Referring to someone as a high-functioning alcoholic (HFA) assumes that the individual is a heavy drinker who does not let their drinking interfere with being financially successful. HFAs have developed a functional tolerance to alcohol’s effects over many years of continuous drinking. Consequently, they can drink during the day without being incapacitated or appearing drunk. HFAs usually reserve heavy drinking episodes for nights and weekends to avoid career-related problems.
Many HFAs lead a double life–as an alcoholic and as an overachiever–that few family members and friends are aware of. Spouses of HFAs often feel too ashamed to confide in someone about how much their husband or wife drinks. They also fear disrupting the illusion of having the “perfect” family if anyone knew about their spouse’s alcoholism.
Characteristics of High-Functioning Alcoholics
A high-functioning alcoholic is an alcoholic. If they stop drinking, they will experience withdrawal symptoms just like any alcoholic. Unless an HFA completes a medical detox and enters a treatment program for alcoholism, they will likely relapse and continue drinking.
HFAs will deny they have a drinking problem because they have successful careers, a nice home, and a sense of prestige for achieving their accomplishments. In some cases, even their loved ones and colleagues may scoff at the idea they have an alcohol problem. Rarely do HFAs seek treatment unless something devastating happens to them because of their drinking, like causing a serious accident while driving drunk or showing up obviously intoxicated more than once at a company meeting.
High-functioning alcoholics think they are entitled to drink like an alcoholic because they work hard to achieve impressive personal and career goals. When someone questions their drinking habits, they will say something like, “I deserve to relax after a hard day! Do you know how much stress I’m under right now? I am not an alcoholic by any means. Look at all I have achieved!”
What HFAs will not admit is that they are constantly thinking about that next drink, just like any alcoholic. With such a high tolerance for alcohol, high-functioning alcoholics can consume alcohol throughout the day and maintain a level of intoxication that does not incapacitate them but does work to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
What Eventually Happens to High-Functioning Alcoholics?
No amount of denying or justifying their alcohol abuse can prevent HFAs from suffering the same alcohol-related diseases seen in long-term, heavy drinkers. They may be company CEOs, own million-dollar homes, and drive the newest vehicles on the market. They may be members of locally influential political organizations or city commission boards. They may plan to run for governor of their state at one point. But they won’t be able to avoid the inevitable serious health complications of being an alcoholic:
- Early onset dementia/severe loss of memory
- Cardiomyopathy/cardiovascular disease
- Fatty liver (steatosis)
- Alcoholic hepatitis
Treatment for High-Functioning Alcoholics
HFAs need to go through the same kind of multi-level treatment plan that alcoholics do. Beginning with a medically supervised detoxification, HFAs should complete an inpatient program that involves counseling, medication management, cognitive behavioral therapy, and aftercare support.
If you or someone you know is a high-functioning alcoholic, please contact Hickory Treatment Center for information about getting into a treatment program as soon as possible.