The Difference Between High Bottom & High Functioning Alcoholic


In my day, we went out and bought all the self-help books and vowed to get our lives together and try harder than we’ve ever tried before! And you start a whole life makeover plan and eat better and workout and start journaling every day and you have a whole new commitment to life. 

For about a week. 

Now, you do the same thing, but you hit the internet and podcasts and all the sober people's books. I’m sad I didn’t have all this good stuff when I was struggling and that’s also what fuels me to continue creating a ton of resources and information for you so you can find everything you need, learn at your own pace, and have honesty and knowledge about alcoholism, addiction, and recovery. 

There seems to be this misconception that you have to be one or the other- you either fit in the box of having your shit together or you fit in the box of being an alcoholic. But, the truth is, it is almost always a combination of both. 

We have talked about high & low bottoms on this show many times and there are definitely different struggles for those of you who have high bottoms- and I should probably take a moment to explain the concept of high and low bottoms. 

Oftentimes, when people think about alcoholics you envision these lives and situations that are a real mess. You think about rock bottom as this disastrous place where you’ve destroyed your life. 

DUIs, jail, losing jobs and losing homes and losing families, and overall losing everything.

You think of a person who is a mess all-around and looks like a mess and everywhere they go you can tell they’re a mess. It’s drinking to blackout and losing friends, getting arrested, waking up with bruises that you have no idea where they came from.

And if we continue drinking, we can all get to that place. Or, like me, crashing my car drunk- it’s kind of a low bottom. Certainly a low-bottom moment

And then there are high-bottom people. A high-bottom is the person who is over-drinking, who is uncomfortable with how much they are drinking or how much they look forward to drinking or think about drinking. But, for all intents and purposes, they are okay and have their life together. On the outside. 

This is where so many people, so many of you, separate yourselves. You hear these stories, even my story of crashing my car, and you separate yourself by saying,

"Oh, I’m not that bad, I would never do something like that, I’ve never gotten a DUI, I have a job, and money and business and I take care of my family and I’ve never blacked out."

And you try to convince yourself that your problem is different. 

You hear my story and tell yourself that you aren’t as bad as me. And that allows you to lie to yourself and not make recovery a priority. You can tell yourself that you can still get it together, and since you aren’t as bad as me, you can probably still figure out how to drink in moderation, you don’t have to get sober, like me, because you aren’t as bad as me, or whoever you may hear in AA or on the podcast. 

This is what I want you to hear; I was also a high-functioning alcoholic. And maybe I don’t get into my story enough to give you a clear picture. But all the drama that I talk about, my DUI, my weekend in jail, my legal issues, my major downward spiral, was only the last 8 months of my drinking. 

The whole decade+ before that I totally had my shit together. And, even during my 8 months of legal drama, I had my shit together, on the outside.

Just like you. 

I never lost a job because of drinking. I never lost a home or a relationship, I was never homeless, and I blacking out isn't a huge part of my story. 

I had a beautiful place to live, a $60k car in the garage, I always looked great and showed up for work and made a lot of money. I had a full life and social life, I dressed great, people loved having me around, and there were plenty of people who had no idea how much I drank. 

I hear plenty of stories on the podcast and on Facebook about people hiding their drinking or their partner telling their in-laws their dirty little secret, or being at their kid's events drinking, or all the fights that get started because you are drunk and spouses threatening to leave-  and I never had those experiences.

I never had to hide my booze or lie about my drinking, I never drove with kids in the car, I never started crazy fights with my partner because I was drunk, I never hurt myself because I was drunk and fell down or touched a hot stove or burned my kitchen down because I fell asleep with a frozen pizza in the oven- I actually know a couple of people that did that, btw. One of them did it twice- and I know someone else who fell into a campfire because they were drunk. I never did that. 

I know a whole bunch of people who wet the bed or poo their pants- I never did any of that. 

See, if I wanted to use those kinds of details to decide my fate, I could separate myself, too. I could easily tell myself I’m not as bad as millions of people. But those details aren’t the details that matter. 

Just because I didn’t fall into a campfire and I didn’t blackout and I didn’t drink in the morning and I didn’t burn my life to the ground, doesn’t mean I’m not an alcoholic. 

Because, when I get honest with myself, any of those things could have happened to me at any time, they just didn’t. And I don’t know why that stuff didn’t happen- I didn’t fall into a campfire because I wouldn’t be next to a campfire because I don’t go camping- and I didn’t burn my kitchen down probably because I'm totally type "A" obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with crazy anxiety so I set a timer when I put something in the oven or maybe also because I wasn’t a big eater when I was drunk. I didn’t go home drunk and cook very often. 

I definitely don’t know why I didn’t have blackouts and I don’t know why I didn’t drink in the morning. And remember too, I drove drunk nearly 15 years, almost every single day of my life, before I got a DUI. 

And I separated myself, too. The first time I recognized something was off about my drinking, I was 24.  I didn’t get sober until I was 33 ½. 

And all those years, I did the same thing we all do. I talked myself out of believing I actually needed to quit 100% because I didn’t have any ‘issues’.  I wasn’t like my girlfriend who drank in the car on the way to work- I wasn’t like one of my guy friends who got in fights every time he drank and got kicked out of the bar- and I wasn’t like my ‘couples’ friends who got drunk and got in these huge dramatic fights and threw each other’s stuff on the lawn- I wasn’t staying up all night doing drugs, I wasn’t sleeping around and hooking up with random people when I was drunk- I never got a DUI or had a wreck… until I did. 

I knew, deep down inside, that I was an alcoholic by the time I was 25 or 26. I never talked about it to anyone, I didn’t stress about it, I never considered quitting at that time, but I knew I wasn’t doing it right. I knew it was too important to me, I recognized when I was going into social situations I had the thought,

"Don’t worry about it, you can just have a couple of drinks and everything will be fine. "

Or when I was going to work hungover I thought,

"Don’t worry, just get a couple of drinks down and you’ll be fine."

I knew I used it the wrong way long before I ever had anything negative happen. Many years before I got a DUI, many years before I crashed my car, many years before I found myself in jail. 

On the outside, I had it all together. 

I keep saying that because something I learned in my recovery is that you can’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. And what I mean by that is, you are trying to compare how it ‘looks’ for other people, to how you ‘feel’ on the inside. 

It doesn’t matter what the outside details are, because many of those details won’t match. What does matters, is what is happening on the inside. 

Rock bottom has levels- just like we are talking about the high bottom and low bottom- ‘bottom’ is a spectrum. And the thing I want you to understand, the absolute truth about bottom, is that once you are at any level, there’s only one way to go… down. 

If you are a high bottom now, you will eventually drink yourself to the middle, then the low middle, then the low bottom. 

There is a huge difference between being high-functioning, and having a high bottom. I was high-functioning all the way to the end, but I stayed in the game long enough that my actual rock bottom moment was low.

It was terrifying and humiliating and a huge wake-up call. I crashed my car, and my whole life crashed with it. Because in that moment, I could no longer deny what was really going on. I could no longer separate myself from the other ‘alcoholics’. 

And remember, my accident and rock bottom moment was probably about an hour. From crashing my car to being rushed to the ER was probably one hour. 

One hour, out of a decade and a half of drinking, one hour.

And that low bottom moment was 8 months in the making. I got my DUI in April of 2005 and was sober Jan of 2006. 

And I was still high-functioning for all those months, too.

But I was only high-functioning on the outside. Because on the inside I was desperately sad.

I was heartbroken over the person I had become, I was humiliated by the pieces of me I worked so hard to hide from the world. I was so painfully lonely because I couldn’t let anyone in, I couldn’t let anyone see who I really was.

I was a liar. I hated myself and how weak I was because I hid in the bottle instead of facing my life and my problems. And I was a total fraud because I had two lives and two personalities. 

The one on the outside was amazing and funny and full of friends and going out- and the one on the inside was totally alone and isolated and full of fear and pain and self-loathing. Ashamed, embarrassed and hiding from life. 

But I was still high-functioning!

You see, high-functioning and high bottom are two separate issues- high functioning is about all the outside details- the picture you can create for everyone else to see- the lie you build about who you are, all those outside things; holding a job, being the life of the party, making money, living in a nice place- all of those details are about controlling what other people think about you. 

You have to show them a certain picture so they believe you have it all together. 

It’s the same thing if you isolate and drink at home alone, turn your phone off so you can’t drunk call/text people, all the rules you put around your drinking or leaving a party or gathering early so you can go home and drink the way you really want to- you are controlling your image to other people by not showing yourself so they can’t see you drunk. 

All of this is manipulation. But it’s high-functioning. 

When you think about all that drama and all those negative feelings- shame, self-loathing, depressed, angry, hungover, sad, anxious-  does that sound like a high bottom?

Sounds pretty awful and low to me.

Your bottom isn’t about how much you drink or how often you drink or how your drinking looks to other people- your bottom is about how awful you feel.

How far down are you willing to let yourself go? 

My rock bottom moment was hard. But it was the very moment that my denial and fear and inability to take action collided with reality. 

I wasn’t ‘ready’ to quit drinking, but I knew I needed to. And there was a part of me that really wanted to. But I couldn’t take it seriously until I was in a desperate situation. 

I had to have a head injury and a moment of sheer terror to get me off my lazy ass and make a commitment to do something good for myself. But that rock bottom was merely a moment. 

My true rock bottom was happening for a couple of years as my drinking increased and my self-esteem continued to plummet.

I grew more disgusted with myself every day, I had no self-respect, I was sad and depressed and exhausted. Every day. 

That’s rock bottom. And feeling all of those horrible things, being afraid of your own drinking because you don’t know what’s going to happen once you start, locking yourself in your house alone so no one sees you and you can’t do anything crazy, waking up and having to piece your night together because you don’t remember, making the apology tour to all your friends and family… again, waking up with bruises you have no idea where they came from- that doesn’t sound like a high bottom to me. 

It sounds awful and miserable and very low. 

You wonder why you struggle with quitting drinking, and usually, it’s because you haven’t really decided. 

You can’t quit drinking successfully because you are sending yourself mixed messages. You feel like crap, you know you aren’t doing it right, you know how badly you feel on the inside- but you still want to use how it looks on the outside, how it looks to other people, as your grading scale.

This is a normal part of the journey and we all do it, so don’t feel bad about it! We all do it!

But don’t have expectations of successful sobriety when you have one foot on one side of the line and one foot on the other side of the line.

Your brain has no idea which way to go because it needs you to lead and you can’t lead because you’re trying to do some weird juggling act because you’re more concerned about what other people will think of you rather than worrying about caring for yourself and showing your brain and your body some love and mercy. Stop poisoning it.

I don’t want you to feel bad if you are playing some of these mind games with yourself. And I don’t want you to be confused about high-functioning and high bottom. They are different things and most of us are a combination of both. 

We sometimes lie to ourselves when things get hard. Big things, little things, we lie to get what we want at the moment. To postpone pain, to avoid the truth, to dodge responsibility. 

My rock bottom moment was the event that put me in a position I could no longer lie to myself.

And that’s the moment I started to grow up and I became willing to listen instead of always giving the 200 reasons I don’t need that thing or that thing won’t work for me or I can’t do that thing because I’m different. 

In my rock bottom moment, me trying to hold onto all that control went away in an instant. Because I understood that I simply couldn’t live the way I was living for another moment. 

Think about what we talked about today. Just because you’re high-functioning doesn’t mean you have a high bottom. 

Just because you only drink 3 glasses of wine 4 nights a week doesn’t mean you have a high bottom. Look inside at how you feel, get honest about who you are and where you are in this journey and what you want to do about it. 



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