"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 led to a disproportionate amount of lower functioning alcoholics and drug addicts being featured in Hollywood productions — causing the public to believe that the "typical" alcoholic is more prevalent than they actually are. In fact, research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2007 concluded 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, receive more attention in the media, and are the focus of more research and publications than the HFA. Why is this?
Although the show "Intervention" helps to increase awareness about addiction and intervention strategies, it ultimately fuels viewers' interest by featuring those addicts who have quickly experienced many losses (i.e., 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 and had two children with 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 Joneses."
Even his alcoholism was less than interesting, described by his friend who stated, "He wakes up on an average day and it's Groundhog Day for Bret every day." Scenes of Bret show him as a maintenance drinker who's physically dependent upon alcohol, averaging, in his estimation, 11 drinks a day without ever appearing 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 during the episode, but continued to drink despite his symptoms. Sadly, Bret passed 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 may be in more denial and delay getting them necessary treatment. It is imperative to take an HFA's alcoholism seriously and if necessary, for loved ones to come together to stage an intervention — hopefully before it is too late.
Full show episode no longer available, but others are available here.
For more information and resources about high-functioning alcoholics, visit my website.