I started drinking at 24 and was in rehab by 31: Why 'functioning' alcoholism isn’t what you think

People are often bemused when I say I was a ‘functioning’ alcoholic. They might think, "how do you function exactly when you’re alcohol dependent?". Well, it’s surprisingly easy when you have been working hard at your alcoholism for as many years as I did. 

What is perhaps most surprising about my story is that I didn’t drink until I was 24. I was tricked into drinking by my best friend at the time and continued to drink from then on. In the early days, it began with drinking on a Saturday night. I used to joke that my favourite drink was Sambuca because it had my name on it. Eventually, my favourite choice of drink became rosé wine. Typically, I would drink anywhere between three and five glasses on a night out. Inevitably, it would get me bladdered, but I’d still manage to get to work at 10am the next day.

Like most twenty-somethings, I realised I could have a good time when I was drinking - or at least pretend I was. The pattern of drinking and functioning had become well established, especially after my friend and I started going out on weeknights. Student night in our favourite bar meant cheap drinks, and often we’d be the first ones to arrive and the last to leave.

At 25, my world changed when I found out my mother had died from ovarian cancer. Because of a relationship breakdown seven years earlier, I had no idea that she had been ill. Without  realising it at that time, her death had a profound impact on me. However, like any trauma, you never fully realise how it has affected you until some time after - often many years later. 

One of the harsh realisations of that time was that the friends I thought I had, were simply my playmates to go out on the town with. While I was ‘coping’ on the face of it, I felt abandoned and isolated with a myriad of intense emotions that I was unable to make sense of, let alone process.

It was around this time that drinking at home began to feature. Up until then, my friends and I would have warm-up drinks before leaving for town, but I never drank on my own. Now, I’d buy a couple of bottles of wine on a Saturday night and rent a film from Blockbuster. Before the nearby off-license closed in the early hours, I would go and stock up with a couple more. However, as they were only mini bottles, I never once considered my intake to be binge-drinking.

Two years later, aged 27, I was drinking up to two average-sized bottles of wine most nights. By then, I was working all hours at a national charity I’d founded, going to the gym every day without fail and drinking over several hours through the night. When early risers were having their morning coffee, I was finishing my last glass of wine before passing out. 

For a long time, my lifestyle didn’t allow for proper sleep. In my field of work, I was considered a leading voice on men’s eating disorders and often spoke at major conferences. Being fuelled by adrenaline at the best of times, the only way to mitigate my nerves was alcohol. In the short term, alcohol was highly effective in helping me to manage these situations. Goodness knows how many conferences I spoke at first thing in the morning, and I would still be feeling the effects from the alcohol from the night before - but I wasn’t ‘drunk.’

Never once did I question my drinking. Never once was my drinking ‘over-spilling’ as it were. Never once did anyone suspect that I was drinking heavily in isolation. Because on the surface, I was ‘functioning.’ I was a high-flier and I looked gym-fit. Why on earth would I or anyone else think that I could possibly have a problem? In retrospect, yes, all the signs were there. But, at the time, those signs did not scream: ‘Sam is alcohol dependent!’

Ironically, I would often turn down alcohol when the opportunity arose in social situations, whether it would be a post-conference get together or a barbecue on the beach. When I was offered anything to drink, I strictly declined. ‘You're so disciplined,’ my friends and colleagues would frequently comment. In reality, it was a facade, as I resisted drinking before the gym and would only begin drinking after I got home, sometime after 9pm. Of course, this was always in isolation, which was the ideal condition for my addiction to flourish.

For many years, the gym had acted as a safeguard for my alcohol dependency. By the age of 28, I was drinking three or more bottles at night and regularly skipped the gym in order to recover. Often sleeping all day when I could, I would resume drinking again anytime after 5pm on my ‘rest days’ while working at my desk. Even though I’d only just woken up, it felt like a respectable time to drink and therefore became ‘wine o’clock.’ This was when I eventually quit the gym altogether and was effectively drinking for all the hours I was awake. After five years of progressive alcoholism, I was prioritising alcohol over the gym and my health. 

When I first went ‘cold turkey’ on a whim at the age of 30, I experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms. However, I had no idea that the severe bouts of illness I was experiencing were down to stopping abruptly or cutting back too quickly. Nor did I know the signs or the dangers of alcohol withdrawal. In fact, it still hadn't even occurred to me that I was alcohol dependent. 

Looking back, my ‘functioning’ alcoholism only reinforced my denial. I was naive in thinking because I was ‘fine’ when I drank, there was no problem. It took me a few years to realise that when I stopped drinking, my symptoms had been masked by the fact that I had been functioning while drinking. Or put another way, if you have a tolerance to alcohol, it is a sign of dependency. It’s criminal that there isn’t more public health information on the dangers of alcohol’s addictive nature. 

Unfortunately, since the start of the pandemic, I see the signs in my friends and acquaintances. Nearly every photo on their Instagram stories is alcohol-related. ‘I deserve this drink’ or ‘I’ve earned this glass of wine’ they’ll caption it, with a selfie of themselves with a drink in hand. Their last story, invariably posted in the previous twenty-four hours, is a similar story. In my Facebook memories, there are daily photos of me holding a glass of wine for the world to see, yet my ‘addiction’ was invisible.

At the start, drinking can be fun and enjoyable. But when you’re drinking for every mood and situation, it’s become a problem. When you’re drinking, and you’re no longer sure why, it’s likely to be alcohol dependency. From first-hand experience, I can tell you there’s no line you cross or sign that says: "Welcome, you’ve now crossed into the territory of alcohol addiction".

Now over two years of sobriety, after several relapses and four detoxes, I’ve concluded alcohol-dependent people like me do work very hard, and we are disciplined. In the end, our recovery has to be much bigger than our alcohol addiction ever was.