What does it mean to be a high functioning alcoholic?
There is a real stigma attached to being an alcoholic in our society. People see extreme alcoholism as a moral issue, undesirable behavior that is off-putting to most. Indeed, the chronic alcoholic may be in some state of intoxication most of the time, being “sloppy drunk” and belligerant. Many of the long-term effects of alcoholism are exaggerated examples of short-term effects, including memory lapses, a loss in motor skills, and decreased cognitive abilities.
So here stands the bum in gutter, who has given up his life and his family for alcohol. But the reality is usually not that clear cut.
The truth is, anyone who takes a drink is in some state of alcoholism. The rest is a gray area, a continuum on which we partake or are able to abstain. Race and gender don’t matter, and neither does socioeconomic class. Alcoholism can affect each and every one us, and it does it so easily due to it’s legality and acceptance as a social lubricant.
I was a high-functioning alcoholic once. And for a woman in her 30’s, a few glasses of wine is not that uncommon. Plus, wine sounds a lot more sophisticated that beer or liquor, despite evidence to the contrary. And no one can really gauge was is functional at this point – it’s such a personal affliction.
I could drink wine every evening and still go to work the next day. True, during these moments I more or less “checked out” of my life, including interactions with my family. Still, once in awhile I would call in sick after a night out of drinking. And I would get sloppy drunk on occasion, often leading to blackouts and minor injuries while trying to ambulate. Scary, I know. So much for “social” drinking.
Undoubtedly, it affected my life – my relationship with my family and friends, my self-image, and my work performance. I was at work one day a few year ago, and a co-worker was telling me about his drinking habits – a few beers after work. He said something to the effect of “I need to drink to deal with coming to this place every day.”
“Spoken like a true high-functioning alcoholic!” I replied with amusement. We both laughed. At that point, it seemed funny. And I think it’s healthy to laugh at one’s foibles, to a certain degree.
But the longer it goes on, the worse you begin to feel – mentally and physically tired most of the time, and off your game. The effects can be subtle, as drinking alcohol, even in moderation, is a subtle poisoning. Ultimately, it caught up to me, and I had difficulty functioning in any social situation without it. Eventually I got popped for impaired driving, but even that was not enough to curb my habit.
Also, I was an emotional wreck. Some people are angry alcoholics, I was a sensitive one. It didn’t take much to bring on a crying jag or send me into a tailspin of frustration and self-pity. And like most alcoholics, I was both aware and in denial of my addiction. Being a high-functioning alcoholic has both differences and similarities to that bum in the street with a bottle of cheap vodka in his hand.
One of my favorite quotes about alcohol addiction of all time:
“Normal drinkers are in an earlier stage of the same disease” ~ Allen Carr, The Easy Way to Stop Drinking
If this is true, which I believe it is, being a high-functioning alcoholic is kind of like being in the middle stage of disease – the worst symptoms might not be there yet, but they will surely surface as the disease progresses.
If you suspect you or someone you know is an alcoholic, please seek help immediately.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology