Here at Sunrise Detox we run across a lot of misinformation about alcoholism, addiction, and abuse of alcohol and drugs. One of the more misunderstood issues is that of the high-functioning alcoholic.
The stereotypical alcoholics who can’t keep a job, fail in their careers, destroy families and relationships and eventually end up jailed, homeless or in the morgue are only part of the picture. Not only is this picture sometimes blurry, it is one of the reasons some people who need intervention and treatment fall through the cracks.
There are many alcoholics who are high functioning. These people get educations, have stable jobs, careers, friends, get married, raise families, accumulate wealth, become community leaders, and in most ways seem like any other successful citizen. In fact it is not unusual for them to be overachievers, who excel in their studies and professional lives, who are held up as examples to others.
Because of this seeming normality, the problems of high-functioning alcoholics are ofter overlooked or misdiagnosed, and when they are noted it is usually extremely difficult to get the person to admit the problem and seek treatment. Their denial often takes the form of statements to the effect that they are successful, perform their duties and obligations, and only drink to relieve stress, or as a reward for a hard day’s work.
It is not uncommon for these individuals to suffer and die from alcohol-related ailments without ever having been diagnosed: high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, organ degeneration such as cirrhosis, pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer, alcoholic hepatitis, diabetes, and so forth. It is important that family and friends take a good look at the behavior of folks who are frequent drinkers, in order to discern any destructive patterns that might indicate that their use of alcohol has become chronic.
Here are some of the things to look for:
- whether the person often has one drink and then stops, or if, once they start drinking, they continue even in situations where it is inappropriate (such as having to drive, in the presence of non-drinking business associates, early in the day, and so forth);
- whether they make excuses for drinking, or find reasons to justify a drink;
- whether they become irritable or attempt to change the subject when questioned about their drinking;
- whether their personality changes when they drink;
- whether their sense of propriety and morals seems to change;
- whether they drink at times or in situations where most people would not be drinking;
- whether they compartmentalize their lives, spending more time away from home than they used to, making excuses for not being home when they say they will, and so forth.
For the drinkers themselves: do you spend a lot of time assuring yourself that you are OK, that you don’t have a problem because you are successful? Do you keep telling yourself that you must be OK because you “aren’t like one of those alcoholics?” If so, has it ever occurred to you that people without problems don’t need to spend time convincing themselves?
Untreated alcoholism is a progressive, deadly disease. It is, however, eminently treatable once a person becomes serious about quitting. Ironically, high-functioning alcoholics tend to have resources and good insurance, and are among the people most likely to be able to afford professional help. In addition, because they do have a lot left to lose, they are often among the most successful in sobriety.