The High-Functioning Alcoholic

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

Alcoholism Does Not Discriminate...

Why we are surprised that high-achievers have alcohol problems

I was recently interviewed for a Forbes.com article titled “Why the Brains of High-Powered People May be More Prone to Addiction” by Alice Walton http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2013/08/06/why-the-brain... . What struck me when I read the article was that there was a specific article written about this subset of individuals. It also made me realize that the same could be said about the writing of my book “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic”. The fact that these books and articles are of interest and have been written is because there is still an inaccurate stereotype of the alcoholic.

One assumption is that a high-powered or high-functioning person may work really hard, live disciplined lives and therefore do not have addictions or challenges. However, many observers may not realize what is going on “behind the scenes” and the truth behind the façade. This reminds me of Facebook in some ways—people posting the images that they want others to associate with them in order to create a “profile” of themselves. This is also true of the high-powered and high-functioning alcoholic—the belief that over-achievement will convince others that they do not have a problem with alcohol. All made possible by the original stereotype of the “homeless/low-functioning” alcoholic that only represents about 10% of all alcoholics according to the NIAAA 2007 study on subtypes of alcoholics.

Profiling is used in forensic psychology in order help solve criminal cases, and it is also something that we all naturally do in our minds on a daily basis. We tend to group people into “types” and automatically make assumptions about behaviors that we believe or do not think they would engage in. This human tendency is one of the barriers to high-powered and high-functioning alcoholics recognizing their addiction and loved ones and colleagues being able to identify, confront and support their treatment as well.  Research indicate that the prevalence of alcoholism is about 12.5% of all Americans and about 17.8% for alcohol abuse and does not specify “only people who are low functioning or without an education”. Therefore, if we are able to accept those statistics as referring to every race, socioeconomic status, gender, education background and ethnicity- then we can have a clear picture of what it means to be alcoholic (yes some groups may have higher predispositions to alcoholism).

Alcoholism is not based on one’s appearance, job functioning, acedemics status, class, etc. It is based on assessing a person’s relationship to alcohol based on the following:

1. Craving: having one drinks sets off a craving to drink more and without a healthy “shut off”

2. Mental obsession: obsessing about alcohol when drinking it and also when not drinking

3. Loss of values: behaving in ways that are not consistent with value system

4. Repeating these patterns willingly and unwillingly

5. Unable to imagine life without alcohol

For more information 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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