The Almost Effect

Helping the nearly alcoholic

"High-Functioning Alcoholic": A Badge of Honor?

Is being a "high-functioning alcoholic" something to be proud of?

I've been reflecting on an interview I recently participated in on HuffPost Live (on May 23rd) along with Mandy Stadtmiller and Andrea Owen. The interview was lively and moderated by Ricky Camilleri. It was stimulated by a recent interview with the actor Channing Tatum that appeared in GQ magazine. In that interview Tatum, who clearly prides himself on his work ethic, also remarked, after acknowledging that he "probably drinks too much,"  that he was "probably a pretty high-functioning, I would say alcoholic."
 
Romanticizing Addiction

The problem as I see it lies in the temptation to regard being a "high-functioning alcoholic" as a sign of personal strength--almost an asset in fact, and something to be strangely proud of. Like "Look what a high-functioning alcoholic can do!" Tatum reinforced that notion in a way when he remarked that his partner knew about his heavy drinking--how else to describe a "high-functioning alcoholic" be?--when they first got together, implying that this is part of who he is, just as being a great actor is.

My co-guests and I were pretty much in agreement that being an alcoholic was not an accomplishment. It was also clear to me that both Mandy and Andrea were very capable women who at some point had decided to take charge of their lives and give up drinking because drinking was progressively ruining their lives. In other words, they had survived being high-functioning alcoholics and were quite happy with their new, sober lives. So why the pride in being a high-functioning alcoholic?

If we look back for a moment it's possible to see how this happens. In fact there is a history of romanticizing addiction and even of seeing illness as a reflection of personality or character. The truth nis that many illnesses--including alcoholism--have been treated this way at times.

In a landmark monograph titled Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag expanded on the idea that illnesses are a reflection of personal character.  In the nineteenth century, for example, tuberculosis was thought to be an illness that struck intelligent, sensitive, and creative individuals. In the twentieth century it was cancer, and the idea then was that cancer was the result of a "repressed" or "inhibited" personality in which all emotion--but especially anger--was turned inward of the self. And based on that, some psychotherapists ventured to heal cancer by helping its victims overcome their "repressive tendencies"--whatever that means.

So it is with drinking. Some people, for instance (Tatum included here) assert that drinking brings out their creativity. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald thought the same way, referring to alcohol as his "stimulant."  Yet those whose job it is to critique writing generally agree that the writings of Fitzgerald (along with Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and others) actually deteriorated in quality as their well-known alcoholism progressed. In this regard I am reminded of a comment once made to me by a noted baseball pitcher who was in rehab while I was spending time in the same facility for training.  "At the time I could swear that cocaine improved my pitching exponentially,: he said, "but when you look at my actual stats you can see the effects of the 'cain over time."

Listening to Those Who've Been There

If you want to get a sense fro what slipping into alcoholism--including "high-functioning alcoholism--is really like, read books like Drinking: A Love Story, by the late Caroline Knapp,Understanding the High Functioning Alcoholic by Sarah Allen Benton, or A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill. These are all high-functioning individuals who have been there, done that, when it comes to alcoholism. And they all agree, to paraphrase Hamill, that "life is better without addiction."

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is the author of Almost Alcoholic as well as Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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