#letstalk about my mental health journey as a functional alcoholic

Click here to see a variation of this article, published in the Globe and Mail.

At a recent corporate training session I attended for work, after the day’s proceedings, one of our executives got onstage and playfully announced that the bar was now open, and, did he mention, the bar was now open? I joined my colleagues in filing out of the room, and dutifully lined up for the bar. Cocktail hour was of course optional, but we had been encouraged to mingle, and the executives would be watching!

Two hours later, almost everyone had left except for me, a few of my teammates, and a handful of executives, including the one who had made the initial announcement. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he watched me laugh with uncharacteristic shrillness and stockpile drink tickets to race to the bar with. At one point the staff began turning us away, which is when I headed to the liquor store to get more beer and went home to drink it by myself.

By the time my boyfriend came home, I was ten drinks deep and starting in on the wine. He cautiously asked what had happened to provoke this latest bender. I replied that nope, nothing was wrong, I just kind of felt like having some drinks, and besides, it’s Thursday! My boyfriend agreed – he was always tiptoeing around my drinking and doing his best to rationalize it to both of us. But deep inside, I knew that it hadn’t been my choice at all, and the next day was spent berating myself for losing control yet again.

A high-functioning – or functional – alcoholic is defined as someone who “seems to be just fine as they abuse alcohol.” Functional alcoholism can be hard to spot, and it tends to fester in corporate and start-up environments where bonds are formed and deals made over happy hour, boozy conferences and, in some cases, free beer from the work fridge. Employees are told it’s up to them to drink responsibly, but that just wasn’t an option for me. In my case, the choice entailed either preparing for a major drinking binge by having alcohol at my house and planning to work from home the following day, or not drinking at all. And I never once chose the latter.

I am a functional alcoholic because I was still able to keep work commitments, friends, a relationship, and ties with family. I had lost nothing due to drinking; I was objectively successful to the outside observer. My own mother was surprised to learn about my condition, despite being quite close to me.

Although I was functional, the cracks began to show at work some months ago. My boss was on my case for taking too many work from home days, which had been mainly due to hangovers, and for disappearing for an entire day at a conference, due to a bender that had involved morning drinking. This brought more anxiety, which was precisely the condition I was seeking to treat with my alcohol use, so the cycle grew only more vicious.

Of course, corporate culture was only the latest enabler of my alcohol consumption: I had turned 18 (the legal drinking age in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada) as a shy and insecure teenager, and alcohol had helped me come out of my shell. As is common among young women, I used alcohol to forge bonds with friends – anyone who has been on Bumble BFF can attest to the fact that there’s no shortage of young women looking for friends to drink wine with – and I later could barely function in social situations without a drink in my hand.

In a society where alcohol is aggressively marketed and all but forced on participants in a majority of social activities, professional and otherwise, I’d like us to consider the people who cannot have just one drink. As someone trying to recover, where does this leave me? I am gradually getting used to the fact that there are certain areas of our society that I simply won’t be able to access anymore, in the interest of my sobriety.

Learning how to say no is certainly my responsibility, but it’s not easy to do when the pressure to drink is everywhere. This pressure is both cultural and interpersonal, so I feel the same pang when I watch Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 (which rocks – don’t get me wrong) as I do when someone assumes I’ll become their drink ticket buddy at a work event (at this point, my reputation precedes me).

Alcohol began as a way for me to have fun and meet new people, but in recent years it’s also become my main support system. I’ve always tended toward introversion, and only in my thirties began a serious relationship, so I used alcohol combat the isolation I often felt in my personal – and more recently, professional – life. I often think that society handed me a drink rather than give me the resources to enable me to cope with my experiences, which have included sexual assault, anxiety, financial strain, depression, and now addiction.

As I begin to take the necessary steps to carve out a place in the world for myself that doesn’t involve alcohol, I can see that the path ahead probably won’t be easy. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t feel a strong urge to drink as they watch the inauguration of a President Trump, and I’m no exception! But in the end, this gives me added incentive to stay sober: instead of lying in bed recovering from a hangover, I’ll be fighting.

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