Highly Functioning is Highly Dangerous

By Dana Bowman 10/23/15

Highly functioning alcoholics, like my late brother and me, are very good at floating. We bob along in the same jobs, the same responsibilities, the same recitation that we are just fine. We tuck down into denial and just keep drinking. 

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Highly Functioning is Highly Dangerous
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My family and I are gathered in deep snow around the grave of my brother. Grey slush sticks to my boots, and the farmland around us is about as bleak as an Edith Wharton novel. Our tiny, rural graveyard is so close to a small highway that some attendees brave the random pickup truck that blares by and just stand in the cleared road for the burial. I find myself wondering—what are the odds that someone dies at a funeral?

I also find myself wondering what my dad is doing, as he has walked past the mound of black earth at the side of Chris’s grave, just a bit too close. He is not one for theatrics, so I don’t see much chance of a graveside breakdown here, amidst all this frozen landscape. He fishes around in the deep pockets of his wool coat and pulls out a large coin. With no fanfare, he drops it into the hole in the ground and walks away. It was his 50-year sobriety medallion. 

It is a tough thing, to bury a brother. Chris was only 52. He should have been around longer, of course. He should have been the crazy uncle to my sons, the one that throws the football with them at Thanksgiving (he had a mean spiral), and told them inappropriate jokes. He could have been here many more years, if he had stopped drinking before his liver failed. As most of us know, liver failure is code for: my brother was an alcoholic.

So am I. So is my father. However, we are in recovery, doing the “one day at a time” thing. We are still alive.

I talk about my brother to anyone who will listen. I say, “He was so funny. I just can’t tell you how funny he was,” and then I would proceed to tell them anyway, trying to describe how he could reduce me to tears of laughter with his endless Jim Belushi imitations. 

My description of him always sounds a bit starstruck. I offer forth a random list of accolades. “In high school, Chris was the star quarterback,” I say. “Oh, and he could cook! He was a total foodie. He was so smart, loved to travel. When he was younger, I always thought he looked like Richard Gere.” Then, I pause. “I think he wanted to fly airplanes.” 

He never flew them. And he had lost the Richard Gere look long ago. That is what years of floundering with alcohol does to a person. But he still had a great job, and he played the part of responsible citizen with his stock market investments and silk tie collection. He had a two-car garage stuffed full of power tools. Also this: whenever he walked into a room, people gravitated to him, for his warmth, for his voice. He was a beacon. 

Now, all these superlatives are attached to a dead man. 

He was a highly functioning alcoholic. And he ended up in the ground, with his dad’s medallion.                      

The first recovery meeting I attended was long before I felt I had any problem with alcohol. I was there simply to understand a boyfriend who I thought had some serious issues, and therefore it was my job to fix him. But it was there, with the bad coffee and all the sharing, that I first heard the term “highly functioning alcoholic,” and I filed the descriptor away. Some 10 years later, when I really did need the meetings and was carting around a million problems all my own, I embraced the label. I loved this “highly functioning” business. It sounded quite savvy, to “function highly” in any capacity. Who wouldn’t want such skills?

“Highly functioning” sort of sounds like you’re doing it right. And I certainly did alcohol right for many years. So did my brother. But now, I think “highly functioning” should be replaced by a more accurate descriptor:

“Expedited Dying.” 

One night, after three large glasses of pinot grigio, I played that favorite game of all floundering alcoholics: I googled the checklist that would tell me whether I had a problem with booze. I sat there in front of the glowing computer screen, my glass in hand, and realized with glee that I didn’t have to check off all the boxes. I didn’t have blackouts. I didn’t drink in the morning. I had never been arrested. Those three unchecked boxes added up to three more years of daily drinking while my soul completely rotted away inside me. 

I held onto my “highly functioning” label like a bloated life preserver, buoying me up amidst the chaos. I figured I could live like this forever. I could shrug off the morning hangovers, the depression, the crippling agoraphobia, the panic attacks. As I had my nightly fix of boxed wine, and vodka, I could keep on. And for some reason, that seemed completely logical. I clutched onto my life preserver and floated, all the while ignoring the sharks circling me. 

Highly functioning alcoholics are very good at floating. We bob along in the same jobs, with the same patterns, the same adult responsibilities, the same recitation that we are just fine. We tuck down into denial and just keep drinking. 

For a while, I could charm the sharks in the water with my old sidekick: my super achieving personality. “See!” I would point to my “Teacher of the Year” plaque on the wall behind my desk, “I earned this! And I am totally all right!” And I would paddle along, straining for more prizes, more accolades, to calm the waters. I would spend all day trying to make a colossal Thomas the Train birthday cake for my two year old who would be perfectly happy with store-bought frosting as long as his mom was simply present. After the stress of homemade fondant and three leaning cake layers, of course I would dive into a super-sized martini. By God, I deserved it.

My brother didn’t deserve to die. He drank his highly functioning self into an early grave. It still shocks some of us. He was so polished on the exterior, his personality seemed to precede him. It’s like those horror movies where the big-name star is killed off in the first 20 minutes, and the audience is aghast. How could he go like that?

This is the problem: the highly functioning alcoholic has a Big Show to do, every day, for a relentless audience of children, spouses, work colleagues, soccer moms, students, and more. We immerse ourselves into method acting, to take on the life of this other character—one who can juggle work and people and talking and success with such finesse—while on the inside we are shrieking in fear. It is exhausting. And for me, drinking seemed to be the only antidote.

The last month of my drinking I had functioned myself right into a daily prison sentence. Cloaked in denial and dark glasses to aid a constantly pounding head, I literally wrapped myself up to shield myself from others. I didn’t attempt the fitted skirts and cardigans that were my normal professorial wardrobe. I cocooned myself in huge sweaters and flowing scarves, hiding my bloated face and soul from my students or colleagues. Talking was hard. Eating too. Trying to smile seemed to crack the edges of my mouth. I was a brittle shell. 

At this point, I had a decision to make, and for some reason that me and my Higher Power are still trying to figure out, I chose a 12-step meeting and the ability to be honest with myself. It was not easy. But it was good. One of the main battles I fought at the beginning was understanding that my super teacher plaque was just wood and brass, and that at this point, I wasn’t super at much of anything, except drinking. 

It was only then that I let go of the highly functioning label. And I proceeded, for the next few months, to do life very poorly. I forgot how to cook anything but frozen meals. I sobbed at very unfortunate times, like when grocery shopping, or attempting basic conversation. I functioned at an amoebic level for months. And amazingly enough, I didn’t drown. In fact, I healed. 

And now, I thrive.

The National Institutes of Health categorizes nearly 20% of all alcoholics as “highly functioning,” but I would venture to say the number is much higher, since we are so well adapted at fitting in and floating along with the rest of humanity. It is a label that I would like to demolish. An alcoholic is an alcoholic, after all. Our options are rather limited, if we shrug and say, “I think I’ll just keep treading water.” We can prolong the misery, for years, perhaps. But the end is the same for all of us, if we don’t choose recovery. It is only a matter of time. The sharks will only circle for so long. 

Dana Bowman is an author and teacher from a sweet little town in the midwest. Her book, Bottled: A Mom’s Guide to Early Recovery, published by Central Recovery Press, is now available on amazon.com and in bookstores.

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