The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Understanding this Hidden Class of Alcoholics from a Professional and Personal View

The Most Tragic A&E “Intervention” Show Ironically Features a High-Functioning Alcoholic

A&E “Intervention” high-functioning alcoholic death- a lesson for all

"The story of the high-functioning alcoholic is not one of obvious tragedy by that of silent suffering."

I have often said that a movie or a TV show featuring a high-functioning alcoholic (HFA) would not be viewed as "dramatic" enough by today's entertainment standards. An exception to this norm was the July 13th airing of the A&E show "Intervention" featuring Bret, an HFA, proved to be one of the most emotional and tragic episodes.

This American need for "drama" has unfortunately lead to a disproportionate amount of lower functioning alcoholics and drug addicts being featured in Hollywood productions-causing the public to believe that the "skid row" alcoholic is more prevalent than they actually are. In fact, research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2007concluded that 20% of all alcoholics are of the "functioning" subtype, 31.5% are in the "young adult" subtype with the potential to be functioning and that only 9% of all alcoholics are the "chronic severe" subtype or skid row alcoholic. But somehow lower functioning alcoholics have shaped the stereotype and receive more attention in the media, are the focus of more research and are the subject of more publications than the HFA. Why is this?

Although the show "Intervention" helps to increase awareness about addictions and intervention strategies, it ultimately fuels viewers' interest by featuring those addicts who have quickly experienced many losses (ie, job, daily functioning, relationships, housing)-those stories that will voyeuristically capture the attention of the audience. Last week's show featured Bret who has led a seemingly mundane middle class American lifestyle, was married to his high school sweetheart, has two children and had the house with the white picket fence. Bret states that he originally started to drink because he felt pressure to make more money and to "keep up with the Jones". Even his alcoholism was less than interesting and was described by his friend stating, "He wakes up on an average day and it's ground Hog Day for Bret everyday." Scenes of Bret show him as a maintenance drinker physically dependent upon alcohol, who averages, in his estimation, 11 drinks a day and he never appears visibly drunk. Through the years, his life begins to unravel as a result of his drinking-his wife divorces him and he loses his job. Over time, Bret was unable to maintain his level of functioning and was hitting a low bottom (HFAs can hit a low bottom and can experience a decrease in functioning as their alcoholism progresses). The intervention is the peak of the show and the most heartfelt intervention letters are those from his two children-specifically, his daughter expressing that he put her life in danger when he drank alcohol behind the wheel while driving her home from sports practice.

What may have started out as the least "exciting" episode, turns out to be the most tragic. Given all of the extreme addicts featured on "Intervention", ironically the HFA is [to my knowledge] one of two deaths to occur before the episodes actually aired. The first death was Lawrence Ryan, who died of Cirrhosis of the liver on February 22, 2008 before the March 19, 2008 show airing.

In Bret's case, he had been warned by loved ones about his health for years and began to cough up blood while during the episode, but continued to drink despite his symptoms. Sadly, Bret passes away from esophageal cancer related to his alcoholism when he was 104 days sober. It is crucial for stories like Bret's to be told and to be seen, for they illustrate the point that being an HFA is just as dangerous and deadly as being lower functioning. In fact, it can be more dangerous in that HFAs and their loved ones maybe in more denial and delay getting them necessary treatment. It is imperative to take an HFAs alcoholism seriously and if necessary, for loved one to come together to stage an intervention-hopefully before it is too late.

"Remembering Bret" http://www.aetv.com/intervention/video/index.jsp?bcpid=1452232410... and preview for episode 93 "Bret" at full episode no longer available

For more information and resources about high-functioning alcoholics, please visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., L.M.H.C., LPC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.

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