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[ Personal Narratives ]

Beyond the Bottle #7: The Myth of the Functional Alcoholic

This feels relevant.

I won’t beat around the bush—I hate the term “functional alcoholic.” I hate it for many reasons but mostly because it’s a falsehood, an oxymoron, like sober drunk or walking dead, which is actually a pretty apt description for what it really means. Saying you’re a functional alcoholic and taking pride in it as I once did is as sad as it is delusional. It’s part of the denial that fuels alcoholism, that feeds it.

At the end of my drinking I swore up and down that I was “functioning.” I was surviving at best, just trying to keep all the burners going. Sitting up at 4am in someone’s apartment on a Wednesday morning and continuing to drink even though I knew I had work in five hours was not functioning. This sort of decision making actually resulted in my severely limited capacity to function at work—if I even made it in. Unlike some of my friends I worked an actual 9–5. I didn’t nanny. Didn’t get by stringing acting gigs together or waiting tables. I worked a fucking job and I barely even managed to do that in the end.

Have you ever been to work with a hangover? Have you ever been to work five days straight with a hangover? Two weeks? Three weeks? Okay, but have you ever gone to work without a hangover? Cool. Then you know the deal. Your head is pounding. The fluorescent lights are too sharp. The shrill girl at the end of the hall seems louder than ever and that feels impossible because she was loud yesterday as well. Going to work was a full-blown mission with several tactical operations. Leaving the house on time with all the necessary gear. Then there was navigating the subway (and retreating to home base to retrieve any forgotten gear, most frequently the wallet and/or cell phone). The inevitable attempt not to throw up. Assessing the complex digestive system and hangover breakfast administration process shortly thereafter. It was endless.

By nature we alcoholics don’t function, we survive. We do what must be done, tell what stories must be told all in an effort to get by. I can’t tell you how many times I blamed the faulty MTA system for the reason I was two hours late to work. All anyone needed to do to verify my story was check the MTA website. In a real pinch, I claimed emergency medical procedures—all four of my wisdom teeth have been removed thrice over, acute cramps, appendicitis scares—you name it I’ve used it as an excuse to skip work. The only problem there is that you lie so much you start to forget the ones you’ve already told. The worst lie I told to get out of work and keep a bender going was that I’d suffered a death in the family. Oddly enough, when an actual death in my family came and I was scheduled to fly home, I flew to Las Vegas in a blackout instead. The exact opposite direction of my intended location. The worst possible person and the worst possible. I felt dreadful. I feel dreadful. I skipped my own grandmother’s funeral. This is what addicts do. This is what I did.

No one told me how those actions might affect me later in life, probably because at the rate I was going, I didn’t see much point in continuing life—but that’s another chapter. As an alcoholic I did two things very successfully—I moved and changed jobs like no man’s business. It’s all part of the act you see. The moment people were on to me and my alcoholic antics, I was on the move. If you pulled me aside and told me I needed to cut down, you were cut out. I’ve moved states and boroughs just to continue drinking the way I wanted—without pesky roommates or colleagues interfering.

There’s one problem though: none of your alcoholic buddies offer much in the way of sound job advice and so no one tells you how those decisions will haunt you. You in essence become your own cautionary tale. Your spotty work history doesn’t disappear when you sober up, it just comes with you and your honest real-time justifications. To this day it makes me anxious. I tap dance around it, avoiding the word “ALCOHOLIC” like the plague. Some times I think non-drinkers scare people as much as actual alcoholics, or is it just that I happen to work in a top-heavy industry—socially lubricated by the very thing I must avoid? I’m not a bad employee. I have references who are happy to say as much but I’m an alcoholic with history, that fact will never change.

I will freely admit that my last six months of drinking and continuous employment were torturous. As things got worse, I felt everything slide south—work especially. There is no denying this — I’d started a job maybe three or four months before I finally packed it in (it is NOT on my resume). In three months, I’d used up 26 sick days meant for the duration of the year and 4 personal days due to problems stemming from maintaining the illusion that I was a functional alcoholic. I was not in a functional state when Human Resources finally sat me down and told me they’d be docking my pay on a daily basis if my trend of absences continued. Instead of dealing with that issue or facing that problem I quit the job. It seemed easier. I was functioning alright.

I understand now that functioning implies things are working out or operating properly. And they are, as long as I keep alcohol out of the equation. For me, it’s no longer a myth, it’s a math problem: Me – Alcohol = Functional.