Relationship with a Functional Alcoholic

Relationship with a Functional Alcoholic

A significant sign of sleep deprivation – or depression – is calculating the hours until you’ll next be able to sleep, upon waking. From observing the behavior of several people I have known, it seems alcoholics function much the same way – counting the hours until they’ll be able to drink again.

My relationship with my son’s birthfather was always challenging. While I could always see his role in the problem, it took hindsight for me to see my part: chasing and begging and pleading, instead of just walking away or behaving indifferently. The thing is, I was competing with a ghost I could never best. Sure – there was the occasional other woman (Gina, the Las Vegas blackjack dealer, and his sister’s married best friend, Gwen, come to mind). But the real “other woman” in Tony’s life was booze, more specifically, beer.

We didn’t own a car for most of the time I lived in Jersey City – but once every six weeks or so, we’d rent one. And although we did occasionally go out and see a sight or take a drive to another part of the state, the one thing we did without fail when we had a car was go to the liquor warehouse on Route 1/9. And stock up. How was it that this seemed normal to me? He even bought a small, college-dorm-size fridge he kept fully stocked under his desk so he wouldn’t have to walk the extra 12 feet to the main fridge in the kitchen.

It wasn’t until I moved back to Phoenix and saw a copy of Liguorian Catholic magazine lying on my folks’ coffee table that I began to stitch together the reasons behind Tony’s near-constant absence in our relationship. The cover article was a portrait of a functional alcoholic. When people think of a problem drinker, they tend to picture someone who is constantly drunk and whose life is falling apart because of their drinking. However, that’s only one segment of alcoholics.

Others, like my son’s father, can work at high-level careers, earn good money, have a regular family life, even cultivate social bonds. Some successfully hide their drinking for years. Tony didn’t hide his drinking – it just wasn’t until I had the clarity of distance that I could see how much more alcohol meant to him than I did. No wonder nothing I did could ever grab his attention for longer than a fleeting moment – I couldn’t have won that competition no matter how hard I tried.

So they say we date and follow relationship patterns. When I look at my relationships with Tony and John, the two men couldn’t be more diametrically opposite. Except for one thing: my husband has struggled, on and off, with addiction issues for most of his adult life. The distinct difference is that I know how much I matter to my husband – even on the rare occasions when he still struggles, I know he loves me more and that he wants our relationship to succeed. I never once felt anything close to that kind of love or commitment in my relationship with Tony.

John more than likely inherited his addictive tendencies from his mother. Even after spending 10 years together, I’m not sure where Tony’s originated. But knowing, as I do, how big a role heredity can play in traits like addiction, I’m hoping that Eric takes after me on this one.

Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

2 thoughts on “Relationship with a Functional Alcoholic

  1. One of the best things about open adopiton (when compared to traditional closed adoption) is the collection and sharing of background information. Knowing this information about his birth father can better prepare Eric for his future. Without your openness, Laura, he could encounter the behavior and no one would recognize the genetic roots.

    Long ago, when I worked at the first adoption agency I worked in (early 80s) I had a call from a worried adoptive mother. Her 14 year old son was in a treatment facility for boys with alcohol addiction problems. In a group meeting, the parents of the boys had shared that in every instance but theirs, one or more biological parent had a drinking problem.Their son was the only adopted person in the group.

    She asked me if it was possible for me to research the file looking for alcohol or other addictions in the lives of his birth parents. They had only been given information verbally and they hadn’t remembered much of what they heard in their excitement to take their new baby home.

    I pulled the file and read with interest the slim information about the alleged birth father. Before 1979, unmarried fathers did not have legal rights, so he had not been involved in any counseling nor did he fill out any background information sheets. There was, however, plenty of comments from the birth mother and her family about his drinking!

    I typed up the information (deleting identifying information, it was illegal to share their identities at that time), along with details about his birth mother and mailed it to the adoptive mother. She called back: That made it 100% of the boys in the treatment group who had a biological link to addiction issues. Like all parents they feared it was their parenting that had caused it! This also helped me understand how important it is to give complete and accurate information to adoptive parents. The prevelant belief that a child is a blank slate, and the less the adopting parents know about the original family, the more they can mold the child to be like them is FALSE!

    And just as they need the warnings, adoptive parents need to know and see, the positive things about both parents to help their children grow to their best potential, because adopted persons have personalities that are — I believe — genetic.

    Beth Kozan


    1. I agree with everything you said, Beth – and yet I’m fairly certain that Tony was one of those rare individuals who did not inherit his problem drinking from a parent. A grandparent, perhaps? His mom had regular migraines and his dad was a chain smoker, but I don’t believe either of them was ever much of a drinker. The potentially good thing there is that maybe our son will come out unscathed in regard to this particular challenge. I saw him and his girlfriend drink a few beers each night we were visiting with him and his family – but they didn’t get drunk. Still, I’ve no idea how much or how regularly he imbibes. Thanks, as always, for the feedback. Laura


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