How Did I Not Realize? High Functioning Alcoholism
What comes to mind when you think of an alcoholic? You might think of a coworker who frequently gets drunk, makes a fool of herself and needs a ride home. You may recall a former neighbor who lost his family, his job and his reputation to heavy drinking.
Like you, most people envision someone who is spiraling out of control or has hit rock bottom.
It’s estimated that more than 15 million adult Americans have alcohol use disorder. Of those, around 19 percent are managing to keep up appearances. They have good jobs, nice homes, thriving marriages, sweet kids and a wide circle of friends. They are successful lawyers, teachers, ministers, bankers, medical professionals, coaches and small-business owners. They serve on city councils. They’re active in the PTA. No one would ever suspect that alcohol abuse was a problem.
These 19 percent are high-functioning alcoholics. Known in mental health circles as HFAs, their days of holding it together are numbered.
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Do You Know Someone with High-Functioning Alcoholism?
If someone close to you springs to mind, it’s probably time for a loving intervention. Poor decisions often play a role in addiction, but over time, substance abusers no longer have a choice. Alcoholism is a progressive brain disease marked by cravings, compulsive drinking and relapse. Even those who sincerely want to get sober almost never succeed without professional addiction treatment.
In some ways, people who come to the end of their rope are better off than those who manage to keep functioning. A successful businessman or real estate agent at the top of her game is far more likely to remain in denial: “I’m not as bad as that guy!” or “At least I wasn’t stumbling out of the restaurant.” Because they are still meeting their obligations, they convince themselves that they’re okay. HFAs are usually the last ones to admit that they have a problem or seek help. By then, the consequences are starting to catch up.
Signs of Alcoholism Can Be Difficult to Spot
Since there are so few outward signs of an issue, alcoholism in a high-functioning alcoholic is often hard to recognize. Here are some common behaviors to watch for:
- Frequently drinking alone
- Drinking too much too often
- Finishing other people’s drinks
- Drinking earlier and earlier in the day
- Skipping social events that don’t involve drinking
- Drinking to cope with stress, sadness, anger, worry or other emotions
- Using alcohol to boost mood, calm down, go to sleep or otherwise self-medicate
For women, heavy drinking is defined as having three or more drinks a day or more than seven per week. For men, it’s consuming at least four in one day or 14 or more per week. Drinking more than that poses high risk for alcoholism.
It’s important to note, however, that you can’t always rely on a drink count. There are other subtle warning signs.
As they become increasingly tolerant to alcohol, you’ll notice HFAs having to drink more for the same level of enjoyment. They may become defensive or secretive about their alcohol use. Finding half-drained highball glasses in surprising places or empty bottles under the sink instead of in the trash should set off alarm bells.
HFAs eventually start to complain of headaches, nausea and other health maladies. These may result in missed work days or poor job performance. You might notice memory lapses, lack of energy or irritability. Unexplained injuries or a sudden rash of mishaps in the car are other red flags. Losing interest in food, sex, hobbies, sports, household projects or other sources of enjoyment is also a strong sign of serious alcohol abuse.
In settings where it’s not possible to drink, the HFA is likely to be preoccupied or unreasonably touchy. If he resolves to quit drinking or cut back, he’ll may experience physical discomfort sometimes coupled with dramatic mood swings. These are symptoms of withdrawal. Depending on the severity and duration of addiction, they can be dangerous.
How to Help Someone with Alcohol Abuse
If you’re reading this, your loved one is lucky to have you around. It’s not too late to get treatment for addiction, and people who have loving support are more likely to master the disease and reclaim their lives.
The first person who needs direction, help and encouragement is you.
You may feel hurt, disappointed, confused, angry or betrayed. You may even blame yourself. Those are common reactions, and we can help you work through them in healthy ways. It’s important that you take care of yourself; the HFA in your life will need a strong, trustworthy person to lean on throughout the journey to recovery.
The highly experienced caregivers at Ocean Hills Recovery are eager to help They’ll give you sound advice on intervention. They’ll answer your questions about our facility, treatment methods and long-term recovery programs.
We can assure you that warning signs in HFAs are easy to overlook, so don’t beat yourself up about that. We’re committed to helping you help your loved one heal. Please contact Ocean Hills Recovery today for help.
Photo credit: Tim Gouw
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.