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The High-Functioning Alcoholic: How Knowledge, Our Brains, and Choices Shape Addiction

He was once an adorable little boy. He was perceived as brilliant, charming, and an outstanding chess player. Even so, his parents did not do a great job loving him and being there for him. He lost himself in alcohol and in alcohol he drowned slowly. At the end of life, he suffered through great pain from liver cirrhosis. His final howls were as loud as a wolf's cry, ones which could be heard from stories high. This once adorable little boy was my father. I resemble him in many ways, countless. Like him, I am a wolf but I am stronger. I learned how to say "no" to things that didn't serve me well in life. In my loneliness I choose to contemplate hard before I accept things as they appear to be, to walk away from toxic people, to find myself in art, poetry, books, and learning. I may be a "lone wolf" but I am completely in charge of my life. My father never had a chance to hear these words come out of my mouth. We make choices daily but sometimes we just aren't well informed. There is always hope, until it's too late. And none of us should ever get to that point.

From an article published by University of Rochester Medical Center, NY, related to understanding the teen brain, I quote: "It doesn’t matter how smart teens are or how well they scored on the SAT or ACT. Good judgment isn’t something they can excel in, at least not yet." The article goes on to explain the scientifically proven reasons for this statement. Basically, brains' rational part doesn't get to be fully developed until the age of 25 or later. Yet, many caretakers expect young individuals to get married, have kids, manage money well, and make all sorts of other major life decisions way before this age. As the article states, "Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part." (University of Rochester, NY, 2024) What this indicates to me is that young lives are best guarded from the potential effects of poor choices by a set of good influences and/or influencers whether derived directly from other people or educational materials that aid in good decision making. Today's diary posting intends to bring awareness to the damaging effects of alcohol consumption in the life of both the young and the older, meanwhile overemphasizing the importance of brain health. In particular, I want to draw deeper focus on how a lack of awareness can lead to alcoholism even in the highly functioning individuals who never thought of themselves as having a drinking problem. I want to delve into my personal story for a bit, in addition to sharing valuable insights from subject matter experts. But first, let's review some factual information.

“The effects of alcohol on the brain, in both the short- and long-term, are profound. As a solvent, alcohol passes to the brain very quickly and can cause damage to living cells. The chemical and physical changes alcohol makes to the brain make it especially difficult to quit drinking alcohol, from a single drink or continued use of alcohol. These changes fall into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute changes occur when a person is under the influence of alcohol, even a single drink. Alcohol affects three of the brain’s chemical processes: glutamate, GABA and dopamine.” - Gateway Foundation (USA, 2018)

No young child deserves to bury a parent at a fragile age of development because of alcohol. I did. I was thirteen when I held the cold hand of my father one last time before I heard his coffin hit the bottom of the grave he was laid in. There is no day that goes by that I don't remember the weather on that day. The sky was too grey for a summer day. It was May 16th, of 1994. A storm was coming. Little did I know that an inner storm was already residing inside of me. I felt as if all the happiness in the world had vanished. The cool breeze felt like it was jumping at my throat, cutting my air supply between the sobbing helplessness while keeping me unable to utter the most simple words. I've always been filled with hope but that day hope left me. If you lost a father or mother early in life you know exactly what I am talking about. Similarly, no parent deserves to bury a young child because of alcohol. No such grief should hunt the life of any, yet it does the lives of many. With all this said, what seems most outrageous to me now, many years later, is the lack of education and awareness we continue to have about alcohol. Going back to my story, my father was an alcoholic. To be more precise, he was a "high-functioning" alcoholic. Yes, it took me years to really comprehend what that was. I must admit, would I have had the knowledge when I was a child that I possess today about this topic I would have loved to share it with my father. But I didn't. I was too young and not yet educated enough on this topic. Many people are unaware that such a thing actually exists. I too was ignorant, at the time when my father became very ill. Little did I know about the high-functioning alcoholic, until I went and studied up. Sadly, my father was long gone by this time. So, what is a high-functioning alcoholic? Well, for one, I can tell you that my father was one of them and I do know that because I did my homework but let's hear from the experts. I rather you hear it from them than me. The world is blessed with such organizations as The Orlando Recovery Center whose mission is to educate and improve the lives of many. Change starts with knowledge, the kind that many including my father never had. I ask myself every day, would my father have had the knowledge or I to share it with him while he was still alive, would he be here today able to see me start graduate school this summer, laugh with me at silly jokes, cherish the exquisite foods I prepare, talk with me about the books we read, etc. Don't wait to be educated on this relevant topic. The knowledge you know and/or can share with others could save a life via the encouragement of intervention before it's too late. They say there is no such thing as "too late." I beg to differ. It was too late for my father.

"A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who meets enough criteria to have a substance use disorder and is still able to maintain their personal life, work life, and health. Without some sort of intervention or counseling, it is only a matter of time before a high-functioning alcoholic becomes nonfunctioning because the disease is progressive." - Dr. Kevin Wandler, Chief Medical Officer, Advanced Recovery Systems

I am grateful to share that neither my siblings nor our mother suffer of alcohol disorder problems. I, for one, do not consume alcohol simply because I do not see any health benefit in it whatsoever and I care about my health. However, the suffering that came with being a caretaker and family member of an alcoholic has left scars on my entire family. I've studied this topic for many years after my father passed away twenty-nine years ago, thus, I came to the conclusion that it simply doesn't lead to anything good. In addition, it turns into a habit that costs a lot of money in the long run. And I'm not interested in money wasting. I work too hard for the money I make and I rather spend it on something more useful. If you know someone who could potentially fall in the category of a "high-functioning" alcoholic or someone who may seem to exhibit some of the symptoms please stop and think about what you could do for that person today. The video above from the The Orlando Recovery Center is very useful and the link to their site is listed below under my references section. For educators and parents, here is a great video from The National Institute of Health (NIH) which you are welcome to share with others. This video is quite appropriate for pre-teen, teens, college students, as well as anyone really. Take a less than five minutes roller coaster ride visiting parts of the human brain and learn about the alcohol impact to these regions. Join me in the mission of raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol to not one but various brain regions relevant to our our health by sharing with others knowledge.

This posting clearly isn't intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disorder but rather to raise awareness of the need for people to gain valuable insight via education about the potentially detrimental effects of alcohol on human life experience. If you or someone you know suffers due to alcohol, whether directly or indirectly, please know there is help out there easily accessible. There are many free resources, in addition to the ones I provided here, which can assist you in gaining valuable knowledge for yourselves or your loved ones on this subject. All the referenced materials supporting my posting are referenced below in the references section. I encourage parents in particular to take a very active role in the lives of their young, in the earlier stages of development prior to brain maturity preferably, supporting them by providing them with the best tool there is, which is knowledge. If they don't know, they cannot be expected to know. Knowledge is not everything but it is an immense value we cannot afford to ignore. In addition, please know that if you are a young person you too can aid in the education of an adult. There is no limit of age to the sharing of knowledge, as long as the knowledge is supported by scientific evidence. Passion should lead our inquiry to find answers and compassion should be the reason why we share knowledge with others. And this is precisely why I wrote this posting. May it be a blessing to many of you and those you care for and love or to potentially strangers who you can bless with knowledge.

Written in memoriam of my beloved father, Nelu Cisnadean

When knowledge knocks, ignorance cannot open the door. Carmen A. Cisnadean

Author. Artist. Poetess.

References: Understanding the Teen Brain, University of Rochester Medical Center, NY.

Alcohol and the Human Body, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2024.

Effects of Alcohol on The Brain, The Gateway Foundation, 2022.

What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic, The Orlando Recovery Center, 2023.

Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism, American Addiction Centers, 2024.


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