High Functioning Alcoholism

High Functioning Alcoholism


The old image that we have of the typical alcoholic is the bum who is laying in an alley with a brown paper bag, completely dysfunctional and homeless.

But does this really describe every alcoholic? Or even most alcoholics?

Bustle Media says that “…people can fit the measures of a severe drinking disorder….while still appearing outwardly like perfectly healthy beings with functional lives.”

In other words, many alcoholics in today’s world are still living a somewhat functional life. They are holding down a job. They have relationships with other people. And yet they continue to abuse alcohol on a regular basis as it slowly erodes their sanity.

It isn’t about the amount or the quantity of alcohol consumed, either. USA Today says of one alcoholic that “he was consuming a half-gallon of vodka every day” but that he was “a functioning alcoholic.” Someone else might drink a six pack of beer every day and have the same sort of problem as the half gallon drinker.

So it is not about how much we consume, but it is about how it affects us and how it affects our daily life.

The problem with the functional alcoholic is that eventually they become dysfunctional–it is really only a matter of time. Also, if you look at any real alcoholic that appears to be “making it” while still abusing alcohol, you will see that they have some enablers in their life. They are getting by, but they are getting by with a little bit of help here or there. Someone takes away their keys at just the right moment, or someone calls in sick to work for them when they are hung over, and so on.

It is kind of a mixed blessing to be a functional alcoholic. On the one hand, you are not totally homeless and hopeless, because you are still holding down a job and basically making your life work, even if it is by the smallest of margins.

On the other hand, you tend to remain stuck in denial, because you are able to basically hold things together and make your life work, and therefore you can justify just about anything to yourself. You work a job, you pay your bills, and you are basically a responsible adult at this point–so why can’t you reward yourself with a drink when you want? That is how the thinking goes, anyway. If you are responsible enough to hold a job and pay all of your bills then you should be able to self medicate in any way that you desire, right?

So the trap is that the functional alcoholic can convince themselves that they don’t really have a problem, because they are basically functioning just fine, even though every once in a while they black out from drinking and fall down through their glass coffee table (true story by the way!).

What, then, is the solution for the functional alcoholic? How do they get to a place where they can surrender, even though they are not facing heavy consequences from their drinking?

In order to get to a place of surrender, the alcoholic in question has to re-frame their problems. Yes, they are holding down a job. Yes, they are able to drink “successfully” for the most part.

But ask the functional alcoholic this:

“Are you truly happy? Really? How happy are you, and how often?”

That is the key. Anyone can say “sure, I am basically happy.” Anyone can claim to be happy.

But challenge the alcoholic to measure it. Challenge them to really examine their happiness and their emotional state.

If you really want to prove it to them, ask them to keep a journal. Tell them to simply write in a journal every day how happy they are. This is the quickest way to debunk the idea that they are actually happy while self medicating every day with alcohol.

You see, the alcoholic is clinging to the idea that they can be happy whenever they want to be, simply by consuming their drug of choice. When they first started drinking, this was absolutely true–they could drink and become instantly happy with a nice buzz, and nobody really got hurt.

Fast forward to today, and it is a completely different story. Now, the alcoholic has built a tolerance, and they have to drink more and more every day just to avoid feeling sick. They rarely feel the happy, euphoric buzz that got them hooked in the first place, and instead they are just chasing after the memory of the perfect buzz.

And yet if you talk to this struggling alcoholic and ask them about their life, they will tell you that “alcohol is the only thing that can make me happy.” This denial is based on the fact that when they quit drinking they feel miserable due to withdrawal, compounded by the fact that they do not know how to manage their feeling while sober any more, and therefore they avoid sobriety like the plague.

The alcoholic who is stuck in this place of denial is starting with the assumption that sobriety is awful and being intoxicated is the only possible way to be happy in life. This is their basic premise for understanding any and all things in life. They have no baseline for what happiness may look like in sobriety. It is a foreign concept to them at this point.

So simply ask them how happy they are. Ask them to keep a happiness journal, and to write down how they feel each and every day. If they do this honestly then they will realize eventually that they are miserable in their addiction.

Now they may not have any hope that they could ever be happy again in recovery. I did not have any hope for myself when I was stuck in denial, which is precisely why I was stuck in denial. I was in denial and trapped in addiction because I firmly believed that it was impossible for me to be happy in sobriety. If I did not believe that then I would have tried to sober up long ago.

The dynamic is between fear and misery. The alcoholic is miserable in their addiction, and yet they fear sobriety, they fear getting sober, they fear facing the world without the crutch of drugs or alcohol.

The addict or alcoholic will generally not admit to his fear out loud. But you can be sure that it is fear that holds them back.

And it is only through realizing the full extent of their misery that they may one day become willing to face their fear and attempt to recover.

So while the “high functioning alcoholic” may be able to hold a job and mange their day to day affairs, emotionally they are fairly challenged, and when you force them to get honest about it, they are typically downright miserable. After they surrender they have a chance at turning their life around and finding happiness.