Will the “Functioning” Alcoholics Please Stand Up?

by Rebecca A. Watson on February 28, 2016

in Recovery

Earlier this week I attended a presentation in a series about spirituality – the spirituality in question on Tuesday was yoga, and the woman speaking (a friend of mine actually) was also a recovering alcoholic. Naturally her spirituality played into her recovery and her recovery allowed her to be more spiritual, so she spoke about that as well.

Sidenote: Try one of Kate's guided meditations here

Sidenote: Try one of Kate’s guided meditations here

In the question and answer segment that followed, a woman asked her how she quit drinking. My friend said she quit without any help, something that she wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

“I was basically what they call ‘white knuckling’ it,” she said.

The woman then replied, “Oh, so you didn’t get any medical treatment for it.”

The implication in that statement was so dismissive – you didn’t have a real problem. I had to remind myself to sit quietly and allow Katherine to reply, but inside I was steaming. What. The. Fuck.

There is a real problem in many parts of the world with the recognition of addiction for many reasons, all of which are complicated. We are one big family after all, and aren’t many families dysfunctional? What this woman said made me angry. And really sad.

If there is one thing addicts and alcoholics have in common, it’s that we are constantly telling ourselves we aren’t that bad. And when you have people saying things like this woman said, that you’re not really in trouble until you need medical treatment for your addiction, it’s doing nothing more than enabling the addict.

No problem here. Move along, move along.

And we’re classier than that, right?

Art’s complicated relationship with substances

I’m reading David Carr’s Night of the Gun, which is incredibly well-written and interesting. There are many points I’m taking away from it.

  • Minnesota is an excellent place to recover, something I’d heard before but didn’t really know why.
  • Cocaine addiction is a scary thing. There was a reason I avoided that stuff, and thank god I did.
  • I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t leave my kids in the car in the dead of winter to grab a drink. I wasn’t smoking crack or injecting cocaine into my eyeballs.
I was just too busy boozing to take photos. This is one of the few

I was just too busy boozing to take photos. This is one of the few out there.

It’s that last point that disturbs me, even now that I’m not active in my addiction. Carr writes that it’s a bad idea to read addiction memoirs if you’re recovering. Because no, I wasn’t that bad, but so what? Did I want to get to that point?

And then what? Would I pick up the pieces, or would I just shrug my shoulders and drink myself to death because what else is there to live for? I do have mental health issues, so suicide by the bottle wouldn’t have been that out of the question.

There are a lot of people out there reading these memoirs, not just addicts. They’re fascinating and sadly, a lot of excellent writers have struggled with addiction. The stories they tell are compelling and well-written because well, they’re writers. Artists.

The people who read these books, both addicts and normies alike, often connect art and writing with addiction, which while tragically accurate is still unfair. So often I hear about drinking as some sort of conduit for genius. It certainly seems to be the portrait painted for the likes of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Hunter S. Thompson. And those are just a few contemporary American writers. If I included artists from all mediums, from all around the world, I’m pretty sure we’d be here all day.

There’s something romantic people see in these artists, in the addiction. Viewed from a safe distance, they can enjoy the art and ignore the problem, which makes them part of the problem. Alcohol and drugs used in an addictive manner do not make for better art. There. I said it. It makes for a lot of sad, hopeless and sometimes dead people.



Collective denial

While many people say, “Hey, you’re a writer. You’re supposed to drink,” even more of them read these memoirs and either see a bit of themselves in them or a person they love. But they think to themselves, they aren’t that bad.

  • They just get a little wild and lose their phone occasionally.
  • He’s never been to jail.
  • She only blacked out and screamed at me in the middle of the street twice last year.
  • I’ve only slept with two men I didn’t know while drinking.

We are in collective denial. We are telling ourselves and each other that the only time you really need to seek help, to get better, to leave behind the bottle, is when things get really shitty. If you can still make it through a work happy hour without making a fool of yourself, well, you’re fine. Never mind the fact that you stopped at the liquor store on the way home to keep your buzz going. Never mind you can’t remember the last time you didn’t think about drinking – how many you had, how much wine is left in the bottle, how much you can drink, how many days you’ve gone without drinking.

None of these are signs of a problem. Call us when you’ve left your infant at home unattended while you make a quick run to the bottle shop and total your car along the way. Call us when your life is in shambles. Then maybe we can do something for you.

I experienced this myself when I decided to quit drinking. Of course my husband is happy now that I’ve been sober for more than 1000 days (!) but when I first stopped he thought I was being a little extreme. A few other people echoed his concerns.

It was very difficult for me to stand up to these people and tell them that no, I needed to quit. Why? Because I wasn’t that bad. And part of me didn’t want to stop, and these voices were feeding that little devil, giving it more and more ammunition. See? it said. Even your husband doesn’t think you have a problem, and he knows you better than anyone.

But as my friend said to this woman who questioned her addiction, there is no test to tell you if you’re an alcoholic. You can’t go to the doc, draw a little blood and get the bad news written plainly on paper. The only one who knows the struggle is the person who’s living it. So when that person is surrounded by seemingly well-meaning folks who love them and who then tell them they aren’t far enough along in their addiction to warrant help, it can get hazy for them. The choice to quit is one that comes at different times, and the strength of that conviction can waver the closer you get to witching hour. It may take several false starts before it actually sticks.

Because I'm not *that* bad.

Because we’re not *that* bad.

Addressing our collective shame

So what can we do about this? We can start being realistic and open about addiction. We can stop glorifying the needle-in-the arm addict as some sort of anti-hero whom addicts must either avoid becoming or aspire to emulate in order to get the help they need. I’m not saying we need to stop reading recovery memoirs. I’m just saying there needs to be a bigger conversation around the term “functional alcoholic.”

And the folks that recovered early, the ones who didn’t have a low bottom (a recovery term for someone who’s rock bottom was really tough – think living on the streets, in jail, etc.), we need to speak up. There are definitely people who are doing this, but there can always be more. And more conversations about how calling someone “functional” in their addiction isn’t necessarily accurate.

Sure, maybe they can make it to work, but they did call in sick once because they were so hung over. Or maybe they almost burnt down their apartment when they passed out with a pizza in the oven but thankfully came to before the fire department broke down the door. We don’t know everything. Alcoholics are very good at hiding things, until they aren’t. And that is when high bottoms turn to low bottoms.

Imagine how much easier it would be to recover if you still had a job to come back to. If your family didn’t completely mistrust you because you’d shredded the little nucleus of love you were all supposed to tend to. Think about it like this: A homeless man who doesn’t know where his family is and hasn’t had a shower in weeks has cancer. A young woman with a college degree, a good job and a bit of savings has cancer. Who do you think is more likely to go into remission?

Let’s stop living in collective denial and address our collective shame. People without dependence issues can be more open to the idea that successful, seemingly put-together people can be struggling (yes, right now, while they are running a Fortune 500 company) with serious addictions. High bottom recoverees, let’s speak up a little more about how addiction is addiction at any stage. Let’s start talking about how we recovered early but still had our moments, like when I blacked out and woke up with a broken rib I was pretty sure came at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. But I couldn’t be certain. I still went to work. I got my laundry done. I even kept my cat and plants alive. I’m sure my friends were concerned, but I was functioning. Even I made that joke.

Synonyms for functional: working, going, running.

But certainly not thriving.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lynsey71 March 4, 2016 at 6:26 am

Love this!! One of my favorite things you have written in a while!


Rebecca A. Watson March 4, 2016 at 6:59 am

Thanks Lynsey! I really like it too. I’m happy that it spoke to you. It felt good to write.


Furtheron March 9, 2016 at 5:56 pm

I was “functioning” for years. I went to work and had a family and a house etc. But in reality all that was enabling my disastrous relationship with alcohol to continue on and on and on…

When I rolled up at rehab they had planned a detox for me. I admitted I’d not drunk for several days – I was going to rehab therefore I thought I ought to sober up! Apparently most people rolled up literally downing the last drink at the door. They then told me the medical issues with withdrawal from alcohol – basically drilling into me to never to that again – withdrawing alcoholics can die – withdrawing addicts will hardly ever but I see all the methadone reduction over months etc. which is hysterical. Again the populist view is coming off drugs is hard, giving up booze …. well anyone can do that can’t they…


David May 21, 2016 at 5:58 am

Having been a functioning alcohol for about 10 years , once I managed to stop and take a step back and reflect on how I managed my work, relationships my social life, I realized I would have almost certainty drove myself into a grave . A life of lies and wasted time.

Never again.!!!


Wvlheel June 23, 2016 at 5:27 pm

I love this part

Synonyms for functional: working, going, running.

But certainly not thriving.

I want to thrive


Rebecca A. Watson June 23, 2016 at 9:30 pm

Yes. Thriving is delicious.


Hilltown80 August 15, 2017 at 7:49 am

Hi! I have been sober over a year last April. I went to Spain to tour in May and I found that the FREE liquor was tempting so I said, “when in Rome.” Funny, I seem to be rationalizing when I want to drink by finding liquor on sale and even opened the bottle of Cuban Rum I received as a gift on my tour to Cuba last November. I know that it is a slippery slope and I am not getting buzzed one bit by any of it…so why drink? Oh maybe one day when my favorite TV show is on…I’m getting tired of coffee and water. Sobriety was a self imposed event on myself, coupled with that which my doctor prefers me not to drink due to family history. I am a Vegan and I exercise 6/7 days per week so those are in check. At the end of the month I’m attending an all inclusive Jazz Festival. Talk about tempting…
Perhaps drinking nothing exceApt the daily requirement of water is the answer.
What are your thoughts?


Rebecca Watson August 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

Hey there! I hear you on the “why drink if you’re not getting a buzz” thing! It sounds to me like maybe you are lacking treats and fun things in other ways…just drinking water and nothing else? Noooooo! Definitely you need/deserve more than that. I recommend reading this blog post.

Good luck to you! It is certainly worth quitting drinking but you need to have fun too 🙂 it can’t be all about restraint and withholding. That is a recipe for binging, at least in my experience.


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