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There’s No Such Thing as a ‘High-Functioning’ Alcoholic

It’s a superstition created by America’s love of booze and capitalism

From a spectator’s perspective, my life looked pretty good a few years ago. I had a decent job, a wonderful girlfriend, a comfortable (by L.A. standards) apartment, a competent car — all the things a guy could ask for. Meanwhile, I was drinking my weight in alcohol on an almost perpetual basis.

I appeared to be what many would call a “high-functioning” alcoholic, mostly because I held a job and wasn’t sleeping on the streets. But I didn’t feel very high-functioning. My mental state resembled a Tool music video. My relationships were falling apart. My life was one long hangover.

It’s an experience common among people who have alcohol-use disorders, because drinking to excess isn’t always an express lane to absolute ruin. “The day I checked into detox, I’d been on an 18-month downward spiral,” says recovery coach Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar. She was working to the point of exhaustion at a prestigious law firm in NYC and had been drinking to get out of bed in the mornings, but her colleagues saw nothing wrong. In everyone’s eyes but her own, she was killing it. “I’d gotten a nice raise and bonus the month before I checked myself in,” she adds.

For me, it felt like imposter syndrome. Was I an alcoholic? Was I doing just fine? Was it okay to keep binge-drinking as long as I kept working?

It’s these sorts of questions that cast doubt on the existence of a “high-functioning” alcoholic. After all, what does high-functioning mean in the context of drinking yourself into oblivion?

As psychologist Kelly Green, author of Relationships in Recovery, points out, “functional alcoholism” is an oxymoron. “The criteria for diagnosing alcohol-use disorders focus on impairment in functioning,” she explains. “They focus on distress related to alcohol use.” 

For example, under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, drinking that causes job troubles, school problems, strained relationships, increased chances of injury, lengthy hangovers, feelings of depression or anxiety and blackouts are all criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence (and all comically common results of drinking to excess). In other words, the very definition of alcoholism involves being in some way non-functional.

As Green also mentions, the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that while 6.3 percent of America’s 18-and-over population are heavy drinkers, 5.6 percent meet the criteria for an alcohol-use disorder. Basically, almost everyone who drinks heavily has problems as a direct result of their drinking.

Thus, Green asks, “Someone could be functional — not losing their job, not getting a divorce, not homeless — but are they functioning at their peak performance? If they’re heavily drinking, probably not.”

Then, what do we really mean by “high-functioning” in relation to drinking? 

You could say it’s something of a nexus point between capitalism’s hustle culture and America’s love of alcohol. You’re still showing up for work. You’re still a “productive” member of society. You’re still serving the machine. But you’re drinking (and funding Big Booze) through all of it and likely suffering in a number of ways that your job doesn’t care about. “It gets to the idea that as long as you can get your shit done, it’s not a big problem,” Green says.

But alcoholism certainly can be a big problem, even if you’re doing well at work and maintaining a relatively nice home life. “James Joyce, who had a strict rule for himself to never drink before sundown and produced some of the very best literary works in the history of the English language, died of a perforated colon at the age of 58 due to his alcohol consumption,” says Evan Haines, co-founder of Oro House Recovery Centers. “Very few, if any other substances wreak havoc on our internal organs like alcohol does.”

Not to mention, drinking to excess is like playing with fire. “You’re only high-functioning until the day you’re not,” Smith says. The moment you get a DUI or miss a big meeting with a client because you drunkenly slept through your alarm, the same people who once praised your ability to drink and rally will call you a sloppy drunk.

Despite there being no such thing as a truly “high-functioning” alcohol, though, the illusion of it gets in the way of people seeking treatment. “If I can hold my job, nothing else matters,” many think. Moreover, the belief that there are high-functioning alcoholics out there dupes struggling drinkers into feeling like they have the potential to get ahold of their alcohol use, when they probably don’t (at least not by will alone).

The belief that some alcoholics can manage better than others also perpetuates a stereotype we already maintain toward people who have a hard time keeping their boozing under control. “To clarify that someone is an alcoholic but functional kind of means we have this deep-seated stigma about people with alcohol-use disorders, like all people who struggle with alcohol should be dysfunctional,” Green says. “But we know that’s not true — most people who have alcohol-or-drug-use problems, or even disorders, are still functioning in some capacity in their life.”

Finally, the concept of a “high-functioning” alcoholic preserves play-hard-work-hard, Mad Men-esque work environments that end up encouraging dangerous drinking. “It was almost a positive that I was a big drinker,” Smith says, since so many important business meetings happen over booze. “I always say the legal profession is soaked in alcohol, but it’s really beyond the legal profession.”

But only when Smith quit drinking did she realize what high-functioning really looked like. She went from sending emails at 3 a.m. and working round-the-clock to getting everything done within normal hours. “Ten months later, I was able to leave that job and take another job at an entirely different level,” she says. “You may be high-functioning, but you’re high-functioning at a job that’s well below your potential.”

Personally, I can’t really speak to my improvements on the job since I got sober — that’s for you readers to say — but what I can report is that my mind looks less like a Tool video and more like a Grimes one. 

And yeah, that’s a good thing.