How many times have you heard the term “Functioning Alcoholic?” It is often used as an excuse not to get help, and a way that someone differentiates themselves from being a stereotypical alcoholic. The reality is both a “functioning alcoholic” and a “stereotypical alcoholic” – are alcoholics.
High-Functioning alcoholics could be the friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers you look up to – envy even – for their beautiful homes, loving children and successful careers. Yet, they may be dealing with a secret addiction that is destroying them from the inside out.
How long do you think it would take to identify the signs of addiction in someone close to you? Most people assume they’d perceive a problem rather quickly, keeping an eye out for major life consequences such as job loss or destroyed relationships. But according to a 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, only 9 percent of alcoholics fit this stereotype.
High-functioning addicts are masters of disguise whose struggles with drugs and alcohol may go unnoticed for years, often with increasingly severe consequences. Here are a few ways to unmask the high-functioning alcoholic in your life:
#1 Beware of Denial
High-functioning alcoholics don’t fit the standard definition of an addict. They may not drink every day; they may drink only the finest wines and liquors; and they may have avoided the serious consequences that befall other alcoholics.
Because they don’t fit the stereotype, high-functioning alcoholics can spend years, even decades, in denial. If they manage a family and career and fulfill their daily responsibilities, they reason, there’s no way they could have an alcohol problem. Even if they acknowledge that they drink more than they should, they may feel entitled to indulge as a reward for their hard work.
The alcoholic’s denial may be compounded by family and friends who fail to recognize or confront the problem. High-functioning alcoholics may not stand out in a crowd, often because they surround themselves with other heavy drinkers who fuel their denial.
#2 Observe Uncharacteristic Patterns of Behavior
Despite their best efforts at concealment, even the most functional alcoholics experience ramifications of their alcohol use. For some, it may be subtle changes in behavior that are uncharacteristic of their sober selves, such as skipping social events, a change in attitude or lack of focus. Or you may notice physical symptoms of addiction, such as insomnia, shakiness, paranoia or other health concerns. For others, it could be sloppiness at work, missing deadlines, frequently calling in sick, engaging in risky behavior or failing to fulfill family obligations.
#3 Don’t Accept Excuses
High-functioning alcoholics will have well-rehearsed excuses for every unusual behavior or slip-up. After a late night out with colleagues, they may explain they had to overindulge as part of the office culture. Or perhaps a bottle of wine in the evening takes the edge off after a stressful day. Whatever the behavior, there’s a well-reasoned justification that sets everyone at ease and allows the addiction to continue.
#4 Watch for a Double Life
High-functioning alcoholics are adept at maintaining a double life. To the outside world, it may appear that the individual has it all. Inside, they may be plagued by uncontrollable cravings, unsuccessful attempts to quit, obsessive thoughts about their next drink, and other hallmarks of addiction. One moment, they may see clear signs that they have lost control; the next, they quickly intellectualize and rationalize the problem away. The lies and secrets begin to exact a heavy toll, leaving the addict exhausted, ashamed and alone.
Many high-functioning alcoholics are waiting for some sign – a “rock bottom” – to motivate them to seek treatment, which may not come for 10 to 20 years, if ever. Some gradually lose control of their drinking over a number of years, while others experience a dramatic event, such as a driving while intoxicated arrest, job loss or divorce, that brings the severity of their problem to the forefront.
#5 Don’t Ignore the Signs
Someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype of an alcoholic can still have a serious disease. A comfortable income and position of power at work or at home may cushion them from the consequences of their substance use, while a sense of self-importance or belief that they can resolve their own problems may prevent them from seeking treatment.
Even though they continue to function, high-functioning alcoholics pose a significant danger to themselves and others. High-functioning addicts are some of the most difficult individuals to help, but they are not hopeless. Since it’s likely that they will wait until they’ve lost it all before they acknowledge a problem, they rely on the people closest to them to intervene.
Treatment must be accessible and appealing for the high-functioning alcoholics, and families and friends play an important role in this mission. If you recognize the signs of addiction in someone you care about, you’ve taken an important step by getting past your own denial. Next step: Put an end to enabling. Enlist the help of a professional interventionist to confront the addiction and help the alcoholic into treatment.
EFR’s EAP benefit, offered through your company, can help you, your co-workers and your family members get the help needed. For more information, visit www.efr.org.