Recovery For “High Functioning” Addicts and Alcoholics

by Patrick O’Neil, Program Manager- Next Step, RADT, MFA

Addiction and alcoholism are non-discriminating and affect people from all walks of life regardless of economics, social standing, gender, sexual identity, or race. Yet the traditional perception of what an addict or alcoholic looks like usually runs the gamut from the stumbling drunk at the office party, to the homeless addict smoking crack on a street corner. And yes, there are definitely people that fit those stereotypes. But addiction and alcoholism are complex “cunning and baffling” diseases and sometimes what we see is not what we get.

“If someone is an alcoholic, you expect to see some particular symptoms,” advises “Obvious signs of intoxication, missed responsibilities, and failed relationships are often associated with alcohol abuse, but this isn’t always the case. Some people are able to consume large amounts of alcohol while remaining productive at work and at home. These individuals are often referred to as high-functioning alcoholics.”

A label that Dr. Timothy J. Legg further explains, “Early on, a person will hide their drinking very well. Friends and family members don’t always realize that there’s an alcohol problem. Symptoms are also difficult to recognize in others. That’s because a high-functioning alcoholic doesn’t fit the ‘mold’ of what people think of when they consider what an alcoholic is or looks like. A high-functioning alcoholic has usually achieved or overachieved in their lifetime. They’re less likely to think they need help or seek help. However, alcoholism is a disease. It often requires professional treatment to help a person overcome their condition.”

“Alcoholism, like all addictions, is deceitful,” writes journalist JR Thorpe. “It insists to the addict that their behavior is perfectly normal and that there’s no problem whatsoever. And the conditions that are required to break through this extensive, entrenched denial — ‘it’ only one’, ‘I have a stressful job’, ‘I can quit whenever I want’ — are often pretty extreme. There’s a reason why ‘hitting rock bottom’ is a thing in the rhetoric of addiction recovery. And for high-functioning alcoholics, that moment of ‘rock bottom’ may never realistically come.” However, as Dr. David Susman warns, “A ‘functional alcoholic’ (or ‘high-functioning alcoholic’) isn’t a formal medical diagnosis, but a term used colloquially to describe a person who is dependent upon alcohol but can still function in society. The term ‘currently-functioning’ may be used since it’s not likely they will remain functional (and not misuse alcohol) indefinitely.”

For the high-functioning addict and alcoholic using and drinking seems like a reward for their overachieving and stress inducing high paced life. They convince themselves they deserve those extra glasses of wine to relax, a snort of meth to work harder, and a THC gummy (or two) to help them sleep. Yet according to author Sarah Allen Benton, “Although [the addict and alcoholic] may project a well put-together façade, they can still be placing themselves in danger in many ways including but not limited to: drinking and driving, having risky sexual encounters, blacking out, damaging their reputation, etc. They may have been able to avoid serious trouble professionally or personally to a certain degree however, it will be only a matter of time before their ‘luck’ runs out and their alcoholism will lead to problems.”

“Being a high-functioning addict can make it hard for an addicted person himself or herself to admit their shortcomings and ask for help,” writes Karen for the Narconon website. “And the person’s apparent success gives him every justification he needs to continue both the outward success and the substance abuse. When you have money in the bank and the admiration of those around you, why should anyone examine himself and his actions? Ultimately, the addiction will take its toll and then the true extent of the problem will be undeniable.” Unfortunately as Benton points out, addicts and alcoholics, “are essentially ‘masters of disguise’ who not only fool those around them but also themselves. This does not detract from the fact that they need help in getting sober just as much as lower functioning alcoholics.”

Still the high-functioning label can be a problematic issue in itself. “There is a risky tendency, even among the high-functioning alcoholics who acknowledge they have a problem,” advises Thorpe, “to categorize themselves as somehow ‘better’ than low-functioning ones. But having the trappings of a ‘functional’ life does not make alcoholism any less destructive, or make a drinking problem any less real.”

“As the addiction grows and their ability to live a productive life weakens, they may begin to function less efficiently,” explains freelance writer Celina Dawdy, “Many addicts may suggest that they haven’t hit “rock-bottom”, so they don’t need help. Regardless of the circumstances, addiction is extremely detrimental to the mind, body, and soul.

Addiction is an extremely slippery, and dangerous, slope. However, the good news is: There’s room for recovery. Regardless of your situation, many resources can help an addict overcome their disease.” But “Until this person’s life falls apart and the success is gone, it may seem unnecessary to take the time off to go to rehab,” warns Karen. “But even now, if he is unable to function very long without substances, then he simply has two choices: sobriety or ultimate ruin. Choosing rehab is the best way to preserve and extend his success. He can avoid the crash that is certainly coming if he learns how productive and enjoyable a truly sober life can be.”

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