'I couldn't drive past a bottle shop': The hidden epidemic of high-functioning alcoholism

Olivia Lambert
Associate News Editor

It started with one glass of wine a night – an after-work ritual many Australians indulge in following a long day.

But for Sarah*, one glass turned into three and before she knew it she was drinking two bottles of wine every evening.

It took her years before she hit rock bottom. Being a high-functioning alcoholic, it was hard for her to acknowledge there was a deeper problem.

She had her own business, was raising four sons and wasn’t having a drink first thing in the morning – so was it really that bad?

It wasn’t until her marriage breakdown that Sydney-based Sarah found herself dependant on alcohol with a serious gambling problem.

It was then she realised just how quickly and silently the addiction crept up on her.

Sarah has now been sober almost two years after battling a dependency on alcohol. Pictured is a stock image. Source: Getty Images, file

‘I couldn’t drive past a bottle shop’

Sarah always drank socially and even stopped for a decade to have her sons.

“As I got a bit older my husband drank every single day and it started to creep into my life. As the kids got older and life got more hectic I was hanging to have a glass of wine in the afternoon and the habit started to form,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“A couple of glasses turned into a bottle and the kids grew up and my marriage broke down – before I knew it I was having one or two bottles a day and was panicking if I ran out.

“I couldn’t even drive past a bottle shop without going in, it had become my ritual.”

Sarah, who is in her 50s, said her marriage fell apart as she and her husband led busy lives revolved around their children. But it was that breakdown that pushed Sarah further to rock bottom.

“The family breakdown just killed me. I couldn’t face it even though I instigated it, I felt guilt and shame,” she said.

“It was too much and I started drinking really heavily every single day. I tried to work and function around the house, but it was like a merry-go-round I couldn’t get off.

“I’d get up and feel terrible, I had a hangover from the night before but I’d push myself to get up and get showered and ready for the day. By the afternoon I’d start drinking again.

“I had my own business and I could pretend everything was okay. It was my business, I could run it how I liked, but I let clients down, I let family down and I lost everything. I spent a lot of money on the business, but I lost the whole thing through gambling and drinking.”

Alcohol dependency can creep up on you, expert Jennifer Frendin says. Source: Getty Images, file

‘I blew all my mum’s inheritance’

As the drinking got worse, so did Sarah’s gambling problem. She’d spend her days drinking by the pokies and eventually her bank account dwindled.

“I hit rock bottom when I blew all my mum’s inheritance and started selling stuff to get money to support my gambling addiction and drinking – I couldn’t do one without the other,” she said.

“I was dipping into my business and wasn’t working anymore and my income was Newstart – I had never been on any kind of support my whole life and I’m in my early 50s now on Newstart.

“Terrible things happened and the shock of it all started to rear its ugly head and I had a realisation of how bad it was. It got to a point of will I get out of this hole or crawl up in a ball in the corner and do nothing.”

Sarah’s nine months in rehab

At the height of her alcohol dependency, Sarah checked into a nine-month rehabilitation program at Sydney’s Odyssey House.

“It got to a stage where it was now or never. I was going to lose my entire family altogether, they had a gut full,” she said.

Sarah sat through counselling groups and lived in the rehab until she graduated from the program in May this year. She has now almost been two years sober.

“I really worked hard and if I do something I do it well. With addiction, I certainly did it well,” she said.

“You think it’s okay, alcohol is legal and you can get it anywhere. You hang out with people who drink and it justifies you and your drinking. Even though I was working every single day the flags were there and I was ignoring them for years. I couldn’t even go a week without drinking.”

One of Odyssey House's rehabilitation facilities in Eagle Vale, in Sydney's southwest. Source: AAP

Sarah learnt to cope with her feelings at rehab rather than numbing them through alcohol.

“You’re the only one that can do it,” she said.

“You can have a hundred people sit in front of you and say you need help, but you have to make that choice. The day I made the phone call to Odyssey I said I needed to be in by the end of the week. I have a beautiful family and a lot of love around me and the thought of losing my sons was the clincher.”

Odyssey House helped Sarah “reboot” and form a new daily routine and a normal way of living. Now she works helping others with drug and alcohol dependency and has no thoughts of relapsing.

“Knocking over a bottle a night, it’s alcohol dependency. You may still get up and function and do it the next day, but it takes a toll, believe you me,” she said.

“The functioning lifestyle you have disintegrates and it catches up with you, I don’t care what anybody says.”

‘It creeps up on people’

The 2018 Odyssey House NSW Annual Report named alcohol as one of the main drugs of concern.

For one in five Odyssey House residents, it was their most problematic drug.

Odyssey House Director of Community Services Jennifer Frendin said alcohol consumption can increase to dangerous levels due to how socially acceptable it is to drink and sometimes people do not realise they are drinking at higher amounts to get the same effect.

“You go to a party and there’s alcohol and it is legal therefore it is accessible,” she said.

“Abuse of alcohol is often accompanied with social events. Things can go wrong, for example, arguments, fights, relationship issues and people can engage in dangerous behaviours like having unprotected sex or driving under the influence.

“Alcohol dependency is when people drink regularly, usually on a daily basis, and need to drink more to get the same effect.”

“The more they drink the more their tolerance increases. When you stop drinking or cut down that’s when there’s a risk of withdrawal, and people don’t realise just how easily alcohol dependency could creep up on them.

Odyssey House Director of Community Services Jennifer Frendin. Source: Supplied/Odyssey House

“They may go home from work and have their first wine or their first gin and then have four or five drinks a night. In the beginning they might start with one drink and then two months later have two – this creeps up on people and they are not aware of it because they are functioning at a high level and don’t see it as a problem.

“It has been clinically proven that drinking a large amount of alcohol could impact heart muscles and people could develop liver disease they might not rebound back from.”

Ms Frendin said anybody who had issues with alcohol should contact their doctor or alcohol and other drug treatment services to start making steps towards tackling their dependency.

She said somebody in withdrawal may suffer from tremors, sweating and confusion, and may also feel anxious, nauseous, hallucinate and have seizures.  

Sarah says people should have a good look at their lifestyles and be honest with themselves about their drinking.

“Do you need to get that bottle of wine or beer every single day to get through the night?” she said.

“What are you avoiding that you need that drink? Work out why you need it and change your lifestyle – maybe go for a walk instead.”

Odyssey House NSW offers a range of programs and services and understand the challenges that may be impacting the life and health of individuals, their friends, families and wider community.

*Name have been changed to protect privacy

If gambling is a problem for you go to Gambling Help Online or call 1800 858 858.

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s alcohol or drug use, contact Odyssey House on 1800 397 739 or call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service’s 24-hour help-line on 1800 250 015. For crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 44.

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