We’ve all heard about “the high-functioning alcoholic.” They don’t look like they have a serious, potentially fatal disease.
They hold jobs, raise families, coach teams, preach sermons, pay taxes.
They even fly planes.
The movie “Flight,” now available on DVD, offers an unflinching, gut-churning look at the inevitable crash-and-burn that awaits alcoholics if they continue to drink. For some, it’s a slow burn. For others it’s a firestorm.
For this column I asked several friends in long-term recovery to offer their thoughts about the movie’s message. Here are their words based on the wisdom of their personal experience.
PAT, 28 YEARS SOBER: The film “Flight” could easily have been titled “Redemption.” That’s what most addiction stories are about — personal and individual redemption. A down-and-out alcoholic makes peace with himself, turns his life around, finds happiness and contentment. Old friends return and find a new person. Life begins again.
My own story of addiction had a happy ending. With the help of my family, I quit drinking 28 years ago and am happily sober. I have close friends and a good job. I know others in recovery who are similarly happy. But for every happy ending, there are far too many that are not happy, at least not in the Hollywood sense.
“Flight” was a redemption story that ended happily even though the main character wound up in prison and lost his license to do the job he loved. For in the end, Denzel Washington’s character made peace with himself and accepted the cost of his addiction, which was immense.
In prison, he got sober with the help of a group of people who couldn’t have been more different than him and yet were the same in that they, too, struggled with addiction.
In the last scene, his teenage son visits him in prison, hoping to get to know “the most fascinating person I’ve never met.”
LENNA, 11 YEARS SOBER: Functioning alcoholics need alcohol to feel normal. In their mind alcohol makes them more responsible, more creative and more productive.
Without alcohol, they are often jittery, scatterbrained, less focused and often hair-triggered. Drinking is not a matter of choice, but a deep, physical need that eventually drives the entire day and night.
Toward the end of “Flight,” Denzel Washington’s character was forced to admit that his drinking was totally out of control. Yes, when he was flying the plane that crashed he made a brilliant gut-reaction move; and yes, he saved many peoples’ lives. But he finally had to admit to others and to himself that he was drunk when he did it.
Non-alcoholics might find his behavior bizarre and beyond understanding, but to an alcoholic it makes perfect sense. Alcohol provided the concrete on which his life stood. Without it, he was trying to stand on shifting sand.
The film’s big reward comes at the end when he gets sober. He had no idea he wasn’t free when he was using and now he finds a whole new life opening up in front of him as a sober person. He is grateful for a chance at an honestly normal life.
GRANT, 33 YEARS SOBER: I still vividly recall my early recovery and the admonitions by the old timers to always be “vigilant” and not forget that the “baffling, cunning and powerful” disease of alcoholism is always ready, willing and able to beat the heck out of me — and especially to trick me into forgetting who I am.
The movie reminded me that my first identity on this earth is as an alcoholic, a recovering and sober one by the grace of God.
Denzel Washington’s character also reminded me to be exceptionally grateful that I did not have to wait as long as I might have to get sober, thus avoiding dragging myself, my family and friends through hell had I carried my denial and desire to drink for several or many more years.
In that sense, I am so glad I was never as functional an alcoholic as the “heroic” pilot in “Flight.” I would have crashed a plane years before that character ever did — and certainly would not have been able to fly out of the chaos and save myself and those on board.
Most of us don’t come to a realization of who we are (alcoholics), as Denzel’s character did, at an important event in a roomful of people who are paying close attention. Often, we alcoholics are quite alone and lost when we come to our senses and are given the desire to stop drinking.
Thankfully, there are those around who we can go to, or who will find us, reaching down and helping to pick us up and take us along a new road of hope and restoration — a road of happy destiny rather than literal or figurative crash and ultimate futility.
Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.