High Functioning Alcoholics

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sarah Allen Benton, author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights, discusses how alcoholism may be more prevalent than we think and offers a window into the lives of high-functioning alcoholics. More info at High Functioning


Sarah Allen Benton

Comments [45]


who are we

Aug. 13 2009 01:07 AM

Let's be honest here. There are some that can handle it, know when to stop. I have mastered the art. I drink nearly every day that I am off work (I work 24 hour shifts). I have a barometer in my brain. I gets signals....." OK it is time to quit." My wife occasionally asks me, "Are you drinking?"

I watch 'intervention' and think to myself, "pathetic". Some use the term 'functioning alcoholic', I use the term 'alcohol connoisseur'. Those who say we must stop entirely are the pathetic ones, or chumps that know nothing but what they have read in textbooks.

Jun. 04 2009 09:26 AM
Sarah Allen Benton from Boston, MA

To Dee- Despite your struggle to stop drinking, you can continue to attend A.A. meetings. You may want to "shop around" to different meetings to allow you to possibly meet more people that you may connect to. You mentioned that you are drinking daily and therefore may be physically addicted to alcohol. Therefore, I would suggest that you seek help from a physician if you are considering getting sober. If you are able to detox, this may help you in your recovery process.

If you take action to get sober, even though you do not want to, your mind may follow.

May. 21 2009 12:56 AM
Dee from Park Slope

I know I am alcoholic, but try to pretend I am not because I only drink "good" wine, never get drunk, but can't stop, even though I know in my heart I would be better and feel better. I go to AA meetings and feel like the most functional person in the room, and leave thinking I can get away with my behavior. I want to change, but have not been able to. I don't want to tell anyone that I want to change this behavior because I don't want to have to be accountable to anyone. That makes me an alcoholic. And I bet I drink a lot less volume than you.

May. 16 2009 09:38 AM
Sarah Allen Benton from Boston, MA

In terms of having discussions around this topic, it is important to clarify the differences between a social drinker, a problem drinker and an alcoholic. Alcoholism is more than having one drink sometimes after work and it is insidious in the way that it penetrates into every aspect of the alcoholic's life and the lives of their loved ones. Please check out my latest Psychology blog for an explanation of the differences:

May. 16 2009 12:57 AM
mozo from nyc

Please. Enough. By some of the definitions here, ANYONE WHO DRINKS is an alcoholic. Why is this country full of Puritan extremists?

May. 15 2009 01:33 PM
Lynn Lily from New York, NY

To EA Stark:

Since you work at a college, do you have health insurance? I encourage you to consider therapy and treatment of some kind. It takes work, but it is possible to stop drinking. Since alcoholism is progressive, it's only going to get worse. Those 3-4 hours will get shorter. Remember what it was like to wake up in the morning feeling really really good?

May. 15 2009 11:28 AM
Matt from UWS

In his book "Alcoholism: The Facts" (Oxford UP, 2000), Donald Goodwin defines an Alcoholic as a person "who drinks, has problems from drinking, but goes on drinking any way."

However, I have heard one of the leading thinkers in Addiction Medicine (Abraham J. Twerski) say that really an Alcoholic is anyone who for any reason cannot function without drinking (even if it's one drink a day or just drinking on the weekend). There is a difference between social and pleasure drinking and an alcoholic's drinking, but there is this grey area between compelled drinking and habitual drinking (the latter behavior can be changed although not without some effort, whereas the former, given enough time, will always trump the person's efforts).

The key difference is whether the person feels compelled to use the substance (even in moderation). Remember, many addicts pride themselves on refraining from their abused substance for periods of time. For some this means drinking only on the weekends, or ocassionally going cold turkey for a couple of weeks.

The really scary thing is that underlying the problem is addictive thinking (Twerski's term) which can continue to advance even while the person is refraining from the addictive substance. That's why people struggling with addiction can find themselves becoming entangled in other types of destructive behavior (whether it be a different drug or a compulsive behavior such as shopping, gambling, or sex).

Most of my friends in recovery insist on the need for ongoing therapy and participation in support groups (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous) for the rest of their lives.

May. 15 2009 11:26 AM
EA Stark from NYC

I'm a functional alcoholic. I started at my job as a receptionist, I now run the place. It is a small college. I handle about 175 students and 75 faculty members and it is my responsibility to make sure that EVERYTHING works. When they don't it's my job to fix it. I have a white russian before I go into work. I follow up with another every 3 to 4 hours otherwise I shake too much to get anything done. But I do a really good job. So yeah, highly functional alcoholics exist.

May. 15 2009 11:22 AM
the truth from bkny

Alcohol is toxic to a lot of people. Some become violent, promiscuous and other abnormal behaviours out of character for their sober selves. You know which you are, just don't do it.

May. 15 2009 11:19 AM

So would that be age then?

I think behind this there is a lot of JEALOUSY and sadness that the things we love may cost one too much.

People who blame their problems on alcoholics are almost as bad as alcoholics who blame their behaviour on alcohol (and I see a lot of mutual re-enforcement there!)

May. 15 2009 11:18 AM
Lynn Lily from New York, NY

Some of the comments here display a kind of "bristle" to the idea that regularly drinking a toxic substance has detrimental effects on one's body, mind and emotions. This displays the unfortunate stigma associated with the word "alcoholic": an annoyance at a social reality rather than a clear appreciation of the reality of drinking a poison. But look, if you are addicted to something, you don't really make the decision to keep doing it. It's not a decision, not really. The addiction, unconsciously, determines your behavior. This really is bio-chemical for some people, triggered by stresses that the addict hasn't learned to deal with directly. But drink enough for long enough, and believe me, it's the alcohol itself that keeps the cycle going. Ultimately, it's useless at its best, and a killer at its worst.

May. 15 2009 11:14 AM
mk --

you'll be fine until you're 40. Then you won't be.

May. 15 2009 11:04 AM
Steve (the other one) from Manhattan

@ Tony from San Jose - I'm guessing there are few if any French guys named Tony.

May. 15 2009 11:00 AM
the truth from bkny

If alcohol is helping you cope with any aspect of life, you are an alcoholic! If you can hold down a job, pay your bills and maintain a meaningful relationship you are a "high functioning alcoholic".

If you have a drink at a wedding, a party or on a special occasion you are a social drinker, non-alcoholic.

May. 15 2009 11:00 AM
Ash in Manhattan from Manhattan

I've always thought that (1) alcoholism is a disease; and (2) a key symptom of the disease is that if a person's behavior is changed by the intake of alcohol, then he or she is an alcoholic. No matter how much the intake; it's the result of the intake that matters.

May. 15 2009 10:58 AM
Victoria from NYC

Thank you Sarah Benton....she's so right. I hope others can hear this and recognize their own problem.

May. 15 2009 10:58 AM
Steve (the other one) from Manhattan

Lecturing about demon rum, cigarettes, and other coping mechanisms has turned from a cottage industry into a lucrative business. Enough already. Make help easily available to those who want it, but stop nannying.

May. 15 2009 10:58 AM
Steve from Harlem

"Functional Alcoholic" sounds like a euphemism or even makes alcoholism something of an excuse. My mother is an alcoholic and was physically and emotionally abusive when I was a child. She was also a good provider and quite loving--she bounced back and forth between the two. She's older now but still self-medicates after work, so she's still emotionally unstable and frequently calls up at "drinking time" which I didn't realize was happening until I was older. Alcohol consumption just isn't OK for some people. People are always looking to make excuses for alcoholics at the expense of their loved ones or even themselves. "Functional alcoholism" destroyed my family. If only it had been more dysfunctional, someone might have done something about it. The functionality of it simply kept it, I don't know, ignorable.

May. 15 2009 10:57 AM
A. S. from Brooklyn

I think the point is that Alcohol affects your thinking. Whether it's one drink, or so many that you can't stand up. You're going to be making decisions differently than you would if you were not drinking. The idea that someone would need a drink everyday to get through their life, is an idea that I personally feel very uncomfortable with. Yet society seems to condone and even encourage this. I wonder what the world would be like if more people tried to navigate their lives and deal with things that upset or tire them without alcohol. I think we would be living in a more awake and aware society. One where people are able to be closer and really care for one another, without needing a drink to break the ice.

May. 15 2009 10:57 AM
Chris Peters from Baltimore, MD

Could there be high functioning drug addicts too? Thanks - Chris

May. 15 2009 10:56 AM

Me thinks that Jill doth protest too much

May. 15 2009 10:56 AM
Daniel from Munich

What is the definition of alcoholic? Is it an amount of drinking? A frequency of drinking? A reasoning for drinking? A dependancy on it? Or is it a biological matter? That is, a level of damage to, say, the liver.

If someone is not dependent but has the liver damage, is he an alcoholic? If someone is dependent, but is a actually a light drinker, is he an alcoholic?

May. 15 2009 10:56 AM
rylee from manhattan

I am a daughter of a "high-functioning" alcoholic, who recently died from Cirrhosis and other alcohol related illnesses. Granted, he had a very productive life, but there was definitely an "empty space" in his life that he was trying to fill with that liquid. For the person who asked about friends and family, the best assistance I found was Al-Anon, which says the family and friends "didn't cause it, can't cure it"

May. 15 2009 10:55 AM
Anonymous from New Jersey

My father has been a high functioning alcoholic for years. He does the things he needs to do, but he also causes us to live in perpetual discomfort. You can't talk about anything controversial because he'll become verbally aggressive. He becomes overly emotional about absolutely nothing.

And then every now and then he'll go to excess. The most extreme case was when I had to practically carry him home after prying him off of a woman a third of his age who was not interested in his advances. (Thankfully my mother was thousands of miles away at the time).

May. 15 2009 10:55 AM
Tony from San Jose, CA

So I drink a glass of wine every day. Am I a high functioning alcoholic?

Or maybe I am just French.

May. 15 2009 10:55 AM
Mark McAdam from Brooklyn

Why do we have to use the label "alcoholic" for everyone who drinks a lot? Such a bizarre American peculiarity.

Why is drinking a lot always a drinking PROBLEM.

I drink a lot, I'm "high functioning," I'm fully present in my relationships, all that. I LIKE how it helps me cope with my weaknesses.

It's always AA style, reformed alcoholics who assume that their way is the only way. So weird.

May. 15 2009 10:55 AM
the truth from bkny

She is speaking aboug "HIGH FUNCTIONING" alkies, these are people who come into work smelling like vodka! But they think they don't because someone has told them that vodka does not have a smell! Wrong!

May. 15 2009 10:54 AM
bernard josephoseph from brooklyn

1 or 2 drinks a day is healthy.
unless you're weak and you can't control yourself after that. some people have the itch to go further and some don't.

May. 15 2009 10:54 AM
Jeff Putterman from Queens

The current caller is right: having an alcoholic parent destroys the lives of children. They learn to lie, they learn to dissociate, and they have to learn that a parent who is intent on killing him/herself is not doing it to punish them.

Sadly I know this all too well.

May. 15 2009 10:53 AM
John from New York

Is there any connection between drinking and masturbating? Both are things one does in secret, gets excited over, is ashamed of, and can be debilitating psycho-sociologically.

May. 15 2009 10:53 AM
Victoria from NYC

jill is absolutely wrong....she should ask herself if she blacks out when she has a drink and can she just have one? i bet the answer if yes. so she doesn't know what shes talking about

May. 15 2009 10:52 AM
Ben from Manhattan

Moderation may not work for non-functioning alcoholics, but high-functioning alcoholics have gotten where they are in life by exercising good judgment and utilizing their skills. As a potential high-functioning alcoholic, I am turned off to the idea of changing my ways by the "sober" argument.

May. 15 2009 10:51 AM
MG from Park Slope

Where do you draw the line for what is considered too much to drink? Aren't some of these definitions and new terms a bit arbitrary?

May. 15 2009 10:51 AM
Lynn Lily from New York, NY

The key is that alcoholism is progressive, but has a long trajectory. ALL alcoholics start out high functioning; it is not a personality disorder or a moral failing, but a biochemical condition. Eventually it takes its toll. And when one looks back over one, two or three decades, the missed opportunities for personal and emotional grown can become a source of regret.

The real story here is that education on this topic is so poor. So kudos for doing the show. Your guest's attitude and experience ring very true.

May. 15 2009 10:51 AM
Carl from East Village

OMG, this topic really makes me want to drink! I'm so glad it's Friday!

How frequently can alcoholics go w/o drinking before they get considered not alcoholics? I fit your description of an alcoholic (think about it, engage in risky (aka fun) behavior) but I frequently go 3 days or more w/o a drop.

One of the positives of drinking as much as I have over the past 3 months is that I don't really get "drunk" anymore. I've found I'm better at meeting women if I can complete a sentence ;)

May. 15 2009 10:49 AM
Josh from Brooklyn

This is a problem I have encountered with my partner. He is a very high functioning user of Crystal Meth. I have a hard time finding reasons to talk to him about stopping. He just got a raise, he's doing more with his time and he's more attentive to our relationship, and yet I still feel an emotional disconnect because we're not talking about the elephant in the room.

May. 15 2009 10:49 AM
Phoebe from NJ

The puritan roots of this culture has a lot to answer for. Along with ADHD/ED etc. we now have a problem being extraoplated to a far wider population than those who are really affected. I wouldn't be suprised if this links into some marketing campaign or puritanical group somehow. Ridiculous!

May. 15 2009 10:48 AM
hh from brooklyn

So what is the purpose of the concept of alcoholism? I mean what if they are NOT engaging in risky behaviors at all? I mean could we define entire nations or cultures as alcoholic (say France or Germany, maybe Ancient Greece)? It seems like it might be better to come up with more sublte categories or simply look at the finctioning in society altogether as a whole instad of defining everyone with what seems to be a catchall category.

May. 15 2009 10:48 AM
Audrey from NJ

Read Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

A Great Book!

May. 15 2009 10:48 AM
B from Manhattan

This is very interesting to me because I have been wondering if I would fall into this category. My boyfriend just completed a Masters program at Columbia at the top of his class, I work full time in higher education, I volunteer, run 5 miles with my dog every morning, I am by most standards highly functional! However, I have wine every night. We cook dinner at home and it just isn't the same without wine! On weekends I drink more but I still wake up early and have productive days. Am I an alcoholic if I drink every day but don't necessarily have to? Its not a secret and I don't always get drunk...

May. 15 2009 10:46 AM
Adele from Brooklyn

How do family and friends help these high-functioning alcoholics?

May. 15 2009 10:45 AM
hjs from 11211

define alcoholism

maybe i'm wrong but if u can hold a job and have relationships you're not an alcoholic u just like to drink.

May. 15 2009 10:36 AM

I am almost certain that the "low functioning alcoholic" is actually the exception, but that is the one who is noticeable.

By any definition I have ever seen, I would be considered an alcoholic (6-10 drinks a day would be normal and I have had periods where I've sustained 20+ drinks a day). I DO NOT own a car. I am studying to be a computer programmer and doing pretty well with it. During my past several years of alcoholism, I learned to skateboard (like, in a halfpipe or a pool) and play the guitar. I can also bench press my own body weight and work out almost every day (but usually before I start drinking). I can do 50 push-ups and run five miles without sweating and I GUARANTEE I am in better health than 95% of the observable population.

I take a lot of PHOSPHOROUS, vitamin A & D.

I am completely aware, however, that this is not a sustainable lifestyle, and that as I get closer to middle age (I did not drink nearly this much in my twenties), it will have to be curtailed. But for now, I enjoy it very much and feel no shame or regret...

May. 15 2009 10:33 AM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

I recognize this phenomenon in a lot of people who are, at a minimum, emotionally and socially dependent on alcohol. I suspect that if those people went "cold turkey" they would recognize that for them alcohol is more than a beverage but rather a coping tool, escape tool, social confidence booster, aphrodisiac, etc.

It sounds/seems fairly benign to have a bottle of wine with dinner every night but, in reality, those people are not fully present in their lives.

Ultimately, how can that be emotionally/physically/spiritually healthy?

May. 15 2009 10:23 AM

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