High-functioning, but at a price

Both Tiptoe and Kim have already blogged on an article I read about in the New York Times about high-functioning alcoholics, but the article really hit home with me, especially this little section:

Typical high-functioning alcoholics, or H.F.A.’s as Ms. Benton calls them, are in denial about their abuse of alcohol. Coworkers, relatives and friends often enable the abusive behavior to continue by refusing to acknowledge and confront it.

“The story of the H.F.A. is seldom told,” Ms. Benton writes, “for it is not one of obvious tragedy, but that of silent suffering.”

And this is what really hit home for me: the silent suffering, the tragedy-with-a-lowercase-t. It explains so much of why I find it difficult to navigate in this world. Why I feel such gaps between my similarly-aged coworkers and myself.

Let me explain. There were definitely times when my life was abruptly and rudely interrupted when the anorexia spiraled out of control. But most of the time, it wasn't super-obvious, not even to me, how much the eating disorder had seeped into every pore. There were the food and exercise issues, yes. The tallying of every calorie. The need to workout on a certain schedule (even if said schedule wasn't excessive). The fear of restaurants. Not drinking lattes or booze because I was afraid of the calories. Yet I functioned. I graduated second in my class at college with a biochemistry degree. I've received two master's degrees.

So how could I be sick? Clearly, I wasn't that bad. I've never had a feeding tube. My weight was very low, but I've known plenty of people who weighed less.

Sarah Benton had this to say about being a high-functioning alcoholic:

“Having outside accomplishments led me and others to excuse my drinking and avoid categorizing me as an alcoholic. My success was the mask that disguised the underlying demon and fed my denial.”

Even though I'm not in denial anymore, that veneer of success also makes it hard for people to see the true depths of the problem. It's not obvious from the outside. My life has gone on, and yet there are large portions of time that I can't explain. My life has gone on, and I've yet to catch up.

Those outward vestiges of normality were almost cruel reminders to me in the depths of my illness, something so close yet so far. Although I've made great strides towards recovery, "normality" remains illusory. I do a damn good job at pretending, but that almost seems to rub it in my face that I still don't know how to relate to this world.

Therapy is going to be in my future for a long time, to try and figure out how a healthy person lives. To try and become high functioning, rather than just a high-functioning anorexic.

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Fugu Sushi said...

I can relate to this one. I'm a highly functioning anorexic with PTSD, depression, and GAD. I feel very lonely about it. I keep it a secret from everyone, since I'm so functioning it's really not interfering with any parts of my life. I'm able to internalize panic attacks and suicidal thoughts to not let it affect my day, and I wait until I'm alone before I crash and stop pretending.

I'm so highly functioning that I highly doubt anyone non-professional or doesn't know me very well can pick me out of a crowd of normal people. Sometimes I just wish I could tell them and stop pretending though. Pretending and faking it through the day takes effort too.

Libby said...

Wow. Thanks for posting that article AND your thoughts on it all. I can relate in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Carrie. I, too, was a highly functioning anorexic, now in recovery...I managed to do a Broadway show, singing and dancing and running around performing for an audience of over 1,000 every night, and I was convinced no one "knew." The more I think about it, though, I think how much time was wasted. If I was capable of THAT when I was near death, what would I have been capable of with nourishment? You know? You got two masters degrees, but what could you have done if you had been healthy! I try and turn it around to think that, rather than think "see how this illness isn't affecting my work or my life?" Like you always write about, ana gets into your brain and twists everything to her favor.

Kim said...

Thanks for the shout out. I've been feeling very sad lately. It's lonely. I mean, I'm glad I've had the "success" I've had in life, but I struggle so much internally and, like I said, that's lonely. I related to everything in this post...

Clare said...

Thanks for this post. Many people seem to think these EDs aren't that big of a deal because we didn't let the entire world know we had a problem. (I wasn't even aware of the problem, so how could I let everyone else know!??!) So, again, thanks. You're so helpful to all of us

A said...

Thank you Carrie. I can relate to this on two levels. I have family members who fit the profile of high-functioning alcoholics and therefore deny they have a problem.

I could also be described as a high functioning anorexic I guess -- I held down a part time job, finished high school, went to university -- all the while keeping my symptoms and maintaining a low weight -- was I on death's door? No. But I was suffering.

I wish professionals would also realize that these cases of high functioning AN may be even worse than the sterotpyical 60lb anorexic -- because these are the cases that go unnnoticed and unaided.

Sarah said...

I was highly functioning for a long time . . . until I wasn't. I thought it was a great article. And I think you're pretty great, too.

Lissy said...

i'm a medium-functioning alcoholic with an eating disorder.

i'm afraid that if i didn't drink or spend so much time on my food issues, i'd still be medium functioning. strange to admit that.

most people think i'm doing just fine.

Fugu Sushi said...

Awww. GROUP HUG! We so deserve it.

Harriet said...


A very good post, my dear. The story resonated with me too, as a high-functioning panic disorder sufferer. Despite dozens of panic attacks a day I finished high school in three years, went to college at 16, moved to NYC at 20 and was very successful there. It took me years to figure out the toll the disorder was taking on me and to find some ways to live without it, or at least manage it. So I hear ya.

Carrie Arnold said...

Yes, I agree- GROUP HUG!!


I'm sorry to hear of your battle with panic disorder- it's amazing how we can learn to cope with the most horrid of diseases.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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