Recently my colleague Martin Pankhurst and I have been working on the creation of online programmes to support people with dependency issues and for the people who live with them. We tend to think of addiction as meaning drugs and alcohol, but there is a vast spectrum of ways in which dependency and addiction can be destructive to our lives. One of the lies people with a worsening dependency tell themselves is that they have it all under control. In this first of a series of pieces, Martin describes the point at which he realised his drinking was out of control and goes on to explain why the notion of being a “functioning alcoholic” is, at best, temporary.
I remember the embarrassment when one of my employees found an empty vodka bottle in the office, secreted away with the cleaning materials under the sink. It was one that I had forgotten to dispose of in my normal ‘efficient’ manner. I was becoming both forgetful and blasé about my problem, but I was still in denial about the impact that my drinking was having on myself and others around me. I convinced myself that the story I spun at the time, my suspicions that the cleaner ‘had a bit of a drinking habit’ and that I’d seen her a number of times in the pub over the road in a bit of a sorry state, was believed. I also convinced myself that I was not really a problem drinker as I was earning good money and my business was still in pretty good shape. It wasn’t long before something similar happened again, and my secretary thought that I should ‘have another word’ with the cleaner. We decided that the cleaners work was still pretty good and that she must be a functioning alcoholic. I said I’d try and encourage her to seek help. Needless to say, the conversation didn’t happen, and she probably rarely had a drink aside from a small sherry on Christmas Eve. What did happen was that I promised myself that I’d be more careful in future and, although my drinking was starting to cause problems, I’d be able to continue as normal. After all, I was still running a successful business.
At worst, I felt that I was a functioning alcoholic, and this state of affairs could carry on unchecked without any major problems. Once I’d come to terms with this label, it gave me a sense of comfort. It was an excuse not to seek any help. In my mind, it differentiated me from the stereotypical alcoholic. What I didn’t understand at that point was that a functioning alcoholic was still an alcoholic. It was just a matter of time before I became non-functioning, and my world started to fall apart.
We’ve all heard of the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos, and I hid behind this thought as a way of defending my drinking whenever it was brought to my attention. In reality, whereas the saying implies balance, my life was starting to skew away from any sense of equilibrium. On reflection, and with the benefit of sustained sobriety, I understand that alcoholism is a progressive condition and that there were many evident signs that my ‘functioning status’ was starting to slip.
Over the years since my recovery began I have done a lot of voluntary work and facilitated meetings for the Aspire2be charity which was set up to help people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. It’s given me the opportunity to pass on my experience of recovery, and given me access to some quite remarkable people. Alcoholism does not respect colour, creed, gender or social standing, it can affect anyone. It always amazes me that the broad spectrum of attendees brought together by a common condition, have so many common traits. One of these is the inevitable slide from functioning to non-functioning alcoholic.
One of the signs that is indicative of this shift, is the general slowdown in the efficiency and performance at work. Some have found that fellow workers had been able to overlook their obvious problem with drink all the time that results were still of a consistently high quality. Any downward movement in performance inevitably led to questions being asked about their drinking, invariably led to warnings and eventual dismissal.
Another indication is the gradual breakdown in relationships with family as alcohol pushes higher up the priority list, and less time is spent taking care of family issues. There also seems to be a general shift in mood patterns towards a much deeper and ingrained unhappiness, and an absence of contentment. As bouts of despondency and discontent start to become more sustained everything starts to gradually unravel.
Alcohol is a depressant, and the more we take into our bodies, the harder it is to counteract the physiological and psychological effect. The use of ‘blame’ is another warning that things are starting to fall apart. There is always someone or something to blame as an excuse for using alcohol as a coping mechanism. As the condition progresses, blame is used in increasingly trivial matters as a reason to continue the destruction.
A tactic often used by the alcoholic in denial is to try to minimise the problem in the eyes of others by joking about their high level of drinking. But this apparent lightheartedness can quickly turn to anger when confronted by others who don’t see it as something that should be treated with such flippancy.
Something that often comes up in meetings, which is also a tell-tale sign that the condition is starting to progress, is the use of specified times to allow drinking to take place. I have often heard people say that they only drink after 8.00pm, or only at weekends, or avoid spirits during the working week and so on. This might be an indication that someone is concerned about their drinking but convinces them all is ok as long as these ‘rules’ are adhered to. Most people in recovery who attend groups tell me that this was a short term solution to a long term problem, and gradually, their adherence to these personal commitments became weaker. The ‘rules’ start to become broken more often, especially when under emotional stress or on “special occasions”.
The discovery of my hidden vodka bottle seemed just an irritating wrinkle in my day at the time, but having had the benefit of a sustained recovery period; it retrospectively seems like a seminal moment. It was the point at which my active condition was starting to have an impact of those around me and it was no longer a controlled habit that was only affecting my own wellbeing. The fact that I had forgotten about the ‘hidden’ bottle was illustrative of my descent towards becoming a non-functioning alcoholic. I have yet to come across anybody who can drink heavily over a long period of time, and maintain their major responsibilities. Eventually, it catches up with us all.
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