I was raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, an urban working-class seaport with boundless character. My mother was a music teacher; my father was a lawyer; and I was an only child who received more than enough unconditional love, attention and support for all I chose to pursue. At times, I wished my parents had focused less on me, as they were overprotective and strict, and I was fiercely independent.
My transition from a small private school to the state’s largest high school with a freshman class of a thousand students was both overwhelming and exhilarating. I thrived in the diverse culture, social life, academics and extra-curricular activities: field hockey tri-captain, track, tennis, drama club, debate team and more. My high school friendships were based on loyalty, protection and making memories together. I have maintained many of those friendships to this day.
I was proud to have graduated from high school with honors, and was more than ready to transition to college. I had “strict” criteria for choosing which college to attend. It had to be far away from home, possess an active sorority and fraternity culture, and a have beautiful campus. I found these qualities at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
I still remember the day I arrived, my euphoria about the journey ahead and the sense of freedom! I quickly acclimated, joined a sorority and excelled academically. Four years passed quickly, and life felt like an ongoing celebration with anticipation of the next compelling adventure.
Following graduation, I moved with my best friends from college to Manhattan Beach, California. Surrounded by palm trees, ocean and sunshine, I felt I had arrived in heaven. I was hired for a producing job with great potential at the Disney Channel and was living out my dream of working in the television production industry.
After two years, however, I began to miss my East Coast roots, grew disillusioned with corporate America and decided to move to Nantucket Island to “find myself.” I settled in Boston with a group of friends where I remained for the next 13 years. I craved a meaningful career, so I earned a master of science degree in counseling psychology from Northeastern University.
My name is Sarah, and I am an alcoholic.
When you read this abbreviated version of my life story, it appears I had a successful, satisfying and privileged existence – and I did. However, I was an active alcoholic for twelve years, subconsciously hiding behind my external accomplishments, friendships and outward appearance. My loved ones and I struggled to see the severity of my situation. I did not have the obvious external losses and red flags that society often views as prerequisites for addiction.
I was a binge drinker who blacked out, experiencing complete memory loss for multiple hours when overly intoxicated. I would drink large quantities of hard liquor 2-3 nights a week, but I never allowed it to interfere with my academic or professional commitments. Even with this façade of control, my behavior when intoxicated was dangerous, provocative and the antithesis of my true self.
I assumed that everyone who drank too much alcohol would black out; a part of me enjoyed the complete escape and was not scared by this consequence of my drinking. As long as I had my vice, my high and my rebellion, I was willing to conform to the societal norms of attending school and working. Ordinary life wasn’t exciting enough, and alcohol was my pacifier.
I had assumed I would binge drink for awhile and then magically “phase out” once I became an adult. However, after celebrating my 23rd birthday with my usual blur of memories of just half of the night, I realized that for some reason I was not outgrowing my drinking patterns. As a gift to myself, I swore off alcohol for six months. Much to the surprise of those around me, I succeeded.
Thus began my four-year, cyclical odyssey of trying to control my drinking and turn myself into a “normal” drinker, which included drinking water in between drinks, drinking alcohol I did not like, exercising before drinking, meditating before drinking (the ultimate oxymoron), seeing a moderation management therapist and beyond. In four years, nothing changed. As an intelligent person who could accomplish most goals I had set for myself, I had met my match.
By the age of 27, I was tired of being “that drunk girl” at the party, and my emptiness and shame began to reach a crescendo. I realized that the life I wanted was not possible with alcohol in it, but I could not imagine my life without it.
While the conclusion seems obvious, the battle within the mind of an alcoholic is powerful. Because I was a high-functioning individual, I was unable to see myself as the “A” word. Friends would say, “You’re not like those people.” Yet no matter how I tried to disguise or dress up my alcoholism, I was beginning to realize that I was one of those people. I was no different than the homeless person on the street or someone in prison for alcohol-related offenses.
I have kept a journal since the age of eleven, and I am grateful for all that I recorded about my battle with alcoholism because it provided the concrete evidence I needed to combat the thought distortions created by this disease. I was blessed to have the opportunity to write a book about high-functioning alcoholics and to include some of these journal entries as a way for others to relate to my struggle. I wrote the book I had needed while fumbling my way through early sobriety.
Recovery from an addiction involves a lifestyle change, finding social support, self-care, new coping skills, attending mutual-help meetings, addressing underlying mental health issues and more. I did not receive immediate rewards for getting sober; in fact, I felt worse before I felt better, both physically and psychologically.
Today, I have fully accepted that I am an alcoholic. I know at times my mind may tell me that drinking is a good idea, but the reality is I cannot have the life I have today with alcohol in the picture. As a result of my complicated journey, I have learned that being an alcoholic and achieving external success are not mutually exclusive, the disease of alcoholism does exact a price.
I am so grateful to the friends and family who have supported me along this path and for the ongoing opportunities to help others heal in their recovery journey. As a therapist who specializes in addiction treatment, I am clear about why I need to keep fighting the battle. I am not just fighting for me, but for those I can help now and in the future.
Sarah Allen Benton is author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic and co-owner of Benton Behavioral Health Consulting, LLC. She is currently the Director of Clinical Services at Aware Recovery Care home-based addiction treatment in North Haven, Connecticut, and a clinical consultant for The Strathmore House transitional sober living for men in Boston, Massachusetts. www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com