Functional Alcoholism

alcohol and functional alcoholism

We live in a society that normalizes and glorifies alcohol consumption. People and even animals have been engaging in alcohol consumption of some kind for thousands of years and it is associated with every kind of mood and event you could image. Need to celebrate? Drink. Need to deal with an awful boss? Drink. Your kids are draining on you with their tireless demands? Drink. You just ran a 5k? You DESERVE a drink! From a very young age, we are bombarded with images and messages around drinking to cope with life’s ailments. Questioning this behavior and alcoholism is often seen as being a prude or a social outcast because it is such an ingrained part of our everyday culture.  

In a broader sense, our society has taught us to believe that we are not enough and need external things, possession, jobs, and clothes to make us good enough. This consumerism is a never-ending cycle, however, and the satisfaction of obtaining new things is shortly lived until we must fill the void again with something outside ourselves. So, alcohol has an innate appeal in that it can seemingly melt our perceived wrongs, shortcomings, and grievances. For those of us who are predisposed to addiction and have a history of trauma, one drink often leads to more until the very thing that was meant to “fix” us has now become the problem. Heavy and dangerous alcohol consumption has become normalized and even encouraged. In the age of multiple pandemics with Covid and racial/gender/sexual inequality, drinking rates are skyrocketing in response to the collective traumas we are experiencing.

Working in the treatment industry, we tend to see people in a progressed phase of their alcohol addiction when people are experiencing consequences on a multitude of levels: physical, emotional, spiritual, legal, financial and relationships. Interestingly, however, this level of addiction only consists of 10% of those who meet criteria for a substance use disorder (severe). Which leaves 90% of those with a substance use disorder (mild and moderate) as people who are functioning in the world, going to work, having families, and living life. Outside and even inside circles may not know there is a problem. This challenges the archaic notion that an alcoholic is someone who is homeless, living under a bridge, and drinking from a paper bag. 

You do not have to have a DUI, be chemically dependent on alcohol, or have family members cut you out of their lives before they question your relationship with alcohol. Once the disease had progressed to this point, it is often more difficult to stop as it can be life threatening (requiring detox) and adaptive thinking is far from normal. If you can stop drinking for a while and control your drinking on most occasions, but you continue to hear a nagging voice in the back of your mind or in your gut that is telling you to reevaluate, I challenge you to listen. My decision to stop drinking came after the realization that I had worked tirelessly to have a loving relationship with myself and anything that diminished that (even occasionally) no longer had a place in my life. This choice came as a shock to my family and friends. My recovery began at Refuge Recovery meetings (and eventually progressed to include 12 step recovery as well) where I learned that attachment to anything, including alcohol, causes suffering. Learning to let go of what no longer served me resonated as a skill that would help me in all areas of my life. 

Too close, I challenge you to question societal norms. It may be tough to unlearn years of conditioning, but it is not impossible. The American cancer society recently updated the number of healthy drinks per day per person to zero.  Zero, as in there is no healthy level of alcohol we can consume. We must rethink this substance that is actually a neurotoxin, shrinks the brain with regular consumption, literally decreases IQ, and is one of the leading causes of death in America. While we may think of drinking alcohol as a way to rebel, the ultimate rebellious act is going against the thinking of a profoundly ill society. 

“Sobriety is found at the intersection of I’ve HAD enough and I AM enough.”

Written by: Julie Jones, LPC-S, LCDC, CES-1