The myth of the high-functioning alcoholic
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High-functioning alcoholic: it sounds like an oxymoron. A person is stricken with the craving, withdrawal and tolerance that comes with a serious dependency to alcohol, but is still able to maintain other obligations like work, school and relationships. While these two structures of life seem mutually exclusive, many individuals practicing abusive behavior with beer, wine and liquor attempt to reach this sensitive, yet tumultuous balance.

But does this balance actually exist? Academic sources state it does to a certain extent. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol dependency is a complex disorder that manifests itself in many ways. As such, varied and more specific subtypes must be introduced to dispel the limited image of the “typical alcoholic”. One of the most monumental studies in the field surveyed 1,484 participants and, as a result, classified multiple categories of alcoholic personalities. One of these character profiles includes the functional subtype, which encompasses 19 percent of the American population. Members of this demographic were commonly middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families. About one-third have a genetic or generational history of alcoholism and about one-quarter also had major depressive illness occur sometime in their lives.

Due to the destructive dichotomy that exists within their lives, those suffering from alcohol addiction or alcoholism will go to extreme lengths to both feed and hide their problem. The ones who successfully disguise their underlying condition may appear and act normal in various situations. Excuses and denial are also common. If their respective issues remain unnoticed, people may also avoid support or treatment when they begin to associate an unnoticed problem with a manageable problem.

However, the extent of this management ends where the myth begins. A person may juggle these conflicting elements for a period, but over time, one’s problems will catch up with him or her. The aftereffects of even one episode of binge drinking have been shown to severely impact cognitive functioning, from memory to alertness. In addition to the trail of maladjusted thoughts, emotions and behavior that lie in the wake of substance addiction, an individual’s vigilance and control will eventually fall apart.

Unfortunately, most human beings are exposed to the myth not the reality of functional alcoholism. While cases of it are rare, high-functioning substance users are depicted in different examples of media as heroes and protagonists. Although the character’s journey usually simulates the rocky roller coaster of highs and lows, people only see the dynamic balancing act that evokes excitement and intrigue.

The social circles of young adults may exhibit similar trends, as the average college student’s peers engage in binge drinking. In fact, a 2012 study examined the current state of at-risk, alcoholic activity done by college students that fit the newest criteria of the classified disorder. Results found that approximately 37 percent of these enrolled populations display symptoms of alcohol abuse and dependency. Since a large proportion of functioning users have steady jobs and moderately manage their lives, these behaviors could have been initiated during school. By the time the behavior reaches a fully established addiction, unraveling the complexity behind a managed disease is extremely difficult. Intervening earlier in life is the most effective strategy for addiction prevention and successful recovery.

Reported warning signs of a high-functioning alcoholic include:

  • A need for alcohol to induce relaxation or confidence
  • Drinking when alone
  • Constantly becoming intoxicated, even when one doesn’t intend to
  • Experiencing sudden lapses in memory and the ability to concentrate
  • Beginning to miss life responsibilities uncharacteristically
  • Hiding the evidence of one’s consumption
  • Denial or irritability when confronted about drinking
  • Members of his or her social circle worry about or make excuses for his or her risky behavior
  • Suffering from typical signs of alcoholism like insomnia, paranoia or shakiness

When confronting a person that exhibits these problematic characteristics, experts agree that compassion and patience are of the utmost importance, since convincing a person to recognize his or her hidden issues will be an uphill battle.

For more serious instances of alcohol addiction or alcoholism, Sovereign Health of California serves those in need. Various treatment facilities offer specialized programs for recovery from addiction, mental illness and dual diagnosis. Our treatment programs seek to to treat all contributors of psychological dysfunction. If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol-related problem, contact an admissions consultant online or call (866) 819-0427.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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