The Myth of the Functional Alcoholic

Warning: The following article contains frank language about alcohol and drug use that some people in recovery may find triggering. The techniques described for hiding patterns of substance abuse are meant to illustrate a downward spiral addiction, and should not be considered “tips and tricks.”

If you are struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please seek the help of an addiction specialist, alcohol and drug counselor, case manager, medical detox center, inpatient rehab, or sober living residence. If you are experiencing withdrawals from alcohol or drugs, please seek medical attention or dial 911.

 

Alcohol and drugs as part of the culture

Ever since stories of addiction, alcoholism, and substance abuse entered the pop culture canon, there have been stories of alcoholics and addicts who are able to maintain their normal, everyday lives, all the while harboring a secret (or not so secret) addiction or substance abuse habit. Think about all the times you’ve heard or seen references to the “three martini lunch” on Mad Men, or the late night (or all day) cocaine use in movies about Wall Street and the financial industry, or documentaries and biographies of rock stars like the Rolling Stones, The Band, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and countless others.

Alcohol and drugs are a huge part of many industries like fashion, film and television, and corporate culture in places like Silicon Valley and the NYC Financial District, where alcohol and drugs are simply part of the culture. Industries where the underlying ethos is “we work hard, and we play hard.” Some companies even keep alcohol on-site, in the office, available at any time of day. There are dozens of high-end corporate office buildings where there is beer on-tap in the break room, where it’s perfectly acceptable to grab a beer, bring it back to your desk, and keep on working.

 

The Legend of the Functional Alcoholic

The so-called functional alcoholic works hard, functions in their day-to-day lives, does their job, gets paid well, supports their family, continually accomplishes goals, and follows through on their responsibilities, all the while maintaining alcohol and drug habits that continue on for years, slowly getting worse and worse. This is the legend of the functional alcoholic, and I know all about it, because I am one. Or at least I was, for a while.

For years, I spent the better part of every day drunk or high at my desk, outperforming my coworkers, getting praise from my superiors, performing all my duties at peak performance, and slowly dying on the inside. For every dollar I earned, I estimate that half of that money was poured right back into alcohol and drugs. I didn’t mind, because I tricked myself into thinking it helped me work better. I would tell myself, “I don’t work well when I’m stressed, so I just need something to take the edge off. It makes me a better employee.”

 

When it comes to addiction, things tend to escalate quickly

At night, when I got home, I would continue to carve down that edge with a few “nightcaps” (that word is so much more pleasant than “a dozen late night shots of whiskey” isn’t it?) My girlfriend at the time would worry over my drinking and drugging (because of course nothing cures a bad hangover like a few small hits of cocaine or speed, and a little “hair of the dog” (again, a much more socially acceptable term than “a few more early morning shots of vodka”). I would allay my girlfriend’s fears by reminding her that I was killing it at work. My performance was off the charts, I was quickly rising in the ranks at the company, and besides, everybody at my job behaves the exact same way. “We work hard, we play hard! That’s the way it works, babe.”

Of course, I wasn’t just killing it at work, I was killing myself. Slowly at first, but as months of this behavior turned to years, the speed of my decline greatly increased. Soon I found myself sloshing drunk at work, saying the wrong things, my mouth getting me in trouble with the boss and my coworkers. On the days when I would try to slow down, I’d find myself preoccupied and eventually obsessed with exactly when and where it would be appropriate to put a few drinks in me. My misery started growing.

 

People are starting to notice, and they’re starting to worry

Alcohol and drugs, which had once been the fuel to the fire of my success, was now drowning me, taking over my life, and negatively affecting everything from my job performance to my relationships at home, and everything in between. Luckily, drinking and drugging was still part of my corporate culture, so I didn’t get fired, but I did have more than a few conversations with Human Resources, and occasionally I’d be told to go “work from home” which was code for “get out of here before you embarrass yourself even further.”

Even in this corporate world where drinking and drugging were par for the course, there were certain times when getting even a little tipsy was unacceptable. Usually when there was an important client coming in, or on “bring your kid to work day,” or when the CEO was flying in from LA and wanted crisp and concise reports on progress and future plans. The problem was, when I wasn’t drinking and drugging, I was even more miserable than when I was. I couldn’t get the thoughts of alcohol and drugs out of my head. I was obsessed. I started hiding bottles around the office, and sneaking a few extra drinks when I went out to pick up my lunch. I started keeping a strong-smelling air freshener at my desk, and a tin of breath mints nearby at all times. I bathed myself in cologne and would make up excuses like “man, my allergies are really kicking my ass today so I took a Benadryl and it’s making me so loopy!”

 

The inevitable downward spiral of active addiction

Soon, I would wake up every morning with the shakes, full of anxiety and fear, wondering how I’d be able to get through just one more day at work “feeling good” without anyone noticing. I plotted and planned and schemed. I would time the drinks I’d take at my desk to coincide with the bathroom breaks of the people around me. I started carrying a “water bottle” with just the right balance of hard liquor and a fruity-smelling mixer, and if I winced after taking a sip I’d say “man, this new juice diet my girlfriend has me on is just gross.” What had once started as a way to take the edge off and increase my performance had grown into a full-blown secret-agent mission. I became consumed with keeping up with my habits and hiding them from the people around me. I was no longer a “functional alcoholic.” In fact, I was barely functional at all.

While things were going bad at work, they were going even worse at home. I would come home after work, already drunk or high, and continue drinking and drugging in what I thought were socially acceptable ways. A few glasses of high-end scotch, a couple bottles of expensive wine, a nice cognac… whatever fit into my skewed and insane self-image of the high class executive who works hard and likes to unwind with some of the finer things in life. My girlfriend, on the other hand, didn’t share my romantic attitude towards alcohol and drugs. While I was blissfully unaware that my home life was falling apart, she was quietly making plans to end things and get me out of there.

It finally happened one day when I got sent home early from work because of a bad case of “food poisoning” that had me on my knees in the executive bathroom, noisily dry heaving so loud that it could be heard down the hallway. So I left, went home to “take the edge off” a little, and my girlfriend was there waiting for me. Apparently, one of my concerned coworkers had called her, worried about me, and told her to meet me at home. And that’s when she dumped me.

She told me that my drinking and drug use was out of control, and she couldn’t watch me wash my career and life down the drain. It was over. She’d already packed a suitcase, and told me that she was going to go stay at her mom’s while I got my stuff packed and moved out. I had a week to vacate the apartment we’d shared for 7 years. I was an executive, but she was a lawyer, and she made it very clear that she’d use all her lawyerly skills to ensure that I would hastily leave our shared residence. I figured she was just mad and that we’d reconcile in a few days, and this would all blow over.

 

Ignoring red flags and finally hitting bottom

The next day after my girlfriend dumped me, I went into work a drunken, disheveled mess. I hadn’t bathed or changed clothes from the night before. I doubt I’d even brushed my teeth. Human resources and my boss were waiting for me at my desk when I got there, and all of my belongings were already in boxes. This was it. This was the end. Over the course of 24 hours, what I considered my own functional alcoholism had transformed into a hard bottom where I lost my job, my lover, and my place to live, all at once. I was devastated. I had an embarrassing open breakdown in the middle of my office (ever seen Jerry Maguire? Kinda like that, except no one came with me).

But in one of the luckiest moments of my life, and something that I will forever be grateful for, as I was being escorted out the door of my office building, my human resources manager slipped me a large envelope with a very peaceful, serene looking logo on it. “We have resources in place for people like you. If you can complete a few long-term programs and get your life back together, there will be a position waiting for you here. Please, go get some help.” And for the first time in my life, at a moment where I’ve never felt so weak, so beaten, so alone, I listened.

 

Your recovery begins when you’re ready for it to begin

That’s where my recovery started. Not with an intervention from my friends and family, not with threats or encouragement from the person I was in love with, not with getting fired from the job that made my career, not with failing health and uncontrollable urges to drink and drug. All it took was one person reaching out to me with empathy during a moment when I felt like no one else cared. One person, offering me some help.

The envelope she’d handed me was for a detox and rehab center that accepted my company’s insurance policy. She’d written the phone number in big black letters on the front of the brochure, with a name I should ask for. So I went home. I looked at my bottles, and I looked at the envelope. Back and forth between those bottles and that envelope. And finally, I took what would wind up being my first last drink, and made the call.

 

Detox, rehab, meetings, sober living, and working a program

The next few weeks, months, and years were hard for me. I went to do an intake at a detox and rehab facility where they asked me a lot of uncomfortable questions that were hard for me to answer. When I answered honestly, the words that came out of my mouth shocked me and made me feel like an insane person. When I admitted my actual alcohol and drug intake on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, it made me feel guilt and shame. At that time, I wasn’t ready to admit the truth — to myself or anyone else.

Most of the time during the intake, I answered in half-truths. If they asked me how many drinks I had per week, and the truth was that I drank a fifth of vodka a day, I’d answer that I’d have “a couple” drinks a day. How many milligrams of Xanax per day? The truth was at least 4mg per day, but my answer was “oh, around a half milligram, sometimes more.” Cocaine use? “Oh, just occasionally, but not that much. Definitely less than a gram a week” (a total lie). Ever use methamphetamines? “Ohhhh, never” (another lie). PCP? “Not that I know of.” Do you use heroin or opiates? “Well….”

At times, I was able to tell the truth, but for the most part, I was, as they say, constitutionally incapable of being honest. I wasn’t lying to them, I was lying to myself. But regardless of my half-truths and half-assed answers to their questions, they admitted me to detox. That’s when the truth of my addictions started to sink in.

 

Being honest about my addictions and their effect on my life

My first day in detox, I was a mess. My hands were shaking, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t hold a normal conversation with anyone, even my peers and roommates. I hadn’t been honest during my intake, so my meds were insufficient to handle my withdrawal symptoms. I was a twitching, vomiting, shaking wreck. I was in full withdrawal from a lifetime of drug and alcohol use, and my body didn’t know how to handle it. I was bumming cigarettes from my roomies, crying, shaking, and feeling completely defeated.

It was on my second day of detox when I had my first seizure. I had been feeling “weird” all day, but I was afraid to tell the nurses or any of the staff. I wanted to pretend like I could handle the detox process, so I kept what I was feeling a secret, and that was a huge mistake.

My first seizure came after a simple game of “Guess Who?” hosted by an occupational therapist. What was supposed to be a fun and relaxing game to keep our neurons firing and bring a little joy into our lives turned out to be a triggering moment that my brain and body simply couldn’t handle. I got REALLY into the game and started acting aggressive, competitive, and downright angry. When I didn’t win, my hands started shaking. The nurse asked me if I needed meds, and I turned her down angrily.

The next thing I remember is that I was on the floor of my room, being held down by nurses, convulsing and shaking uncontrollably. Because of my inability to be honest about the level of my alcohol and drug use, my doctors had misjudged my need for medication, resulting in a nearly fatal seizure. Finally, after years of lying to myself and others, my alcohol and drug use was close to killing me.

Luckily, I was under the care of medically trained professionals who knew how to stabilize me and make sure I was safe, even without my drugs of choice. Without the help of the detox staff, I’d surely be dead right now.

 

Life after detox

After I checked out of detox, I made the mistake of trying to return to my normal life. They told me to start going to AA or NA meetings, or go to an inpatient rehab, but I didn’t listen. It was only a matter of weeks before I was back in detox all over again. After my second trip to detox, I finally learned how to accept direction.

This time, I went straight from detox into a 30 day rehab program, and then from that rehab program into 6 months in a sober living. Finally, I was learning to develop a lifestyle of daily sobriety. But even with the help of inpatient rehab and sober living, I still had my struggles.It wasn’t until I suffered a MAJOR relapse and ended up in jail that I fully realized the gravity of my addiction and the kind of havoc it could wreak on my life.

The pervasive nature of addiction, the way it had twisted my mind, the way it had warped my thinking, became clear all at once. As I sat in a jail cell in an orange jumpsuit, I finally realized that if I didn’t stop, the promise I’d heard in a million meetings would finally come true: if I keep using, I’ll end up in a jail, an institution, or dead. Finally, I was getting it.

 

The solution: it’s simple, but not easy

I decided to give myself fully to a twelve-step program. I got a sponsor, I got a home group, I got a service commitment, I started working the steps. I stuck my hand out to every newcomer that wandered into my regular meetings. I went to program conferences, took speaking commitments, took on sponsees, and everything else that was suggested to me by the program. I went all-in, and guess what? It worked. Finally, through acceptance and humility, I found the peace I’d been looking for all those years.

Sure, sobriety is hard. At my core, I’m an addict and alcoholic. My default position is to use alcohol and drugs to numb my feelings and escape from reality. For the first few months (maybe even years) I woke up wishing I was someone else, uncomfortable in my own skin, wanting to escape this brutal reality. A line from the movie “Trainspotting” always stuck out in my mind: “I had to mix with my friends in a state of fool consciousness.”

But through the steps in my program of choice, through my hard work in recovery, I was able to reassemble myself into a sober human being. I became whole. I learned to love myself. I learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. I learned to feel joy again. I built relationships, romantic and friendly. I found myself, I found my new life.

 

Happy, Joyous, and Free

Today, I feel GOOD. I love my life. I wake up most mornings feeling steady, ready to tackle life and approach the day from a sober perspective. Sure, not every day is easy. Sobriety is a solution, but not a cure. There are still times when I want to reach for the bottle, but now I have the tools to fight that urge and win.

Getting sober, truly recovering from the disease of addiction, is a daily operation. Like they say, it’s one day at a time. But as I string together more and more sober days, my joy continues to grow. I’m free from the bondage and slavery of substances. I’m free from the self-loathing and self-hatred that drove me to substances in the first place. I’m happy. I feel joy. Finally, after years of struggling with alcohol, drugs, compulsive behavior, and the urge to run and hide from my problems, I’m happy, joyous, and free.

 

— Anonymous for Avenues New York, 2018

By |October 26th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments