The High-Functioning Alcoholic

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

Denzel Washington as High-Functioning Alcoholic in "Flight"

An accurate and insightful portrayal

I have always said that the story of the high-functioning alcoholic (HFA) is not typically told in books, movies and television because it is often boring and not always dramatic.  Well, the movie “Flight” starring Denzel Washington has brought thrill, suspense and truth to this topic.

There are several themes that the movie accurately captures. The negative consequences of a high-functioning alcoholic’s drinking are often unclear to them and their loved ones as they may not be tangible or immediate.  The main character Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington) has been through a divorce and the estrangement from his son.  It can be interpreted (and alcoholics often reverse the order in their mind) that he therefore feels lost and is drinking and using drugs to run away from that sadness.  However, the reverse may be true in that he had lost his family because of his untreated addiction. Another example of this theme is that Whip successfully and bravely navigates landing the malfunctioning plane despite being hungover, sleep deprived and having alcohol/cocaine in his system.  The plane did not appear to crash as a result of his being intoxicated, but he was under the influence when he was involved in the crash landing.  Therefore, throughout much of the movie (as people praised him as a hero) he was able to justify to himself that his alcoholism was not the cause of the crash, despite the ongoing investigation into his alcohol/drug usage.  Either way, the substances were a confounding variable that would always lead others to question if the crash was avoidable and if he was using his best judgment. His addiction were complicating his life and career and it did not matter if they caused the crash, he was still putting his life and the life of the passengers in danger. 

Another common theme in the lives of HFAs is that loved ones and colleagues may have either “secondary denial” of their addiction or may cover up for them.  In this case, Whip’s long-time colleague and now union leader Charlie Anderson and  Whip’s lawyer Hugh Lang hit their own "bottom" on the day of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation.  They found Whip passed out from binge drinking the night before in his hotel room and desperate for him to appear “high-functioning” when he testified that morning, they obtained cocaine and marijuana to alleviate his hangover symptoms.  Additionally, Whip convinces a flight attendant Margaret to lie at the hearing that he did not appear hungover or tired the morning of the flight.  Whip’s lawyer comments at one point that he did not think highly of him based on his character, but that his heroic landing of the plane led the lawyer to want to represent him.  There seems to be a temptation to cover up for the HFA because they may be talented at their job or the livelihood of others is dependent on their performance.  Therefore, their alcoholism does not appear to be a “black and white” matter in the minds of those around them. 

The movie does a powerful parallel in story lines when depicting the life of Nicole Maggan, a heroin addict who overdoses and ends up in the hospital at the same time as Whip following the plane crash.  At first, the audience is not sure of her connection is to Whip.  However, I interpreted the movie’s focus on the both Nicole’s deteriorating life and hitting bottom while simultaneously Whip’s story was unfolding as symbolic. The powerful message  that could be construed was that Whip’s “high-functioning” addictions were just as serious and dangerous as Nicole’s “junkie” lifestyle, but that society views them differently.  While it appeared that Nicole’s addiction had progressed more than Whip’s, she soon got sober and in an ironic twist, was in a healthier place than Whip—leading her to leave him.  

I was struck by the power that the term “drunk” had in this movie.  Whip had created an identity and façade of success and honor by way of his career.  Therefore, when a wealthy owner/investor of the plane held a meeting following the crash and referred to Whip as a “drunk”, it echoed in my mind.  That term is so often used with lower functioning alcoholics and it was refreshing that this character leveled the playing field for Whip and others like him.  Additionally, Whip’s son, in an enraged tone, called him a “drunk” and the audience began to see how Whip’s alcoholism had negatively impacted his family for many years—they were not blinded by his success and were able to see Whip’s alcoholism clearly.

While the term HFA is never used in this movie, it is encouraging to see that there continues to be an increase in awareness in the media about HFAs.  Maybe I was wrong, the story of the HFA is not always boring… may they continue to be told so that others can learn and reach out for help.

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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