Basically I’m a functioning alcoholic, and every day ends intoxicated. I really want to break the cycle but don’t know how to do it. After 2.5 decades in the military, the drinking culture is embedded. Having left six years ago, I thought I’d reduce boozing heavily, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not into the gym or any physical exercise and am putting on timber, which I don’t like. I’m also fed up with waking up bleary and needing the hair of the dog to start feeling better. How do I end the cycle?
Military drinking culture is legendary. And its legacy can be extremely damaging.
But military or not, you are by no means alone in facing up to problems with drinking. So well done reaching out to ask for help.
In this article, we’ll explore the term “functioning alcoholic” and consider how to deal with the challenge of alcohol dependence. I’ll also suggest some first steps towards change.
What does “functioning alcoholic” mean?
“Alcoholic” isn’t a word we use in Club Soda, not at least as a way of describing people. And most health care and psychological professionals won’t use it either. “Alcoholism” is a shorthand for a complex combination of behavioural, psychological and social issues, and it may or may not include physical dependence on alcohol. But alcoholism is not a disease, it doesn’t require you to be abstinent for life and you can develop beyond it. Read more about the myths and misconceptions of problem drinking.
That’s not to say that drinking isn’t causing you problems right now. Alcohol is an addictive substance and changing your relationship with it will take time and effort. But never forget that you are a person first and foremost. Don’t turn your challenges with alcohol into an identity that is loaded with stigma.
However, people do commonly use the phrase “functioning alcoholic”, so it’s worth considering what it might mean:
- Firstly, it describes someone who is drinking far more than they want to and who may struggle to stop
- Secondly, it describes someone who is coping, to some extent, with some of the negative consequences of their drinking.
In reality, just as people use the word “alcoholic” defensively (“well, at least I’m not an alcoholic!”), so people use the phrase “functioning alcoholic” to minimise their struggle with alcohol. We humans are geniuses when it comes to not owning our problems. But a drinking problem doesn’t look like the stereotype of a old man in a gutter vomiting on his shoes. Difficulties with drinking can come with financial resources, social success and a world-class wine collection. Alcohol doesn’t discriminate.
Don’t turn your challenges with alcohol into an identity that is loaded with stigma.
So it’s important to answer two questions honestly:
- In what sense are you functioning?
- In what ways are you struggling to live well?
Owning up to the reality of your drinking can be scary. But personal growth always begins with a measure of honesty about the difficulties you experience. Once you’ve faced them, you can begin to change.
Tackling alcohol dependence
One reality you’ll need to face is that you may have become physically dependent on alcohol.
Needing the hair of the dog to feel better in the morning is a sign that your body may have adapted to alcohol’s persistent presence, and needs it to function anywhere near normally. If this is the case, you must not stop drinking suddenly. Cutting down gradually over several weeks or days is safest, so you can avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms typically begin to emerge six to twelve hours after your last drink and are worst after two to three days. Milder symptoms include shakes, sweating, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Some people feel irritable, agitated, anxious or panicked. You may also have difficulty eating and sleeping. But the majority of people start to feel better after four to five days without the need for medication.
Once you’ve safely stopped drinking, the real work of change begins.
However, some people experience more serious and dangerous symptoms. You must seek urgent medical help if you experience:
- Seizures or fits, even if you have not had one before
- Hallucinations, for example seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there
- Confusion about where you are, what time it is or who you are with
- Poor coordination or being unsteady on your feet.
These severe symptoms only occur in a minority of cases and can be prevented by carefully reducing alcohol intake or using medication. So talking to your doctor is an important step, especially if you are regularly drinking more than half a bottle of spirits, 1.5 bottles of wine, 3 cans of super lager or 2 litres of strong cider every day.
Once you’ve safely stopped drinking, the real work of change begins.
Your first steps towards change
If you identify as a functioning alcoholic, here are seven essential steps towards changing your relationship with alcohol.
- Ask for help. You can’t do this alone and you’re not meant to. You might need the support of healthcare and psychological professionals. But you’ll definitely want a community like Club Soda at your back.
- Lean into your support networks. For those with a background in the military, the Royal British Legion (in the UK) offers crisis support, and the NHS has a specialised programme of mental health support for veterans. In the US, the Department of Veterans Affairs has an extensive substance use treatment program.
- Focus on the life you want to live. If you’re struggling with drinking, it can be hard to get through day one. The pain you feel right now will motivate you to begin, but it won’t sustain you. So give yourself space to imagine what life would be like if it didn’t centre on drinking.
- Begin to find new activities. Drinking less or not at all will give you time. As your energy returns, begin using your time to improve your physical and mental health. Discover things you can do when you’re not drinking.
- Let go of all or nothing thinking. Black and white thinking can hold you back from making progress. You don’t have to fix everything at once. It’s OK to have days when things go wrong and you drink too much. The overall picture of your progress is important.
- Celebrate every success. It’s also easy to get stuck in beating up on yourself. If you have even one drink less, celebrate that fact. A break from drinking can represent huge progress. Focus on what works for you and build on it.
- Keep going. People on Club Soda’s courses change their drinking in all sorts of ways. But the one thing they share in common is that they don’t give up. Let go of the idea of success and failure, and embrace the idea of learning and growth. You will get there.
Club Soda is here to support you. Our courses, like How to Stop Drinking, are a perfect companion on your journey of change. You can break the cycle and you will.
Dru Jaeger is the author of How to Be a Mindful Drinker, an essential guide to changing your drinking and living well