Sobriety Gets Weird Sometimes

Today marks 120 days sober and I don’t know how to do anything anymore. Being the only person in a group who doesn’t drink makes me feel like I’m Doing It Wrong no matter where we are or what we’re doing. In large part it’s because drinking is a very normalized adult activity, and that’s great – I’m not here to shame people for their hobbies or make out anyone who wants to drink into some kind of raging alcoholic with no self control. But even so, it is difficult for non-drinkers or sober people (that is, people who have decided to stop drinking alcohol) to feel normal because it is so normalized to be a drinker.

Deciding on sobriety was one of the most important steps in my self-care journey. I didn’t come from a family of alcoholics, and I didn’t grow up with an alcohol problem that got worse. I came to an alcohol problem late in life, after I finished grad school and figured that I was an adult who could finally let it all out and party hard as long as I did my job and paid bills. As with most, I didn’t think drinking was a problem until it was a problem, and there was no way that “taking it easy” or “taking a break” was going to work for me because I’d been down those reads before. I figured it would be easy to quit drinking because I was already tired of wasting time recovering from hangovers and being too drunk to function. I was also pretty sure that I would have zero issues with peer pressure because I’m over 35 and adults are definitely immune to peer pressure.

When you get past 30, the peer pressure becomes less overt. It’s not like a college kegger or sneaking beers at your friend’s house where someone’s handing you a beer and saying, “Drink up! You don’t want to be a loser, do you?” The peer pressure comes more from not wanting to seem like a buzzkill or an odd one out as people start questioning your decisions.

Are you pregnant? Did you get a DUI and have to go through a program? Is this a religious thing – did you give up alcohol for lent? Did you join a cult? Are you trying to lose weight? Have you tried just cutting back? What do you even do for fun now? Can you be around alcohol anymore?

I also get a lot of people asking me if they’re still allowed to drink. I’m not the booze police – you don’t have to stop drinking just because I’m there. Seeing booze isn’t going to ruin my sobriety, much like seeing a steak isn’t going to ruin veganism for me. I also hear a lot of comments like, “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t have [beer/wine/gin/whatever],” which is actually borderline alcoholic, but I don’t think people mean it that way. (I hope they don’t, because it can be scary to have that kind of physical reliance on alcohol.) And honestly, I kind of don’t know what to do either.

If you look at any Mother’s Day display these days you’ll see more and more gifts with coffee and wine themes. “Not before my coffee!” or “Is it wine o’clock yet?” on shirts, bags, cups, mugs, lapel pins, pillows, decanters…. Moms using wine as a means of dealing with the stress and pressure of motherhood is both a cute meme and an expectation. I’ve been met with confused stares when telling people that no, I don’t actually have Wine Thirty at my house when my 6-year-old goes to bed. I don’t need wine to make it through homework nights, or parent-teacher conferences. But that’s normalized for moms, so when I show up and I’m not asking for wine or beer at other mom events I feel like the odd one out.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I write, and I play video games. But I’m also a high anxiety person trying to manage anxiety and depression while also managing a family and a high-stress job, and alcohol gave me a crutch for putting a lid on all the scary thoughts in my head. While I was drinking it was great – no anxiety! no depression! I’m almost good at socializing! everything is awesome! When the hangover came, though, the anxiety could be almost uncontrollable. So now I, a sober person, am having to re-learn how to navigate life without that crutch. It was a dangerous crutch, to be sure, because alcohol is contraindicated with nearly every psychiatric drug and adding alcohol on top of medication can be ruinous for your liver and kidneys, both of which you need if you want to live.

I have zero regrets about being sober, but the peer pressure is still there and it can be a struggle. It feels as though people have just noticed an extra arm jutting out of my shoulder and they can’t stop asking me about it. And it feels weird trying to justify it to other people when I’m telling myself that I couldn’t care less about peer pressure, but then also worrying about whether or not people are going to think I belong in their space. It’s the same space I’ve always been in, but now that I’m sober it feels as though people are suspicious of me. Like I’ve come back from a long vacation and my mob friends are trying to decide if I’ve become an informant. It’s hard trying to re-navigate these spaces and reassert my place, moreso when I don’t have the filter of alcohol to help me ignore the sense of disconnect that comes with having social anxiety.

The bottle is always there in the corner of my mind as an option, but I don’t feel like it’s hovering over me as a constant sense of temptation. It’s a struggle to figure out where I belong – or rather, where people won’t question my belonging – now that I’m sober. On the plus side, I got a lot of good practice at this when I was pregnant and dealt with the barrage of questions on every aspect of my life and how I was going to deal with having a baby. I just didn’t figure on sobriety being a controversial life choice.

Why do I need alcohol?

One of my long-time friends recently wrote on this topic and after a few days of musing I thought I’d post something similar.

I’ve decided to stop drinking. Period. Not just a Dry February, not just “holding off to lose weight,” but a Dry For The Rest Of My Life.

I have a complicated relationship with alcohol. I don’t like getting drunk because I hate losing control over myself. But I like beer. Sometimes. Liquor gives me acid reflux, wine give me a headache, but beer is different – it’s something I can tolerate.

I’m not supposed to drink alcohol because of the meds I’m on, but I keep telling myself I can drink as long as I keep it to once a week, or maybe just one or two drinks. My friends drink and I don’t want to be the sober weirdo. I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I don’t really have any other vices. But if I want to socialize it feels like I have to do some drinking – I mean, what else am I going to do, right?

But I occasionally let my drinking get out of control. I’ve been in situations where where I’ve had a dude take advantage of my inebriation – not to the point of being assaulted or raped, but being too inebriated to say no. I’ve driven home when I shouldn’t have. And when I drink, I get horrible anxiety attacks that can last a day or more, and I frequently get migraines as well.

I’m not good at saying no, or refusing things, even if they’re not good for me. I don’t like the idea of being rude, even if it’s just setting a necessary boundary. I don’t think it’s peer pressure – no one is forcing me to drink. I’m making that decision for myself. And it’s not the right decision. It’s been one of the worst things for my health.

So I need to stop drinking – not just cutting back, but not drinking at all. Given that my usual weekly socializing is a weekly running group with drinking at the end of the run, and that I work in a profession where mixers and busy season after-parties usually involve copious amounts of alcohol, I know that I’m going to end up being one of few sober people in the crowd. At this point I’m old enough that I don’t care about that. What I do care about is making sure I’m taking care of myself.

So anyway, I’ll be your sober ally if you’ll be mine.

YA Twitter Is Out Of Control

YA Twitter is eating one of it’s own. Again. I missed this the first time it came around because I was dealing with the flu, but luckily YA Twitter is the gift that keeps on giving so I didn’t have to wait long before this topic came around again. Last time, an angry mob came after an Asian woman dared to write about sex slavery in a society based on Asian historical/cultural ideas – apparently, it reminded them of African slavery and that was offensive, and the (mostly white, from what I can tell) Twitter mob attacked her until she pulled her book from publication. (An act for which she was praised for being “brave” and “doing the right thing.”)

Jesse Singal has posted a thread about the latest (unnecessary) debacle involving a person of color writing about an uncomfortable topic and being attacked for it because other people got upset because reasons. (He was the wrong ethnicity to handle the topic, or he wasn’t the right kind of marginalized person to handle it, or something equally ludicrous.)

As someone who paid for a BA and MLA in literature, I have a lot of feelings about this kind of behavior – excuse me, this kind of harassment and abuse. The Young Adult genre has a problem with diversity, but it seems like attempts to actually bring diversity into the genre are met with hostility from YA Twitter. To quote Singal:

Posing as urgent interventions to prevent the circulation of harmful tropes, the pile-ons are often based on selective excerpts pulled out of context from the advance copies of books most in the community haven’t read yet. Often, they feature critics operating on the basis of idiosyncratic ideas about the very purpose and nature of fiction itself, elevating tendentious interpretations of the limited snippets available to pass judgement on books before they have been released….

Further heightening the drama, these pile-ons are often accompanied by claims that those who have been selected for dragging or excommunication have not only sinned against social justice, but pose a safety threat to others in the community.

Tablet Mag, January 31, 2019

In Zhao’s case, a (white) author complained that the book contained “internalized racism and anti-blackness.” Then an American-Asian author complained that Zhao (excuse me, “Asian writers who didn’t grow up in western countries”) did not educate herself about the potential negative cultural context of the topic of slavery and how it would be perceived by Western audiences. Audiences that, it would seem, can’t seem to imagine a world that isn’t centered around American cultural contexts.

This new case involves Kosoko Jackson, a black, gay author writing a romance-adventure set around the Kosovo War. A review (written by a white woman) was put out on Goodreads that claimed it was “fetishizing gay men,” it was ignoring the cultural context of the Kosovo War, and the main characters’ ethnicities didn’t “fit” something…. In other words, the author of the review took a few sentences out of context, made a huge number of assumptions, and then told people it was too dangerous for anyone to read.

All I hear from this is the crying of white women trying to be gatekeepers for diversity by excluding actual marginalized people from introducing diversity into the genre.

This is a huge problem. Growing up, most of the YA books I read were written by white women about white kids. With the exception of Ursula K. Leguin’s books, I, an Egyptian-American, read books by and for white people. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the books I read and I would never tell people to stop reading the books I grew up reading (pls go read all the Roald Dahl, Caroline B. Cooney, Lois Lowry, and Judy Blume). YA NEEDS diverse voices. It does not need white women gate-keeping the genre and encouraging their tens-of-thousands of followers to attack authors whose works make them feel uncomfortable.

There’s also a certain amount of irony in a reviewer saying, “Look. I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t read. I’m not one of those people.” AS THEY’RE TELLING PEOPLE NOT TO READ THE BOOK. I also think it’s ironic that the reviewer complained that the gay romance written by a black gay man “reek[ed] of women fetishizing gay men” – it is literally an LGBTQIA book written by someone in the community, but apparently it isn’t authentically gay enough.

I’m going to be honest here and say that I just don’t understand any of this. The absurdity of this level of gate-keeping and harassment boggles my mind. It’s as though cannibalizing one’s own is a feature, not a bug. It’s as though it’s designed to create controversy where there is none just for the sake of having controversy.

It also REEKS of the kind of virtue-signaling and censorship that bothered me so much about parents and religious groups demanding that school libraries “ban” books because books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “The Giver” or “Go Ask Alice” were “inappropriate for young people.” In other words, the adults in our lives wanted to closely cultivate the information in our lives to better control our minds so they could mold us into certain kinds of people. Groups wanted books about gays banned, books about sexuality, books with “bad language and poor role models”, books about rebellion, books with references to drugs (even if it was a cautionary tale), books with violence. (Just look at all of the stupid reasons people gave for banning these books! It all boils down to people being uncomfortable and wanting to hide the things that challenged their beliefs.)

It’s just the same kind of crap I grew up with, and countless generations before. The only difference is that we don’t have to wait for the five o’clock news to come on and tell us of a “dangerous new book” that might be in our schools, and the parents who are fighting it. Now we have YA Twitter to tell us that, based on one person’s opinion from an advance reading copy, these books and authors are dangerous, undermining efforts to correct social wrongs, and other horrors that must be eliminated!

In my opinion, this is outrage porn for bored authors, centered around gate-keeping for topics that make them uncomfortable, that also serves as an attention grab. It’s also dangerous in a genre that desperately needs diversity, that needs people to offer up new ideas for young people who need to have their beliefs and ideals challenged and who need to learn to challenge those ideals, and that needs to get out of the same tired tropes and characters.

And it sets the extremely dangerous example that when something does make you uncomfortable, when it makes you challenge your beliefs, that you have some kind of moral imperative to shut it down and attack the person who is challenging you. You can’t argue for social justice and then attack the very people you’re trying to protect.

Why should staff feelings matter?

I started this as an entry in my written journal (yes, it’s true – I still write a journal by hand), but this topic is near and dear to my heart and I felt it was important enough to write it out on my blog. I read this thread on Reddit and it made me think (again) about the nature of the profession and WHY being a CPA is so hard.

I’ve been an auditor for nine and a half years and being a CPA isn’t easy. It’s hard work, the hours are long, clients are difficult, and the rules seem to be constantly changing these days. (I’ve been hearing that US GAAP and IFRS are converging for almost 20 years and they’re actually finally getting close to it.) I’ve had good busy seasons and bad busy seasons. I’ve had busy seasons where there wasn’t enough work to go around and I’ve had busy seasons where there was too much work and too few people. The job cycles with the economy – when times are good, there’s plenty of work; when times are bad, there’s not much to do.

What I don’t understand is why we still expect our staff to work themselves to the point of exhaustion week after week during busy season. I don’t understand why we’re still expecting staff to “figure it out as they go along,” to “learn on the job.” I don’t understand why we still have the mentality that because busy season was shitty for us that it should be shitty for everyone who comes after us (and if we’re stressed out then everyone else has to be stressed out). It’s like the professional version of hazing – in the old days, I had to chisel my workpapers out in stone and send them to a partner in another state for review and if he hated them he’d call me up to yell at me personally and I took it and liked it! Y’all, I can’t believe that in the year of our Lord 2019 I’m still listening to people act like using Excel is “the easy way out,” and that leaning on technology makes you lazy.

The majority of the people who enter this profession are intelligent, well-educated people who can pick up new ideas quickly. A few become “super stars” and do so well that they’re able to take on harder work sooner than their peers. And a few of them are the kind that don’t do well for one reason or another and either linger until they’re fired or realize the job isn’t for them and they quit.

What I’ve noticed in almost ten years, based on my own experiences and in listening to friends’ experiences, is that a lot of the “pain” of busy season is self-inflicted. Partners and managers recall their own awful experiences and think that’s how it should be. Staff and seniors come to expect it based on the horror stories from their peers and their managers and partners. Firms are disincentivized to change because staff want the experience and the name on their resume. They’re willing to be put through the grinder for two or three years to get a big name firm on their resume and then move on to a better job.

What’s missing from the equation is stopping to ask yourself, why? Why does it need to be this way? For many firms, the most important thing is name recognition and a big bottom line. Investing in staff training and technology to make the work more efficient is hard and can be expensive in the short-run, so firms that are focused on today’s bottom line are not interested in doing so. They’re also more likely to expect (and demand) more out of lower levels to get higher realization rates – if a senior is expected to do manager-level work, the firm can get the same work at a lower rate than they would if the manager did the work.

While it’s true that expectations should be set high to provide an incentive to excel, the long-term impact of demanding that your staff do senior-level work, seniors do manager-level work, and managers do partner-level work, from day one is that your teams get burned out. They get to the point where they don’t care – the firm becomes a revolving door of kids who come in as interns and then leave as seniors because it’s too much to handle for too little payout. Then partners and managers will excuse it with the phrase, “Not everyone is cut out to be a CPA.” Well, sure, that’s true – not everyone WANTS to be a CPA either. The skill set and intellectual demand is a barrier to entry for people who hate numbers and don’t want to wade through thousands of pages of rules and regulations to do their jobs.

What I’ve seen over the years is that firms don’t want to change. End of busy season parties and summer golf events are seen as an easy morale booster for people who make it through busy season. Morning donuts are supposed to make you feel better for working 20 hour days the week of filing. Yet people keep leaving because the expectations are too high, because when they don’t meet expectations they’re yelled at, because if they’re less than perfect they get shuffled around, because yelling and verbally abusing people lower on the totem pole is normalized. Then I have to sit through lectures or read articles about how Millenials are lazy, disloyal, and don’t want to do “real work” blah blah blah….

David H. Maister writes in his book True Professionalism that “[t]he point of any business is to find ways to make money without working harder.”

“Increasing your utilization means you made more money because you (or your people) worked harder. This is certainly an accomplishment, but it still is primarily a short-term achievement.”

Maister’s point is that a firm has to earn respect, to get the market to place a higher value on the firm’s work, which will make clients want to pay more for the service. Firms earn respect by expecting professionalism from their people, from training their people to be professionals, and from leading by example. They earn respect by caring about both their clients and their people.

Instead, I see CPA firms trying to do more with less – giving clients a “bargain” so they feel good about a “necessary evil” (whether it’s an audit to maintain compliance with the SEC, or a tax return) and then demanding their teams do more with a smaller budget. That mentality will make clients see the firm as a vendor, to challenge the firm’s billings, and to continue to demand more for less. Maister goes on to say, “Working hard and cutting overhead costs are easier to do than achieving increases in your rate or leverage.” Which is true. A smaller bottom line is scary for people who care about today’s profits but not tomorrow’s.

In order to demand professionalism from your staff, however, you have to invest time, energy, and money into training – both technical skills and soft skills. You also have to invest in technology, look for better ways to do things. If your staff come in to work every day because they tolerate what feels like abuse so they can get a name on their resume so they can work somewhere else, you’re not building a healthy firm. You’re cruising on name recognition. And if your staff don’t like what they do, they’re not going to care about your clients, and your clients aren’t going to care about you. And if your clients don’t feel valued, if they don’t feel like you care about them, then why would they want to stay?

The main reason I hear companies say that they want to take their business away from Big 4 or other large firms is that they felt like those firms didn’t care about them, that they were being ignored or undervalued because they weren’t important to the firm. That’s exactly the reason I hear from people who leave those firms to go into industry or to a smaller firm – they were just a number, just a cog in the machine, they were expected to do more work with fewer incentives to stay.

I’ve heard people say that staff feelings don’t matter, that staff just want an easy job with a big paycheck, so why should we cater to lazy people who don’t want to work hard? But I don’t think that’s true. There’s a big difference between staff who legitimately don’t want to work hard, and staff who work hard and want to excel but don’t want to be treated like crap just for a paycheck. If you develop your staff, if you give them resources and coach them and train them, they’ll want to stay. They’ll want to do well. If you read down the thread you’ll see a number of horror stories from staff who worked for people who didn’t care, didn’t want to care, and just wanted to squeeze as much work from them as possible. But staff feelings SHOULD matter. Staff who are well-trained and care about the quality of their work and their clients turn into seniors and managers who care about their clients, and then into partners who have a good reputation and bring in clients who want to work with them, and who bring in staff who want to work for the firm. If your staff are failing and your realization rate sucks and your clients are shitty, then it’s probably a failing on your part – either from failing to train staff or from bringing in any old client just to make a buck or from treating your clients like they’re just a revenue source.

I’ve been a mentor or a coach for most of my career. I still care about my former staff who have moved on and I definitely offer to coach them through tough situations at work (or at home, if they want someone to give an outside point of view). Today’s bottom line doesn’t bother me as much as tomorrow’s or next year’s. If I want to have long-term productivity and profit, my staff’s feelings absolutely matter, and they’re going to continue to matter even after they’ve moved on. Treat your clients and teams like they’re actually people (because they are) and you’ll do well in the long-term.

By the way, if you haven’t yet read David H. Maister’s book, I highly recommend it. It has important advice for both the professional service firm and for professionals.