The Cure for High-Functioning Alcoholism
As I drove west out of Denver on Highway 6 toward the mountains, I wasn’t seeking a particular destination. I was seeking an answer. The 19 miles between Golden and Idaho Springs twist and weave through Clear Creek Canyon. It is among the most breathtaking stretches of pavement in the country, but I barely noticed. In Idaho Springs, Highway 6 joined Interstate 70 and I continued into the mountains through the Eisenhower Tunnel and into Silverthorne.
The top was down and the windows were open on my Jeep, but I still felt like I couldn’t catch my breath as I drove aimlessly through mountain towns surrounded by people eager to hike or mountain bike or relax in mountain retreats. I was as far from relaxation as I’d ever been. My mind swirled as I tried to make sense of what seemed a cataclysmic predicament.
By comparison, the decision to quit my job and start a small business was easy. I was not this confused and unsettled about the commitment to get married, to have children or to buy a house we couldn’t quite afford. Those decisions all felt like progress and took very little effort for me to make.
This decision felt more permanent than raising children and as critical as choosing life or death. The answer I wanted wasn’t working, and I had exhausted all possible tweaks and adjustments to remain on that path. Yet, the alternative seemed drastic and unnecessary. I drove deep into the mountains ignoring the majesty that surrounded me, trying to get a little closer to God, a little closer to an answer.
I drank alcohol heavily from 1991 to 2016. For about the last ten of those 25 years, I was a high-functioning alcoholic. My drive through the mountains on that day toward the end of my drinking career was one of many times I wrestled with the inevitability of my reality. Was I really an alcoholic? Did I really need to quit? Wasn’t there something I hadn’t tried yet to get my drinking under control?
I LOVED to drink. I loved it quite a bit more than I was willing to admit. On the rare and deeply introspective moments like on my wandering drive through the Rockies, I faced what I knew to be true: alcohol was the most important thing in my life. It was more important than my wife and four young children. It was more important than my faith. Alcohol was as important as the air I breathed. How could I even consider banishing it forever?
I’d love to tell you that the thin mountain air and snow capped summer mountain peaks brought the desired mental clarity. I’d like to report that I decided on Vail Pass to never drink again, and that my permanent sobriety was born coming down the hill through Georgetown as I made my way home to hug my family. But that’s not how it worked. That’s not how it ever works. I reluctantly decided after three hours of driving that day, that I had no choice – at least I couldn’t come up with anything that seemed viable. I reluctantly committed to stop drinking alcohol. Again I made myself that promise. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
That’s how alcoholism works. If you look really, really hard, you can find brief moments of semi-clarity buried deep within mountains of effort to exert control and repeated failure to be the person you so desperately want to be. Wallow in depression and shame, pick yourself up to try again, drink more than you plan to drink, and repeat.
And for a high-functioning alcoholic, finding the truth is even harder than for a gutter drunk or boozer who loses everything. For a high-functioning alcoholic, life looks normal from the outside. For us, there are no legal issues and no financial collapse. The family appears healthy from the outside, and the career proceeds along even making respectable advancements from time to time. For us high-functioning alcoholics, it is all too easy to believe the lie we present so convincingly to the outside world. Nothing to see here. I’m just like you.
My father and I stood on the dock at the lake house where my parents live in South Carolina. My dad watched as I grabbed a beer from the cooler and took a long, relied-filled pull on the ice-cold bottle. “I thought you stopped drinking,” my dad said in a surprised tone. “I guess I changed my mind,” I answered, bracing to defend myself. But no defense was necessary because my dad looked out over the lake in stunned silence.
What was he supposed to say? Dealing with a high-functioning alcoholic is as befuddling for the family as it is for the drinker. He knew my drinking had caused major turmoil in my marriage. He and my mother had been on the receiving end of frantic 2am phone calls from my wife on a couple of occasions. On the other hand, I had just delivered four young, healthy, outgoing little over-achieving grandchildren to his house for a week of vacation. My wife was smiling and hugging family looking well rested and happy. My family and I gave all outward appearances of a Norman Rockwell painting. What was he supposed to say? How could he accuse me of being an alcoholic?
I’m sure he still had nagging concerns. You can’t unhear a phone call from your daughter-in-law in the middle of the night. But I bet he was cautiously optimistic. Maybe Matt has pulled it together. Maybe he has it under control. What father wouldn’t want to believe that about his son – what with my job and house and smiling family and all? He didn’t know anything about the disease of addiction at the time. Neither of us did. We didn’t understand that it’s a progressive disease and that while I might be able to hide the truth for a while, alcoholism can only get worse and never get better as long as the alcoholic continues to choose alcohol.
Combine optimism with ignorance and a cunning high-functioning alcoholic, and what do you get? You get an addict slipping a little closer to death from a chronic disease while everyone smiles and laughs and drinks ice-cold beer.
When an alcoholic’s rock bottom is full of calamity and disaster, the disease is on display for family and friends to witness. In a way, this kind of bottom is helpful to the alcoholic because his loved ones are forced, often reluctantly because of the shame alcoholism brings on the entire family, to offer support and try to get help for the afflicted. Make no mistake – I’m not suggesting a crash-and-burn rock bottom makes recovery easy or inevitable. No matter the collateral damage, an alcoholic will only seek help and start to get better when the pain they endure exceeds their pain threshold. I’m not talking about the pain they inflict on family. I’m not talking about embarrassment from a public display of drunken buffoonery. The alcoholic has to feel bad enough about himself before he will stop digging his grave and start trying to climb out.
But when no one knows the alcoholic is digging, no one is trying to take away his shovel. That’s why so many high-functioning alcoholics drink and suffer and drink some more until they take their last breath.
There is no shortage of 20 question surveys available on the internet to help people self-diagnose their addiction to alcohol. Because alcoholism is a progressive disease, I always answered yes to some questions, and no to others. I never needed to drink to stop from shaking. I never hallucinated or vomited blood or stole money to buy booze. I never approached that end of the spectrum. So when I drove through the mountains and spent other countless hours arguing with myself about the severity of my issue, there was plenty of doubt crashing around in my chaotic mind. I’ve never forgotten to pick up my children. I don’t need a drink to get out of bed. I can’t be an alcoholic. I just can’t be!
I’ve come to realize those internet surveys are a waste of time. There are really only two questions you need to ask yourself to determine your future with alcohol. Do you think about alcohol when you are not drinking (good or bad thoughts), and is alcohol causing issues – large issues or small issues – in your life? If you are a yes on those two questions, your relationship with alcohol is far likelier to get worse than better. If you answer yes to those two questions, here is my advice to you after wasting years of my life battling myself in my own brain and then reading and listening to the stories of hundreds of others who suffered like I did.
Stop drinking. Not one day at a time. Not for a while to see how it goes. Don’t slow down or try to moderate. Stop. Alcohol may or may not be the source of all of your problems. You can spend a lot of gas money and waste a lot of time weaving through your countryside arguing with yourself about that. Our will to drink is strong, so I can’t predict the result of that argument. Here’s what I do know definitively. Whether or not alcohol is the source of your issues, alcohol will never fix your problems. Never.
This is precisely the reason I believe the cure for alcoholism is as simple as frank and open conversation. I spent ten years fighting and drinking and resisting and drinking and reconsidering and drinking and denying my truth. Ten years wasted. Ten years. That’s tragic. My wife could have started her recovery from living with an alcoholic ten years earlier. My kids could have avoided exposure to an alcoholic father all together. But I kept trying to decide if I needed to quit for those ten years out of shame and ignorance. Shame and ignorance can both easily be eradicated if we just face the facts and talk about them.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates there are over fifteen million Americans suffering from alcohol abuse disorder. That is more people than suffer from cancer or any other chronic disease. With the high-functioning alcoholics like me who hide their affliction so adeptly for so long, I bet that number is at least triple the official estimate. I bet there are easily fifty million Americans for whom permanent sobriety would be a major life upgrade. And if I’m wrong, I bet my estimate is low.
So if you’re ready to end the debate in your head – if you’re ready to stop digging and start climbing – I want to share with you the actions I took to defeat the greatest challenge I will likely ever face in my life. I want to help you get through the daunting and deflating first year of your sobriety.
I didn’t recover through Alcoholics Anonymous or a 30 day inpatient rehab. Many warriors in the recovery community are singing out about the alternative methods of recovery that worked for them, and I want to join that chorus. Traditional modes of recovery have dismal success rates estimated at 15% and below. I needed something different. I put my solution together piece by piece, and I want to save you the effort by sharing what I learned.
I want to give you my newly published ebook, my Guide to Early Recovery, for free.
My method for recovery might work for you. On the other hand, you might need something different in order to get healthy and leave alcohol behind. You won’t know until you check it out. The investment is affordable – it will cost you zero dollars and less time than a drive through the mountains. As always, your feedback is encouraged as comments on this blog or emails directly to me.
Alcohol’s not helping you. Maybe my Guide to Early Recovery will.
Another great read. Many times what you are writing is exactly the same thing I did or the same thing I told myself. (I’m not an alcoholic I’ve never done this or that) but I guess I was only trying to convince myself. I am truly a lucky man to been (clean) drink free and be able to read your article and relate to it.
I’m convinced, Paul, that if enough of us who have lived the same story, tell the same story openly and without shame, we can prevent the next person from suffering the same fate. Thanks for talking to me and for posting comments and support. You are part of the solution!
My father died from alcohol abuse. And I was quite close to continue his “legacy “ with my drinking. If’ve been in a lot of dark places. Until I got pregnant. Everything changed on that day. I cherish my sobriety. But I still have to clean out my closet from all the shame and self blame. I should have done this or that differently. And I should have been there for my father instead of being always angry… but still chose to drink with him. Thank you for your inspiration. I now understood that I need that “ride on the mountains “ too in order to put things straight and let go.
I hope you do free yourself from shame and blame. It is not your fault. When we play with a highly addictive substance, the results are rarely what we want. I hope you do let it go!
You’re writing is wonderful! It speaks to my nephew who is in complete denial! He has four young children and a marriage that is no longer stable! I’m sending him you writings ! Just pray he’ll read them.
Thanks for the feedback, Helene. Your nephew is lucky that you love him enough to learn about this misunderstood disease so you can be there to help him when he is ready.
Thanks, Matt, for your moving story. This is the second time I’ve read it, as I felt an urge to drink alcohol again tonight. I’m starting on my sixth week sober since reading Annie Grace’s Naked Brain. Fantastic, powerful read! But still, I felt an urge to drink after about three weeks sober and found this article on Medium online. That same night I read your Guide to Early Sobriety. Another powerful and great read that relived me of the urge to drink. I was grateful to receive your list of recommended books and happy to see Annie’s there. This is truly a cunning disease! The thought of drinking once again seems like complete insanity after a bit of your”bibliotherapy.”
Congratulations, Cat, on entering your sixth week sober. You are doing the right thing, and seeking comfort in the words of the people who have walked in your shoes is exactly what I did and exactly what I recommend.
I have to be honest with you. Your subconscious mind doesn’t learn as fast as the part of the brain you control. Those cravings, as insane as they seem, are not likely to go away any time soon. It took me a full year to start to feel the true benefits of my recovery. Hang in there – it is worth it! Thanks for reading (not just my stuff – just thanks for reading to build strength in your recovery)!
I have loved all of your articles since finding you earlier last month. This one in particular resonates with the battle I’ve gone over in my head a hundred (or more) times. Like you stated, the only way out is to just stop all together, I’m proud to say that I am 22 days sober today! This time feels real and it feels raw. I’m ready this go round. I’m so happy to have found your writing. I am SO looking forward to speaking with you on Thursday!
Thanks for the feedback, Lacey! You made my day. Congratulations on 22 days, and I look forward to talking to you in a couple of days, too!