Is it possible for a functional alcoholic to quit drinking without going to rehab?
Is there even a reason for a “functional” alcoholic to quit drinking at all?
Let’s take a closer look at this idea and see what we can learn.
What is a functional alcoholic anyway?
First of all, if someone admits to being a functional alcoholic, then this is likely a person who cannot fully admit to themselves that they have a serious problem. What they are really doing is telling themselves that they are a “high functioning” alcoholic. So on the one hand, they admit that they have a serious problem because obviously they have experienced many consequences as a result. But on the other hand they are not willing to admit that they are at the point where they need to seek help for it.
I considered myself to be functional for many years. I held a job right up until the day that I surrendered. But this is a bit misleading because I worked for some great enablers. If the people who I worked for had healthier boundaries, then I would not have been able to stay employed for so long. I deserved to be fired from my jobs many times over due to my alcoholism. I would suspect the same is true for many other “functional” alcoholics. Their life may not be a complete train wreck (yet) but they are also lucky enough to have some people look the other way for them at just the right times. At least this seemed to be true for in my life.
As a society we place our own labels on different levels of addiction and alcoholism. For example, if someone is both homeless and out of work, most of our society would label that as being “non-functional” as opposed to a “functional alcoholic,” who still has both housing and a roof over their head. If you lose either the job or the home then you are halfway to being a complete train wreck due to alcoholism. If you still have both your job and your home then you are considered to be functional by most people’s standards.
The wild card here is your relationships, which is much harder to pin down and quantify. Or perhaps it is just harder for most people to get honest and really talk about it. In my life, I was in a very unhealthy relationship during my alcoholism and at least half of that was my fault, probably more. And this unhealthy relationship may be an even better indicator of a non-functioning alcoholic than anything else, actually. But many people have less than ideal relationships in their lives so most of us do not judge our lives in this way. We look at our housing and our employment as stronger indicators of whether we “have it together or not.”
So the question for the aspiring alcoholic becomes: “Just how close to you have to be to losing your home, your job, or your spouse before you are considered to be a non-functional alcoholic?”
The answer to that is clearly outlined above. If you are “holding it all together,” meaning that you have not yet lost your home, your job, or your spouse–then you are doing fantastic! Lay off the sauce a little and try to do a little better at work why don’t you. Everything is fine.
There is that word: “Fine.” You should see it as a red flag because in many cases it can mask a greater problem underneath (although sometimes it really is just a non-response, so let it go!). But if you catch yourself saying that you are “fine” too much then you might warn yourself to get more in touch with what is really going on inside. As recovering alcoholics or addicts we become masters at covering up our emotions.
So I guess my biggest warning sign is that if you are even using the term “functional” to describe your alcoholism then that is a huge red flag right there. Anyone who is claiming to be “functional” is one step away from being a total wreck. Otherwise why would they even use the term? It is a placeholder on a scale of chaos and misery in the life an alcoholic, and “functional” is right before the really bad stuff. As in:
Weekends start on Thursday now.
Weekends start on Wednesday now.
That is an arbitrary scale off the top of my head, but I think it is pretty fair to stick the label in there where I did. Not quite into the really heavy consequences yet, but right on the brink. And just able to “hold things together” and justify just about anything to themselves.
Because, you know. They still have their job.
Is it possible to stop drinking without rehab? Should you try it?
It is certainly possible to stop drinking without going to treatment.
However, I don’t really recommend it for any serious alcoholic.
Therefore, you will have to ask yourself a question if you are still a “functional drinker”:
Do you really want to stop drinking right now?
Because if the answer is “no” then you are wasting your time….just go drink and be happy! Go on with your life, be functional, be happy, drink merrily, and let things improve for you.
What’s that? Things aren’t necessarily improving a lot? You’re not happy and clicking your heels together as you go to work each morning?
If that is the case then you might need to get honest with yourself.
And this is the whole crux of the recovery problem right here:
You are either ready to lay your whole life down on the line and make massive changes, effectively killing your ego in the process……or you are not.
There is absolutely no in between. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was something in between:
* Complete and total surrender, and
* Heavy drinking and self medicating on a regular basis.
But no, there is no in between. There are no steps in between those two things. If there were then recovery would be a whole lot easier. If there were then you could just sort of “half surrender” instead of the complete and total ego sacrifice that you actually have to make in order to get sober.
But there is no middle ground.
And perhaps this is the problem with our little definition of a “functional alcoholic.”
There is no such thing, really. You are either a functional human being who can walk away from alcohol and addictive drugs with absolutely no major problems, or you are hooked on alcohol (or other drugs) to the point where your life is all messed up as a result.
And no one can tell you which camp you are in, unfortunately. Actually they can tell you all day long, but it isn’t going to make a bit of difference unless you are honest enough with yourself to look in the mirror and realize that you are, in fact, miserable due to your drinking or drug use.
And to be quite honest that takes a whole lot of honesty. It’s really tough! I am not going to sugar coat it. Eventually the alcoholic must become so miserable in their life that they are willing to take on the pain of looking themselves in the mirror and admitting that they are no longer happy. And that they no longer know how to make themselves happy. This takes guts.
If you are really a functioning alcoholic then you probably have every excuse as to why you don’t need rehab, right? If this is the story that you tell yourself, then that is fine….so long as you are happy with the outcome. The key is that you have to be really, really honest with yourself. And if you are not happy, then staying stuck in alcoholism is not going to give you the life that you really want in the long run.
Therefore at some point you may have to drop the idea that you are high functioning and get with the idea that you might need a little help.
Why you should seek help in early recovery
If you have made the leap past your denial then it is time to take action.
You have already surrendered to your disease by admitting that you can no longer function and be happy under your own direction. You need help.
The best way to do this is to ask for help and try to go to an inpatient rehab facility.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first reason is because you can check into an inpatient rehab and you are all but assured that you can at least stay sober while you are checked in. This is an important but simple point that cannot be overstated. If you stay in rehab for 28 days then you have some significant sober time under your belt. 28 days in a row is significant in my opinion.
I actually stayed in a rehab center for 20 months when I first got sober. 20 months is also a very significant length of sober time. I am not sure that I would still be sober today if I did not have the experience to draw from. I got a ton of support and help while I was living in rehab for those 20 months. It had a huge impact on my overall path in recovery.
If you don’t need help in early recovery then perhaps you are not really an alcoholic. If this is the case then there are two possibilities:
1) You are not alcoholic. Cut down on your drinking and be happy. Live your life.
2) You are alcoholic. You cannot just cut down or quit on your own because it makes you miserable. Or you relapse against your will.
If you fall into group number one then I am genuinely happy for you. Also, you are on the wrong website.
If you fall into group number two then you should get honest with yourself and make a decision to ask for help. I would urge you to start by going to inpatient rehab.
Treatment has a lot of pros and cons, to be honest. Rehab is not perfect. Treatment does not actually “cure” anyone. But it is still the best starting point for most people in recovery, and I would still recommend it to anyone who has finally broken through their denial.
Recovery is a long journey and going to rehab is actually just a tiny blip at the beginning of the process. On the other hand it is a really important time and it can definitely make or break your success. This is why urge people to go to treatment as a matter of course. If they truly do not need rehab then there is little harm done. Or they can realize how serious the situation must be (if people are recommending inpatient care) and then they can adjust their drinking or drug use accordingly. If they fail to do that then hopefully it will wake them up out of their denial.
The difference between treatment and long term dependency on recovery programs
There is a difference between going to inpatient rehab and going to AA meetings. Though it is not uncommon for the two to show up in the same person’s recovery journey.
Going to rehab is a one-off event, even if you stay for 28 days or longer (like I did).
Going to AA meetings can be a lifelong endeavor, if you choose for it to be (I did not, and stopped attending in the first year).
Obviously there is a big difference between a treatment center and a lifelong recovery program.
If you want to go to AA and work their program for the rest of your life, I would urge you to look into it. Their program may help you a great deal.
It just wasn’t the right fit for my personality and so I choose to build my own path in recovery. You might say that I chose a holistic path rather than the 12 step path (which is entirely spiritual).
Building a new life in recovery
My goal in building a new path in recovery was to simply achieve long term sobriety without being dependent on AA meetings every day. This was my goal because, quite honestly, I got a bit tired of sitting in AA meetings every day, and it did not sit right with me that people told me that it was necessary in order to avoid relapse.
What I read in the recovery literature actually did not agree with what people were telling me in the meetings. People in AA said “Don’t stop going to meetings or you will relapse.” But upon reading the big book of AA, I did not find evidence of this idea at all. In fact, I later learned that most people only went to one or two meetings each week at the most back when the book was first written. This was in stark contrast to the “daily grind of AA meetings” that they recommend to newcomers today. So this inconsistency did not sit right with me, and I realized that sobriety must be based on something other than hitting a meeting quota.
That “something else” for me was holistic health and personal growth. I started pushing myself to be a healthier person, in all sorts of different areas of my life.
In AA they taught me that spiritual growth was everything, and that if “something wasn’t spiritual, it wasn’t practical.”
I found this to be false. For example, distance running and daily exercise turned out to be extremely practical in terms of my sobriety. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it had a bigger impact on my recovery than the AA meetings ever did (while I was still going to them during that first year). And that is just one example of holistic health that happens to be based on physical health. But there are other examples and other ways to grow in your recovery: Mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical. If you neglect one of these areas too much then I believe it can really trip you up in the long run, possibly even force you to relapse.
This is why my ideal approach to recovery today is multi-faceted. It is holistic. I try to balance the growth in my life by exploring new areas at various times. I try not to get stuck in the same old patterns without learning anything new.
This is how I have become functional in my recovery again. By pushing myself to achieve growth in different areas of my life, I have found that it helps to protect me from relapse a great deal. I would go so far as to say that “personal growth IS relapse prevention.” Of course there are various tactics out there that can also help you to prevent relapse (such as calling your sponsor, attending a meeting, etc.) but in reality the time when you are most protected from relapse is when you are the furthest away from considering a drink or a drug. And these times in my life have always been when I was excited about life, when I was excited about the progress that I was making, when I had something interesting to look forward to. That did not always work for me when I was simply attending meetings every day. Maybe I was doing it wrong. But I found another path in recovery and that path has served me very well.
Anyone who claims to be a functional alcoholic needs to take a good long look at what they are really doing with their life. And they need to be honest with themselves about whether or not they are truly happy. If they have to get smashed on a regular basis in order to be “happy” then are they really content, or are they just fooling themselves? In my own case I have to admit that I was fooling myself for many years, because I was too afraid to face my fear of sobriety. I was too afraid to face the idea of being sober and dealing with all of my emotions, without having alcohol as a shield.
Any alcoholic who is “functional” is most likely one step away from complete and total chaos. My hope is that they can make an honest assessment of their lives and be motivated to take action. Asking for help is never easy to do and it takes guts. The benefits of recovery are well worth it though.
What do you think about the idea of “functional alcoholics?” Do such things really exist, or are we just kidding ourselves? Do you consider yourself to be functional? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!