Vices are generally seen as an inherent weakness, a liability, a parasite which needs to be eradicated.
Addicts of them are doomed to an ever-lasting struggle, yet some see them as a life-enhancment — a little spice to a rich meal or an edge to an otherwise noble character.
The first person that comes to mind when I hear the term “functioning alcoholic” (or in fact, functioning almost-any-substance-there-is-ic) is my old bar supervisor, Gordon. He lives another expression as well: “Like father, like son.” He often buys coke from his dad, at a special price for family members, of course.
Their time together consists of partying and substance-infused sprees that redefines any idea of being a “cool" parent.
Keep in mind, Gordon's dad is a manager of a very successful bar and restaurant; and Gordon himself has a psychology degree from a prestigious university. They’re no burn-outs by any stretch of the imagination.
However, the latter self-defines himself as a “functioning alcoholic and a very strong drug enthusiast.” He says he’s had alcohol poisoning in the past, which never really made him rethink his lifestyle. He just “stayed off it for a while to recover, and then went back to normal.”
On all-night benders that would blend in with daytime shifts — even during the busiest holiday times — not only did his state never interfere with his supervisor duties, but customer satisfaction seemed to be directly proportional with the alcohol and drug levels in his body at the time.
The secret, in Gordon’s words, is “balancing it out” — meaning he found a happy medium between being too drunk and being too coked up. He seems to always find an inner balance. When speaking with Gordon about his vices, words like “problem” never make an appearance. Actually, he exudes a strange kind of pride about his lifestyle, the way a boy with a birthmark accepts it as a unique feature that is part of who he is, a sign of individuality, a kiss from God himself.
“I can party all night instead of having one beer and going home, go to work the next morning, have an entire busy shift without moaning like most people, and go out afterwards once again,” he adds. “I don’t miss out on fun and nights out, and I don’t miss work either.”
“I don’t miss out on fun and nights out, and I don’t miss work either.”
Any way you look at it, this is an achievement not many can pull off. The same way people workout, play games, go on vacations or undertake anything else they love that releases dopamine into the brain, Gordon and his dad — and many others like them — achieve the same with the help of their vice of choice.
Experts generally consider that the deeply intrinsic desire for intoxication — that strong inner itch which only certain substances can scratch and relieve — is a frantic road with only one destination to addiction rather many different directions and exits.
Gordon finds it hard to believe this applies to him, and even though most functioning addicts and users would say the same, he makes a point that is hard to argue.
“I don’t see myself just sitting alone in a bar, drinking until I’m blackout drunk, or staying home doing grams and grams of coke until I O.D.,” he says. “I can have a drink or line by myself here and there, but the whole point of doing it is to make other things more fun; it lets me have even more fun doing things I like with people I enjoy hanging out with.”
This point is somewhat of an expansion of a famous experiment done by Bruce Alexander in the '70s, where rats were given a choice of cocaine water and normal water while being in an isolated cage, a rat prison. It choose the coke water over and over again, neglecting food and anything else a lonely rat in a cell can divert itself with until finally dying.
The same choice was given to rats in a rat park — something like a rat Disneyland, where they roamed free and did anything a rat could ever wish for. They showed no interest in the coke water in the second case. Johan Hari, author of "Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs," makes the point that real connection and genuine happiness will always overpower drugs and addiction. He argues the Vietnam War is a perfect example of a real-life rat cage which people have escaped for good, not through drugs but through reconnection with their real lives afterwards.
Gordon is basically the rat that says, “Hey, why can’t I enjoy my Disneyland and turn it into an even better fairy tale with the help of various substances?” In his case, use is a gateway to more picturesque and vivid dimensions that remain out of reach for his sober mind. His hobbies, “do revolve largely around drinking, but by far not entirely.” Or, at times, he just wants, “to get hammered, as simple as that.”
However, for something that sounds so good that it must be a trade with the devil, there has to be a catch. Gordon realizes the health risks his lifestyle poses, and plans to “eventually cut back.” Then again, his father never did, and neither did other older people from the same and other social circles.
Yet Gordon also says he knows, “cutting back would probably be easier said than done, and that some things might not be as fun, at least in the beginning.” But as he has done it in certain weeks — when money or his body energy have just been too low — he also believes it wouldn’t be that much different on a grander scale.
At times, he just wants, “to get hammered, as simple as that.”
“But not too much, because what’s the point in that?” he asks. “Living in a way that I feel like I’m missing out on things, just so I can get to live a few more of unfulfilled years, if that even happens?”
Many manage to live with their vices to an old age, even thrive in the chaos, born out of their coexistence. In a way, those functioning addicts might be more liberated from their vices than those who spend their time battling theirs in the pursuit of a normal lifestyle. Addiction and obsession, behavioral or substance, will always manifest themselves in one form or another throughout life. Making money to live, or living to make money.
Obsession and addiction hide in the unhealthy attitude towards our desires, the arrangement of our priorities. Or as Alice Cooper once said, his experience with alcohol was, “great for 15 years, and then one year it was hell, because it owned me, I didn’t own it.”
Vices are complex, and so are the people who they are inherent to. Gordon’s words could probably ring a bell in ears who have heard something similar from a beloved while he or she still owned the vice rather than the other way around. There can’t be an exact formula for measuring when exactly this transition occurs, or a tested way to pin down the nature of the two parties’ connection. Though knowing to keep an eye for them though is surely a good first step.