Mrs Dann’s Blog and high functioning alcoholics

by Katherine Stewart
Sometimes our pictures are too clever by half

Sometimes our pictures are too clever by half

I’ve just been reading Mrs D’s cool as blog about quitting wine.

Back in about 2005 I read a book by Jean Kirkpatrick called Goodbye Hangovers, Hello Life.  Kirkpatrick was a woman who held a PhD, a vital and stimulating research job, she had a wide circle of friends, a relatively straight-forward home life, she had accolades, awards, external back pats, but she was a fall down drunk.

And I mean fall down.  Like I did back in ’88 on K’Rd trying to find a late Kebab after a few too many Rheinecks at Shadows Bar.  For her it was every day, from morning to night.

Why was she like this?  She wrote that it was the desire to be high functioning all the time, all hours of the day, with no ostensible ‘off’ button that led to her life-threatening condition.

Many times she was admitted to hospital with alcohol related problems; many times she drove in a blackout and caused all sorts of chaos on the streets.

Her book is really about what is called the high functioning alcoholic (hfa).   It is thought that there are a group of adults, generally in their 20s and upwards who function almost very well on a high intake of alcohol, on a daily basis.  They can hold down high paying, high stress jobs, always deliver results, always turn up to work, always deliver, deliver, deliver the goods.

While all this is going on, they are planning their next binge.  Not drink, mind you – binge.  As in when to next get plastered.

They have honed the fine art of drinking at a pace that means they can still function the next day and appear on top of everything, at work, at home.

How can this work?  Normal drinkers may go out for a few drinks with friends, have more than decided on the outset, go home happy and drunk, go to sleep, then wake in the morning, especially if we are around 44, with the shittest hangover in the history of humanity.  Can’t function correctly the next day, cancel lots of non-essential tasks in favour of the bare minimum of breathing and ingesting fluids and Big Macs.

We remind ourselves that next time we won’t do that on a school night.  It happens again, as sure as the sun rises, but maybe four months later.

The high functioning alcoholic  drinks often and heavily.  Beer, wine, spirits; it’s all the same because it’s about volume not the choice of drink.  They do by and large feel dreadful in the mornings but have learned to cope with the side effects, or their body is used to this cycle and adjusts, right down at a cellular level.  I’m not sure about the biochemistry of it.

By evening time, they are able to drink again – either socially or at home and the cycle completes.

What is the problem though, if you drink this way, and function at a high level? Is it ever a problem?

Apart from long term effects and the fact that alcoholism is a progressive problem in that it takes a person more and more of the substance to reach the desired level of intoxication, why would this pose a problem at all?  If the person is not affecting others in their behaviour, they are not jumping on car bonnets or the usual stereotypical external reaction to alcohol – why would there ever be a need to talk about it?

Kirkpatrick claimed that at the root of hfa type drinking was deep, inconsolable loneliness.  The hfa reaches out to people but only in the manner of someone who expects approval in return.  The high functioning part is fueled by a desperate need for affirmation that they are an okay, good person.  To this end, the hfa must feel bad to begin with and the reason for this could be many.

At work they seek to excel.  There is nothing wrong with this of course, but if it is fuelled by a constant soul-crushing desire to be needed, wanted and ….loved, then it is truly dysfunctional.

The alcohol serves to soothe the feelings of inadequacy, since as we all know, a few sherberts under the belt make us feel pretty amaze-balls and as if we can make that evening meal, write that important email or whatever it is that we need to do to complete our day.

What would happen to a hfa if they stopped drinking?  Could they carry out the same high level of functioning in life?  Probably, but it would take a fairly strong system of reprogramming for this to happen.  Looks like it can be done and with class.

The reprogramming might be about unpacking the motive to achieve at such a high level all of the time.  If this level was dropped to a less delusional level, the drinking would not be needed to soothe the stress that must surely come with this crazy system.

Example of a high functioning alcoholic:  Larry Hagman.  On set, on time, delivered lines, made money, did interviews, on time, charming, successful, famous, high functioning.  Shithouse liver and died resembling a pickled onion, sure.

Example of a low functioning alcoholic:   Amy Winehouse.  Late, fickle about success, messed up publicly, again and again, success marred by drinking.

The hfa may sustain a ‘successful’ level of heavy drinking for years, and people may even know that this person ‘likes a drink’ and not even bat an eyelid.

What they are not seeing is the emotional train wreck inside the outwardly successful person, and the gut wrenching remorse they must experience each morning when reflecting on that great unanswerable question:

Why did I drink so much last night?

Jean’s book is available from Amazon here for basically $0.01.  But the postage is about $29.25.  Get thee to a Kindle.  Lotta Dann’s story screened on Sunday 22nd June, TV1 and the OnDemand screening is now available.

To read more of Katherine when she’s betraying us and writing for other sites, you can visit The Sane Companion


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