I was a “functional” alcoholic. Here is what happened behind closed doors.


My drinking with friends was just social; my alcohol addiction behind closed doors was invisible. (Photo: Courtesy of Sam Thomas)

People are often confused when I say that I was a “functional” alcoholic. They may think, how do you function, exactly, when you are addicted to alcohol? For me, it was about being able to drink almost continuously while being able, at the start, to live a perfectly “normal” life.

I didn’t drink until I was 24. At first it started with drinking on a Saturday night. My favorite drink choice became rosé wine. Typically, I would drink between three and five drinks at a party. Inevitably, it would make me extremely drunk, but I still managed to get to work at 10am the next day.

The pattern of drinking and functioning became well established when my friend and I started going out on weeknights. A student night at our favorite bar meant cheap drinks, and often we would be the first to arrive and the last to leave.

When I was 25, my world changed when I found out my mother had died of ovarian cancer. Due to a breakup seven years earlier, I had no idea she had been ill. Without realizing it at the time, his death marked me deeply. As I “adjusted” to it, I felt a myriad of intense emotions that I was unable to understand, let alone process.

It was around this time that I started drinking at home. Until then, I never drank on my own. Now I would buy a few bottles of wine on a Saturday night and rent a Blockbuster movie. And, before the liquor store next door closed in the early hours, I was going to stock up on a few more. However, since these were only mini-bottles, I never considered my drinking to be heavy drinking.

When the early risers had their morning coffee, I would finish my last glass of wine before I passed out.

Two years later, at age 27, I was drinking up to two mid-size bottles of wine almost every night. At that time, I was working hourly for a national charity that I had founded, going to the gym every day without fail, and drinking several hours a night. When the early risers had their morning coffee, I would finish my last glass of wine before I passed out. Over time, I had learned to manage this way, as I found that I didn’t need a lot of sleep when I drank.

In my field of work, I was considered a leading voice on eating disorders in men and I have spoken often at major conferences. I eased my nerves with alcohol.

In the short term, alcohol has been very effective in helping me deal with these situations. God knows how many lectures I gave in the first hour of the morning, where I would still feel the effects of the alcohol from the day before.

I have never questioned my alcohol consumption. No one ever suspected that I was drinking a lot in isolation. Because on the surface, I was “functioning”. Or in other words, I got by without my drinking in any way hampering my work. I excelled at work, widely respected by my peers, won several prestigious awards and looked in good shape. Why would anyone think I have a problem?

Ironically, I often refused alcohol when the opportunity arose in social situations, whether it was a meeting after a conference or a barbecue on the beach. When I was offered something to drink, I strictly refused.

“You are so disciplined,” my friends and colleagues often commented. In reality, it was a facade, as I refused to drink before the gym and only started drinking after I got home, sometime after 9 p.m. always in isolation, which was the perfect conditions for my addiction to flourish.

Having bulimia throughout my teens and early twenties, my alcoholism had become a replacement addiction. Like bulimia, my alcoholism was just as secretive in nature. I did my best to cover my tracks on the extent of my drinking, as I did with bulimia. My binge eating only happened in private, so it was like living a double life.

For many years, I clung to the gym as a protective measure to prevent myself from drinking during the day. At the time, I thought if I could go to the gym every day, then everything should have been okay. But eventually the cracks started to appear.

At the age of 28, I was drinking three or more bottles at night and regularly skipping the gym to recover. Often sleeping throughout the day when I could, I would resume drinking anytime after 5 pm on my “off days” while working at my desk. Even though I had just woken up, I felt like it was the right time to drink. It was then that I finally quit the gym completely and was actually drinking for all the hours I was awake. After five years of progressive alcoholism, I favored alcohol over my health.

Looking back, my “functional” alcoholism only reinforced my denial. I was naive in thinking that because I was “fine” when I drank, there was no problem.

When I first became a “cold turkey” on a whim at the age of 30, I knew alcohol withdrawal symptoms. However, I had no idea that the severe bouts of illness I was experiencing were due to stopping abruptly or shrinking too quickly. I also did not know the signs or dangers of alcohol withdrawal. In fact, I hadn’t even thought I was an alcoholic yet.

Looking back, my “functional” 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 was functioning while drinking. In my Facebook memories, there are daily photos of me holding a glass of wine for the whole world, but my “addiction” was invisible.

Now, at two years of abstinence, after several relapses and four drug rehabs, I can tell you that there is no line you cross or sign that says, “Welcome, you have now crossed the territory of the. alcohol addiction. ”

Most importantly, just because you can juggle a lot of balls and everything looks perfectly “right” on the surface doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. If you are unable to stop drinking once you start, drink to numb painful feelings, or continue to drink despite negative consequences, you may be struggling with alcoholism – no matter how many times. per week you do it at the gym.

Need help with a substance use disorder or mental health issue? In the United States, call 800-662-HELP (4357) for SAMHSA National Helpline.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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