This is guest post by Chris Scott about the perils of being a high functioning alcoholic.
I had a dominant personality, a steady job, and a serious drinking problem.
And I was only in my mid-twenties. The term “high functioning alcoholic” (HFA) had been an accurate description of me since I was 18.
Facing the Problem
I know firsthand that making the decision to change does not come quickly or easily to the HFA.
I wasn’t better than anyone else with a drinking problem. Eventually I became a totally non-functioning alcoholic, but for most of my drinking years, I had an absence of outward deterioration. Avoiding or postponing negative consequences that might have motivated real change was something I had a talent for.
You’re keeping up with everyone else in the rat race and still getting away with drinking. It’s your 21st birthday every night. There’s little incentive to admit you have a problem. The excuses are always there: “I can’t have a problem because I’m employed. Three nights ago, I only had two glasses of wine, which is a medical necessity.”
It’s difficult for friends and family who begin to wonder about the astounding quantity of liquor the HFA consumes during holidays or other events. Generally they chalk it up to stress relief. They avoid broaching the subject for fear of confrontation or being cut out of the HFA’s life.
Asking for Help
As I approach three years without drinking, I see in retrospect that my family and friends were not enablers. I did most of my drinking alone in my apartment. I made it easy to assume that my holiday binges were just that – random binges. What my friends and family really did for me was enable my recovery when I finally asked for help.
More specifically, their willingness to accept the reality of my condition – and to educate themselves about what I was going through – was what allowed me to face my condition without drowning in shame. Addiction is so stigmatized that many medical students never receive a coherent account of what it is.
Unlike people who end up in jail or ERs, I was not prompted to quit by medical advice, legal issues, or even ultimatums from people I cared about. I hadn’t lost my job (although I did once HR learned I needed to take extra time off.) One day, I simply woke up with the worst withdrawal chills I’d ever had. After pouring myself a drink to self-medicate, I decided I couldn’t live like this anymore. I called my parents and my best friends.
I told them everything. They were shocked to learn of the secret that I had become an expert at hiding so well. If they were disgusted and confused, they didn’t show it on the phone. I felt ashamed, humiliated – and at the same time tremendously relieved. The weight of my own malicious personal universe had finally been hoisted off of my shoulders.
The Power of Compassion
The compassion I received that day changed my life.
It fueled my determination to get better. My parents had always made clear that they valued me unconditionally. Hearing “I love you” from friends who had only until then given me the occasional hug, was my version of the psychic change that is often talked about in recovery circles.
I had long worried that admitting my problem to family and friends would weaken me in their eyes. I also figured that I would become an outsider in a culture dominated by drinking. When I lived in New York City, the question was never if we were going to drink, but where.
I see looking back that tackling my problem actually strengthened my bonds with people who really matter to me. They respected me because I opened up to them. I asked them to become part of the process. They knew from that point onward that they could count on me if they ever hit a rough patch in life. For once, I had showed them the Real Me instead of a superman façade. They interpreted this as strength and not defeat.
The few people who matter to me cared enough to educate themselves about what I went through. I no longer care what the rest of the world thinks of me. My family and friends know that I don’t drink. Addiction is a brain condition that can be re-activated by alcohol, not an all-encompassing moral defect or lack of self-control.
These days, I’ll go to dinner with family and actually taste the food. I’ll travel to see friends in other cities and feel high on their company. I can focus on the present moment without ethanol’s deceitful help. Today I’m higher on life than I’ve ever been and my non-drinking is a non-issue to the people I surround myself with.
Like so many HFAs, I once subscribed to the myth of “work hard, play hard.” I assumed that life without drinking had to be bland. From my experience, I know now, that it is most certainly not. I also know that what’s really bland is a life of prioritizing an addictive poison, with predictably toxic effects, over relationships with other people.
Keeping others in the dark about your problem is a heavy burden. But for HFAs who have not (yet) alienated everyone around them, there is an upside: an already-existing support network that can make the process of getting better much easier.
The road will be rocky. However, the sooner the HFA summons the courage to ask for help and understanding, the more likely it is that this excruciating double life can be replaced with genuine support and renewed bonds.
“Just ask for help” is not easy advice to implement. By definition, most HFAs do not think that they need help. If they do, they fear that it will come at the expense of their careers, social status, or independence. I’ve learned that these things can be regained.
I still value strength and independence, but I am not a hyper-efficient former HFA who heroically fixed himself. I most certainly needed support before I could get better.
Moreover, I failed to quit before I hit a physical rock bottom. I failed to quit before I might have had the opportunity to salvage my earlier career. Not everyone I reached out to when I hit rock bottom agreed to support my decision to quit drinking.
Yet I’m forever grateful for those who stuck with me when I finally decided to make a change. Without their support, I could not have rebuilt my life. They supported me by looking past the stigma, taking my experience seriously, and educating themselves about addiction.
Chris Scott writes about addiction, self-improvement, and fitness on his blog, Fit Recovery. After working in finance for five years, he became a personal trainer and enjoys helping people devise lifestyle strategies to align their mental and physical health. His strategies for beating addiction can be found in his controversially titled book, Drinking Sucks.