Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

By Susan Campbell

highfunctioningalcoholicbook1It is not always easy to spot an alcoholic. Not everyone who has a drinking problem is falling down on a park bench with a brown paper bag concealing the bottle in their hand. Nor is every alcoholic spending their evenings perched on a bar stool ordering round after round to satisfy an addiction.

For the high-functioning alcoholic, it is very easy for those around him or her to never have a clue that there is even a problem as the alcoholic hides it well. The New York Times recently featured a piece that discussed a new book about people who operate this way: “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic” (Praeger Publishers).

This book is written by and follows Sarah Allen Benton, a high-functioning alcoholic who not only holds a master of science degree from Northeastern University, but is also a licensed mental health counselor at Emmanuel College in Boston.

High-functioning alcoholics are often in denial about their abuse of alcohol, which is often enabled by co-workers, friends, and relatives. These individuals are able to maintain respectable, even high-profile lives, usually with a home, family, job, and friends. The balancing act will continue until something happens that reveals the truth and forces the person into treatment or the loss of everything important.

According to Benton’s research and her own experience, she estimates that as many as half of all alcoholics are high-functioning. The abuse can go on for decades until a crisis occurs that is usually related to the drinking problem.

In the NY Times piece, Ms. Benton listed several characteristics that can help people recognize whether or not there are high-functioning alcoholics:

• Trouble controlling intake even after deciding on a set amount of alcohol to consume
• Obsessively thinking about drinking – when, where and with whom
• When drinking, behave in ways that are uncharacteristic of their sober self
• Experiencing blackouts; unable to remember what took place during a drinking bout

Dr. Mark L. Willenbring of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism wrote in Ms. Benton’s book: “People can be dependent and not have abuse problems at all. They’re successful students. They’re good parents, good workers. They watch their weight. They go to the gym. Then they go home and have four martinis or two bottles of wine. Are they alcoholics? You bet.”

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