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How to Tell if You are a High-Functioning Alcoholic


Six things to look out for if you’re worried about your drinking.


Sarah Allen Benton’s book, Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic explodes old stereotypes of alcoholism. She explains that these ideas are not only wrong but dangerous. Something I’ve written about before.

The more difficult truth is that there are many different types of alcoholics or people with Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs)and a great many of them are functional. Many people with an AUD hold positions of power, raise families and do excellent work.

These sorts of drinkers are ‘high-functioning alcoholics’ (HFAs). An oxymoron if ever there was one, but this is the society we live in. These HFAs drink hard, and function at a high level. I can’t imagine the stress on their bodies and psyches, and they do whatever it takes not to let anyone see it.

Many HFAs don’t realize the depth of their problem, because their ability to function, prevents them from facing the consequences that generally signal to a person that their drinking is out of control. In other words, they get away with it.

So how can you tell if you’re a high-functioning alcoholic? Here are the top six signs I’ve come up with.

1. You tell yourself the amount you drink is fine because of how well you perform in family/life/work.

I see this type of drinker all the time. The busy, competent mum who has everyone’s schedule down to a tee, and cooks amazing dinners, and smashes it at work, and shows up on time for every activity, and cannot wait to get home to drink wine.

Or maybe the talented musician who drinks before playing, but the performance is so good, that nobody notices.

The problem here is that performance isn’t what life is about. Life is about joy and love and connection and fulfillment, and I hope that these types of drinkers have this too, but I wonder. Because alcohol takes its toll.

We usually drink too much to cope with the fact that our life doesn’t suit us. Or because we are doing too much. Maybe we have been given more than a fair share (women, especially mums, I’m looking at you, and not in a judgy way.)

All too often, society and modern life isn’t designed to suit humans. We need a little something extra to get us through. Women are drinking more than ever.

And it works. (If the aim is to turn us into numbed out fast-paced doing robots.)

But drinking too much can stop you from ever creating a life that does suit you. It takes the edge off painful feelings, which if you sat with for long enough, might just push you to take a risk.

2. The friends you see most regularly are heavy drinkers too.

For most of my life, I tended to gravitate towards the drinkers. I liked the looseness and camaraderie, the off-key jokes and the feeling of rebellion.

In my twenties, I was actively put off by people who didn’t drink. They made me feel uncomfortable. I hated the way they left so early, how they always stayed the same. Where was their sense of fun? I wondered.

In my mid-twenties, I made a friend who didn’t drink so much, and we started to have sweet wholesome evenings together, eating complicated salads and watching romcoms. I was starting to be alarmed by my drinking, and her sober ways provided respite.

Still, I didn’t see her as often as I saw the friends who loved a drink. Or as often as I drank alone. It just wasn’t as easy. We didn’t want to spend our time in the same way. And though I liked her best, I took the easy option and hung out with the ones who would stay late in the pub or simply sat at my desk, drinking by myself.

3. You drink fast compared to your non-drinker friends.

I’m not talking about your heavy drinking friends, those lovely maniacs shouldn’t be used as measuring sticks. I’m talking about the friends you see less often. The acquaintances.

It wasn’t until I went on a writing residency in a Scottish Castle that I realized I drank faster than ‘normal people’. Back then, I was still operating under the illusion that everyone drank the way I did. The castle cured me of this notion.

We went to the pub on a Friday night, and everyone except for me had half a lager. After they had finished, and I got up to return to the bar, they all agreed they were ready to head home.

It was the strangest experience of my life.

4. You jokily refer to yourself as an alcoholic.

The Scottish residency led me to jokingly refer to myself as an alcoholic when, on a wilder night at the pub — two drinks a pop — I was the only one eager to get another drink at last orders.

“I’ll have one more,” I said, self-consciously extricating myself from the table, trying not to sprint as I made my way to the bar. “Because I’m an alcoholic.”

The three of them sat around me, smiling politely, while I finished an extra pint, which suddenly seemed very large, alone. Which brings me to a crucial point.

5. You are more than happy to drink alone.

It is so easy to get into this habit. For years, it was my idea of heaven. To open a bottle of cold white wine, and pour a glass, and sit down to dinner. It felt so luxurious and civilized and grown-up.

Even writing that sentence, I felt the old feeling of longing. Oh, what sweet pleasure drinking alone was!

But it kept me isolated too. It helped me to believe that I didn’t need anyone. For years, I mourned the total absence of community in my life, at the same time as I adored drinking wine home alone.

As I became self-sustaining as a writer, I rarely had to work in a team or even go to a meeting. Gradually, I became more isolated. I wished to be a part of something, but it just seemed harder and harder to connect.

It didn’t occur to me until after I quit drinking that my love of solo drinking and my growing feeling of isolation were connected. This is the scary thing about drinking. It hampers your ability to think.

I’d switch from sad and lonely in the day, hating modern life for making islands of us, to happily drinking wine by myself at night. And I suspect I could have continued doing it forever.

6. In the early hours of the morning, you worry about your drinking.

The early hours of the morning are a strange, haunted sort of time for the heavy drinker. You wake up, desperately dehydrated, with no understanding of why you drank enough to make yourself ill again.

When you’re buying and pouring the wine, it’s easy to convince yourself that this is a treat. You want to relax and you deserve something nice. But lying in bed, feeling nauseous and headachey or just incredibly flat it’s hard to understand why you drank all that you did.

Why didn’t you stop after one glass or two, the way you’d promised that you would? Tonight it will be different, you think. But there’s a hollowness to the thought because you have had it so much recently, and yet here you are again...

One or two of these signs might be okay, but if you’re ticking four or five of them, you might want to ask for help around your drinking.

If you need help to stop drinking, you’re not alone. And there’s no shame in getting addicted to something deeply addictive.

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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