For some alcoholics, the effects of their addiction are obvious: they’ve lost their jobs and homes, they’re in and out of the hospital, and they’re practically on a first-name basis with the local prosecutors. This is likely the type of addict that the average person pictures when they think about alcoholism.
For most of the alcoholics that I’ve known, however, the effects are far more subtle. Plenty of addicts manage to keep their lives together, despite how much they’re drinking. And, if their lives do start falling apart, they’re at least able to keep up appearances.
These are the so-called “high-functioning” alcoholics, and I could have been the prototype.
I was a heavy, daily drinker for about ten years, starting when I was an undergraduate. The extent of my drinking ebbed and flowed during that time, but I rarely went more than 24 hours without a beer.
One of the very worst periods of my addiction was in my late-twenties, which coincided with my time in law school. As a law student, I’d drink every single night after getting home from class. Typically I’d limit myself to a 6-pack, but often I drank much more.
Despite all of this drinking, I did very well as a law student. I didn’t just get by in school, I excelled.
I went to a T14, which is the top-tier of American law schools. I got great grades, making the dean’s list every semester and graduating with honors. I was even a member of the ultra-prestigious law review.
How was it that I possibly managed to do so well while drinking such an insane amount?
The Secret to my Success
One of the ways that I kept alcohol from interfering with school was through compartmentalization. I kept my drinking life and my law school life entirely separate from each other.
Although I drank every day, I waited until getting home from school to start. Unlike undergrad programs, law schools actually have a lot of events with alcohol. Despite the fact that I was more of a drinker than the vast majority of my peers, I almost always avoided alcohol at these events.
I was embarrassed by my drinking, and didn’t want anyone at school to realize how much of it I was doing. I thought the best way to keep my addiction hidden was to swing toward the other extreme while I was in public.
But this compartmentalization was really just a small part of how I managed to get through law school. The real secret to my “success” was that I let everything aside from academics slide.
Before starting law school, I wasn’t the most popular person on earth, but my social life was healthy. My weekends normally were busy with events and parties. I had a fairly wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
After law school started, my friendships began to disappear, and I saw my remaining friends far less often. I told myself that it was because I was so busy with school, but it was actually because I was busy with school and drinking. If I had cut out all the boozing, I would have still had plenty of time to see my friends.
It wasn’t just my social life that slipped either. During those years, I never got any exercise, and I didn’t have any real hobbies. I’m simplifying a little bit here, but my life was basically just divided between going to school and watching TV while drunk.
Even at school, I wasn’t really excelling outside of academics. Law school isn’t just about getting good grades, it’s also about networking. But, I never joined any clubs outside of law review, I never went to networking events, and I barely made friends with anyone.
So, I did well when it came to academics, and I did pretty terribly when it came to everything else in life.
The Danger of High-Functioning Alcoholism
Despite the fact that my life wasn’t going very well, I used my success in school as an excuse for my drinking habit. My logic was that if my drinking was really as out of control as I sometimes worried, I wouldn’t possibly be doing so well in school.
There was really only one thing going right in my life, but that was enough for me to justify my addiction.
I’ve always believed that the term “high-functioning alcoholic” is really a misnomer. Sure, some of us can excel in school or at work, but I’ve never met an addict who didn’t make sacrifices somewhere. We’re all lower-functioning than we would be if we sobered up.
Having one thing going well in my life never should have become an excuse to enable my drinking and let everything else slide.
I was able to do well in law school despite my addiction, but I wasn’t able to do well in the rest of my life. It was only after getting sober — shortly after graduating — that I could develop into a well-rounded individual and truly thrive.