Food & Drinks

Functional alcoholics: We like our drinks and function just fine

Functional alcoholics like their drinks as they function just fine

A lady seen in this picture sipping booze. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


  • Most people struggling with alcohol today hardly fit this description.
  • Functioning alcoholics rarely admit they have a problem and the people closest to them see no odd thing because their lives are seemingly in order.
  • Eden Halfway House offers outpatient and inpatient rehabilitation programs, which begin with a screening and assessment.

If you are asked to describe a typical alcoholic, you will probably think of someone who is loud, unkempt, and unable to find their way home. But this does not paint the complete picture.

Most people struggling with alcohol today hardly fit this description. They are high-functioning alcoholics, and addiction experts say impressionable women and men are increasingly getting addicted.

Anne Wachira is hardly your stereotypical alcoholic. She has a university degree, a successful job in Nairobi, and a beautiful home.

On weekdays and weekends, she could drink alcohol to help her beat boredom, hang out with friends, or just because she was working on Zoom and a glass of whisky, seemed like a perfect ‘companion’.

The drinking was not a problem because she was highly functional. Just like many of her friends or the Instagram-addicted generation who post where they drink every weekend, because they maintain a somewhat respectable, high-profile life, they never see themselves as alcoholics. Anne is a recovering alcoholic. For the years she was trapped in the throes of alcoholism, no one knew she was abusing it.

“I’m from a family where alcohol was part of our heritage,” she says.

“My dad was known as the ‘fun times dad’ and because he was protective of his girls, he preferred to have us drink at home than go out drinking with the boys,” she says.

Unfortunately, her father moved from mastering the bottle to being mastered by it. He drank away his job and eventually his life. Anne was heartbroken.

But instead of breaking the alliance with alcohol, her father’s death bonded them further. It was her way of dealing with the loss.

What began to mask pain, became a way of life. She started drinking round the clock. Not a day passed without a drink. Her coffee mug carried more whiskey than coffee, “one-for-the-road” was her anthem, and her weekend plans revolved around bottomless mimosas.

“I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. After all, I was handling my stuff and wasn’t sleeping in a ditch somewhere, but I was miserable when sober,” she says. Drinking is now a status symbol, thanks to social media. The pricier the drinks weighing on your hand, the higher up you climb on societal standards. It is also a celebrated social lubricant.

Any social gathering is an opportunity to drink, says Benard Mwangi, a counselor at the Eden Halfway House in Nairobi and 18 years sober.

Addition experts say the pandemic has tipped heavy drivers into alcoholism. It is tempting to treat yourself with many bottles of whisky.

Reformed alcoholic

This was Seth Oketch for 10 years. He speaks confidently, with a deep, gentle voice. His life is both a bright, airy museum and a huge monument in progress.

In the museum of his life, you will find pieces of himself showing a life almost lost to alcohol. Born in the 70s, Mr Oketch started drinking when he was 15 after his mother suffered from a mental illness.

“The lack of joy, peace and love from my mom drove me straight into the arms of alcohol,” he says.

Soon, it became a way of life. He drank throughout university and his first few jobs before his alcohol consumption became unmanageable attracting criticism from his family, friends and strangers.

“I became an example of who not to be in the village,” Mr. Oketch recalls.

“Deep down I wanted to stop drinking but I couldn’t. I felt hopeless, useless, alone, and misunderstood.”

The story of functional alcoholics is one of silent loss because it is not such an obvious tragedy. Functioning alcoholics rarely admit they have a problem and the people closest to them see no odd thing because their lives are seemingly in order.

“Functioning alcoholism is the last stage before degeneration,” says Mr. Mwangi.

“But because of our perception of what an alcoholic should look like, we’re blind to the signs exhibited by functioning alcoholics who eventually fall further without help.”

According to a 2019 report by Nacada, an estimated three million Kenyans suffer from alcohol use disorder. Approximately 10 percent of Kenyans aged 15-65 are suffering from addiction, with the pandemic providing the perfect breeding ground for functioning alcoholism.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in alcohol use. Booze is now delivered straight to your doorstep. “Working from home led to the falling of long-established boundaries between home, work and the bar. Now, all these three meet in one place,” Mr. Mwangi says.

He notes that before the pandemic, functioning alcoholics were people mainly in the service industry, but this has quickly evolved to include other professions.

Why is this?

“Going to work provided some form of supervision. There’s no way you can drink in the office but at home, big brother isn’t watching,” he says.

Furthermore, job losses and working from home have led to people having more time to drink. People are also turning to alcohol because of loneliness and anxiety due to life pressures making alcohol difficult to manage. They are worried about the future.

“Will they keep their jobs, provide for their families, and live a decent life. We have few coping skills to deal with life when it has thrown curve balls at us. For example, the pandemic saw many lose their livelihood. This is a significant loss to many that lead us straight to the bottle,” Mr. Mwangi says.

A disease

Most Kenyans do not know that alcoholism is a disease.

When Mr. Oketch’s family took him to rehab which marked the beginning of his tryst with alcohol, he was told alcoholism was a disease that required professional help. For the first time in his life, he felt understood. He promised to learn as much as he can to help others like him.

Since 2001, no alcoholic drink has gone past his lips. This current life is a monument in progress.

Now a counselor at Eden Halfway House, he has walked alongside hundreds, here and abroad, to a place where alcohol no longer calls the shots in their lives.

In his two-decade career, he has seen many relapses after rehab because they get overwhelmed with the life outside, resorting again to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Warning signs

With high functioning alcoholism being so hard to point out at, how will one know that they need help?

“If anyone has told you to check on your drinking, be it your partner, children, friend or employer or anyone, take time to speak to a professional,” Mr Oketch says.

“Denial is the reason why alcohol kills. It’s hard as an alcoholic to see a problem.”

Mr Mwangi adds that the concerned parties may not point out the drinking problem but its consequences. They may say that you are too loud, missing work deadlines, family visits, or even playtime with your children because of alcohol. When they do, seek professionals for help.

Eden Halfway House offers outpatient and inpatient rehabilitation programs, which begin with a screening and assessment.

Outpatient programs consist of individual, group and family counseling sessions for 12 weeks.

Inpatient rehab programs require admission for three months. It includes stabilization, biomedical and psychiatric evaluation, introduction to 12 AA steps, and individual and group therapy sessions among others.

Also, examine yourself.

“Before you pop open a bottle, ask yourself if you’re drinking for pleasure or to drown your sorrows,” Mr Mwangi says.

“There are usually underlying issues that need to be addressed. Alcohol consumption may be a result, not the root.”

Clear out the alcohol and replace it with something else to numb the cravings and fill the time, and look for accountability partners.

Three bottles of whisky

Anne’s drinking increased during the pandemic as she fell into depression. She realized alcohol was a problem when the caretaker asked her about the three whiskey bottles in her dustbin she had drunk alone over the weekend, and when her mother told her she would end up like her father.

“My aha moment came after a night of excessive drinking, with my head in the toilet bowl after vomiting blood and bile due to alcohol exacerbating my stomach ulcers. I asked myself, “is alcohol worth risking my life for?”

That January 15, 2021, was the last time she drank.

In deciding to quit, Anne went cold turkey. The withdrawal symptoms were rough— tremors, night sweats, panic attacks, sleeplessness —but she was resolute. Also, as opposed to going to rehab, she underwent therapy to address the ‘why’ behind her drinking. She “needed to face the demons she was drowning in alcohol.”

To stay clean, she replaced drinking times with the gym, got an accountability partner, did away with her old friends, forming new habits and relationships. She also uses the Sober Time app to maintain her sober days and journals daily. “It’s a very lonely journey because I realized that I had no friends, just drinking buddies,” she says.

Nonetheless, she has no regrets. “I’m healthier physically, financially, emotionally, and relationally.”