10
April 16, 2019

I was a High-Functioning Alcoholic—& I was Damn Good at It.

My wedding day was magnificent.

My wife was stunningly beautiful, all of my friends and family were there, and the afternoon was perfectly sun-drenched. I have a lot of magical memories from my wedding and the births of our four children—the kinds of memories that will last a lifetime and sit at the top of my list of proud experiences. These were the kinds of days one might expect me to declare as the best days of my life.

But they weren’t. Not even close.

The best day of my life was January 10, 2018. That’s the day I declared to the world that I was an alcoholic.

Except for my spouse and my parents, my declaration was a shock to everyone I knew. My wife and I owned our own moderately successful small business, our kids were smart and healthy, we were active in our community and with our church, and our house was well-maintained with a neatly trimmed lawn. I was a high-functioning alcoholic with no outward signs of calamity.

But on the inside, I was slowly dying.

My drinking wasn’t getting worse as time passed, but my alcohol-induced depression was becoming debilitating and deadly. I would wake at 3 a.m. Monday mornings, after a weekend of drinking, in a panic—unable to catch my breath and with thoughts racing through my head. I would simultaneously feel the crushing weight of regret from overdrinking and saying crude things, yet also wish the weekend wasn’t over so I could drink away the pain. I called it “the pit,” and it was getting deeper and darker and more hopeless as my drinking continued. I didn’t want to live anymore. The darkness was closing in, and only my wife knew the depths of my despair.

To my friends, neighbors, and most of my family, I was productive and helpful and gave all indications that I was happy. I did what I was supposed to do. I was a high-functioning alcoholic, and I played the role magnificently.

The decision to come out about my alcoholism was not easily made, and I was terrified about the repercussions. In addition to the small business my wife and I owned, I coached high school soccer, and I was worried my admission would get me fired. I remember walking off the field the night before my coming out email. As I said goodbye to the other coaches, I knew our relationships would never be the same. I didn’t know if they would be supportive or disgusted, but I knew things would be different. It was one of many thoughts that filled me with anxiety.

I was very accustomed to the mental burden of anxiety. That’s one of the most onerous aspects of alcoholism. Sometimes it is overwhelming, and other times it is just a dull, back-of-the-mind concern. But the anxiety is always there. So, my anxiety over coming out about my disease was as familiar as it was paralyzing.

I was one year into my recovery from alcoholism at the time of my coming out announcement. With my recovery well underway and progressing in a healthy direction, it might seem pointless to tell people a secret they might never really need to know. I decided to announce my affliction for two reasons.

Why I Came Out Alcoholic

The first one was selfish; I was sick of attending social gatherings and skirting around my excuse for not drinking. “I just don’t feel like drinking tonight,” isn’t convincing when coming from someone with a wildly memorable love of alcohol. My friends had no idea I was an alcoholic, but they knew beyond a doubt that I loved to drink. I avoided socializing as much as possible in my first year in sobriety. But some events were unavoidable, and my friends weren’t buying my reason for declining to partake. My coming out would fix that.

Secondly, I decided to come out as an alcoholic for exactly the benevolent reason you are probably imagining. There are estimated to be over 15 million alcoholics in the United States, and only a small fraction of them seek help and recover. Most suffer in silence. Many of them hide in plain sight as high-functioning alcoholics. I was hopeful that large segment of the population would resonate with my story and seek help.

I fended off my terror and anxiety and sent my coming out email and social media announcement to over 3,000 people on the 10th of January, 2018. What resulted was beyond my wildest imagination. First, some factual results.

>> I did not get fired.
>> 100 percent of the responses and calls I received were supportive.
>> My anxiety vanished for the first time in over a decade.
>> People resonated. My story has helped others.
>> I am no longer pressured to drink at social functions.

In spite of my fear and dread for the aftermath of my coming out, all of the points above were predictable, and they left me with a sense of satisfaction about my decision. Had that been it, I would have been pleased. But that wasn’t it—not by a long shot.

Knowing Connection

My relationships changed in ways I never imagined. Casual, throwaway acquaintances transformed into meaningful connections. Distant friendships turned into bonds of mutual respect and knowing. Relationships of necessity—coworkers, business associates, fellow church members—were suddenly linked to me through pain and the shared human condition. My life and interactions took on a previously unexperienced profoundness.

I am not claiming that everyone I knew was a high-functioning alcoholic. What I am saying is that alcoholism had touched the lives of virtually everyone I knew. Three million people a year die from alcohol-related circumstances. The likelihood that the disease has touched a person’s life—whether battling for survival within the home or helplessly watching a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving—is incredibly high.

And the way my people felt an instant brotherhood with me upon reading my confession was as unexpected as it was exhilarating. I was worried that my admission would shame me and get me fired. Instead, it earned me the respect, love, and commiseration of my peers. It makes me tear up to this day to think about the impact coming out had on my life and the relationships that surrounded me.

Stigma

As miraculous as those connection were, they were not the most impactful result of my coming out as an alcoholic. You see, there is a great deal of shame involved in alcoholism. Even more shame than with most addictions because alcohol is so glorified in our society. As an active alcoholic, I was ashamed of my addiction. But in recovery, I was even more ashamed to decline to participate in the national pastime of celebratory boozing. I felt weak, incomplete, and even deranged because I couldn’t drink like everyone else. That feeling—that shame—had caused me to try, and fail, to quit drinking half-a-dozen or so times over the past decade.

The stigma associated with alcoholism envelops not just the active alcoholics, but the drinkers in recovery as well. By coming out—by owning my alcoholic label and declaring that I was the proud survivor of a dastardly disease—I took away a little bit of the strength of the powerful stigma associated with alcoholism.

That felt great. Really, really great. In fact, it felt like I was doing what I was put on Earth to do. And it continues to feel like my mission in life. Each time I write about alcoholism, I take another notch out of the stigma and feel more like I’m fulfilling my destiny. There are a lot of people muddling through life and asking, “Is this all there is?” And I was one of them. Then I told my truth, and my purpose unfolded right before my eyes.

Before I announced my affliction to the world, I feared scorn and employment termination. When I pushed through the anxiety and worry, I was rewarded with transformative relationships and a clear vision of my destined path in life. Unimaginable.

Who would drink with me?

Coming out did something else unexpected, too. Admitting my truth solidified my commitment to sobriety. When I told everyone who had ever given me their email address—friends, family, business associates, and many others—the details about my alcohol-induced depression and the damage alcohol had done to my marriage, I wiped clean my long list of drinking options. My friends were not degenerates. They were upstanding, family-oriented people. They were the friends you would expect a high-functioning alcoholic to have. When I told them my story, any hope of changing my mind and deciding to drink again vanished.

If I ever do feel the urge to try again, who would drink with me? Everyone I know knows. Everyone I know loves me for my outspoken recovery. Everyone I know admires my courage and vulnerability. No matter how thirsty I get, nothing will change how my friends feel.

And that’s why the day I came out alcoholic was the best day of my life.

If you are considering making a change to your drinking patterns, or if you are concerned about the drinking of a loved one, I encourage you to read my free e-book, Guide to Early Sobriety.

I hope you find what you are looking for, even if you don’t know you are searching. Maybe it will inspire you to change your life.

Maybe you’ll even have a new best day.

author: Matt Salis

Image: Author's own

Editor: Kelsey Michal

Bonus:

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cagemmell Jul 19, 2019 5:04am

I live with a functioning alcoholic. All I can do is read articles like yours and hope someday he will take a look at what this has done to his outlook. I don’t nag, I work around it. The kids are grown, the major stresses in life are over (he’s 67), but I guess it’s easy for him to be in denial. It’s a beer addiction, and the newer, better ones just keep coming. I continue to seek articles like yours and hope.

michealfredrick98 Jul 1, 2019 6:31pm

hello there, it’s my pleasure

catpelkey Apr 27, 2019 9:31am

Thanks, Matt, for another great article. Sharing your story is helpful to me and I appreciate your gift to recovering alcoholics in my early recovery. Keep writing!

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Matthew Salis

Matt Salis lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and their four kids. He is a writer, a speaker, a high school soccer coach, an addiction survivor, and an enlightenment explorer (sounds more exciting than an alcoholic in recovery). Matt loves to listen, fight the stigma, get people all wound-up, and be moved to tears. You can read about his alcoholism pre and post sobriety on his blog, and if you are interested in learning about how he navigated early sobriety, check out his free program called SHOUT Sobriety.