Alcoholism Among Executives and Other High-Earning Achievers

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: People earning more than $75,000 per year drink more alcohol than any other economic group. About 81 percent of these high earners consume alcohol on at least a semi-regular basis, and while the majority of them drink in moderation, a sizeable minority will eventually fall victim to the disease of addiction.

In the minds of many, the concept of the “high-functioning” alcoholic has become synonymous with executives who hide their drinking problems from co-workers and subordinates. This association isn’t entirely accurate: High-functioning alcoholics are found in all walks of life and at all income levels. But it does reflect reality to a certain extent. So-called “high-functioning” alcoholic executives tend to drink themselves into oblivion steadily but gradually, allowing them to shield their descent into madness behind walls of denial and obfuscation for a longer period of time.

And even when things do start to fall apart, because they’re in supervisory or management positions, executives are able to hide their problem drinking more easily than those with less authority. These individuals are like islands in the workplace, seldom having to worry about superiors checking up on them or looking over their shoulder. Even when the long nights and lost weekends start to catch up with them, addicted executives are usually able to escape detection for a time, relying on their reputation and status to cover for their increasing inability to perform.

Alcoholism is a devastating illness for anyone, but executives frequently use their positions and privileges to keep the denial train running long past the point of no return. When they do finally plunge off the cliff, the tumble is often long and hard, ending in disgrace, embarrassment, job loss and arrest for driving under the influence (DUI) in a great number of instances. Their fall from grace often becomes public knowledge, and the whispers and finger-pointing become all but impossible to escape.

Executives Have the Most Stressful Jobs in the World, Right?

There’s no clear answer as to what drives some chief executive officers (CEOs), entrepreneurs and big-money achievers into the arms of the infamous demon rum. Autobiographical tales of woe often blame it on the stress and pressure that inevitably accompany a stint in management at a large, successful and highly visible business. Some psychologists and psychiatrists that cater to this crowd seem to accept this explanation, and the idea has been repeated often enough to acquire the veneer of established truth.

But despite its logical underpinnings, this explanation still rings shallow. The assertion that economically successful people with significant financial responsibilities face more stress or pressure than those with less authority is questionable and unproven, to say the least. Those who lack such resources are often beset by grave real-world challenges that dwarf anything experienced by executives in the workplace. In general, problems with substance abuse are connected to a wide variety of stress-inducing events and difficult circumstances, and elevating some of them to special status seems unjustifiable.

This isn’t to suggest that high stress on the job plays no role in alcoholism among executives. But substance abuse often masks deeper emotional troubles and psychological maladjustment. People turn to drugs or alcohol to cover enduring, unresolved pain — and that pain can also create an obsessive need for material success, fame and recognition, to fill in the blanks for those who feel empty inside and lost in the wilderness of their own unaddressed suffering. Men and women driven to succeed in the workplace may be haunted by the past, and they may rely on career achievements to compensate for hurts that simply refuse to heal.

That same need to bury their inner vulnerability, poor self-esteem and persistent feelings of failure may push many successful executives toward alcohol abuse, which can function as a form of self-medication. Just as importantly, the instinct to hide may make it difficult for alcoholic executives to confess their sins and admit to themselves or others that their drinking is getting out of control. To do so would be a sign of weakness, they believe, and the embarrassment such honesty would cause can make accepting the truth all but impossible.

Deep inside, many highly successful people feel like frauds. If others only knew the truth, they think to themselves (sometimes consciously or unconsciously), they would be exposed and rejected by the people who admire and respect them. The burden these men and women carry is immense, and far more significant than any strictly job-related stress or anxiety they might be experiencing. That stress and anxiety might be real, but it doesn’t cause their lack of self-belief any more than it causes their alcoholism.

Today’s High-Functioning Alcoholic Is Tomorrow’s Casualty of Addiction

Addiction is a complex, multilayered phenomenon. Executives who lose control of their drinking often refuse to consider treatment until they hit rock bottom — which is ironic, because it’s their fear of failure that prevents them from asking for help in the first place.

Treatment can make the difference for these troubled men and women who are highly functioning on the outside but secretly dying on the inside. If they can’t face reality on their own — and tragically, many can’t — their best hope is that the people who love them will intervene, and the sooner that happens, the better their chances of recovery will be.

Posted on April 26th, 2015

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