I just finished reading a recently published article titled, “I Was a Functional Alcoholic – Here’s What Happened Behind Closed Doors.” In it, the author describes his ‘journey’ with alcohol, focusing on the not-all-that-uncommon arc of being a high-achieving, award-winning person, distinguished in his field and respected by friends and associates alike… until he wasn’t.
What happened? Well, on the face of it, when he was 25 his mother passed away, which affected him greatly and, unable to process his emotions about it, triggered in him something he’d never done before – he began drinking at home alone (regularly knocking back two bottles of wine in one sitting).
Within two years, he writes, even though he was working full-time for a charity he’d founded, was speaking at major conferences, and would hit the gym every day, his intake of alcohol escalated. Big time.
And he rationalized his drinking with notions similar to what countless others have said before him: “Never once did I question my drinking. Never once did anyone suspect that I was drinking heavily in isolation. Because on the surface, I was ‘functioning.’”
By one year later, this fellow was drinking three bottles of wine a night and regularly skipping the gym in order to recover from the physical effects. Soon after that, he quit the gym completely and, according to him, was basically drinking whenever he was awake.
The bottom line of his story? He’s now been sober for two years and has this to say about that label “functioning alcoholic”:
“Looking back, my ‘functioning’ alcoholism only reinforced my denial. I was naive in thinking that because I was ‘fine’ when I drank, there was no problem. My symptoms had been masked by the fact that I had been functioning while drinking.”
I can relate quite well to this fellow’s account of things, since I too was successful in my career as a teacher, had a long-term live-in relationship going (over ten years), with a house, a car and money in the bank. Oh yes, I almost forgot the most salient point: Every night, I was either black-out drinking or doing street drugs (or both) and couldn’t stop, even though I tried countless times.
When I hit bottom—landing in jail for a fourth time with a DUI, after crashing my ex’s brand-new car into a Thai restaurant at 4 a.m. on a weekday (I was supposed to be at work that morning)—I finally sought help for my addiction.
And I recall being asked very early in my recovery, “Why didn’t you try to get help earlier?”
I remember responding, “I didn’t think I was an alcoholic or addict. I thought I was just a hard-partying guy who sometimes couldn’t handle it.”
In other words, I believed I was a ‘functioning alcoholic/addict.’
But certainly, there was more to that story: I’d been in denial, rationalizing and justifying my drinking and drug use for years… no, in my case it was actually decades! And “hitting bottom” was a rough, but timely wake-up call that I was NOT functioning well at all, if I (or anyone) were to take a clear-eyed and objective look at me and my life.
The fact is, I’m eternally grateful for my coming into recovery and I’ve valued it tremendously, not just in word, but in action. I’ve continued “practicing a program of recovery” on a daily basis for 23 years, and have continued helping others with their recovery in a wide variety of ways (especially in 12 Steps fellowships, but also through writing about recovery, sponsoring men seeking to recover from substance use disorders, and volunteering at recovery meetings as often as possible).
The author of the article concludes his piece on what I will call the “tragic charade of functional alcoholics” quite insightfully, based on his own experience from the trenches he’d certainly gotten to know quite intimately.
“Just because you are able to juggle many balls and everything looks perfectly ‘fine’ on the surface, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. If you’re unable to quit drinking once you’ve started, if you’re drinking to numb out painful feelings, or if you continue drinking despite negative consequences, you may be struggling with alcoholism ― no matter how many times a week you make it to the gym.”
 Thomas, Sam. “I Was a Functional Alcoholic – Here’s What Happened Behind Closed Doors.” 10/7/21. Huffington Post.