Michelle Smith & Athena Promotion
A few words from a female, professional, non-practicing alcoholic


On November 27th, 2004, when I made the agonising decision to stop drinking, it was long past time for me to do so. The truth is that I had known for years that I was an alcoholic.

I knew it when I got to the bar early, and drank three glasses of wine before my dinner companions arrived, ‘just in case’. In case what? I was never sure – but it felt necessary. It felt like protection.

I knew it when the wine bottle was empty and nobody suggested ordering another one. I’d feel totally panicked at the thought that everyone else had had enough. What was this ‘enough’? For me, there was no such thing as ‘enough’ wine. Or ‘enough’ anything, really.

I knew it.

I knew it when I woke up so hung over that moving an eyelid was excruciatingly painful.

I knew it at 8:30 am meetings when I glanced around and saw everyone’s clear, well-rested eyes; meanwhile, I was thinking about vomiting (again).

I knew it when I called in sick, and lied about a flu/food poisoning/a cold.

I knew it when I looked at my bank balance in surprise and saw late-night withdrawals that I had no memory of making.

So, the truth? I drank for about 15 years of my life, and I for sure knew that I was an alcoholic for the last eight. Eight years of back and forth, making promises and breaking them, trying to control my drinking and failing miserably. Eight years of bargaining and arguing with myself, of doing anything and everything to prove that I could drink in moderation, with control, like normal people do. Eight years.


A large part of the reason that I could deny my alcoholism for so long is because I am the polar opposite of the ‘alkie’ stereotype. I am a woman, from an upper-middle-class Canadian family. I excelled at school, was a competitive swimmer, and worked at camp during the summers. I had my choice of universities, of friends, of boyfriends. I succeeded at everything I did, from kindergarten to my first job.

I am what is called ‘a high-functioning alcoholic’. If you had seen me when I was drinking actively and enthusiastically to blackout point most nights, you would have been dazzled by my ‘perfect’ life.

At my alcoholic absolute worst, I had a high-paying job in Hong Kong, an amazing wardrobe, a big apartment. Any pangs of worry I had about my drinking were silenced by the fact that I had my MA in International Business, spoke three languages, and was well-respected by my colleagues. After a hard day at work, I’d sit on my sofa and drink two or three bottles of wine, all alone, and I’d feel safe: I had a home, a healthy bank balance, plane tickets for vacations in Thailand.

But my personal and professional confidence was all a show: inside, I was a terrified, self-loathing mess, unable to deal with criticism, confrontation, or my own feelings. I just knew that sooner or later, the ‘real me’ would burst out of my painstakingly constructed disguise – and then I’d lose everything that I had worked so hard for. But I still couldn’t stop drinking.

Professional issue

Recent studies show some disturbing trends: that the biggest jump in alcoholic drinking has taken place in professional women. That women from managerial/professional backgrounds are 19% more likely than women from ‘manual’ work backgrounds to drink heavily at home. That 80% of the people who secretly go to Eastern European clinics for a surgical implant to control their drinking are professional women in their 30s and 40s.

In other words, there are plenty of accomplished women drinking themselves to oblivion, showing up at work drunk or hung over, rewarding themselves with alcohol when they somehow get through the day…and doing it all secretly.

Why are these professional women drinking alcoholically? Why at home? And why are they so afraid of seeking help openly?

Well, some drink to relax and decompress.

Some drink to cope with stress and pressure and insecurity, with the feeling that they do not deserve their promotions and positions, since they are ‘not good enough’.

Some drink to cope with guilt – guilt at not being with their kids more, guilt that they do not like motherhood, guilt that family obligations take them away from work.

Some drink because they put career ahead of marriage and kids, and now they are alone.

Most drink to deal with that nagging feeling that their life has not turned out how they imagined it, and they think it’s too late to get that life.

Most drink at home because they are terrified of damaging their professional reputations. They drink two civilized glasses of wine with a client, then go home and drink how they really want to.

All think that if their boss knew they were an alcoholic, they would be seen as weak, untrustworthy, vulnerable.

All risk severe health and emotional issues; all risk losing everyone and everything that they love.

All live in a constant state of fear so stark that it is terror. I know all about this state – I lived there for 15 years.

Personal issue

On November 27, 2004, I stopped drinking once and for all. I learned how to celebrate Christmas without a drink, then New Year’s, then my birthday. I got married without a single sip of Champagne; I got through postpartum depression without relapsing; I gave birth to two beautiful boys and never drank a drop in celebration.

Deciding to stop drinking is a complicated thing, since it is far more than losing the physical 'buzz' of the addiction. You have to learn how to work, sleep, think, talk, feel, argue, and breathe without alcohol. And I had no idea - not the first clue - how to do that.

It took time. It took practice. It took effort. And it was impossible to avoid alcohol while I recovered. I’d go to a lunch meeting, and waiters handed me the wine list. At a networking event I was greeted by a wide variety of complimentary drinks at the door. An integration weekend at work culminated in a drunken party with vodka shots.  Temptation is everywhere, and drinking is just so normal.

Stopping drinking is hard, and alcoholism is roughly estimated to have a 50% recidivism rate. Nobody can do it alone – and I hold out hope that one day, people will get full support from their families, friends, and employers.

Admitting that we need help to stop drinking is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. When will the stigma of alcoholism lessen, so women can go to their employers and tell the truth about their drinking, without fear of being fired, being mistrusted? When will we as a society look at alcoholics and offer understanding, instead of judgement? What can we do to encourage women who are secretly struggling with their drinking to come forward?

The silence around professional women and alcoholism worries and scares me. I truly want to raise awareness, and show others that they are not alone, that there is a whole club of smart, strong women who just happen to be alcoholics. Sure, many are secretive about being in the club – they want to protect their jobs, homes and reputations - but there will always be people like me who are in the open.

We’re easy enough to spot: we wear our club membership like a talisman. We hold on to it, to remind ourselves where we once were, where we never want to go back to again. This awareness keeps us scared and sober – and talking. We’re not silent, secretive, or ashamed. Not anymore.