Microsoft Disabilities Symposium Board Members
- Anisa Proda Senior Analyst, Accessibility Resource Center, T-Mobile
- Heidi Burgess, Senior Recruiter/Sourcer, Nordstrom, Inc.
- John Dubay, Managing Partner, Leads at Scale
- Phoebe Larner, Senior User Experience Researcher, Alaska Airlines
- Trinh Vo Yetzer, Managing Partner,, User Research International
- Tarena Shanaberger, Inclusive Hiring Program Manager, Microsoft
Good morning! My name is Alysse Bryson, and it is an honor to be here with you this morning and share how I’ve navigated my journey with my unseen disabilities in the workplace as an employee, coworker, and boss.
Looking at me, on the street, at a work event, as a coworker, or on my heavily filtered social media feeds, you might not realize the laundry list of unseen disabilities that I battle regularly. Over time, I have gained confidence in sharing my stories openly to help others fighting similar issues.
Managing My Disabilities
My sobriety date is May 1st, 2006. I’m a person in long-term recovery from alcohol and substance abuse disorder. To quickly put it in perspective, the month I checked myself into rehab, I was named salesperson of the year. I hit my “bottom” at the Seattle Times and thankfully had incredible health care benefits that allowed me to access three months of outpatient treatment for less than $1000. Addiction in the workplace is widespread. Yes. There were many red flags. As an outside salesperson, I was calling in sick regularly and abusing that power to go home and sleep off my hangovers during the day. This was covered up by my ability to show up at the beginning and end of each day and act as if. Addicts are clever and manipulative, with an innate ability to do “just enough” to get by.
At 4-5 years sober, I was officially diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I’m confident these are things I have struggled with since 16. They went undiagnosed because self-care was not a focus for me before getting sober. I considered self-care getting my hair and nails done, finding the perfect outfit, and babysitter so that I could hit up the bar and nightclub scenes as many nights out of the week as possible.
Around this period of my sobriety, I didn’t want to drink or use; I didn’t want to live. I had a moment coming back from a sales call from Bainbridge Island. I’d just missed the ferry, putting me first in line for the next one. A thought occurred to me I could drive onto the ferry and then Thelma and Louise off the front and end things quickly. I was terrified I was going to act on it. Thankfully, I had enough tools in my mental health toolbox by that point to call someone and ask for help. Hitting rock bottom like this is sobriety was even more painful than when drunk or using. Curious about what was happening with my career simultaneously with this event? Lots of promotions.
My addiction was shifting into full-blown workaholism. I went from being an Account Executive to Sales Manager, to Advertising Director to Associate Publisher to Publisher in basically two years.
I also want to point out that I had a great childhood as a side note. My parents have been married for almost 50 years, and the only thing I can complain about is being a latch-key kid. And is that something to complain about? That said, I do suffer PTSD from numerous occasions of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that occurred between the ages of 16 – 25. This has created intimacy and trust issues that also unexpectedly creep up into the workplace.
In 2015 I had emergency heart surgery shortly after my son graduated high school, and we relocated from Mill Creek to Mercer Island. I had just turned 40. At ten years sober, although I had done tons of work on myself surrounding my recovery, I was a full-blown workaholic with unmanaged long-term stress. I was killing myself trying to be everything to everyone at work, at home, and even in my recovery circles. Two days after my heart surgery, my son was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. A month later, I got a concussion which created short-term memory loss that I still struggle with all these years later. I tripped at a gas station and broke my fall with the back of my head on one of those cement pillars that keeps cars from hitting the gas tanks. I blame it on the Birkenstocks I was wearing.
By November of 2015, my son’s Crohn’s disease had taken a very aggressive turn for the worst resulting in a very invasive surgery and week-long hospital stay. Two days after he returned home, our four-year-old dog died unexpectedly from eating a squeaker chewed out from a dog toy. I know; my life was like a country song with continuous heartbreak.
Cooper’s death was the straw that broke my sober back. This was my breaking point. I took a sabbatical with all of that vacation time I had piled up and quickly realized returning to that high-powered job was probably going to kill me. My doctors insisted I not work more than a 40-hour week, and I didn’t have the tools or support to regulate due to the nature of the job and the toxic workplace environment.
In 2018, I was diagnosed with stage 1 melanoma skin cancer and had a shark bite-size chunk of my ankle removed. My leg modeling days were officially over. Ok, no, at 5’4″, I’ve never been nor will I ever be a leg model. But I assure you, it’s a gnarly scar, and I catch people staring at it all of the time when I leave that portion of my leg exposed.
Despite all of these challenges, I’ve raised my son entirely on my own. I understand what it’s like to be a young single mother on food stamps living paycheck to paycheck, rarely or inconsistently receiving child support from his father.
I should also add that I had Bell’s Palsy at 26 and survived Covid TWICE last year. The first time landed me in the hospital for two days, and I suffered months of heavy brain fog. The second time this past Christmas was milder, thank goodness. Don’t even get me started on all of the anxiety issues I’ve had with the headlines we’ve all endured over the last two years.
Don’t Feel Sorry For Me, I’m A Survivor
I don’t say any of this to get anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m a survivor, and I’m a child of the 80s and a lover of the 90s. Tubthumping by Chumbawamba is my lifelong theme song. I get knocked down, but I get up again; you aren’t ever going to keep me down.
All of this baggage comes with me when I show up to work. Most days it is neatly packed up tight in my suitcase and doesn’t cause my problems. But there are bad days, and they are hard.
Out of all of these challenges, the biggest ones I deal with are not picking up the bottle for comfort. Alcohol is everywhere. Have you noticed that on your recent trips to the grocery store? It’s in places you wouldn’t expect and on almost every end cap. If you’re a normal drinker, how it shows up in the workplace may not even occur to you. In my experience, regular and heavy drinkers tend to look down on us as “nondrinkers”. Let me show you an example of what I deal with regularly.
You Don’t Drink? WHY?!?!?!?
That’s funny, right? It’s also happened to me more times than I can count. There’s a lot of stigma around addiction. And while I’ve seen lots of improvement in my near 16 years of sobriety, we still have a long way to go. People give me a hard time if I don’t eat food prepared with alcohol or drink it because it’s a “special occasion.” My best friend Erin is deathly allergic to onions. Can you imagine if I said to her, “Hey, this is a special night? Can you have a few bites of this onion casserole?” NO ONE WOULD EVER DO THAT. But it happens ALL OF THE TIME TO NONDRINKERS.
I’ve had people tell me they won’t cheers or toast with me because my glass doesn’t have alcohol in it, and that’s bad luck. Seriously, WHAT? I had a boss that ousted me as an alcoholic to my biggest client at the time. (Going on the record saying this did not happen at my current place of employment).
I was mortified. This same woman would also tell me I shouldn’t be the one to deal with any of our alcohol clients because they would find me offensive. Um, what? I’m not anti-alcohol. If you can drink without consequence, good on you. But when I drink, I blackout and wake up next to strangers and make many other bad decisions. It’s just not right for me.
Who I Am Today
Today, I am proud to be a person who recovers out loud in my personal and professional life. But this has taken time to build confidence, and I’ve had to learn to set boundaries and not overcommit myself. Today I’m all about JOMO – the JOY of missing out and saying no can feel empowering.
Before the pandemic, drinking in the workplace was part of almost every team-building activity. I’ve attended hundreds of events and galas and gotten used to the fact that nonalcohol options for nondrinkers are rarely even considered. We aren’t houseplants, and we do drink more than water and coffee. We’d like to have a fancy drink in a fancy cup, we don’t want the effect of alcohol, and we don’t want to be punished for this choice.
My advocacy work surrounding addiction, substance abuse disorder, and mental illness
I’ve become a mental health advocate in the workplace. My employees and coworkers know they can come to me with questions or for resources, without fear of judgment or concern, I would ever use any of the things we discuss against them. I don’t give advice, but I share my experience and what has worked for me. I’m a firm believer in 12 steps, therapy, including art therapy, prayer and meditation, and service to others. I’m very active with organizations like the Recovery Café, Recovery Cafe Network, King County Recovery Coalition, Washington Recovery Alliance. I just accepted a new board position with a nonprofit called Ninety 90 Pictures, which creates production teams for TV and movie sets that are entirely sober, which makes a safe place for those in early recovery to be able to pursue their careers in this field.
Just last week, I attended New York Fashion Week. I assisted in a show called Break Free, where all of the designers were either in recovery or mental health advocates to help shine a light on how addiction shows up in the fashion industry. Nearly all of the models were real people in recovery or with mental health disabilities.
Advocating For Myself, My Recovery, & My Mental Health
When I interviewed for my current role at KING 5 back in 2016, I treated the interview process differently. Of course, I talked about my skills and strengths and why I was the perfect hire for my current role. But I also made a bold decision to talk about my recovery and mental illness throughout the interview process. Explaining there will be days I need to take a more extended lunch so I can sit in a church basement or that I might have to bail at the last minute on a work event that involves heavy drinking if I’m not in the right headspace. That I would bring my whole self to work and give them everything I had, but in exchange, I needed them to understand my struggles around my recovery, and depression could at times flare up unpredictably.
Doing this laid the groundwork for a foundation of radical candor. I call this managing up with complete transparency. Should they have not wanted to hire me because of this candidness, well, then that’s not a place I would have liked to work anyway. It was a risk that paid off. The work-life balance I’ve had working for KING 5 in the last five years has been the very best thing for me. It also made me available as someone uniquely skilled to assist coworkers facing similar struggles as a reliable and trusted resource.
They have also been incredibly supportive and given me time and space to do advocacy work with the nonprofits I mentioned before during my regular work hours. How great is that? Want to know what that does for me? It makes me want to show up and work even harder for them.
When I decided to launch The Sober Curator at the pandemic’s beginning, they continued to support me in ways I would have never expected.
The Sober Curator
The Sober Curator is intended to be a resource for those seeking content related to recovery or a zero-proof lifestyle. Volunteers entirely run it. We aren’t in the business of telling anyone how to get sober, and that’s not our lane. We are in the business of keeping any person seeking an alcohol-free lifestyle entertained and informed by curating, reviewing, and contributing fun and interesting recovery content.
We’ll show you how to get plugged in with the latest swag, merch, podcasts, books, movies, fashion, music, events, and more. We strive to show that sobriety and life without alcohol do not have to be boring. Getting sober is hard enough; finding good content about recovery and sober living doesn’t have to be.
The Sober Curator illuminates a thriving community of distinctive people in recovery. We intend to continue to help smash the stigma surrounding addiction by curating zero-proof lifestyle content. We aim to reflect on how exciting and rewarding life in recovery from alcohol and drugs can be through our sober lens.
As a self-supporting organization of volunteers in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, we take our service positions seriously. We show up, meet our deadlines, and support each other. We also have lots of laughs and a shit-ton of fun. We believe in radical candor and helping each other be our best selves.
WorkWell With The Sober Curator
If you hire us, your employees will learn how to improve employee wellness in the workplace, improving your organization’s bottom line. Happier and healthier employees create improved workplaces and enhanced productivity. Plus, let’s face it, they’re just nicer to be around.
I will work with your organization to customize exact talking points that best suit your business environment. Additionally, I can tap into my trusted group of Sober Curators that combined bring various strengths on various topics, including but not limited to;
- addiction & mental health issues in the LGBTQ + BIPOC communities
- addiction therapist point of view
- calm coaches
- recovery coaches
- yoga & meditation specialists
- range of sobriety from six months to over 25 years
- alcohol-free lifestyle resources
- rethinking drinking in the workplace courses
- learning how to celebrate and create social inclusive events
- and so much more!
For those of you out there struggling with unseen disabilities, I want to leave you with this quote…
A disco ball is hundreds of pieces of broken glass put together to create a magical ball of light. You’re not broken. You’re a disco ball.
Supporting your employees with disabilities making them feel heard and included allows them to shine bright in ways you may never fully realize. Given the proper support and understanding, they may end up being your most significant assets.