The High-Functioning Alcoholic
High-functioning alcoholism is harder to identify because it doesn’t fit the “drunk” stereotype.
When people say the word ‘alcoholic,’ they instantly have a vision of an old man sitting in a park with a paper bag, with a can in it.Suzi MacDonald, Addictions Counsellor
They don’t think of suburban moms or people with high-powered careers – but often, these people are fighting an internal battle with alcohol addiction that no one, including themselves, can clearly see.
A high-functioning alcoholic, or HFA, is someone who is psychologically dependent on alcohol but able to live a normal life, continuing to perform in their social, professional and familial roles. While on the surface this type of alcoholism appears to have less impact, it presents its own set of dangers, including a more deeply entrenched denial and stronger resistance to seeking treatment. Says Sarah Allen Benton, author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic:
The story of the HFA is seldom told, for it is not one of obvious tragedy, but that of silent suffering.
High-functioning alcoholism is more common than most people realize. “Our findings should help dispel the popular notion of the ‘typical alcoholic,’ says NIAAA Associate Director for Clinical and Translational Research Dr. Howard Moss. “We find that nearly 20 percent of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes.”
Leading a Double Life
Denial is an intrinsic part of any addiction, but it’s an especially central feature of the high-functioning alcoholic. Most people realize they need help when a jarring event shakes them out of their denial, but HFAs are able to avoid these consequences for much longer. Says founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee, Buddy T.:
For the functional alcoholic, the denial runs deep, because they have yet to encounter outward negative consequences. They go to work every day. They haven’t suffered financially. They have never been arrested. They don’t have a problem.
This is often reinforced by outward success. Benton recalls her experience:
Having outside accomplishments led me and others to excuse my drinking and avoid categorizing me as an alcoholic. My success was the mask that disguised the underlying demon and fed my denial.
But what appears as a desirable life is actually expertise at hiding the truth. It’s not uncommon for functional addicts to be attractive, charming and powerful – which can lead others to assume they have it all together.
High-functioning alcoholics may not even be “bad drunks.” In fact, HFAs are often seemingly quite happy – like recovered alcoholic Mel Curtis, who says,
(I appeared as) this party girl that had lots of friends and was very sociable and seemed to be making it in the world. That facade quickly faded.
Not a Serious Problem: How High-Functioning Alcoholism is Normalized
Less apparent alcoholism isn’t just denied by those who suffer from it; it’s also normalized by culture and brushed off by peers. “For HFAs, the level of their own denial is heightened by the denial of society, their loved ones and colleagues,” says Benton. This is made easier by the fact that they often hide signs of visible intoxication well.
Mel Curtis reports that in her high-end media job, “The whole drinking culture was not just accepted, but expected.” And it’s not just in the workplace; alcohol is glamorized by society at seemingly every turn.
Society is flooded. On my Instagram things come up – adverts for vodka and they make it look really glamorous. All these funky colored gins and beautifully decorated boxes of champagne. It plays into the whole romanticizing that people do around drinking.Mel Curtis
Does This Sound Familiar? Look for These Signs of Functional Alcoholism:
If you identify with the above, your drinking may be more problematic than you realize. If you’re wondering whether your drinking is a problem, ask yourself if you exhibit any of the following traits of functional alcoholism:
- Being able to “drink everyone under the table” or “hold your liquor” without appearing drunk
- Continuing to party like you did when you were younger, when most of your friends have moved on
- Blacking out more often
- Laughing off your excessive drinking, unmemorable escapades or alcohol-related injuries
- Heading straight to the bar after work, or whenever you need to “unwind”
- Using alcohol as a reward: telling yourself you deserve a drink after a long week or minor accomplishment
- Starting to experience the negative consequences of drinking
- Being unable to stick with your plans to quit or cut back
- Constant preoccupation with your next drink
A common technique of functional alcoholics is to secretly drink before or after social events. Suzi MacDonald remembers:
(Alcohol) would take all my anxiety away. I’d be able to talk to people more. When everybody had gone home and was suffering with a hangover, I was going back to the shop and buying two bottles of wine and sitting indoors on my own.
Higher Tolerance Means Higher Risk
Whether or not high functioning alcoholic issues are as obvious, they incur the same health risks as any other heavy drinker. Because their high tolerance pushes them to drink more, they may suffer alcohol-related cognitive impairment and organ damage as a result. This puts others at risk too, as functionally tolerant drinkers may be more likely to drive, perform their jobs or care for their children while under the influence. They’re also much less likely to get the help they need.
Why High-Functioning Alcoholics are Less Likely to Get Treatment
The common belief that one has to hit rock bottom in order to successfully recover is a myth – one that’s unfortunately believed by many with high-functioning addiction. They’re able to tell themselves, sometimes for decades on end, that they don’t need treatment because they’re “not that bad.” High functioning alcoholics might be less willing to admit they have a problem, and more likely to resist getting into treatment, because it’s perceived as a sign of weakness.
This is even truer for women, who are frequently pressured to keep up appearances in addition to all of their responsibilities as mothers, partners and professionals. Says MacDonald:
Women especially find it very difficult to admit that they’ve got a problem with alcohol. Moms even more so, because no mom wants to say, ‘I have a problem with alcohol.’ And some people do, and it’s okay,”
With the Right Support, Getting Sober is Entirely Possible
We understand how heavy the burden of shame can feel when you’re trapped in a harmful relationship with alcohol. We want you to know that if you’re in this place, you’re not alone.
We also want you to know that it doesn’t have to be the end of your story. You are so much stronger than you know, and there’s so much hope for you just around the corner. Take it from recovered alcoholic Molly Foges, whose addiction once made her suicidal:
I had no idea that this year that I thought was going to be the worst year was going to be the best year… I’m like a phoenix that’s risen from the ashes.
At Serenity Vista, we offer a deeply transformational alcohol addiction treatment program in a nurturing, nonjudgmental environment. Here in our calming and naturally beautiful space, you’ll be welcomed into a community where you’re safe to address what’s really going on. Contact us today to learn how we can help.