Am I a High-Functioning Alcoholic, and Do I Need Treatment?

Addiction can sometimes seem to be a nebulous thing. There are the clear-cut cases, of course—the users who sell everything they have to fund their use, the ones who are unable to leave the house without snorting a line, the ones who are overcome by nausea and pain when they go more than a few hours without shooting up. But the extremities of addiction aren’t its totality. Rather, there is a wide and seemingly murky space in which addiction may or may not dwell.

This can be particularly true when alcohol is the substance of potential addiction. After all, alcohol use is common, so common, in fact, that many forget its dangers. Drinking is a regular and even expected part of normal life—the wine pairings with dinner, the beer after work, the New Years toast. In a culture where alcohol is used in so many seemingly benign, celebratory, and even sacramental ways, it can be difficult to identify the precise point where your drinking moves from the ordinary to the problematic.

For many, the crossover point is imagined to lie in the moment alcohol begins to impact functionality. As Pete Hamill once said, “If I was able to function, to get work done, there was no reason to worry about drinking. It was part of living, one of the rewards.” Hamill, of course, eventually realized his mistake and would go on to write one of the most thoughtful memoirs on the path to sobriety ever written. And, yet, so many of those who share his struggle with alcoholism hold firmly to the belief that their functionality disqualifies them from addiction. If you have ever asked yourself, “Am I a high-functioning alcoholic?” it is vital to cut through the myth of functionality as antithetical to addiction and honestly investigate your relationship with alcohol.

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The Problem of High-Functioning Alcohol Addiction

Sarah Allen Benton has a masters degree from Northeastern University. She’s a licensed mental health counselor at Emmanuel College. She’s a renowned author. And she’s also an alcoholic. She binged, she blacked out, she would wake up without knowing how she got home. While drunk she would do things that compromised her morals and stood in contrast to everything she believed to be true about herself. But she never missed class, her grades never slipped, she never let the morning after keep her from going to work, and she continued to achieve at a high level. “I didn’t think I was an alcoholic,” she says. “I thought that was just old men drinking out of brown paper bags in the street.” When she tried to drink “normally”, however, she couldn’t and she now recognizes her behavior as that of as a high-functioning alcoholic. “The story of the high-functioning alcoholic is seldom told,” she explains,” for it is not one of obvious tragedy, but that of silent suffering.”

That silent suffering can be experienced by drinkers from all demographics, but Benton believes that it may be particularly prevalent amongst powerful professionals and others who live seemingly successful lives; your accomplishments, your social status, and your financial security may all be taken as evidence by both you and others that your drinking doesn’t have a negative impact on your life, rendering your alcoholism invisible. Many of the signs and symptoms commonly used to identify addiction—the troubles at work, the poor hygiene, the interpersonal difficulties—are not a part of your experience. And so your addiction flies below the radar, often going undetected even by those closest to you.

Am I A High-Functioning Alcoholic? Recognizing the Signs

If functionality cannot be taken as the measure of alcoholism, how do you then answer the question, “Am I a high-functioning alcoholic?” By taking an honest inventory of the following signs, you can begin to determine whether your drinking has reached the point of addiction:

Trouble Controlling Intake: Many people assume that alcoholics drink constantly and in high amounts. However, the drinking patterns of high-functioning alcoholics can vary drastically, from the regular, heavy drinker to the biweekly binge drinker to the daily moderate drinker. The defining feature of alcohol addiction is not the amount or frequency of drinking, but your ability to control that drinking. If you are unable to cut down on your drinking even when you want to, it could be a sign that you are an alcoholic.

Drinking to Cope: Regardless of the amount you drink, drinking in order to cope with distress is a sign that you have developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. “Needing” alcohol to relax after work, to get through feelings of emotional turmoil, bolster your confidence, or to deal with other stressors is an important indicator that something is not right.

Experiencing Regret, Danger, and Blackout: If your drinking drastically transforms your personality, causes you to act against your morals, or makes you engage in risky behaviors, you could be struggling with alcoholism. Additionally, drinking to the point of blackout can be a symptom that you are unable to consume alcohol in a healthy way.

Hiding Consumption: When you begin to hide your drinking from those around you, chances are that your drinking has progressed to a dangerous level, even if you feel that your secrecy is justified. Denying your drinking when questioned, hiding your bottles, and pre-drinking before going out to avoid excessive drinking in front of others are all signs that your relationship with alcohol has become damaging.

Experiencing Withdrawal: If you drink enough to experience physical withdrawal symptoms like tremors, sweating, and a racing heart, your alcohol consumption has reached unhealthy levels. However, withdrawal symptoms don’t just have to be physical; psychological symptoms such as anxiety and irritability can also be important indicators of alcoholism.

Preoccupation With Drinking: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about drinking or looking forward to your next opportunity to drink? This preoccupation with alcohol is a sign that you have developed a drinking problem.

Of course, what exactly alcoholism looks differs for each person. You may not experience all of these signs and symptoms. However, any one of them can be cause for concern and should spur you to look deeper at your relationship with alcohol.

The Right Treatment for High-Functioning Alcoholics

If you suspect that you are a high-functioning alcoholic, the most important thing you can do is seek treatment. Unfortunately, many high-functioning alcoholics believe that they do not need comprehensive treatment and that they will not fit in with clients in residential treatment programs. However, intensive residential addiction treatment is typically the best option for all people struggling with addiction regardless of functionality. Connecting with a treatment program that specializes in helping high-functioning individuals—including executives and other high-status professionals—can be particularly helpful as you begin your recovery journey.

In a residential treatment environment, you are given the opportunity to deeply explore your relationship with alcohol, identifying your triggers, and develop meaningful strategies for creating lasting change. Using a comprehensive curriculum of therapies coupled with 12-step wisdom, these programs can be tailored to your unique needs while harnessing your functional abilities to promote rapid healing. In the company of expert clinicians and compassionate peers, you can gain profound insight into the roots of your drinking and find ways to take control of your life. If you have developed physical dependence, selecting a program that incorporates medically supervised detox is also vital.

Don’t wait to seek treatment until your alcohol addiction begins to interfere with your functionality; not only does early treatment lead to better outcomes, it also prevents you and your loved ones from experiencing the added pain that comes with functional deterioration. With the right care in the right environment, you can end your silent suffering and build a new, healthy, and joyful life.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.