High-Functioning Alcoholics: Suffering in Silence

Posted on September 10th, 2009

Most of us don’t think of doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and professors as likely alcoholics, but as many of half of all alcoholics are high-functioning types with respectable, stable, and high-paying jobs. High-functioning alcoholics are usually able to balance their home and family lives with work and other responsibilities, all the while suffering from alcoholism and putting themselves and those around them in danger.

Most high-functioning alcoholics are in denial about their condition, and often hide their behaviors from loved ones. Many times, the problem is only brought to light when a crisis occurs, such as being arrested for drunk driving or when a spouse or loved one leaves because of their partner’s drinking.

Sarah Allen Benton, a licensed mental health counselor at Emmanuel College in Boston with a master’s degree from Northeastern University, is a recovering alcoholic who recently wrote a book called Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, a subject she knows inside and out. In her book, Benton says that coworkers, relatives, and friends often enable the abusive behavior by refusing to acknowledge and confront it. She says of her own plight, “Having accomplishments led me and others to excuse my drinking and avoid categorizing me as an alcoholic. My success was the mask that disguised the underlying demon and fed my denial.”

Many celebrities, such as Betty Ford, Buzz Aldrin, Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, and Robin Williams, have publicly opened up about their alcoholism and entered rehab before their lives were ravaged by alcohol. But there are millions of others, including respected lawyers, judges, surgeons, and police officers, who are silently drinking themselves into a downward spiral.

Benton explains that people in positions of power are often the most difficult to detect because they usually are not closely supervised at work, they are assumed to be able to handle the pressure of their jobs, and they view drinking as a reward for their hard work. A further problem is that many high-functioning alcoholics do not meet the criteria for alcohol abuse: They have good jobs, they look presentable and professional, and they usually have no financial or legal problems.

This is what Benton calls living a double life. High-functioning alcoholics appear to be normal, healthy individuals, and often conceal their problem by drinking alone or sneaking alcohol before or after social events. High-functioning alcoholics also may not be physically dependent on alcohol, as many can go days or weeks without suffering withdrawal symptoms. But they are psychologically dependent on it, becoming convinced that they need to drink in certain settings or constantly thinking about the next time they can drink.

Benton shares several characteristics that can help identify a high-functioning alcoholic:
1.) They have trouble controlling their alcohol intake, even after deciding that they will drink no more than a given amount.
2.) They find themselves thinking obsessively about drinking—when and where and with whom they will drink next.
3.) When they drink, they behave in ways that are uncharacteristic of their sober self.
4.) They experience blackouts, unable to remember what took place during a drinking bout.

In her book, Benton warns against the seemingly lesser risks of being a high-functioning alcoholic. “…Just because people are high-functioning doesn’t mean they aren’t putting themselves and others in danger…They can face the same health risks of being a lower-functioning alcoholic.” They may be arrested for drunk driving, miss important meetings or family events, engage in risky sexual encounters, and repeatedly miss or be late to work. And the longer and more often they drink, the more likely they are to eventually lose the things that make them high-functioning: their jobs, money, and loved ones.

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