Updated: Aug 4
How can your problem be that bad if nobody has noticed?
Facing the reality of your drink problem isn’t easy when you are a high-functioning alcoholic (HFA). Over time, alcohol becomes so essential that you need it to socialize, relax and have fun. Romance, sex and creativity seem impossible without it. It is an integral part of all the most important areas of your life: work, relationships, home.
How can you get through life without alcohol?
High functioning alcoholics are people who drink heavily and are successful in their lives. They drink much more than the government guidelines for alcohol consumption, which places a lot of stress on their bodies and psyches, and they do whatever it takes not to let anyone notice.
Often, nobody suspects that the HFA has a problem. They look great, perform well and seem happy. Sometimes, the HFA doesn’t even recognize their problem themselves.
This situation makes it incredibly difficult for the HFA to seek help for their problem. First of all, they might struggle to find the motivation. If nobody has raised their issue with them then they can kid themselves that they are doing fine.
Denial — a problem for all types of problem drinkers — is especially powerful and tricky for HFAs. How can their problem be that bad if nobody has noticed?
Another complication is that their lives are going well and alcohol seems essential to that. How could they manage their busy life and keep up with all their engagements without booze?
HFAs have a lot to lose and are terrified of people finding out their secret. They don’t dare attend AA meetings in case somebody sees them going in.
All of these facts can make it difficult for HFAs to wake up to their problem. Even if they recognize that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable they struggle to see how they can ever escape the trap they find themselves in.
So how can a person who suspects they are an HFA get around the specific complications of their drinking problem?
The truth is that being an HFA is only superficially different to being a garden variety ‘alcoholic.’ And here, let’s define ‘alcoholic’ as a person who wants to stop drinking and finds that they can’t.
It could be argued that HFAs have it easier. After all, they have a roof over their head and possibly health insurance or savings to pay for rehab. They have a great job that might support them as they try to get well. Perhaps the people around them will help them too.
And the route to recovery is the same, no matter how much you drink or what your life looks like. You have to swallow your pride and ask for help.
Whether you are a well-presented HFA or an unemployed street drinker, you really only have two options.
Continue doing what you are doing.
Try something different.
It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But let’s consider what each choice looks like.
1. Continue what you’re doing
Try to drink less. ‘Try harder’ to moderate. Succeed, fail, succeed, fail until more months (or years) pass. And afterward, if you’re lucky, your life looks pretty much the same as it looks now — periods of successful drinking mixed with bouts of total failure. Hangovers and near misses. And no closer to the life you dream of.
2. Try something different
You follow the advice of all the experts: admit there’s a problem, ask for help, become accountable, and begin doing the work of learning to live your life without the crutch of alcohol. Through rehab, AA, She Recovers, Life Ring, Smart or some other treatment program. You stop trying to fix this on your own.
There is a common misconception that drinking problems relate to willpower. HFAs, like all ‘alcoholics’, believe that they simply need to try harder to control their drinking. They beat themselves up for failing again. But if you have developed an AUD, then no amount of will power, alone, is going to make you drink ‘normally’.
Executing your will power only delays the inevitable.
“People with addiction seem not to be short on willpower; rather, recovery is dependent on developing strategies to preserve willpower by controlling the environment.” — Snoek, Levy, Kennett in Addiction Recovery Reports
In other words, you need to learn to think of your will power as a resource. It is one element of how you learn to live sober. If you rely too heavily on it, it fails.
Rehab, AA, She Recovers, Life Ring, Hip Sobriety, Sober Girls Society, Smart, etc. all understand this and teach their members accordingly.
I was lucky. I decided to quit drinking when it was relatively easy to do so. I want you to be lucky too. So I’m going to ask you the question my first sober friend asked me, just before I successfully got sober.
I wasn't at all convinced I was an alcoholic, and the question of whether I was or not was distracting me. And then my friend asked me this question and it shifted my thinking.
“What’s the worst thing that would happen if you aren’t an alcoholic, and you get sober anyway?”
I couldn't think of any negative consequences. Her question stopped me ruminating over the am I/aren’t I an alcoholic? question.
It introduced me to the idea that I didn’t need to be a hopeless alcoholic to get sober. I just needed to want to. As Holly Whittaker says at Hip Sobriety, asking if you are an alcoholic is the wrong question. I cannot underline this enough.
Who cares if you are an 'alcoholic' or not?
The real question is this: is drinking getting in the way of you living the life you want?
I hoped my lil drink problem would fix itself for years. I assumed I would grow out of it. Hungover at 33, it dawned on me, that I could die waiting, with my fingers crossed and a stage 4 hangover, a list of unfulfilled dreams. And so I did some research and asked for help. I tried something different.
Once your drinking has become problematic, it’s unlikely to get better on its own. Generally, alcohol problems get worse with age. And it's never going to get easier to quit than it is right now. There's always a party, a barbecue, a celebration, a funeral. The trick is to learn not to need booze for any of these occasions. To learn to rely on a different source of power.
I find it in people and nature and purpose and community and writing and reading and swimming and truth and kindness and forgiveness and being quiet.
Honestly, there’s no better day to quit drinking than today. And there are so many organizations that want to help you.
If you agree there are two options, which do you choose?
Continue doing what you are doing.
Try something different.
There’s no shame in getting addicted to something deeply addictive. And there's no shame in giving up something though you are not actually addicted to it.
Asking for help takes strength. As Sarah Hepola writes in her classic memoir, Blackout:
“Some of the healthiest, most accomplished people I know went to both rehab and therapy, and I’ve known some sick motherfuckers who managed to avoid both.”
So, here’s to Option 2.
If you need help to stop drinking you’re not alone.
If you’re ready to try something different, try my alcohol experiment.
Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Read beautiful hangover. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
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