The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Understanding this Hidden Class of Alcoholics from a Professional and Personal View

Sober Thrills!

The Importance of Healthy Outlets in Recovery

Recently, I was captivated by the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” about the CIA and Seal Team that killed Osama bin Laden.  I was fascinated with the personality types that would choose such government and military jobs that would place one’s life in that level of danger.  I also wondered what the experience would be like to transition from such adrenaline-filled jobs to ordinary life at home.  Life is full of much smaller scale transitions from stimulating to more routine phases: dating to marriage, high-school/college to young professional, pre and post parenthood, vacation traveling/returning home, work/weekends. 

My mind then wandered to thinking about the transition from active alcoholism to sobriety—two separate existences.   Many people in early sobriety report that sober life feels “grey” and even boring at times.  Alcohol has such a powerful effect on the pleasure center of the brain, that it can take to time for enjoyable activities to have the same effect as they once had.  I personally felt that alcohol had been the stimulating reward for conforming to life as a student or young professional.  I continue to wrestle with romantic thoughts about the “good ole’ days” and how life felt so spontaneous and exciting when I was drinking (along with impulsive and dangerous). 

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That need for a return to thrill-seeking  and escape can often lead to relapse and therefore, part of obtaining long-term recovery is coming to terms with the end of that lifestyle.  I had once heard someone express that they had more of an addiction to the drinking “lifestyle” than to alcohol itself and that can often be the hardest part to change in sobriety.  I remember clinging to my drinking life for the first 6 months of early sobriety—I attended mutual-help group meetings on Friday and Saturday nights and then went out to the bars with my drinking friends (but not drinking while at the bar).  While I would not recommend that combination to others in early recovery, it was what I needed to become tired of that “lifestyle”. 

For those who desire long-term recovery, it is important to figure out an “outlet” for that part of themselves that craves healthy stimulation.  Recovery is not meant to be the end of “fun” and adventure, but it does require more effort to incorporate those activities into life.  Drinking is a “short-circuit” to satisfying the pleasure seeking part of the brain, and recovery involves a longer-term process to integrate healthy outlets into life.  These outlets can come in many forms including: work/career, hobbies, socializing, exercise, adventure-based sports, writing, art, reading, T.V./movies, spiritual practice. 

The process of integrating these outlets into sobriety can take time and change through the years.  I had personally been able to feel satisfied through writing for the first several years of my sobriety (I was writing my book “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic”) and spiritual practice.  I have changed since becoming a mother and have found that my job provides a “mental workout” and a necessary outlet for me more than before motherhood.  Additionally, I have had a need to go running and spend time outside in nature more frequently than in the past. 

While most of us will not ever work for the CIA or a Seal Team, it is crucial that in recovery, we accept and embrace the part of ourselves that needs “more” than our daily routine.  More importantly, it is our responsibility that we take the time to engage in those activities that make us feel alive.

For more resources and information regarding high-functioning alcoholics, please visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., L.M.H.C., LPC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.

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