The Myth of the High-functioning Alcoholic

The Myth of the High-functioning Alcoholic

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We hear people talk about being a high-functioning alcoholic all the time. Some people even identify as being a high-functioning alcoholic. It is this idea that there are those who seem to able to drink excessively while maintaining a pretty manageable life, complete with achievement and successful family lives. I used to see myself this way and I even boasted about it once upon a time.

For many years I enjoyed multiple cocktails at happy hour, wine with dinner, and then book-ended the evening with a few whiskey drinks. Almost every Sunday began with a Bloody Mary or three. And anytime was a good time for beer. During this, I excelled professionally. I had two children. I even managed to take up a running a marathon training schedule. Nothing could stop me, and if anyone ever said anything about my drinking, I just pointed to all the success and achievement as proof that I was better than fine.

However, during all of these years, I knew something was wrong. I knew that I could not imagine going to bed sober, and I knew that was simply not healthy. Every morning of my life was an exercise in clearing the fog from the previous day’s alcohol. And even on those days when I swore I would take a day off from booze, I knew I could not do it. I was controlled by the alcohol and I knew it.

Eventually, my so-called high-functioning abilities began to unravel. I found there were an increasing number of mornings when I could not shake the effects of alcohol and I needed to stay in bed. This cost me time at work. It eventually cost me my job. I started to display the tell-tale signs of tremors in my hands which everyone noticed. Moreover, I just started feeling ill.

Alcohol And Drug TreatmentI finally topped from my high-functioning perch and when I did, I fell hard. I landed in long-term alcohol treatment. This was one of the best things that ever happened to me, but it came at a tremendous personal cost.

The idea that someone is high-functioning while being completely driven by the need to drink or use drugs is a dangerous myth. That an individual had not experienced serious consequences as the result of their addiction is not a sign that they are healthy. It simply means that serious consequences have not happened YET. One of the main symptoms of a substance abuse disorder is the inability to control your use of a substance. When I was “high-functioning,” I had no control over my alcohol use at all. I was not high-functioning; I just had not run into serious problems yet.

It would seem that the idea or myth of the high-functioning alcoholic is one we could do without. Those who seek treatment and get into recovery prior to suffering serious consequences are fortunate people. We should be putting more emphasis on these kinds of stories rather than touting the alcoholic who is simply “getting away with it,” because the latter will eventually suffer. It is not a useful myth to propagate.   

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