What are High-Functioning Alcoholics?
When most people hear the word “alcoholic,” a picture of the bumbling, fumbling, falling-down drunk comes to mind. (Think Norm from Cheers.) Not all alcoholics fall into this category. In fact, many alcoholics give off the appearance of being productive, high achieving, and “together.” Beneath the surface, however, the situation may be very different. This is a phenomenon known as “high-functioning alcoholism,” and it can lead to dire consequences if not addressed. Here’s a closer look at the issue along with how professional intervention can play a vital role in recovery for high-functioning alcoholics (HFA).
According to the criteria set forth by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a person may suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) if he drinks more (or more often) than intended, is unable to cut back and/or stop, and wants to drink so badly that he can’t think of anything else. While in some cases, these symptoms interfere with the ability to hold down a job, maintain relationships, and attend to tasks and responsibilities, in other cases they don’t directly interfere with basic daily functioning and therefore lack the overt evidence of impairment that can drive people to treatment.
Dubbed high-functioning alcoholics, this group of substance abusers—which may comprise between 75 percent and 90 percent of all alcoholics—can hide their addiction for long periods of time while still appearing outwardly in control.
Explains Understanding the High-functioning Alcoholic author Sarah Allen Benton: “An HFA is an alcoholic who is able to maintain his or her outside life, such as a job, home, family, and friendships, all while drinking alcoholically. HFAs have the same disease as the stereotypical ‘skid-row’ alcoholic, but it manifests or progresses differently. Many are not viewed by society as being alcoholic, because they have functioned, succeeded, and/or over-achieved throughout their lifetimes.”
The Dangers of High-Functioning Alcoholism
Because HFAs may not “hit bottom” in the traditional sense, they—along with their loved ones—may fail to recognize that a problem exists. This may also interfere with seeking treatment, which may, in turn, allow the condition to progress, leading to medical and psychological problems alike.
Additionally, even though a person may not exhibit the stereotypical outcomes associated with alcoholism, they may still be endangering themselves and others. Contends Psych Central: “High-functioning alcoholics might be one of the most dangerous types. They often are in denial about their alcoholism. They don’t realize how hard their drinking is on family members and friends, and since they seem to function normally, they don’t see a problem with it.”
Consider the case of Long Island mom Diane Schuler who, in 2009, drove her minivan the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway before killing herself, her child, three nieces, and three men in the car she hit in a head-on collision. Largely to blame was a blood-alcohol content of .19 percent—more than two times the legal limit, according to the NY Post.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is that no one seemed aware that a problem existed. Said one acquaintance of parting with Schuler before the fatal trip: “She was fine. She was the same old Diane she was every weekend. The last words I said were, ‘Have a safe trip home.’”
Identifying a High-Functioning Alcoholic
While HFAs may not exhibit the typical signs and symptoms associated with alcoholism, there are some things for which loves ones can watch, including skipping social events, demonstrating sudden changes in attitude or a lack of focus, and calling out sick from work and/or missing deadlines.
One thing HFAs do have in common with other types of alcoholics is that they’ll have plenty of excuses for their behavior. Advises Psych Central: “Do not accept them. There is no excuse for alcoholism, and if you let them justify their addiction, they will never have a reason to change.”
Additionally, even though a loved one may not fulfill your vision of the typical substance abuser, this doesn’t mean they don’t need professional help. In fact, they face many health, social, and legal risks—and are less likely to mitigate them due to their unique ability to fly under the radar. Professional intervention can make all the difference, both in terms of helping high-functioning alcoholics overcome their denial and getting the help they need.
We’re Here to Help
Contact us at Harris House today to learn more about how our alcohol treatment St. Louis programs can help HFAs.