What does it mean to be a functional alcoholic?

I haven’t wanted to call myself a functional alcoholic. For just a second, the word “functional” makes it easier to accept the word that comes after it.

Then the reality hits: I’m not as functional as I’d like to think. And being an alcoholic means having to give up alcohol.

How is this functional?

We met our deductible this year, so, at least until January, I have a therapist. It’s been nice. During a recent session, she asked me some questions about my alcohol use.

Based on my answers, she told me she would recommend a 30 day inpatient treatment program. That was the first day I heard the words “functional alcoholic” come out of her mouth. I had mixed feelings.

Since inpatient therapy is not an option (I need to be here for my kids, and my income helps keep our heads above water), I’ve had to find a way to deal with it here at home.

I started by agreeing to limit myself to 6 oz. a night.

That was a drop from my accustomed 8+ oz per night. According to WebMD, 7.5 oz is equivalent to five standard drinks. I usually had more.

And apparently, for women, four drinks a night is considered “heavy drinking.” But I’d gotten used to whiskey and vodka, and I craved the way it felt when I drank it. I didn’t want to stop.

But since I usually had to function the next day, I did. I didn’t admit to myself (let alone anyone else) that I was steadily increasing my tolerance.

Because here’s the thing that goes to the heart of “functional” alcoholism:

The word “functional” is in there not because those who have it are more functional than those who get drunk every night (or frequently). It’s not that we necessarily have more self-control, though we might have a more compelling reason to keep up the appearance of it.

It’s just that we manage to still cross things off a list every day:

  • Wake up.
  • Go to work (or work from home).
  • Help kids with school work.
  • Get kids to work/errands/etc. and back home again.
  • Spend time with family.

Something I didn’t want to think about: Today’s “functional” was yesterday’s red flag. 

Functioning is another word for surviving.

And it’s not enough. But if we don’t think we can do more than that, we tell ourselves it’s enough for now.

We tell ourselves we’re still functioning, so we must not have a real problem. But our ability to still get things done doesn’t cancel the damage alcohol is doing to our brains and to the rest of our bodies. And it doesn’t begin to make up for what our families go through while we lie to ourselves.

It’s not enough just to keep the gears moving. And focusing on those gears makes us take longer to face the truth.

I was going through a liter of whiskey about every three days. I always waited until evening — when I knew I wouldn’t have to drive anymore. If I thought my oldest might need a drive back to his place (during bad weather, since he walks), I’d hold off until I knew he was safely back.

And I told myself that was proof enough I didn’t have a real problem with alcohol. I needed to believe I was still the one in control.

  • I could still be there for my kids and get them where they needed to go.
  • I could still work and bring in money.
  • I limited myself (most of the time) to what I knew I could tolerate.

Spoiler Alert #1: My Tolerance Grew

As my tolerance grew, so did my daily consumption. Over the past couple years, I moved from strong beer and red wine to whiskey and vodka.

And it wasn’t just that I was drinking them.

  • I was drinking them every day (8 oz or more).
  • I was sneaking another ounce or two into my glass when my girls were brushing their teeth.
  • I’d set a limit to put others (and myself) at ease, but it wouldn’t be long before I went over that. Usually, it was on a Friday or Saturday night.

That’s not to say I never gave it up. One day I poured the remainder of my bottle of Black Velvet down the kitchen sink drain, with my kids watching, and gave up alcohol for about 60 days straight to see what difference it would make.

I’d read a book by someone who experienced noticeable changes in his appearance and well-being after giving up alcohol for 30 days. I did not.

So, when I had a reason — something to celebrate, maybe — I bought another bottle. And then another….

Cheating on 6 oz

After I agreed to limit myself to 6 oz, I was faithful to that amount… for a few days. Then I started sneaking another ounce or two when I could.

I probably added another two ounces before I stopped. Maybe more. Clearly, policing myself wasn’t working.

Still, whenever I considered the possibility that I might be what my therapist called a “functional alcoholic,” I had excuses at the ready:

  • It’s not like I can’t stop drinking — at least for a while. I’ve done it!
  • I don’t drink when I might have to drive.
  • I’m a grown-ass woman who happens to enjoy a little whiskey or vodka to help her relax after a long day of work, errands, and helping my youngest with his schoolwork.
  • My liver labs are still good.
  • I don’t feel drunk after I’ve had my drink/s at night. I just feel relaxed, with a nice buzz.
  • I have to be so careful during the day. Just let me have this!

I didn’t want to admit to being any kind of alcoholic, because then I’d have to give up alcohol.

And I really, really don’t want to do that.

Notice the “don’t” is present tense. This is not a past thing. Not wanting to give up alcohol for the rest of my life is very much a now thing.

And it really does not help when people talk about how much better I’ll feel once I’m “no longer a slave to it.”

First of all, slaves don’t have the option of giving up their slavery for 30 days to see what a difference it might make. They don’t get to say, “I’m gonna take a break from being a slave — at least for today.”

Let’s please stop equating substance abuse with slavery.

Also, I don’t stop being an alcoholic once I get rid of the alcohol in my house and decide — for today — not to stop at a liquor store and buy another bottle.

I just add the word “recovering.” And it’s not a one-and-done thing. It’s one fucking day after another of deciding to say “No” to alcohol and “Yes” to something else.

I’ll add, too, that the “my body is a temple” stuff is a non-starter for me. I doubt I’m alone in that.

So, what have I done so far?

Aside from asking my husband to hold onto the bottle and put it where I can’t get to it at night (after pouring my daily allotment), the following things have helped me do what I have to do:

  • I signed up for Noom (the app)
  • I log my weight and meals every day (for Noom).
  • I bought a skein of yarn because crocheting helps me destress.
  • I keep a daily journal and planning page(s).
  • I downloaded the I Am Sober app (hoping it will help).
  • I keep my therapist posted on my progress (w/ alcohol withdrawal).
  • I’ve found a motivating, alcohol-incompatible goal — at least for now.

With Noom, I started out just logging my meals and keeping my daily portion of alcohol secret (no need to log that, right? It’s not food). I wanted to see if I could lose some weight without giving up my nightly drink.

Spoiler alert #2: I couldn’t. My therapist laughed at me (in a good way).

She also nodded her head and told me what I’d done (along with most of what I was saying) was very much what an addict would do.

Addicts will use any loophole they can find.

So, then, I made a plan to reduce my daily allotment by 0.5 ounces per night, until I reached 1.5 or 2 ounces. The rest would go down the drain.

Day 1 of no alcohol was October 20th — an important date in our family. The night before that, I had my last allotment (2.0 oz) and poured the rest of the bottle down the kitchen sink. It was still about half full. It hurt.

I haven’t joined any alcohol recovery support groups, though my therapist encouraged me to look at some of the options, including AA.

As for the “functional” in functional alcoholic, I still feel some resistance to letting go of it. But when my therapist told me about the 12 Steps and asked if I could repeat the words, “I am powerless over alcohol” (Step One), I could say the words and mean them.

So, even if part of me still wants to believe I could one day enjoy a drink with family or friends without one drink turning into three or without stopping at the liquor store on the way home…

I don’t think that’s an option for me, anymore. And I hate that.

What now?

For now, I’ve switched to chilled sparkling water with a splash of lemon juice or a wedge of lime.

As it gets colder, I’ll probably switch to something warmer. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to make a great cup of tea for my evening drink. Maybe.

Aside from beverages, what I’m focusing on now is identifying and working toward goals that are incompatible with drinking — goals alcohol would interfere with.

It’s not enough (as I’ve learned) to replace alcohol with writing-related goals. I’ve already proven to myself that I can be a prolific writer and a “functioning” alcoholic.

But I do look forward to having a clearer mind for my daily writing.

If I can slip this far…

We “functional” alcoholics are great at convincing ourselves that — as long as we don’t drink when we might have to operate machinery or walk on a tightrope over small children — that we must be in full control of our liquor habit.

Part of recovering means ditching the word “functional” and facing up to the way alcohol has been affecting every area of our lives — and holding us back.

I didn’t start out drinking 8 oz. (or more) of whiskey or vodka every night. My kids weren’t always deathly silent and downcast when I’d return to the car with another bottle.

So, I’ve stopped trying to do this without any help. But I’m still in the process of finding my own larger support system (beyond my immediate family). I’ve kept a lot of people at arm’s length over the years.

Often enough, support comes with strings attached: other people’s rules, other people’s ideas of what kind of ____ I should be. And if I stray from those, the expected criticism and judgment aren’t long in coming. I’m tired.

Accountability is something I can work with.

As for recovery, it’ll have to be one day at a time. I can’t commit to more than that right now. I don’t know if I ever will.

We’ll see.

Music for Today (” Mad World” — Pentatonix)

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