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Yes Virginia, I Was a “Highly Functioning Alcoholic” (HFA)

Yes Virginia, I Was a “Highly Functioning Alcoholic” (HFA)

Yes Virginia, I Was a “Highly Functioning Alcoholic” (HFA)

A few years ago, I co-owned a contemporary art gallery called Spiller Vincenty in Jacksonville, Florida. I had all the trappings of success. Although the most “Vincenty” and I got out of the venture was some great art, an opening outfit or two and several exciting “art buying” trips to Moscow, Santa Fe and London.  There was not a lot of profit in it. When I look back on Spiller Vincenty now, I was drunk, tipsy or on my way to one or the other during most of my tenure as a gallerist.


Good business for a HFA

Actually, the gallery business is a good hiding place for an alcoholic. We were located downtown, in 10,000 square feet of minimal chic, with an office at the back. We were not busy and when I worked alone, I could get quietly drunk on the left-over wine from the most recent art opening. Speaking of which, openings are an easy opportunity to keep a bottomless glass of wine going from the open bar. The only time I caused some sort of scene at an opening, was always.


But there were performance artists writhing about, nonjudgmental artsy types and all the patrons came to drink. Even when I picked on some unsuspecting victim, being a mean drunk, no one called me on it. (Although I do remember a friend saying, “My God Marilyn, pick on someone your own size. It’s like Godzilla going after Bambi…”) I was the owner of the gallery and I was influential in Jacksonville’s burgeoning art scene.


The definition of HFA…

And I was the definition of the “highly functioning alcoholic“. I looked great; I was articulate; had a successful business; and sat on the boards of director of several important organizations in Jacksonville. I was married and my children were well fed and in school on time.


But (here comes the “but” again), with benefit of hindsight, I know I was not highly functioning at all. I drove drunk all the time. I was hung over every morning. Queasy all day long. I survived on pretzels, hard candy and Diet Coke. And wine.  There were ghastly, emotional blow-ups. Kim will read this and remind me I didn’t even show up for two days, while she and the staff were setting up for our “Gala Spiller Vincenty Gallery Opening” – an event attended by the mayor and all the local press. With a series of enormous works that had to be hung using heavy equipment and 30 foot ladders.


I was holed up in the hotel across the street ordering room service wine and cheese platters…


And when I wasn’t drinking I was thinking of drinking. Or, if I knew I had to go to an event at the children’s school I’d get my drinking in early and “sober up” before my commitment. I was regularly stopped by the police for “driving erratically.” My guess is that everyone knew I had a drinking problem. But they were too scared of my reaction to say anything. And it is only due to luck, fast talking and a remarkable ability to walk a straight line drunk that I did not get a DUI.


No such thing dawg…

Which is why I’m not buying the handle “highly functioning alcoholic.” It’s a myth – like bad Santa. I’m not even buying the “alcohol moderation management” claptrap. If you are drinking too much I think you should stop. I didn’t realize how vehement I was about this subject until a colleague of mine at Sanford House, Jess Kimmel,  wrote an article on the subject of moderation. She did that gonzo, unsuspected thing I do to people all the time. We had a “conversation,” and then she went away and put everything I said into an “interview.” Cheek.


Anyway, the article is so good and she is such an excellent writer, and I am “interviewed” in it. And I like the picture. So, I have included her article here:



The Persistent Myth of Moderation…

Moderation (noun): the avoidance of excess or extremes. The quality of being moderate. Restraint. Temperance.   I grew up in a predominantly White, predominantly Christian suburb outside of Ann Arbor. Moderation is a familiar notion… moderation for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, moderation in all things. I was brought up to believe that moderating our behavior, [read more]



Today I’m not drinking because I was drinking too much, not really functioning and I have decided it’s best if I just stop…

How come you’re not drinking?


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Comments (5)

  1. Avatar
    Apr 13, 2017

    Yes, the opening was a struggle, to say I was mad is an understatement. But the whole thing is a testament to our friendship. We made it through every rough patch life has thrown at us and we are still friends. We can still make each other laugh( like no one else can) and can still finish each other sentences……..or anticipated comments.

  2. Avatar
    Who the hell has time to drink?
    Apr 13, 2017

    I was so busy functioning I didn’t even know I had a drinking problem…..

  3. Avatar
    Apr 13, 2017

    How come you're not drinking?
    I'm ok with functional!
    I said in a group therapy session once that I was a HFA. I was informed in no uncertain terms that there is no such thing. I have a nice home, great family, volunteered at school and church but at the forefront of my mind was will it hurry up and be 5 o’clock already? I looked like I was functioning but all I really wanted was to drink alcohol. Lots of alcohol. I gave up trying drink in moderation because I failed miserably every time I tried.

    I started reading this blog long before I got sober. I urge anyone reading this if they think they have a problem please ask for help. It took every fiber of my being to admit that I was powerless over this terrible disease but when I finally surrendered that’s when I became truly functional.

    • Marilyn
      Apr 18, 2017

      Isn’t it funny how we resisted “functional”? I almost thought it was uncool to operate normally. Be on time or turn up for milestones? Not me. I am so happy for you and your successes as a boring ole member of truly “functional” society. Good for you!

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