A brunette woman who is a functional alcoholic looking down through her shades
Courtesy Of Jill Di Donato
12 Things No One Tells You About Being A Functional Alcoholic, But I Will
by Jill Di Donato
Originally Published: 

No one aspires to being a raging drunk. Drunks are sloppy; drunks are unreliable parents and friends; drunks can be lousy at climbing the corporate ladder; drunks are usually rambling annoyances you have to look after. What about the other types of alcoholics, though? After all, there's no one way to be dependent on alcohol. Some types of drunks, like the "hot mess," or parent who loves her "mommy juice" just a little too much, are seen in a more forgiving light. This makes their suffering all the more painful, as it tends to be done silently and secretly. There are things no one tells you about being a functional alcoholic but I will, because I used to be one, and there's no guarantee I won't become one again.

Before I go on, please bear in mind that I'm not an addiction specialist. I'm certainly not a clinician, and I've never written about my fraught relationship with alcohol before, so some people who know me might be surprised. I'm so many things aside from being a functional alcoholic, and I was very clever about constructing a facade that insisted everything was fine and I was in control of my life. Then again, I'm willing to wager that other people who know me will recognize the woman whose story I'm telling here.

When I relied on drinking to "fix" me, control eluded me completely and nothing was fine. These are reflections on my experiences with alcohol, and the therapy, meetings, and self-inventory I embarked upon to get to a place where I can confidently publish such a personal story on the internet. Because, as aforementioned, the most important thing to a functional alcoholic is secrecy. It's also the thing that's tearing them apart. Trust me; it almost killed my spirit.

From hair salons, to first dates, to poetry readings, and funerals, alcohol is everywhere. You'd think it was a requirement to socializing as an adult. Let's face it, booze can make you feel like a rockstar or look glamorous on a rooftop bar sipping a $25 beverage. I mean, don't I look like I'm having fun? And I was. The afternoon the above photograph was taken was a complete blast, and that $25 cocktail was decadently delicious. However, I have no recollection of how I got home and the two days that followed were hell on earth. After that night, I was filled with shame, because that night was the first time I had "one of those nights," since I'd stopped drinking. I'd drink and then quit, drink and then quit, until I understood that I can be one of those unsavory drunks. I'm OK after one or two glasses of wine, maybe even an entire bottle, but there comes a point in my drinking where a switch flips, and it's like I stepped into the other side of the looking glass.

Also, I get blackout drunk. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), blackouts are not the same thing as passing out cold from having one too many. Blackouts occur when alcohol affects the chemistry of your brain in a way that causes you to engage in functional behaviors that do not form memories. Too much alcohol (it can be any type) consumed too quickly shuts down the "circuits that involve the hippocampus, a brain area which plays a central role in consolidating memories for what happens in our day-to-day lives," noted the NIAAA. In other words, if you blackout, you will never remember the events that transpired during your blackout. There's literally no record of them in your brain. Writer Sarah Hepola penned an amazing autobiography about this phenomenon, and one she lived with for 25 years. You should read Hepola's book, Blackout, as she details the emotional plight of living with huge gaps not only in memory, but in your sense of identity.

As the NIAAA reported, not everyone who blacks out is an alcoholic. However, if blackouts occur frequently in your life, then that might be a sign you're a binge drinker. Which is what I was, am, and will always be, even if I never imbibe again. And guess what? Binge drinking is a form of alcoholism for some people. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking isn't interchangeable with being alcohol dependent, in most cases. But, for some people, like me, binge drinking made me a functional alcoholic. My binge drinking disrupted my life, ruined relationships, and made me miss opportunities, which according to Medical News Daily, are signs of addiction.

Things about being a functional alcoholic need to be made transparent so people, and women in particular, (according to CNN, blackouts are more prevalent in women) can recognize a problem before it damages their lives. Things no one will tell you about being a functional alcoholic might be symbolic of something greater in our culture; like this somewhat obsessive need to curate our lives to look like one big party with a flattering filter. Things no one will tell you about being a functional alcoholic are nothing to be ashamed of. So, here it goes.

Functional Alcoholics Feel A Sense Of Shame About Drinking

You might be a mom who binge drinks. You might be a teacher who unwinds with wine every night. You might work in finance or politics or media or any other high-pressure job and use the frequent happy hour to distress. It doesn't really matter what you do; if you feel shame about your drinking, you need to seriously consider your habit. Why? Because shame and addiction are highly intertwined.

Shame is different from guilt in key ways that affect your self-esteem. Shame is a more internalized feeling, and one that is enmeshed with your sense of identity, whereas guilt is expressed as regret or remorse. As a functional alcoholic I was ashamed of my benders and what happened as a result of my drinking. But because I also have ambition and am a resilient person, I accepted the shame as a part of life. Without question, this decision hampered my capacity for happiness.

Functional Alcoholics Have Jobs That Support, Or Even Encourage The Habit

That's a picture of me interviewing Dita Von Teese, in front of a whole lot of booze. Often times, companies throw events for press wooing them with an open bar, which is as enticing as it sounds. At the time, I was also writing a sex column, which meant that I would go out and party in order to get "fodder" for my work. Some of my most popular stories resulted from dishing about being a "hot mess," the popular trope of glamour many women aspire to.

New York, being the city that never sleeps, has an entire after-dark economy that relies heavily on people imbibing together. I would feel tremendous pressure to go out five nights a week and still work my academic day job because I had this (not incorrect) notion that tons of networking goes on at parties. At the same time, you can network and not get plastered; but people who love drinking (and are alcohol dependent) will use any excuse to drink. At least, that's what I did.

Functional Alcoholics Are Not Destitute, Unemployed, Or Failing At Life

In an article about diagnosing signs of being a high-functioning alcoholic, it's noted that people who fall into this category tend to be outwardly thriving. I held down a job as an on-air and web journalist, while also teaching several classes at a university and mentoring at-risk youth when I was binge drinking. While I was not destitute, it kills me to think of all the money I wasted getting, well, wasted.

Functional Alcoholics Might Go Through Periods Of Detoxing

My brother posted this picture on Instagram of me puking in the gutter after boozing. No one thought I had a problem, in fact, people actually "liked" and commented on the photo. Myself included.

After this photo circulated, I decided to detox from alcohol for one month. I accomplished that without a problem. It was easy for me not to drink; moderating alcohol intake was where I had the problem. Functional alcoholics might go through periods of "ridding toxins" from their bodies and, like me, might very well be successful at periodic breaks from drinking. I never experienced irritability during these times of detox, but according to the United States Library of Medicine, anxiety, depression, and irritability can occur whenever someone who drinks regularly stops drinking.

Functional Alcoholics Don't Remember Things They've Said Or Done

Drunk selfies are the least of your worries with this one. Here's a question that I'm really not sure I know the answer to. Is it considered rape if someone (who doesn't know you are prone to blackouts, like a one-night-stand) has sex with you while you're experiencing one? After all, it's not like you're unconscious when you're blacked out. You're fully functioning, and from what past lovers have told me, I can attest (because I believe these people, not because I remember) that I was an active, sometimes aggressive participant, asking for sex.

I was in a relationship with a man for six months without knowing that we'd had sex on our first date. Sure, I woke up in his bed, but since I was just out of college and naive, and I didn't remember having sex, and I didn't know I was prone to blackouts, I legitimately did not believe that we had intercourse. But he joked about us doing it on our first date one night, and I felt shivers down my spine. "What do you mean?" I asked, horrified.

Hepola reported in a story for The Guardian, that blackouts don't happen to everyone, because everyone's brain chemistry is different. In the same article Aaron White, an expert on college drinking and a senior scientific adviser at the United States National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism wrote that depending on the amount of alcohol in the blood and how quickly you get intoxicated, combined with what's in your stomach and your overall body mass, will determine if you have a blackout.

Functional Alcoholics Become "Another Person" When Drinking

There's nothing like that moment the booze kicks in and your confidence skyrockets. Until you feel like sh*t the next morning.

Functional Alcoholics Hide Their Drinking

This is the cloak of secrecy I was talking about. Functional alcoholics, like myself, will do anything to keep drinking because, well, their lives aren't in shambles because of booze. It was a lot of work, however, making up excuses to hide the fact that I drank to make myself feel better. I was also telling lots of lies to myself.

Functional Alcoholics Drink Alone To Feel Better

One myth about drinking alone is that it happens in your bedroom, with the curtains drawn. In my case, I'd do a lot of solo drinking out and about, usually when I wanted to feel better about myself.

Functional Alcoholics Make Their Relationship With Alcohol Appear, "Funny, Cute, Or Sassy"

I feel like this picture of me says so much. Awkward, stiff, posing, hiding behind giant sunglasses and clenching onto that glass for dear life. At the time, however, I thought I was being a sassy, bad b*tch. Making light of my relationship with alcohol was how I got away with being a functioning alcoholic.

Functional Alcoholics Get Drunk When They Don't Mean To, And On The Regular

I was working another event, an art opening that was hosted by a pretty famous artist and one I'd personally admired since I was a teenager. I'd been drinking earlier in the evening, but didn't feel it. When it came time to interview this famous artist, I thought I was the bomb dot com.

Listening the the interview the next morning was a rude awakening. Was that me? I sounded like a slurring jack*ss. What surprised me even more was that until I listened to the recording of the interview, I didn't even think I was that drunk.

Functional Alcoholics Can't Imagine A Life Without Drinking

I guess that's why Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for the mantra "one day at a time."

Functional Alcoholics Have A Suspicion Their Drinking Is A Problem That They Don't Want To Address

We all wear masks in life. It's a coping mechanism necessary to survive. For me, there was no rock bottom moment when I realized or told myself, "OK I've got to change." I don't believe in rock bottom; I think there's always a trap door beneath rock bottom taking you down further into the abyss. Terrible things have happened to me as a result of my drinking, and who knows how many opportunities I may have missed. But while I don't believe in rock bottom, I do think there comes a time when you simply tire of wearing a mask. You just want to be you; naked, raw, and feeling safe.

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