The Myth of being a Functioning Alcoholic

In group meetings we get confused by the term “functioning alcoholic.”  Personally, when I was deep into my alcoholism, I thought that I was “functioning” quite well.  Looking back—I had a decent job, my daughter was well taken care of, I had a great girlfriend and rented a nice house.  I had it all—and the fact that I was “functioning” gave me little reason to look in the mirror and be honest with myself.  I was “functioning,” right?  So what the hell is the problem?  Don’t tell me I have a problem when I’m paying my bills, paying Lila’s tuition, running 5 miles every other day and performing better than ever at work.

When I was drinking—I looked at the responsibilities I was upholding, but ignored the progression of my alcohol intake and demise of my overall happiness.  I went from drinking 4-5 beers per day to 6-8 beers and a bottle of wine—then from 6-8 beers and a bottle of wine to hiding bottles of alcohol around the house to hide my problem from my girlfriend.  So, yes, I was “functioning” and those at work or my acquaintances would be shocked to know the extent of my drinking problem.  But, those closest to the “functioning” alcoholic aren’t fooled—the alcoholic is simply foolish.

I was researching articles that focused on being a “functioning alcoholic.”  I found this gem on the Promises Treatment Center web-site—please find a few paragraphs, specific to their description of a “functioning alcoholic”:

“High-functioning alcoholics can go years and even decades without being confronted, although as time goes on, most will incur some consequences: an angry spouse, maybe a failed marriage blamed on “other problems,” a DUI, or some other indication that they should address their drinking behavior. Often, until some major event occurs related to their addiction, they and those around them do not address the behavior.

A good example might be Diane Shuler, a 36-year-old mother who killed herself and eight others driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. Among the dead were one of her children and three nieces. Her son survived the crash. Her family reacted with shock and dismay: the woman they knew was not an alcoholic. This denial is common with high-functioning alcoholics, particularly if they are binge drinkers. Many people mistakenly believe alcoholics drink ever day, but among women, binge drinking is more common.

It can be particularly difficult to identity someone as needing treatment for alcohol dependence if that person continues to hold a high-level job and is not financially impacted by their abusive drinking.”

High functioning?  Really?  I had a hard time seeing the “functioning” aspect amongst the challenges with angry spouses, failed marriages, DUI’s and vehicular homicides.  It seems, to many people, that being financially stable while also being an alcoholic equates to “functioning.”  I disagree.  Whether you are a low income alcoholic drinking cheap liquor dressed in a brown paper-bag or a business-person drinking martinis everyday—the game ends the same way…a life that revolves around a bottle, compromising your health and losing those you love most.  A sign that you have a major problem is when your close friends or spouse tell you that you’re a functioning alcoholic.  In part, those you love considering you a functioning alcoholic is them starting to walk out the door.  I remember Katie saying things like “the amount you drink would get the average person absolutely wasted.” “How can you drink that much and still be standing?”

I didn’t see a problem—but those closest to me did, and I was blind to the fact that everything I viewed as stable and good was falling apart.  My denial created an unsurpassed obliviousness that haunts my dreams every-night—it lingers in my thought process like the smog cloud that hovers over Los Angeles.

Functioning alcoholic?  I think it can be better defined as an alcoholic who is on the verge of hitting rock bottom.  Our bodies, liver and mind can’t sustain proper health when saturated in alcohol every day—it’s only a matter of time before work, family and happiness is negatively impacted.

I had a revelation last night—it was actually a bitter-sweet revelation.  My friends and ex-girlfriend always said things like “you’re such a good dad” and “how do you keep up with everything as a single dad?  It must be so hard.”  I used to feel so good when people would say things like that—it made me feel accomplished and successful…it gave me no reason to evaluate myself as a person.  I now realize that I was receiving praise for taking care of my responsibilities as a father should—I wasn’t doing anything extra special.  In this day, when parents get praised for doing what they should be doing, it’s sort of sad and a reflection that too many people just aren’t doing, as parents, what they should be doing.

I owe it to my daughter to be the best me I can be—she deserves nothing less.  If I was a great father during my time with alcohol, I will be greater without it…and I don’t deserve a pat on the back.  So, when I was “functioning” while drinking—I really wasn’t functioning at all—I was depriving myself and those around me, especially my daughter and Katie, from the real me…I was lost.  Our families deserve the best–not someone who is simply”functioning.”Mattie and Lila

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