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Careers Café

Surviving conference season when you’re a recovering alcoholic


Anyone can be an alcoholic, even a PhD astronomer.

– Women in Astronomy, anonymous author

This line, from a blog post sent to me by a colleague sparked a discussion at the University Affairs office. How do academics who prefer to stay sober or are in recovery deal with alcohol at conferences?

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, for example, had the popular Beer Tent. Academics tend to gravitate to that area to network, discuss ideas and chat in an informal setting. But for someone in a program, this can be a stressful place to be, no matter how far along you are in your recovery.

“Ultimately people [who are in recovery] have the goal of living a normal life without worrying too much about being tempted by alcohol. But that is a process,” says David Hodgins, head of the psychology department at the University of Calgary.

“Early in recovery, people are most successful when they are very careful about exposing themselves to situations where alcohol is widely available, whether that be at a conference or just in general. They need to plan very carefully about how they are going to deal with those situations.”

Say you are at a conference and have plans to meet a colleague to discuss your paper or research, and they suggest meeting at the hotel bar. Dr. Hodgins says it is important to have a concrete plan about what you are going to have to drink. For example, if you’re going to have club soda, make sure that you have a glass of club soda in your hand at all times so that you’re not tempted to put something else in your hand.

“Also, [having something in your hand] discourages people from encouraging drinking and helps to deal with the social pressure,” says Dr. Hodgins.

One thing those in recovery might now notice when they attend a conference is that there are many people there who are not drinking. People don’t drink for a variety of reasons, be they medical, religious, or personal choice. So while you may feel you have a big neon sign over your head that screams “I’m not drinking – isn’t that weird?” you are actually not alone.

The third piece of advice Dr. Hodgins offers is to consider having some support people be with you at the conference. This gives you some accountability that helps with maintaining your motivation to not drink. “People have to be responsible for their own behaviours, but just knowing that others there know that you’re struggling can kind of help you be successful.”

Changes being made at Congress 2016
Every conference has its own traditions around social networking, but as mentioned, Congress usually has an entire area dedicated to this. However, this year things are changing in favour of those who might feel pressured to drink.

“The Beer Tent has been affectionately known throughout Congress as a social area, and has become a very popular meeting place for the attendees to go to get reacquainted, socialize and meet in a fairly informal atmosphere. However [the terminology] Beer Tent had implications linked to it. So this year we’ve been mindful of that, and the area is now going to be called the Social Zone,” says Terry D’Angelo, manager of Congress and events at the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Ms. D’Angelo says this rewording will take some getting used to for the long-time Congress attendees, but will help with those who may struggle. People can go to the Social Zone and grab a soft drink or a coffee and still take part in the networking opportunities.

Attendees will also notice another change when they are registering this year. Usually every attendee gets a “drink” ticket for one of the president’s receptions. Now it’s called a “beverage” ticket to avoid the association between “drink” and “alcohol”, says Ms. D’Angelo.

“We hope [the wording change] makes people feel less pushed in one direction. We have an analogy here: move the ball down the field. So for every Congress cycle something comes up that we can improve, and we try our best to change wording or modify things to reflect this.”

Services available to Congress attendees
This year, the University of Calgary is making its Wellness Centre services available to Congress attendees. The Wellness Centre is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and is located in MacEwan Hall – MSC 370. They offer counselling services.

Other services available while you are in Calgary:


Tara Siebarth
Tara is the web editor for University Affairs.
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