One of our executives got onstage and playfully announced that the bar was now open, and, did he mention, the bar was now open? We’d just reached the end of a two-day long corporate training session. And so I joined my colleagues in filing out of the room, and dutifully lined up for the bar.
Cocktail hour was, of course, optional, but we had been encouraged to mingle – and the executives would be watching! Two hours later, almost everyone had left except for me, a few of my teammates and a handful of executives, including the one who had made the initial announcement. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he watched me laugh with uncharacteristic shrillness and stockpile drink tickets to race to the bar. At one point, the bartender began turning us away, which is when I headed to the liquor store to get more beer and went home to drink it by myself.
By the time my boyfriend came home, I was 10 drinks deep and starting in on the wine. He cautiously asked what had happened to provoke this latest bender. I replied that nope, nothing was wrong, I just kind of felt like having some drinks, and besides, it’s Thursday! My boyfriend agreed – he was always tiptoeing around my drinking and doing his best to rationalize it to both of us. But deep inside, I knew that it hadn’t been my choice at all, and the next day was spent berating myself for losing control yet again.
A high-functioning – or functional – alcoholic is someone who seems to be doing just fine as they abuse alcohol. Functional alcoholism can be hard to spot, and it tends to fester in corporate and start-up environments where bonds are formed and deals made over happy hour, boozy conferences and, in some cases, free beer from the work fridge. Employees are told it’s up to them to drink responsibly, but that just wasn’t an option for me.
In my case, the choice entailed either preparing for a major drinking binge by having alcohol at my house and planning to work from home the following day, or not drinking at all. And I never once chose the latter.
I am a functional alcoholic because I was still able to keep work commitments, friends, a relationship and ties with family. I had lost nothing due to drinking; I was objectively successful to the outside observer. My own mother was surprised to learn about my condition, despite being quite close to me.
Although I was functional, the cracks began to show at work some months ago. My boss was on my case for taking too many work-from-home days, which had been mainly due to hangovers, and for disappearing for an entire day at a conference, due to a bender that had involved morning drinking. The stress of work only caused me to drink more, which in turn further negatively affected my performance. And after a stressful day, there was always a colleague who would go for a drink with me, or a work event involving free booze, which meant I could often start my evening off with a few drinks with colleagues before going home to continue the binge.
Of course, corporate culture was only the latest enabler. I had turned 18 (the legal drinking age in my hometown of Edmonton) as a shy and insecure teenager, and alcohol had helped me come out of my shell. I used alcohol to forge bonds with friends – and as anyone who has been on the networking app Bumble BFF can attest – there’s no shortage of young women looking for friends to drink wine with. Later, I could barely function in social situations without a drink in my hand.
In a society where alcohol is aggressively marketed and all but forced on participants in a majority of social activities, professional and otherwise, I’d like us to consider the people who cannot have just one drink. As someone trying to recover, where does this leave me?
Learning how to say no is certainly my responsibility, but it’s not easy to do when the pressure to drink is everywhere. This pressure is both cultural and interpersonal. I feel the same pang when I watch the TV series Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 (which rocks – don’t get me wrong) as I do when someone assumes I’ll become their drink-ticket buddy at a work event (at this point, my reputation precedes me).
Alcohol began as a way for me to have fun and meet new people, but in recent years it’s also become my main support system. I used alcohol to combat the isolation I often felt in my personal – and more recently, professional – life. I often think that society handed me a drink rather than give me the resources to enable me to cope with my experiences, which have included sexual assault, anxiety, financial strain, depression and now addiction.
As I begin to take the necessary steps to carve out a place in the world for myself that doesn’t involve alcohol, I can see that the path ahead probably won’t be easy. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t feel a strong urge to drink as they watched the inauguration of President Trump and I’m no exception. But in the end, this gives me an added incentive to stay sober: Instead of lying in bed recovering from a hangover, I’ll be fighting.
Kristen Pyszczyk lives in Toronto.