3. LBK*

      Yeah, seriously – I don’t think you could actually do stuff like this at my current job because (most of) my coworkers aren’t people who would be willing participants. This whole company sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, and unfortunately you were one of the many people to whom that disaster happened. At least you’re out, you have clear eyes about the past and you know how to set yourself up for a better future (ie staying the hell away from toxic environments like that that you are very susceptible to as someone with mental illness).

    4. Naptime Enthusiast*

      Absolutely. From the sounds of it, colleagues at OldJob knew your “reputation” as a partier and highly encouraged it, because they were the same way.

    5. Lilo*

      This was my first thought. Unless you forced your sexual advances onto these men in the workplace, they’re just as guilty for accepting them (and possibly reciprocating?)

      As for losing a friend over sleeping with a manager, she also slept with a manager. Not that anyone should be shamed for partaking in consensual sexual behavior, but it sounds like your behavior was hardly an isolated incident.

      I think a good amount of people go through hard times where they let partying take over to cope. I personally went through that my senior year of college and almost failed out because i got so caught up in it. At a time when my fellow seniors were buckling down and thinking about post grad, I was acting like a college freshman getting blackout (and bragging about it) regardless what night of the week it was and even the night before finals (!)

      Looking back, I’m sure my peers thought I was a reckless hot mess and I did feel a lot of the shame you’re feeling. But just know that time passes and peoples’ lives move on and years from now this will all be a blurry memory to them.

      1. OP*

        Yeah, to be absolutely clear – everything was completely consensual, and at least 50% of the encounters were initiated by the other party.

        Thank you for the rest of your comment as well. It’s reassuring to know other people have experienced this as well.

        1. Lilo*

          Oh I definitely figured everything was consensual and I was being completely sarcastic – sorry if that wasn’t clear!

          And I really commend you for still being a stellar employee regardless of the behavior. I learned from that bout that I could have either a wild and crazy social life OR have my professional/academic life together but not both. Some people can do it and some can’t, and I’ve accepted that I have a more difficult time with balance than others. As long as you keep being a stellar employee, that will far overshadow a small behavioral blip from your past.

    6. Jan*

      Yeah, this. In a workplace where anything goes, I’m sure your colleagues from that company also have things they’re too ashamed to tell, OP. None of what you described makes you a bad person. You haven’t killed anyone, you haven’t stolen anything and you haven’t ruined anyone’s life. You’ve grown up, moved forward and you should be proud!

    7. LilyP*

      I agree! Not to say a dysfunctional work environment excuses bad behavior or anything, but humans are social animals and the norms and customs and dysfunctions of a group can really shape what’s going on in your head, especially given you were already in a vulnerable state. Don’t feel like you have to carry responsibility for how messed up that place is. You couldn’t have changed it if you tried.

    8. Not So NewReader*

      My parents used to be so annoying. “Watch out for who you hang out with, it could ruin your life!”

      OMG, how annoying that was.

      OP, we can’t soar like an eagle if we hang out with turkeys. For the most part we will not exceed the people around us by that much. My friend, Jane, smoked pot in the backroom every day at work. This was my friend. This was at work. Every day. I cut her slack and cut her slack. It wasn’t until years later, I realized Jane was holding me back. The time I spent distracting police and covering with the boss I could have put into building my skills and becoming a better employee. Fortunately, I quit the job. And I had to quit the job to actually see just how the environment short changed me. I was less than I could have been. This is a very simple example to say, we really need to watch who we hang out with. Friends should lift us up, not pull us down.

  15. Tech Manager*

    OP, please be kind to yourself.
    Your previous workplace sounds horrendous! It wasn’t entirely you. I was horrified to read that managers and supervisors expected sex, oral sex and all kinds of sexual favors from employees. And you being in HR. Seems to be a very, very messed work environment. Happy hours and after work parties are one thing, but such a wild entertainment is not suited and heard of in “normal” work environments.

    So while you did what you did, a lot of the issues existed in that work environment. So blame goes to that culture to you.

    What I am trying to say is it was not ALL on you.

  16. Lady Phoenix*

    OP, I know anlot of people are asking you to just “forgive yourself”… but I am going to add that you should seek professional help.

    The reason being is that they will help you find ways to cope and forgive yourself. And it doesn’t havento be with medicine (not that taking medicine is wrong), but maybe finding ways to meditate, find peace, cope with the stress, etc.

    Like, it might be easy for someone to just fo, “Let bygones be bygones. Let it gooooo, Let it gooooo…”, but it sounds like you been through and lot—and I do mean A LOT. Alcohol and sexual abuse are stuff that… requires time and technique to overcome.

    So while yes, please forgive yourself and rejoice at how far you have come… but if you feel that you can’t find that joy or forgiveness, then find someone who can help you do that.

    1. OP*

      Thank you. I’m still seeing my therapist, a substance abuse counselor and a psychiatrist who are helping me work through this. :)

      1. J.B.*

        I’m glad that you have both on your team, and hope that you can get to a better place soon.

      2. Not So Recently Diagnosed*

        OP, no one could ask you to do much more than that to prove that you’ve made changes. Take care of yourself and the rest will follow. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not easily,. but if you keep working with these folks, then eventually the changes in your thinking will come. I’m so proud of you for taking these steps. And while telling someone to forgive themselves rarely ever actually succeeds in making someone forgive themselves, hopefully it helps to see these strangers on the internet offering you these olive branches.

        We see you. You revealed the ugly, the things that you did when you were sick that you wish you could take back. And we’re still cheering you on. Congratulations on all of your progress, on the recovery from your illnesses, and on the steps you’re taking to continue your success. Much love to you, and keep going! You deserve every ounce of this success.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        There is a difference between forgiving and forgetting. We can forgive ourselves AND also decide to never, ever forget what we saw and what we learned.
        Forgiving yourself does not entail forgetting all about it.

      4. Jane of all Trades*

        OP, this random internet stranger is proud of you – it takes A LOT to recognize that you’re in the middle of something bad when you’re right in the middle of it, and to take the right steps to move your life into a better direction. I think it also takes a lot of courage to recognize when you need professional help, and then to go seek that help.
        I hope that with time you’ll be able to think of this chapter in your life as a really tough moment that you were able to overcome and that helped you become a better and stronger person! And I think it’s great that you work in hr and quite clearly love it – as others have said, hopefully you’ll be able to use your experience to be a compassionate ally for those who need your help in the future.
        Looks like you’re taking all the right steps to get yourself out of a bad situation. It’s really hard, but you are on the right track and you can do it.

    2. Forking Great Username*

      I think no one is commenting on that because the very beginning of OP’s letter says that she sees a therapist regularly.

  17. Augusta Sugarbean*

    Congratulations on getting clean and sober, OP. I hope you are/will consider talking with your mental health person about this. A lot of my clients relapse because of this very issue or don’t even try to get sober in the first place. They don’t try because they don’t want to think about their past behavior or they think they don’t deserve to have a good life because of their past behavior. Try to reframe it as not about “what do I deserve?” Try to think of it as “what is the right thing for me to be doing?” Very best of luck to you.

  18. Dee*

    OP, you say you feel like you didn’t “earn” your current situation. But think of all the work you’ve done to get to this point. I don’t think that happiness is something you have to earn, as if you have to suffer some designated amount before you’re allowed to enjoy your life. Regardless, you understood that you had a problem, took the steps to address that problem, and are still doing what needs to be done, while also finding a good job and (I assume) performing well at that job.

    If you don’t enjoy your work or your field, that’s one thing. But you don’t need to punish yourself by sacrificing your current happiness.

    1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

      And honestly? If OP had just woke up one morning, decided that the party was over, and just walked away from it all without any stress or effort, and was then basically handed a great new job on a silver platter, she would STILL be doing great, because you *don’t* have to “earn” happiness, or pay X amount of suffering in penance for mistakes of the past or personal failings (barring those required by the legal system if the mistakes you made were the kind that land you in jail.) She’d be just as worthy and just as deserving if making those life changes and getting to a better place had been the easiest thing in the world for her.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think we “earn” the good points of our lives every day. Bought a house? Oh good news! You just promised to earn the right to keep the house next week, next month and next year. The way we earn that right is by maintaining the house, paying the mortgage promptly, insuring the house, paying the taxes, etc. We work every day to earn the right to have the house a little longer.

      Same with jobs. We earn the right to remain employed each day. Think about slackers who get fired. What went wrong? They did not do enough to earn the right to remain employed. In the bigger picture, OP, you are going to earn the right to keep the job every day. But it seems to me that you are a heck of a worker so that should fit your norm.

  19. Observer*

    OP, you’ve gotten some good responses. Please work with your mental health provider on dealing with the shame – it really does sound like it’s out of proportion.

    But, also realize that the culture in your old job sounds utterly toxic. What you describe should never have been possible and the fact that it went on so long speaks as much to your old job as to your judgement.

    That might be useful to you in another way, as well. Take it as a learning experience. You now know that a culture that looks on the surface to be fun and friendly can actually be very toxic. It’s hard for people to realize this, but you KNOW it, because you’ve experienced it. You’ve already started acting on that lesson – you;re being careful about your workplace relationships. Now expand that and turn that dross into gold.

    1. AnonyMouse*

      These were my thoughts reading this too. I think “toxic work environment” means different things to different people, and this clearly became toxic for the OP.

    2. !$!$*

      Toxic is right and OP, I’m not tryna take away your agency, but it really sounds like your coworkers took advantage of you to get what they want – fun drinking times with a built in (work) social network

    3. B*

      Yeah I was gonna say, LW’s past could potentially now be a strength in handling a lot of human resource things*
      *I don’t know the full extent of what HR does but I thought sometimes they have to field weird/problem vehavior questions?

  20. Temperance*

    LW, you worked really hard to get sober and to move on from what sounds like a terrible situation for you. If you aren’t ready or able to forgive yourself, can you try to remind yourself that you’ve worked really hard to stop being that person? Because seriously, you have.

  21. Roxie Richter*

    OP, I just wanted to echo all of the comments here to say you deserve happiness and to be kind to yourself. While I do not have a background similar to yours, I can certainly relate to constantly thinking about how I acted in the past, even sometimes thinking about events that happened 10 years ago and still feeling shame or embarassment! It can be so hard to let go of that, but it is important to try. I also worked in a dysfunctional and toxic environment in my last job, and it messed with my head. I acted in ways I never would at my current job, so I hope you can forgive yourself and know that your previous actions were a result of the “perfect storm” as you put it. You have come so far, and we are all rooting for you!

  22. neeko*

    Hi OP,
    I actually have a really similar story and working to forgive myself is the hardest part. Therapy and substance abuse treatment has been helpful but it’s a tough journey. Remember that you are not alone. You are not the only person that has gone through this. Allison’s last paragraph is key. You were sick, realized it, and are doing all of the right things now. Hold on to that when you have feelings of self doubt. You are doing the right things now. So many people don’t ever pivot and start doing the right things.

    I wish you all the best in your recovery.

    1. Katniss*

      +1 from another person who has also been in recovery and had a really hard time forgiving herself.

  23. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I’m not seeing anything here to be ashamed about. You were sick and in and unhealthy environment. You got help as well as removed yourself from that environment. (And, not for nothing, but that sounds like a hideously unhealthy environment for ANYONE.)

    In my opinion, you are exactly the kind of person I’d want in HR. Someone who knows how bad things can get and knows they can get out of it with the right help. That’s a level of compassion not everyone has.

    Please stop beating yourself up. You’ve made it through the worst of it.

    1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

      IMO, even if she didn’t have a mental illness or substance abuse problems, and had just liked to party hard because it was fun, and had ended up in an environment with like minded people, she STILL wouldn’t have anything to be ashamed about, just some wild stories about her past and a lot of examples of things that aren’t inherently ‘bad’ or immoral in themselves (drinking, partying, sex) but that you really shouldn’t do at work/with coworkers. And even if one does cross that line, it’s a faux pas, not something to feel shame over, or feel like you need to wear a hair shirt forever. Shame should be reserved for things that have brought hurt or harm to other humans or living creatures, not things that were just poorly thought out or bad decision making.

  24. I Only Run so I Can Eat Pizza*

    Agree with what’s been said so far, and just came to tell the OP that we’re in their corner.

  25. Brett*

    This whole letter, including the response, reminded me a lot of the Confessions of St Augustine, especially books 10 (memory) and 11 (time).
    Those two books are an important examination of how confession, forgiveness, and repentance function. While the text _is_ religious and specifically about Augustine’s process of conversion to Catholicism, the thoughts on confession, forgiveness, and repentance are much more universal.

    In very ELI5 (explain like I am 5) terms, the process of confession, forgiveness, and repentance allows you to separate yourself from your actions.

    You can feel regret for your past actions, but those actions are not you and you should not be ashamed of yourself. Your state of mind and how you feel about those past actions now is very different from your state of mind when you committed those actions, and that transformation of your response to your memories helps demonstrate how you have evolved as a person over time.

    1. Brett*

      (And I will point out that you can confess/recognize your past wrongs, seek personal forgiveness, and be repentant without being framed in any specific religious context or even any religious context at all. That is what I mean about the universality of Augustine’s writings on those topics, even if he reaches the conclusion that these things are reached through Christ.)

  26. Biff*

    I think it’s worth pointing out that you might have some “big fish in a newer, bigger pond” issues. At your last job, it sounds like anyone with moderate performance would have been a standout star. Now the competition is fiercer and you are more middle-of-the-pack. That’s okay! You haven’t slipped, you’ve just changed the other talent around you. This is a great chance to learn and get better at your career.

  27. MLB*

    I agree 1000% with what Alison said. Also remember that you weren’t participating in those things alone and are not solely responsible for much of the behavior. It sounds like many took advantage of your excess drinking. Not saying that should be an excuse (and based on your letter you’re not using that as one), but only to remind you that it’s not all on you. Everyone deserves a second chance, and it sounds like you’ve gotten one with this new job. Accept that you deserve it and continue to work on improving your mental health. It’s less about the bad things you’ve done in your past and more about admitting what you were doing was not good and rising above it.

  28. Future Homesteader*

    OP, you have done wonderfully! It takes so much strength, courage, and hard work to pick things up after a spiral like that. You don’t need to carry this stuff around with you. I hope that you can find a little more strength to be kind to yourself. Everything Alison says is correct – you wouldn’t judge someone who is physically ill, please don’t judge yourself for your mental illness. We’re all rooting for your continued health!!

  29. James*

    Instead of worrying about whether you deserve to be in this field, think of what an asset you can be. You can be a more empathetic HR rep, you can more easily spot people who are struggling. Having a past can make you better equipped to help people. Use your history as your strength.

    1. C in the Hood*

      I was thinking this as well. Take it one day at a time, OP. For each good day of work you put in, think of it as a victory, because it is.

    2. The flying piglet*

      I just started crying reading this. Thank you. What a kind, empathetic, and above all true thing to say. Those who struggled can now help and empathize with those who are struggling now. Good to know we’re not alone out there.

    3. Old Admin*

      “Instead of worrying about whether you deserve to be in this field, think of what an asset you can be. You can be a more empathetic HR rep, you can more easily spot people who are struggling. Having a past can make you better equipped to help people. Use your history as your strength.”

      *slow clap*
      *quick wipe of dust from eye*

    4. H.C.*

      Yes, and this totally reminds me of “Dear Sugar” columns, where Sugar’s empathetic & spot-on advice is largely guided by her colorful & checkered past.

    5. HR Expat*

      This is exactly what I wanted to say. Even in HR, we’re human beings and we make mistakes. But I sincerely think that this will make you a better HR person by having gone through this and worked hard to make life changes. You’ll be better able to understand other employees who are in similar situations or make poor life choices.

    6. Bea*

      It certainly breaks the old exhausting mold many have for HR staff. I’ve been able to see people as humans and given my best to care for them as well as the company due to being an empathetic person by nature.

      My knowledge of ppl living paycheck to paycheck has made me quick to remedy errors that I’ve seen so many assholes shrug off as “we can fix it with your next check, it’s just a few bucks and all that!” and many other super specifics regarding my team. So yes a million times over, having this personal understanding and knowledge is a strength to play up and feel good about.

  30. Neuro Nerd*

    Hi OP, fellow crippling-anxiety-sufferer here. I’m so glad you’ve sought therapy and addiction treatment. So many of us have a hard time believing that we deserve even that much help.

    I have a couple suggestions that you might get something out of.

    One is some pretty basic and friendly reading material – the work of Brené Brown has been a huge help to me in understanding my own anxiety-fueled shame. (She has a famous TED Talk which you can find easily on Youtube.) I’m also a high-achiever who’s struggled to regain equilibrium and self-compassion after suffering some blows that impacted my self-image as a productivity rockstar, and her work has helped illuminate and normalize some of those struggles.

    The other, if you haven’t given it a shot already, is to speak with your therapist about trying out some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques. While we can’t do much about our genetic proclivity towards anxiety, we can have a real impact on the thought processes that can trigger our brains to start pumping out Apocalypse levels of Terror Juice in response to a performance review or a casual social situation. A lot of the tools are just simple little worksheets that you can quickly pull out when you’re having a tough day to help you sort out irrational anxieties from realistic and actionable concerns.

    It sounds like you’re already doing incredibly well by yourself. You recognized the problem and the amount of control you had over it, got out of a really awful situation, and have restabilized all the practical aspects that were contributing to the yuck. All of that left a pretty big crater (how could it not??), and it’s just going to take awhile to find “normal” again…inside and out.

    You’re doing a remarkable job, and the fact that it doesn’t feel that way yet isn’t a sign of failure, it’s just a symptom of what a difficult thing you’ve done, and are doing. Way to go. <3

    1. Not So Recently Diagnosed*

      Another tip from my own therapist in forgiving myself for past doings…remember yourself as you were, and give that person a name that is not your own. When you remember who you were, refer to yourself by the new name. Create a division in your brain between who you are and who you used to be. When that anxiety crops up, the guilt, the shame, remember that those were done by “PO”, not “OP”. YMMV, but it’s helped me a lot.

      1. Esteban*

        My therapist told me about Brené Brown’s TED Talks on shame and vulnerability. I’m currently reading one of her books, “Daring Greatly”. One thing I like is the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is “I did something bad,” whereas shame is “I am a bad person.”

        1. SoCalHR*

          “I Thought It Was Just Me” is another one of her books that is heavily shame-focused. I’m only half way through the read(listen) but her stuff is always good!

        2. Lizzy*

          This is such a huge lightbulb moment for me I can’t even… I have, without fail, always felt shame about what I’ve done, but never really guilt. People have pointed out that I don’t seem guilty, and this 100% explains why. I’ve always thought of it as I’m a bad person, and that’s why I’ve done something bad.

          Seriously just had my worldview shifted…

    2. I Hate Picking Pseuds*

      +1 , especially re: CBT!!! I’m a fellow anxiety-depression-mybrainissoannoying-person, and I immediately wanted to suggest that OP talk to their therapist about working on declawing what seems to be some pretty rough negative automatic thought patterns.

    3. Nea*

      Second vote for CBT, which was a life-changer for me.

      CBT is best for thoughts running out of control and dragging emotions down with them. If it’s working the other way for you – starting at an emotional level and then dragging your thoughts down into the spiral – there is also DBT – Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. The two can overlap and share many techniques.

    4. Mad Baggins*

      “Apocalypse levels of Terror Juice” is going to be my band name. And also how I think about anxiety from now on!

      1. Neuro Nerd*

        I also sometimes think if it as an imaginary panther – an actual major threat to life that our brains originally developed those fight-or-flight responses for.

        During a rough patch, my brain is just convinced that there is an ancient jungle predator SOMEWHERE nearby, and my brain must remain on high alert AT ALL TIMES in case it jumps out. Panthers in the broom closet, panthers under my desk, panthers in my e-mail inbox… :p

  31. rageismycaffeine*

    OP, have some Internet hugs from a stranger. Your letter is really moving to me. Sending you healing energy and lots of love from a far corner of the web. You can get through this.

  32. Annon*

    I could write this letter, almost word for word. This could have been me to a T 14 months ago, minus the sexual escapades (which were just happening outside of work rather than in), but I was a total disaster of an employee and general human being. I sought treatment (best 6 week vacation ever!), I’m almost 14 months sober, and I struggle with the same things!

    Be gentle with yourself, and know things get better with time! I’m interviewing for a management position on Friday and I sweat thinking about them contacting my last employer but I just have to trust things will work out the way they are mean to be.

    Congrats, OP, on taking the steps and getting control of your life.

  33. ThisIndustryIsWhack*

    OP, I work in an extremely small industry and, basically, everyone knows each other. There have been multiple individuals over the years who’ve had problems and have acted in ways not dissimilar to what you’re describing.

    In the cases where the individuals took steps to actually stop or change the behavior, and demonstrated ongoing commitment to actually being a decent person they haven’t been shunned or treated poorly.
    They’re basically productive members of the industry. I won’t say they have necessarily been welcomed back with open arms. Some people are still understandably cautious about interactions with them and are likely to treat them with some suspicion. They both are still working in the blue china teapot field.

    Your behavior speaks, both then and now. I think you can recover from this and stay in a job / industry you love. You probably have to live up to higher behavior standards – you can’t even get near the line of bad behavior. But you don’t have to leave the whole industry if you’re committed to being better.

  34. Katie the Fed*

    Alison, this is such a beautiful and compassionate response. Seriously – some of your best work here.

    OP – I know people like you in a professional context who were pretty badly behaved in the past. Sleeping around a lot, doing things in the office, drinking too much. One woman in particular comes to mind – she’s married with a kid now and has calmed the hell down. She’s actually really boring and doesn’t mix personal and business – to the extent that she’s not friends (perfectly friendly though) with work people outside of work. MOST people don’t even know about her past – I know because I knew her well then. Occasionally it’ll come up in gossipy talk but only even in the context of “wow, Julia’s REALLY settled down after her wild 20s.” It hasn’t hurt her professionally at all.

    Work through your shame. Seriously. We ALL have things we’re ashamed about. When my anxiety is kicking, I can remember every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, and feel AWFUL about them. But then I realize that I’m holding myself to an impossibly high standard – most people don’t know or remember this stuff, and even if they do they’re probably not looking at me with the same judgement as I view myself.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Also – your workplace is crazy. It’s not just you that had a problem. That SO many managers were willing to fool around with subordinates tells me you were involved in a very toxic work environment that may have warped your sense of what was normal. That’s not a normal or healthy environment.

      1. OP*

        To clarify that part, I was also a member of the management team. I mean, still obviously inappropriate but the HR person in me feels the need to clarify that there was no sketchy power dynamic.

        Thank you for the rest of your comment too – it’s nice to know that even people who DID experience my worst behavior may be able to view me in a positive light moving forward.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          No, but the managers who fooled around with you were equally as culpable in it. It sounds like a really weird dynamic.

          I think people absolutely do view you in a positive light. There are always going to be some catty people who like to gossip, but if you’re boring now there’s not much to talk about. Yep, OP used to get around and party, so what else is new?

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        OP did clarify in comments that she was on the same level as those managers, but that doesn’t make Katie’s comment any less accurate. You were in a completely toxic environment.

    2. Gabriela*

      Agreed. This is a beautiful response that will help so many who wrestle with the demons of their past. OP, you are so far from alone in this. Congratulations on your progress thus far.

  35. animaniactoo*

    OP, another focus to bring to this – not as a crusade, but just as a background: You are now somewhat uniquely positioned to intimately understand how easy it is for small boundary crossing to spiral way out of control.

    As someone in HR, examining what brought you to a place you’re now ashamed to have been in – and recognizing how out of control that culture was – will help you see when things in your new company cross lines that are too far over the boundary and need to be firmly brought into check.

    Having been through it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to pick up and move on from it. It means you, like so many other people, went through a bad period. You now have experience and knowledge that you didn’t before – about how it got to that point. If you can use it without going overboard in the other direction (because that would be just as bad), then not only do you deserve to do the work you do, you are doing it in a way that is more worthwhile to the people you doing it for and with.

    1. OP*

      Thank you, this comment means a lot. I do hope I can use this background and experience to my advantage by helping to shape appropriate culture and by reaching out to employees who may be struggling.

  36. Ann Furthermore*

    Alison is right — we all have things in our pasts that make us cringe now. I certainly do. One reason I’m glad that my 20’s were in the 80’s and 90’s is that those were the days before everyone had a cell phone with a camera.

    OP, try your best to stop beating yourself up over this. As others have already commented, you were not the only person participating in all these things. If the other people at your last company have any self-awareness, they probably have as much regret as you do. If they don’t, that means that you’ve grown and matured way more than they have.

    1. NorCalifHR*

      This! My memories are tough enough to deal with – adding Facebook/Twitter/Instagram evidence would be horrifying!

      OP, reframing this can be your friend, and Alison’s advice is well written. The past is just that, and can’t be changed. What can be managed is your present – productive and positive – and your future – filled with opportunities. From my perspective as a long-time HR colleague, your past path has led you to a place of compassion, understanding, and wisdom. Keep it up!

  37. BRR*

    OP, you should feel incredibly proud of all that you have accomplished! I cannot emphasize enough what everyone has already said. I wanted to quickly touch on the career question you asked, no I don’t think you need to change careers. As Alison said, you have come back. You’re pretty rough on yourself and there’s no need to be. You had a tough time and quickly sought treatment.

  38. Harper the Other One*

    OP, I’m adding my voice in your support. Some of the commenters above have made some great suggestions about ways that you can reframe all this.

    Another thing to consider/remind yourself is that you’re aware that these things were mistakes. That is huge! There are probably people at your old workplace (you may even be able to name a few in your head) who don’t understand that, and they weren’t operating under the same disadvantages that you were.

    My partner has anxiety and depression and he’s found it useful to create a “good things I’ve done” list that he can look at whenever he feels like you describe. He even separates it by category – so when he thinks, “Ugh, I’m terrible at my job” he can look at that list and say, “Hey, but last week I did X,” or when he thinks “I don’t know why my family sticks with me,” he can look at the other one and say, “Well, when my son was struggling with A I was able to talk to him about my own experiences.”

    You have worked so much harder than many people in your position would have to work. You are amazing for doing it! Your future is going to be a good one, and you deserve it :-)

    1. SarcasticFringehead*

      I do a similar thing when I’m feeling low. One of the things I beat myself up over is “wasting” time doing fun things, so during a rough patch, I’ll keep a planner and just write down everything I’ve accomplished that day, no matter how small (got to work on time, washed the dishes, put away laundry, took trash out, put away clothes in the living room…). Listing it all out like that forces the mean part of my brain to look at all the stuff I actually do to keep my life comfortable and makes it harder to convince myself that I’m wasting my life.

      1. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

        I love this. I’m a listmaker, and sometimes will put stuff on my to-do list that I’ve already done just so I can check it off. Maybe I need to do more of that.

      2. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

        Perhaps you can put ‘fun’ things on your planner as tasks that are essential for good mental health and hygiene, and in doing so, train your brain to recognize them as NOT being wastes of time?

    2. Not So NewReader*

      OP, start a kudos file. Put compliments in the file to read on bad days. Print out emails, or hand write them on scrap paper if someone says it to you in conversation. Date it and tuck it in the file.
      On a bad day, open your kudos file and make yourself read it.

  39. Natalie*

    I suspect the idea that you need to change careers is more of a response to internal feelings (anxiety, shame) than external realities, since you have landed at a job that you seem to be perfectly content at. When you’re having a lot of intense, distressing feelings about something in the past, it can be really easy to latch onto an action or change as a way to make the feelings go away. Of course, it doesn’t actually work because you still have the memories and feelings about those memories and you’ll still have them in another career.

    That said, if it’s hard to let go of the idea of Drastic Change as a solution, can you give yourself permission to just forget about it for a year and focus on your health? If you find yourself ruminating on career change, just tell yourself you get to move to the Alaksan bush in July 2019, but in the meantime you have other things to work on. And if you still feel that way next summer, well, cross that bridge when you come to it.

    1. SarcasticFringehead*

      That can also be a great way to frame making positive change – if you’re planning to move to the Alaskan bush in a year, you’ll need a great long-distance support system, so you can work on strengthening friendships or family ties, or reconnecting with people you’ve lost touch with. You’ll probably have to do a lot of hiking, so you’ll be motivated to get outside and move around. You can take up fiber crafts, so when you get up there you’ll be able to weave blankets out of moose hair no problem.

  40. adriana*

    @LW, none of what I read was surprising to me. Mental illness has ravaged my family and this read like memory lane for some of my loved relatives.

    You were sick. You had a perfect storm. You’ve gotten it back under control so much better and so much quicker than anyone else I’ve observed.

    Please give yourself a break. You are not your illness.

  41. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

    OP, I’m a firm believer in that our past doesn’t define us but it does help us become who we are at each moment (how’s that for philosophical!)

    In other words, the good, bad, and sometimes ugly parts of our history each add to the person we are and the person we will become. We all have regrets and cringe worthy parts of our past that we’d like to never think of again. But it’s important to recognize that this was you and you are you now. So treat the past as such, something you lived through, made choices of, and in this case moved on from.

    I personally don’t think there is anything to ‘come back from’ from what you describe it sounds like you’ve already ‘moved on from’ that place where you were and the things you were doing.

    Good luck working through all of these feelings, I get the sense that you’ll be just fine and stronger than you will probably give yourself credit for.

  42. KR*

    OP, I used to smoke at least two bowls before going into work, smoke in my car every single break or lunch, and then smoke immediately after work before driving (!!) home having been smoking weed literally all day from the moment I woke up. I would be late to work or literally right on time (read, borderline late) because I would be so anxious about going into work sober, because I was anxious about work in general. I made stupid mistakes at work I wouldn’t have made if I were sober. I killed so many brain cells and I was so comfortable with what I was doing that I didn’t go out and apply for better jobs. I didn’t go the extra mile at work. I was okay with being a hot stoned mess that was good but not great at her job. I say this to say that it happens. I was and still am dealing with a lot of anxiety and it’s still a work in progress to get to a point where I can force myself to do what I need to do for work and in my personal life. Please give yourself some credit – you are doing great all things considering. It sounds like it was a perfect storm and you were in a work environment with less than ideal boundaries. The good news is you got this all out of your system young. You hit rock bottom and the only thing to do is to climb up. It’s going to be painful. I’m in therapy now and the idea of confronting my anxiety instead of letting it cradle me is terrifying. But you can do it – I know you can. We’re all here for you. Check out the open threads on Friday and Saturday if you want. There are lots of people willing to listen (read) and be there for you, even if you just want to shout a weekly update into the void.

    1. fiverx313*

      ooh i feel this one… i waked and baked and smoked on breaks for 10+ years, through job after job, because i was so anxious all the time about everything. i don’t know if it had much of an effect on my performance but the ameliorative effect it used to have on my anxiety gradually wore down over the years and started actually aggravating my anxiety. i couldn’t even stop smoking long enough to pass a drug test for a job i couldn’t admit to myself i didn’t want.. and i kept doing it for years afterwards, even.

      it’s hard work dealing with anxiety, props to you for getting to work on it… it’s definitely always a work in progress! i’ve only really started effective treatment within the last year.

      today, though, i realized i was having an anxiety attack after only a couple of hours, instead of going with it for days. progress!

  43. Jadelyn*

    OP, just speaking to the HR part of it – I’m in HR as well, and the truth is HR professionals are just as human as anyone else (contrary to popular belief). You don’t need to have been a perfect angel from birth to be a good HR professional. We make mistakes, we make bad decisions, we have mental health issues and can succumb to a dysfunctional environment, because we are, unfortunately, mere flawed mortals rather than HR deities.

    The key is that you’ve learned from it. You’ve acknowledged where you went wrong, you’ve taken responsibility, you’ve gotten yourself out of that situation and moved forward with your life. If you saw nothing wrong with what happened, then yeah, I’d question your fitness to be an HR professional – but you have done absolutely everything that a person can do to come back from a downward spiral, and I can only imagine that you’ll be plenty vigilant enough to catch yourself before it goes too far if you ever start to slide that way again. Not to mention, I imagine you’ll be more sensitive than most to signs of a dysfunctional culture or signals that someone is starting to get themselves into a bad place and needs help – and that’s a good thing!

    If the only people who were allowed to be HR professionals were those who had never ever made any professional mistakes and had a perfect track record…there would be no HR professionals in the world. (Peanut gallery, please hold your comments on that one.) Keep working with your therapist on this guilt and shame, and do your best to forgive yourself for being a person who made mistakes. You deserve to stay in the career you love.

    1. OP*

      Haha I want to be an HR deity though!

      Kidding, but thank you. It’s nice to hear from someone else in HR. :)

  44. LBK*

    A weird recommendation I have might be to listen to the podcast Babe?, which includes a lot of really honest discussion of past messy behavior both from the hosts/guests and people who write in to them. I think part of your struggle right now might be that you don’t really have anyone to relate to, so it might help just to hear real examples of other people out there who have done things they’re not proud of and that seem like clearly bad ideas when described in retrospect and yet somehow made sense at the time.

      1. AnonForThisTopic*

        Also try Sobercast – it’s recovery speakers telling their stories, each an hour long or so, mostly from those in 12-step programs but with life lessons that apply to all :)

  45. Old Admin*

    OP, you are suffering from classic PTSD!
    This may sound a bit odd, because you weren’t in combat or an abusive relationship.
    However, your trauma and guilt – no matter what caused it – is very real.
    You deserve and need treatment to address not just your earlier addiction, but your current suffering.
    One of many helpful techniques is to *accept* your past.
    To *accept* your now feelings of guilt. It is a normal reaction because your mind has cleared.
    Please permit yourself to understand your anxiety has a reason, but it can and will go away.
    It is not a bad thing to be an average performer for a while or even a very long time. You are doing a useful and productive job! This is a good thing!

    And yes, you have come very far. This is progress, and the bad stuff will go away.
    Please hang in there. In the dark panicky moments tell yourself: “It’s OK. This will pass. I can deal.” (This is stuff I tell myself, btw.)

    1. Ry*

      Solid advice – but OP definitely doesn’t have PTSD.

      PTSD is a neurological disorder where the brain is keeping a traumatic experience fresh rather than processing the trauma as it normally would – not everyone who has a traumatic experience develops PTSD, although they will still have to process the traumatic experience.

      PTSD really gets bandied around a lot today for relatively minor things but it is a lot more serious and crippling than the need to process trauma or forgive yourself. Being embarrassed over behaviour in your past is unlikely to be traumatic enough to make your brain get stuck in a processing loop.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Can we perhaps just…not armchair diagnose, in EITHER direction? We don’t know if OP does have PTSD. We also don’t know for sure if OP *doesn’t* have PTSD. We are not OP’s therapists or other medical professionals with whom OP is working, so we don’t need to either diagnose or un-diagnose them.

          1. Jadelyn*

            How nice for you. Are you the OP’s doctor? Have you been seeing OP in a professional capacity? Because if not, in this conversation you’re just another commenter on the internet, and armchair diagnosing is explicitly against the commenting guidelines for this space.

          2. Courageous cat*

            Does that make it better for you to be unofficially diagnosing someone you’ve never met? I think the only answer on this topic is that OP should go to *their* doctor if they have any concerns about PTSD.

          3. A*

            I’m a practicing doctor and I’d feel weird diagnosing anyone outside of a formal, in-person visit?

          4. Kuododi*

            I am a licensed mental health counselor but that in no way means I have any business armchair diagnosing OP or anyone else on this board.

  46. OtterB*

    Other commenters have emphasized that you earned the job you currently have, and I agree. But also, if it’s helpful, you might frame it that you were lucky in being able to get out of the situation without having torpedoed your career. That’s not a cause for shame, it’s a cause for gratitude.

    Good luck with it.

  47. President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club*

    OP, when I read this I felt so proud of you for how hard you’ve worked on this and how far you’ve come.

  48. Interviewer*

    You’re in HR, you watch the news – I am too. That previous company is breathtakingly dysfunctional. I’m horrified by the magnitude of liability they’re batting around like a cat toy.

    AAM gave you great advice. One day, you will give yourself permission to be friendly – but not friends – with your new coworkers. That might help you heal and move forward.

  49. [insert witty username here]*

    OP – just wanted to write another comment to applaud you on your SUCCESSES! Yes, you describe some mistakes you’ve made, but you’ve also told us about so many awesome WINS! Please forgive yourself and cut yourself some slack now that you’ve proven to yourself that you CAN get your shit together. You are still growing – which I say as a very good thing and with the utmost respect; I think you are wise to see yourself as someone who is continually learning, growing, and striving towards the person they want to be. What a beautiful way to live one’s life. But you’ve also worked really hard to leave your mistakes behind you – now let them stay there. You are not the same person you once were. Don’t let that person drag down who you are today.

    You show more self awareness than most people. That is super amazing! Hold on to that awesome quality – but don’t let it hold you back.

    Best of luck. Know that there’s a great community here who is rooting for your continued success.

  50. Susan the BA*

    OP, I’m so happy that you are in a better situation. You are definitely uniquely positioned to have empathy for those who have made mistakes in their past, and I hope you have many opportunities to “pay it forward”.

    1. Old Admin*

      Dear OP:
      Without digging too hard into things that happened a long time ago, AAM herself has spoken about past work related issues of her own she is not proud of, things that make her cringe.

      Alison came back from that, too.
      She stayed in her field of work, and started writing what I think is the finest, empathetic, and useful HR/management blog I’ve so far found on the Internet. Drawing on her own experience, both the good and the embarrassing, her advice now is spot on, and has helped many people, including me.

      OP, you can do that, too.
      I sure have in my own small way.


      1. Not So NewReader*

        I thought of this too. OP, you can use the search on this site to find what Alison has said. And look at her, she knocks it out of the park all the time, right? So can you.

  51. OCD gal*

    Hey OP. Fellow mental health sufferer here. I’m glad you’re doing better now. I just want to point out that constantly thinking about past mistakes and continuing to punish yourself for them is not good for your mental health. If you’re in treatment now, that might be something to work on.

    It might help to acknowledge that the other people who participated in those escapades with you (like the managers, etc.) made mistakes, too. And you don’t seem to be thinking they don’t deserve their jobs. So give yourself a break!

    1. I Hate Picking Pseuds*

      Yes!!!! to the last bit!!

      OP: You weren’t the only one doing the things you did. Everything that happened with someone else, happened with someone who chose to let an inappropriate situation escalate. I’m not saying you’re not responsible for your own actions, but you didn’t exist in a vacuum – you were dealing with some serious personal and medical issues, and on top of that you were surrounded by people who actively participated and encouraged your spiral of destructive action. The people you hooked up with ALSO chose to hook up with someone at work. People saw you getting too drunk at work stuff and chose to invite you to more drinking-with-work-people type events.

      There was a lot of inappropriate stuff going on at that office, and you were not the be-all and end-all of it.

  52. I Hate Picking Pseuds*

    OP: I don’t think you have anything to be ashamed of. Yeah, you had a rough while, it sucked, you did a lot of stuff you wish you hadn’t… But you FIXED IT. You got help! You changed environments! You not only realized that you were losing control but TOOK CONCRETE ACTION. Speaking as someone who spent half a decade refusing to seek help while my life slowly crashed and burned, I think you’re pretty damn amazing.

    Re: the “working in HR thing”: Look. I was in med school for a while, right as my depression hit its worst point. I didn’t take care of myself in any way and my physical and mental health deteriorated. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be a good doctor – honestly, it’s probably the opposite. I’ve been there. I’ll understand what my patients are dealing with in a completely different way compared to my generally healthy colleagues. I’ll understand the struggle of an uncooperative brain, I’ll understand the frustration of dealing with the healthcare system, I’ll understand all the little frustrations that come with long-term or chronic disabilities in a way that my colleagues won’t. My shitty third-of-my-life sucks now, absolutely, but it can be an asset in the future.

    Obviously HR isn’t the exact same profession, but you’ll still be working with people. You’ll be working with people behaving in ways they’re not supposed to, people who’re struggling to keep up with work and life, people who need help but don’t know what to do or how to handle work while they’re struggling… You know all this. You’ve been there. You’ll never make a struggling colleague feel bad about needing help, because you’ve been there. You won’t judge people for not “getting over it” when their lives fall apart, as lives all too often do. Your past can be a feature, not a bug, as it were, if you let it.

    It’ll take time to rebuild your confidence and to forgive yourself, but honestly? I think you’re doing amazing as it is.

  53. Akcipitrokulo*


    You have done wonderfully. Please listen to all the good comments here, and I hope you take them to heart – this is a success story of someone making it through a really terrible time and coming out stronger.

  54. Karyn*

    Dear OP:

    I have been in nearly this exact same situation. I was suffering from untreated bipolar disorder since age 19, and didn’t get it under control until I’d set my personal and professional lives aflame when I was 28. I did so many of the same things you did (albeit without the drug use, but definitely the sexual acting out and the professional issues). I was mired in self-doubt, terror of my own mind, and an agonizing amount of shame. Six years ago, I was in no position to be a lawyer, and I did a lot of things that kept me from doing that. The state I live in wouldn’t let me even apply to take the bar until 2016 because of it. And now? Now I’m on a committee at my local bar association that works on mental health and substance abuse issues in the legal community. I talk to lawyers and law students all the time about getting help. And I have a successful business in the same field in which I worked when I did all those things I’m ashamed of. Ironically, as I tell people who are beginning treatment themselves, the better you feel, the worse your shame will get for a while, because you’re realizing in a clear head all the things you did that you would never do *now*. But moving forward and recovering, and progressing in your chosen career path, CAN be done, and it sounds like you already HAVE done it. You saw the problem, and you got help. So pat yourself on the back for that, because so many people never reach the place you’ve reached.

    It took me five or six years to be able to be kinder to myself, because I didn’t think I deserved forgiveness. I didn’t think I could ever, or SHOULD ever, be trusted again. But once I started thinking like Alison suggested – where, if a friend or coworker of mine had been in the same position, I would have supported them and not shamed them – then things got easier. We speak harsher to ourselves than we EVER would to anyone else. And that’s a difficult thing to process, but once you start realizing it, you’ll be kinder to yourself, which will help relieve some of the guilt you feel.

    You are worthy of forgiveness. You are worthy of love. You deserve good things to happen to you. You CAN and WILL continue to flourish professionally. I am still in the field I was in when I was acting out, and if I can do it, I promise, you can too. You don’t have to upend your entire life just because you have a past. In fact, I’m going to leave you with a little speech from (I know, I know) Taylor Swift, which meant a lot to me during the time I was recovering, and which I hope helps you too.

    “And maybe what you went through was falling in love with someone or something that was bad for you but you couldn’t quit, or maybe what happened to you was that you didn’t know where to go next, and you felt confused about where you were even headed. Or maybe you felt like you didn’t fit in anywhere, in any corner of the room. Maybe you lost someone you never thought you would lose, or maybe you lost yourself which is the worst thing out of all of it. I know that you’re going to go through more of it in your life and so am I, and that people are going to say things about us that aren’t true. And I just want you, in those moments, to look in the mirror and understand what you are, and what you are not. You are not somebody else’s opinion of you. You are not damaged goods just because you’ve made a few mistakes in your life. You are not going nowhere just because you haven’t arrived at your final destination yet. What you are is wiser and stronger because you made mistakes. What you are is brave for living your life in a daring way that would cause you to take the risks it takes to make mistakes. What you are is someone who’s walked through a bunch of rainstorms, but continues to put one foot in front of the other. And I think that at 25 years I’m still learning every single day, but one thing I do know is that pain actually does make you stronger, and walking through a bunch of rainstorms does not make you damaged. If you keep on going, it actually makes you clean.”

    1. OP*

      Thank you for sharing your story… I can’t tell you how relieving it is to hear from people who were in my situation and managed to go on and have successful careers.

      Also, I love T Swift! Awesome quote :)

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Beautiful job on this comment, Karyn.
      I am sure folks will read it and be very impacted but never post here. Such a powerful message, I am sure you touched a few people’s lives.

      1. Karyn*

        Thank you, dear reader. People tell me all the time how “brave” I am to talk about my illness, but I feel like it’s not bravery. I screwed up bigtime in the past, and while my illness may explain what I did, it doesn’t excuse it. I hurt a lot of people. And I would like to help people who are in the throes of mental illness avoid making the mistakes I did.

        That said, I also believe in forgiving oneself when one has done everything possible to make amends to others. It was a hard road to walk, so I have a lot of empathy for people currently on the path.

        I appreciate your kind words. <3

    3. Starling*

      I’m also in the bipolar job flameout club, and it sucked. A lot. It took me years to trust myself again as a worker, and I still think of myself as lazy and shiftless somewhere in the back of my head.

      Having something like this in your past just kills your confidence. But shame impedes your ability to perceive your real performance. Your anxiety is sabotaging you, and so don’t allow these thoughts to go unchallenged. Do you feel like you’re an awful person who doesn’t deserve this? Go back and think of the things you did this week or this month which contradict your anxiety belief. Bring that evidence forward and evaluate whether your jerkbrain is lying to you. (Spoiler: it is.)

      Good luck, and good job already!

  55. Susana*

    OP: My first thought, reading your letter, was yeesh! What a mess. My second thought was – wow. This person has really gotten her act together, summoning a great deal of strength and fortitude to remake her life and her career. And the second one is the one that matters now. Congratulations on the work you’ve done toward your recovery. Alison’s right – no need to share with new coworkers the details of your past. But that doesn’t make you accomplishment any less impressive.

  56. very anonymous for this one*

    Amazingly, I have a similar story, and I’m getting close to the end of a fairly successful career. I didn’t leave town, I didn’t leave my field…it’s possible. Sounds like you’re on the right track.

    AAM’s comments are spot on: every time you reflect on that list, you have to remind yourself that you don’t make choices like that any longer. You’re not that person any more, and please congratulate yourself on making those changes. Not everyone does.

  57. Nita*

    OP, you’ve been through a lot and I’m glad you’ve been to pick up the pieces! If anything, I think it may make you a better HR professional, and have more empathy for those who are struggling. Being in HR is not for perfect people – they don’t exist. Everyone is human.

    The one reason I kind of see your point about wanting to change fields is, are you worried that somehow someone at your new company will find out what happened at the old one? I hope this is very unlikely, and even if it does happen, it might be a difficult time but hopefully your current actions will speak for themselves, and you will be able to say “yes, that happened – but it’s in the past and let’s leave it there.” It’s only worth changing fields if the idea of this happening is completely unbearable, but the thought will probably get a lot less painful with time.

    1. OP*

      It seems very unlikely as I now manage the HR function at my new company by myself. My boss and coworkers live and work primarily in the southern US and I’m in NY and OH (two locations that I travel between), so it’s essentially impossible for them to meet anyone from my past job through networking or happenstance. I was of course somewhat worried during the reference checking, but I was able to get by with great references from previous employers and professors (I just graduated with my MBA a couple weeks ago and was in my last semester when I got hired). So I think it’s really unlikely that will ever happen and the more time that passes, even more so.

  58. Former Govt Contractor*

    Hello OP, I want to congratulate you on recognizing your self-destructive tendencies and working toward change. I also want to note that often when people lose a lot of weight, they commonly trade one addiction for another – when they quit abusing food, they may become a compulsive shopper, or drink too much, or use sex as an escape. It’s likely something you’ll have to be aware of going forward, but I wish you the best of luck in your new job. I’m sure you’ll do great.

    1. OP*

      Thanks for your comment. I meant to reference that in my letter to explain another reason why I think the drinking became an issue but didn’t really make the connection obvious. It’s something I’m still working on. :)

  59. Juli G.*

    OP, not sure if you’re involved in hiring but I am. And part of that is evaluating post-offer acceptance background checks. When convictions appear, we evaluate them. When there’s something that isn’t threatening but it makes us a like uncomfortable, our mantra is always “We shouldn’t punish someone for their crime twice.”

    Don’t punish yourself twice. You had the punishment of finding a new job, starting over, and putting in the work at therapy. You did and are serving an appropriate “sentence” for your “crimes”.

  60. Not A Manager*

    Alison has talked a lot about how toxic work environments can skew our perception of what’s normal and acceptable. One of the most impressive parts of this very impressive success story is that you were able to recognize how toxic and far out of the norm this workplace was. I’m so impressed that you were able to escape from it, especially when you also had an addiction issue going on.

    You are a smart and healthy survivor with really good instincts.

    I think you should keep on keeping on. Stay in your therapies, delay any drastic action about your career, practice some positive self-talk. The only additional item that was mentioned but that I would emphasize, is that you consider carefully and thoughtfully apologizing to people at your old workplace who you might have harmed.

    I wouldn’t spend a lot of time going over your bad behavior and self-flagellating. I would briefly mention whatever wrong you did, apologize for the harm, and tell the person that you are aggressively treating the underlying issues that contributed to your behavior. (But I don’t really know much about these kinds of apologies, so you might want to look into AA to see if they have a very different template.)

    I think this might help *you* feel better and like there is less unfinished business. I don’t know if it would help you or hurt you professionally. I like to think it could help you, in that people who currently have a poor opinion of you might have a slightly better one. On the other hand, I don’t know if it would just be opening a can of worms. I’m curious as to what others think about this.

  61. Oranges*

    Jumping on the bandwagon.

    Shame is an emotion that helps us function in society. It puts negative reinforcement around behaviors that our society has deemed bad/destructive. So yay! You’re a normal healthy person because you felt shame. Now that you have stopped the destructive behaviors (which is HARD go you!) the shame is still there because your brain is wired to hold onto it tighter than most (blargh).

    Just like when I’m in my depression spiral I feel like everything’s hopeless and nothing will change ever, that’s my brain lying to me. Your brain is lying to you now. It’s telling you a tale where you are fundamentally a bad person and no one should ever hire you again. You aren’t. You are a good person who acted out under stressors, just like every other human being on this planet. You are allowed to be human. You are allowed to mess up. You are amazing for picking yourself up after the mess. Be proud.

  62. Djuna*

    OP, I may not work in HR, but we probably have the same or a very similar illness.
    I’m in my 40’s now and can merrily regale people with tales about my college days and early career (undiagnosed, unmedicated, grandiose, charming and disastrous af). I tell them as comedy, but it’s still pretty clear I was a horror show.

    Alison (and James in the comments) have given you wonderful advice. I’m only chiming in with something my own doctor told me, in case it also helps. I was busily beating myself up about the terrible things I’d done and the terrible human I was, and he got a little blunt with me. It helped me, so I’m sharing: No-one will remember or hold those things against you as hard as you will. No-one thinks about you and what you did the same way you do. You can’t change the past, so don’t keep punishing yourself for it. That chapter is closed, stop rereading it and move on to the rest of the book.

    Straight talk, especially combined with book talk, works wonders on me.

    How you’re feeling, I’ve been there. My mom has been there, my friends have been there. But what James said is so true. You can learn from it, you can be more empathetic because of it, you can be a kick-ass HR professional because of it. You deserve to be where you are now, because you got to where you are now. You’re in the new chapter, keep turning the pages and see where it brings you.

  63. Marie*

    I just want to say the community on this site is very inspiring in the way that they generally offer positive, supportive, and compassionate comments in situations where someone has made themselves vulnerable and admitted a mistake. In a world where the comments section of advice columns can be very toxic, the level of kindness here is really something special.

    1. Specialk9*

      We’re a lot kinder to people who own their stuff. People who try to blame shift, less so. This OP is a poster child in owning one’s stuff.

  64. sheila_cpa*

    OP, I spent some quality time torching my professional and personal lives before a mental health diagnosis a decade ago, and it was so hard for me to forgive myself afterwards. I second the Brené Brown recommendation, she’s been great f0r me (along with a therapist and psychiatrist). I found my way out of it, though, and I know you can, you’re clearly amazing because you’ve gotten this far! Being vulnerable in front of a group of people is not an easy thing, you know.

    Hang in there. I’ll be thinking of you.

  65. Come On Eileen*

    OP, I will tell you that I got sober a little over 4 years ago, and found it SO much harder to forgive myself than to forgive others. We are always our own worst critic, and alcohol often fuels behaviors we aren’t proud of. It sounds like you’ve realized this and made some amazing strides toward changing your behavior. In time, forgiving yourself will come. I’m really proud of the changes you’ve made. Sobriety will change your life if you let it.

  66. Bea*

    I’ve seen mental illness destroy careers and I’m so relieved you’ve gotten the help you deserve and need to work through yours. You have done everything right in order to fix your situation and turn it around. The shame and shelf doubt are your new hurdle to overcome like you did the rest of your past.

    It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to have these scars from previous behavior. Please let your therapist know this issue so you can work it out internally

    You deserve a good life. You deserve this second chance. You didn’t kill anyone. You didn’t even screw up the business you were with, you just acted inappropriate and accept the blame for your actions. You didn’t steal or break laws it sounds like. You went into a culture that was fun but unhealthy.

    As another HR professional, I wouldn’t have any issues having you work HR elsewhere. It’s all about responsibility and personal accountability, you’re doing that.

    We’ve all done stupid stuff that haunts us!

  67. The Toxic Avenger*

    Hey there, OP – I hope that these comments are clearly showing that you are not alone. Not at all.
    My rough past is 18 years gone – I held down a demanding job while drinking excessively and partying like a rock star. Some of my finer moments include:
    – Getting wasted on a business trip and spilling beer on our VP at the time
    – Fooling around with co-workers who I supervised
    – Coming into work so hung over that I would sometimes have to leave a meeting to vomit
    So – I get it. Those memories still try to make me cringe with shame to this day. However, I remind myself: whatever I have done, I am square with the house now. I’ve paid for it. I’m 18 years sober, I’m an established professional, I owned my shit, and fixed it. So did you. The peace you are slowly earning is hard-won and you should embrace it and tell toxic shame to take a walk. This will take practice, but you can do it.
    Last but not least, please try and remember that your actions very likely have much worse of an impact on you than they do on others. People in your past will probably just remember you as the “party girl” and they have moved on to their own concerns.

    1. Anonforthis*


      I was terrified my rep would follow me around forever. Turns out most people have better things to talk about than that one girl at their work who drank a lot and made a fool of herself (me, not you).

    2. OP*

      Thanks for sharing your own story – definitely makes me feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  68. Anonforthis*

    OP – this sounds like a classic part of the recovery process. I’ve been through something similar – that deep, overwhelming shame. It’s a super common relapse trigger, so well done on your continued therapy and self help – it seems like you are doing a marvellous job.

    I wanted to recommend the worksheets on the SMART recovery website. There are a ton about shame, and reframing. They’ve helped me work on the whole “I am a terrible person who has done terrible things and deserves nothing but sackcloth forever.” To… “I made unwise choices when in the grip of unmedicated mental illness. I was in crisis and handled it poorly. I am now handling things better, and helping others, and I am not required to self flagellate forever.”

    It sounds like you are handling this situation perfectly; good luck, because you deserve it.

  69. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I had another thought about this that I wanted to share, presuming you’re female.

    Women are socially conditioned to feel shame when they embrace their sexuality. We are also conditioned to value ourselves based on our physical appearance and being overweight is often seen as unattractive. It makes perfect sense to me that after a significant weight loss, you would be more likely to embrace your sexuality and some of your current feelings of shame may be wrapped up in those negative societal expectations of women.

    Basically, remind yourself that your actions did not occur in a vacuum and it is not easy to overcome that kind of social conditioning.

    (And, now that I think about it, this is probably true if you are a gay male as well because that population has similar social conditioning.)

    1. OP*

      I am female, yes. I do think this played a role in it for sure. I was so used to being considered unattractive, or at best “pretty for a fat girl,” that losing the weight and suddenly being surrounded by tons of attractive men (2000+ people in my location) that were single, my age, had good jobs and found me attractive was overwhelming. It played a significant role in my behavior. I did find that for me being that level of sexually open was not healthy (I mean this is only what happened at work, so imagine what my average weekend to the bar looked like) but I’m also a feminist at my core and I know that some portion of the shame I feel is based on the social conditioning you refer to.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I went through a very sexually open phase like that in my late teens/early twenties. I’m in my forties now and it took a long time for me to work through the shame I felt for my behavior. You’re definitely not alone.

    2. Specialk9*

      I definitely twigged to all of this too. I’m guessing the male partners in that parking lot / office / etc are not feeling anything like that level of shame. (And wouldn’t, about the sex, even if they got out of a toxic workplace and got a ton of therapy.)

      Women get clobbered by opposite messages: ‘you must be sexy! Have unbridled wild sex with anyone! Your only value is your attractiveness to men*!’ and then also ‘good girls don’t have sex, be modest, be ashamed, you’re bad’. It’s a mind-fork.

      Personally, I believe both messages are untruths that feed other people and leave one cold. One can walk a personal path of integrity, living a life of frequent thoughtful orgies, or of lifelong monogamy, or of no sexual behavior at all.

      *Not that all women sleep with men, but that’s the messaging, because women/ nonconforming folks don’t control cultural messaging.

  70. Jiffy*

    OP, if you were my friend and even if we had been drinking buddies and partners in crime at the last job, I would give you a big hug and be so glad that we both got outta there. It sounds like you were in a very toxic and incredibly dysfunctional workplace where your actions were acceptable, no matter how shocking it all looks in the rear view mirror. I struggle with my own blame and anxiety and self-doubt at times and sometimes I do a little exercise that helps me. Whatever I get stuck on (not really qualified for this job, could have done better on the presentation, why did I yell at the kids again etc) I force myself to go through the alphabet of my strengths.

    For example: I am an Adventurous person, and I moved to Germany all by myself. I am an awesome Baker and everybody looks forward to my homemade bread at the holidays. I am Caring — our dog is 16 years old and blind/deaf/lame but I always treat him kindly. And so on!!! The different letters force me to dig deep and change the focus to my talents and abilities and good choices, rather than ruminating in shame and doubt.

  71. CustServGirl*

    I also just want to offer up that as far as the…context of a lot of your past behavior, we all make mistakes. It may feel particularly shameful because a lot of it occurred in the workplace, but you can and are coming back from it. We all make decisions we regret- whether due to mental illness, stupidity, hard circumstances, etc.

    It’s okay. Like Allison said, we all have pasts, but we all have presents, too. Continue to use your present to become the version of yourself that you want to be.

    Good luck!

  72. First Time Poster*

    This is my first time posting on this site, and I was compelled to do so for two reasons:
    1) OP, you are absolutely amazing. First, you had the courage to describe, in detail, what you view as your past mistakes. Second, you recognized the dysfunction you were working in and took steps to get out and thrive. I do not believe you need to give up a career you enjoy because of your past. In fact, I agree with other posters who said your past may actually become a strength in the HR field because you will bring a level of kindness and compassion to others, and that can only be a positive thing. Keep doing what you’re doing. Your future is bright!
    2) I read all the comments, and this community is amazing. Even though I haven’t posted before now, I’ve been reading for quite awhile and appreciate the kindness and helpful nature shown by the posters. Thanks to all of you.

  73. Woundedhealer*

    OP- I am amazed at your strength and vulnerability. So many people can’t or won’t do the work that you have done to change the course you were on. I don’t usually tell ppl this on this site but I am an ordained Reverend who works in a congregation daily. I can say without a doubt that I would hire you for my church in a heartbeat. Throughout the course of my career I have heard more stories like this than I can count – you are in no way alone or even an outlier. Some of the very best clergy I know have stories similar to yours – stories of mental health struggles, addiction issues, depression, anxiety…. If I have learned anything spending my time with people it is that the ones who have gone through hell, the ones who have stared deep and long into the darkness and yet somehow found the inner strength to choose another path- these are the people who change the world they live in. I would rather spend my days with the scarred, the broken, the bloody, bruised, and wrung out people than the pious any day because they are the ones who see the world and themselves clearly, who have compassion and patience for others.

    Shame is insidious and it steals joy from our lives. I can add to the chorus championing Brene Brown, she has great insight into shame in our culture. I will also say that one of the ways that I have overcome shame in my life is to not hide my past. I share all my mistakes with others to both dis-empower the shame and to help others before they get into the same situations. This is something that takes time and shouldn’t be rushed but don’t think that you have to hide your past forever out of fear of judgment. It is possible to use all of it for good when/ if you are ever ready. Could you imagine how powerful your story would be helping new college graduates and those who are struggling? To hear how quickly it can spiral and to hear how it is possible to recover.

    You are worthy and you are valuable. Not in spite of your past but because of it. I wish you the best of luck in your new job and I hope you will not let the voice of shame push you out of a field you are uniquely qualified to be a part of.

  74. Joan Holloway*

    Oh, OP— I’m sending you so much love. I was on this type of track at a former job. I had an inappropriate relationship with my supervisor, and he became emotionally abusive. I was drinking a ton and in a terrible place with my mental health issues, leading to many very bad decisions. Because I was complicit in the relationship for the first part of it, I shamed myself for years for how it escalated and became volatile. The shame was unbearable at times and I felt I’d never come back from it— but I have. I have forgiven myself for the poor decisions I made and recognized the areas where I was at fault, as well as recognizing that there were some areas that weren’t on me. I have faith that you will reach a place of peace like this, too. It sounds like you’ve already done incredible work to get yourself back on track. Wishing you the very, very best.

  75. AnonForThisTopic*

    OP, I identify so much with your story, and I understand the guilt you feel. I was in your spot last year, and I still feel like an impostor who doesn’t deserve my job. I did a lot of the things you did, and the consequences never came – people thought i was a blast, they wanted to party with me, and I got away with so much. I rarely showed up before 1030, I had clients complain about me and my boss just laughed it off, I jeopardized important company relationships for my own selfish ends, and I behaved extremely inappropriately with senior staff. I finally, like you, recognized on my own that I needed to change, and I made the changes in my life to accomplish that. I put in the work and now I’m coming up on a year of sobriety. In the throws of my bottoming out, I got promoted, I got a huge raise, I was getting tons of praise, and I had a new boss that loved me – and I couldn’t figure out why… I was such a mess, who would believe in me? I felt like such a fraud. But something out there – for me, it’s a higher power – kept me from facing those consequences so I could get to the point I’m at now. And now I spend every day doing the best I can to help others, do the best I can at my job, and try to prove to myself that I deserve it. It’s really hard. But all you have to do is the next right thing. Don’t regret the past or shut the door on it. Just trust God, clean house, and help others. Good luck OP! I’m rooting for you!

  76. Penelope*

    “a high performer who was confident in her abilities to an average performer with crippling anxiety”

    But that “high performer” that you were, was also a mess who made bad decisions and is now carrying a mountain of guilt. It’s not to say you can’t get back to being that success, but you won’t be the same type of success because that person is no longer who you are. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that who you thought you were then was perhaps not you at all in the first place. A ghost or a shadow. Now you’re starting where a lot of others are: in an average but stable, successful, position. This is a better place to be than in the highs and lows of excess and the sort of decision-making that’s now in your past. Congrats. You’re in a better place, even though it doesn’t look like the old place.

  77. Say What, now?*

    You did the work, you got better, you got a new job, and you got promoted. You deserve what you have. I’m sure many people above me have said the same thing but in case you’re keeping a tally and you have some consensus that you need to reach, I’m saying it again. You deserve a happy life.

    You aren’t one year. You’re the sum of all of your actions and it sounds like other people think your other actions are pretty great or you wouldn’t have gotten this far.

  78. Somebody*

    Hi OP
    I just wanted to add to the comments saying that you’ve done extremely well to turn everything around and you definitely deserve your new job. I also wanted to share my own very similar story, I guess to show that things can go well after hitting that kind of low.
    Like you, I have a mental illness (in my case manic depression ), and ended up in a rather dysfunctional environment. The two came together to result in some very poor behaviour from me. I won’t list everything, but it included sleeping with managers, starving myself, hard drugs and an addiction. I moved out of the area completely, took a small break from work then found a new job in an industry I wanted to be in. I actually had to start at the bottom, so you’re doing really great. I’m now a couple of times promoted, my managers say I’m doing really well and I won an award for best in new role. I’m also clean for 5 years and in eating disorder recovery.
    CBT really helped me (hopefully permanently) change my attitude to myself, work, food and drugs, and keep my life on track. I had already started changing things and I was also on medication but it was the therapy that I feel has made the changes stick. I gained confidence in my own abilities so no longer feel so much like an imposter, and accepted my faults.
    I know therapy isn’t accessible to everyone and doesn’t work as well for everyone, but I wanted to mention it as I found it helpful.
    Sorry for the rambling comment, I just saw so much of myself in your letter and I hope you can learn to accept yourself, great things and faults, so that you can enjoy your success and continue to move forward.

  79. Lizzy*

    I agree 100% with Alison’s remarks – OP, you have come back from this, and so long as you continue in therapy and getting help, it will get better. We all make mistakes, and the important part is that we learn and get better. You are, so please don’t beat yourself up about it.
    If it makes a difference – I’ve been there. What I did affected my family more than work, and it’s extremely hard not to dwell on it and blame myself. I have to constantly remind myself that I am working towards getting better, and that every day is a new day, and a new opportunity to do the “right” thing. It’s tough as balls – I’ll give you that – but you can do it. We’re all behind you.

  80. OutworkingGirl*

    OP, everything that matters has been said, but I wanted you to know you’re not alone. Not in devolving into bad behavior when your life fell apart, and not in earning your second chance.

    Throughout my 20s, I worked very hard to build my career and family, and manage my mental illness successfully. In my 30s, when I was feeling at the top of my game, it all came crashing down when my loving SO of many years suddenly became abusive. The confusion of why my SO changed led me to a nervous breakdown, during which I found the cause of the change was drugs. After a lifetime of priding myself on clean living, I ended up using cocaine, pot, and ecstasy and going to strip clubs on a regular basis because I thought it would keep my relationship with my drug- and sex-addicted SO together. We would be up for days at a time having sex and fighting. I would miss work or come in half awake, late, covered in bruises. I would cry at my desk, or close my door to argue with him on the phone for hours at a time. I would miss deadlines, ignore emails and messages, gossip and argue with my coworkers, etc. I became a terrible employee. The worst was when I fell asleep during a meeting with our top brass after being up on a 24 hour coke binge. I blamed it on allergy medicine and had to go snort coke in the office bathroom to get through the rest of the hour. On weekends, to get away from the ‘interruptions’ in our family home (by which my SO meant ‘our family’), my SO would insist I use my keys to the office building to go have sex binges there. Once, on a Sunday morning in the empty building, my SO got angry at a perceived lack of sex enthusiasm on my part, punched me in the head, ripped my clothes apart, and dragged me into the parking lot naked. I banged on the door and begged to be let back in. I still wonder to this day how many people in the neighboring buildings saw me. Things finally came to a head when, in the middle of a screaming match on the way to work, I grabbed the wheel in the middle of a 4-lane highway and tried to drive us into the barrier wall.

    That was a wake-up call for me. I stopped participating in my SO’s addictions. (Thankfully, I never got addicted myself, even with regular use. Maybe because I hated every minute of it.) I started to put my mental health back together. And amazingly, that led my SO to get treatment, and we were able to get past all this and save our relationship. It took me a while to earn back my relationship with my employer and get on good footing again. (How much worse it would have been if they knew the reasons behind my behavior and poor work ethic, I can’t imagine. Although I’m sure they had to have realized about the abuse.) In the past few years, I’ve been able to reclaim my reputation – as you have.

    I’m proud of myself, and I’m proud of you too. Let’s put the shame behind us and move forward.

    1. A*

      Holycow. OK, now I admit I’m curious, how did your SO end up getting into drugs? How long have you/they been sober? I take it your SO went and got help on their own, at a separate place than you?
      I think it’s actually really impressive you both got clean AND have recovered a healthy relationship together but it’s so rare to hear that now I’m curious about details. If you want to share.

      1. OutworkingGirl*

        My SO had been an addict in the teen years, sober for two years before we met. We had been together for about 15 years at this point, with no hint of relapsing all that time. When my SO suddenly turned violent and abusive, I had no idea that could be a result of cocaine addiction. I was baffled and overwhelmed.

        The time frame is a bit fuzzy for me. This all started ten years ago, I think, and stopped in 2012. I guess that period was only about three – four lost years, but there’s enough shame packed in those few years for a lifetime.

        Like I said, I thankfully never got addicted, so I didn’t seek substance abuse treatment. I just stopped. But I did seek medical treatment for my depression and anxiety, in addition to spiritual counseling from my religion to help me overcome the shame and co-dependency. Seeing this, my SO was inspired to apologize to me and to God from the heart. Rather than going through a drug treatment program, my SO sought help from a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and PTSD (the underlying issue). With proper outpatient medical treatment for these issues, my SO was able to both abandon the illicit drugs, and deal with the trauma.

        The reason we were able to repair our relationship is because we belong to a faith community that (a) believes in getting mental health treatment when you need it and not buying into the lie that addiction is a weakness of faith or character, and (b) believes in working on a relationship and not giving up, so long as your physical, mental, or spiritual health is not in danger. So when my SO was no longer endangering me, it was an easy thing for me to apply the love and forgiveness my faith teaches. (It didn’t hurt that my SO was genuinely appalled and ashamed of the behavior.) We have resumed our formerly loving, peaceful relationship, and it’s better than ever since we both have good mental health!

  81. Gazebo Slayer*

    I’ve left three different careers in part because of my own bad behavior. I avoid people who knew me in college and some of my previous jobs; I refuse to even apply for anything in the industry where I most recently crashed and burned. (It’s an insanely competitive industry with a vast glut of candidates, but I’m also afraid of my past coming back to bite me.) I have a master’s degree but I’m in my mid-thirties and taking whatever temp jobs I can find. So this whole thread hits pretty close to home.

    I used to believe strongly in never forgiving other people for wronging you (or others) and the logical corollary of that is that you should also never forgive yourself. I believed that people who did bad things were Bad People forever and ever, and that I had done bad things, therefore I was a bad person who deserved nothing. I’m not sure what to think about that now and it’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I hope you find a path for yourself through this.
      I think you have been reading AAM for a while now and that is a good thing. I know I get new ideas pumped into my old tired brain all the time. It’s regenerative here , I swear.

      If we do as we always did, we will get as we always got.

      The big question is do we want what we always got? I think we have to decide, “I don’t want what I have been getting right along.” Then we decide what parts we are willing to change so we get something different.

      For example. Bad people forever and ever. I grew up in a lot of that type of thinking. I found advice for Adult Children of Alcoholics to be helpful on some of these points. I realized that it was depressing to think someone is bad forever. I don’t actually want to see people fail, never mind fail in an epic way. And of course the next step in logic is that if *I* make a mistake I am bad forever. Oh, this is crushing stuff. I had to admit that my people were Wrong. They were never wrong, until one day I realized, yeah, they were wrong about that. Then I found that they were wrong about other things. Progressing along, I went into GRIEF over how their misconceptions really made their lives so. much. harder. than need be.
      Their misconceptions were theirs to deal with, not for me to deal. I had to focus on my part of the story, where I wanted to have different views and live differently.
      I don’t think we ever really finish processing all this stuff. Because each decade in life opens our eyes in new ways so we see things with added information.
      I hope I can encourage you not to be afraid of whatever your process looks like. We think the way we do because it fills a need somehow. Sometimes that need is simply we don’t know what other perspectives there are. Back to reading here on AAM. This is a wonderful opportunity to look at many different perspectives to see if something resonates for us more than the perspective we had been working with.

    2. OutworkingGirl*

      I think that the helpful thing to understand is that forgiveness doesn’t mean giving someone a free pass to continue bad behavior. Forgiveness means understanding the origin of the behavior, seeing how the mistake occurred and that the person learned from it.

      If you were to catch your partner flirting with someone else at a party, and just looked at them and said “I forgive you,” that would be foolish – a free pass to continue to exhibit bad behavior. But let’s imagine, on the other hand, you witnessed this and just left without saying anything. Then your partner came to you the next morning and confessed that they realized they had gotten intoxicated at the party and started flirting heavily, but when you left they became aware of what they were doing and they were horrified by their behavior. They left right after you did. You talk it out and they really see they have the beginnings of a problem with alcohol and want to get treatment. That day, you hear them make an appointment to get help. In this case, you would see that they learned from their mistake, and if you genuinely understood what led to the behavior, it would make sense to forgive them and give them a second chance, wouldn’t it?

      So here’s the question: Do you understand what led to your bad behavior? Do you see evidence that you have learned from it and are correcting your underlying problems? If so, then forgiving yourself is the sensible thing to do. You deserve another chance.

  82. prudencep*

    I’m a little late to the comments but I just want to say that I’ve been there. It was about 10 years ago now and I still cringe whenever I think about some of the things I did. Again avoiding excuses, but at the time I had some undiagnosed mental health issues and the volume of drinking plus other events in my life created some kind of mega-storm. It was all completely out of character for me, particularly the impact it had on my work.

    I left that role and struggled through my next one because it was such a completely different environment (and negative in many other ways!), but with a change of manager there and then moving on to another job not long after that, things were coming together. Since then I’ve never looked back! I still have flare ups with mental health issues but I know how to manage them. I still drink socially but at an absolute minimum.

    Only my former colleagues and me know about that blip on my life, but I do still feel shame if I think about it. But I’ve gone on to restore my confidence, lose (most) of the anxiety, and now have a senior management role in the same industry. I don’t have many tips except to hang in there, make sure you have some supportive people around you, and give it time for the memories to fade.

    1. cactus lady*

      Likewise – years ago I went through a bad breakup and some other life stuff all at once and also cringe at some of my behavior in a professional environment. But time passes, and people change. I don’t work at that particular company anymore, but I am still in the industry, and much more senior than I thought I would get to when I was stuck in the mire back then. Be nice to yourself- you’ve come really far, and you are clearly making good choices now. Your past behavior doesn’t have to define you now, and you don’t have to be the person that your former colleagues pigeonholed you into being back then. You get to move forward, and every day you’re one day further away from back then. Keep going!

  83. MsFitz*

    LW – there is a lot of useful and well-researched literature from Brené Brown about shame vs. guilt. Spoiler alert: only one is a healthy, useful emotion!

    Best of luck in your journey. It sounds like you’re on the right path.

  84. Mad Baggins*

    OP, last night I watched a John Mulaney stand up special on Netflix, where he talked about doing cocaine the night before graduating college. He talks about substance abuse and alcoholism in a few of his specials, and now he’s turned it into hilarious stories as a standup comic. I’m sure the experience was painful for him, but it’s amazing to see that pain turned on its head for comedic effect. Maybe it will inspire you, or at least make you laugh! Sounds like you’re on the up and up, and I’m really impressed with the 180 you’ve done!

  85. Wendy Darling*

    I’m late to the comments but have to say that understanding the difference between guilt (what I did) and shame (who I am) was huge for me. As an alcoholic/addict in recovery, coming to terms with my own dis-ease, working with a sponsor to understand what MY PART is (because I have my part and other people have their part – even if my only part in it is that I still hold on to it), and the ability to make amends (not just “I’m sorry” but more “I was wrong”) to others ESPECIALLY AMENDS TO MYSELF! Self acceptance and self forgiveness couldn’t happen until I really got clear on what I was BLAMING myself for. I also sought out a lot of outside help (therapy, growth workshops, etc) which is a tremendous part of a recovery solution. I used substances and other things as my solution but I still had a deeper problem that therapy helped me with. Be gentle with yourself, give yourself credit for seeing the need to make a change and the willingness to actually DO IT!

  86. boop the first*

    It really sucks, also, that so many people in management took advantage of you when you were vulnerable. They held a sizeable portion of responsibility too and I hope you’re not shouldering 100% of that guilt.

  87. cantaloupe*

    I want to remind you that many of the things you mentioned doing involved other people participating. My point in that is saying that there are a lot of “guilty” and responsible parties in this, not just you. You don’t need to take on all the blame/shame here. I could argue that it might be true that other people took advantage of a person who wasn’t in a frame of mind to consent to certain things.

    You have worked hard to put yourself on a different life course. You can’t change what happened, and you don’t need to. I too had some things in my professional past I am not happy about. But when I see those people now, I show up as who I am today and if the topic comes up, I say something like–yes that was a rough time in my life–I am really grateful that I’m not in that place anymore.

    Best wishes to you. Look forward, not backwards.

  88. Chalupa Batman*

    Just chiming in support-I’m so glad you’re in treatment and doing better, OP. As Alison pointed out, even those who were exposed to your past behavior are unlikely to know the full list. I’ve found that people rarely keep as close of tabs on you as you think they do, especially when they’re in the middle of their own extracurricular debauchery. To you, it’s a massive pile of terrible choices. To them it’s a few wild nights…for everyone. I can’t promise it won’t ever come back around, but it’s ok for you to say, to others and yourself, “yeah, that was a crazy time, I’m glad it’s in the past now.” You’ve earned where you are, and you continue to earn it every day. If you don’t feel like you deserve this because of past you’s actions, remind yourself that past you *didn’t* have it-current you does, and current you is doing everything you can to demonstrate that you appreciate and respect it.

  89. Laura*

    Alison, this is such a thoughtful and honest and kind answer, and it’s the kind of advice that has kept me reading your blog for years now. Thank you for providing such level-headed and empathetic guidance.

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