Hiding Alcoholism: The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Posted under Alcoholism on September 21, 2009
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By Leslie Thompson

Alcoholism is a debilitating disease that affects almost 18 million Americans. Unlike other types of addictions where symptoms are obvious because of physical signs or ailments, alcoholism is an illness that can go undetected. Recently Diane Schuler—the Long Island mother who drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, killing herself along with seven other people—was found to be under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.

Her family insists she wasn’t a drinker, but she had a large amount of undigested alcohol in her stomach at the time of the accident, along with traces of the active ingredient of marijuana. Was she harboring a secret addiction? We may never know the truth of what happened that day, but it has become apparent that more and more men and women are successfully hiding their addiction from family and friends.

A 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that about 19.5 percent of alcoholics are characterized as the “functional” type. These individuals manage to lead double lives; to the outside world, they are successful, respected, and hardworking individuals. However, in the privacy of their own homes, they are secretly dependent on alcohol.

One way many high-functioning alcoholics, or “HFAs,” can successfully hide their alcoholism is because their accomplishments—either in the workforce, their education, or their family—allow the alcoholic and his or her family and friends to deny the problem because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of an alcoholic.

HFAs believe their lives are manageable and are that they are adept at maintaining an active social life and intimate relationships. However, this is simply a façade. The high-functioning alcoholic learns how to separate their personal and professional life from their drinking life.

It has also become apparent that women are more likely to hide their alcoholic tendencies than men. Women are often the main caretakers of the family and thus feel they need to hide their drinking from family and friends. They will often drink alone, such as when the children are at school, and may stick to clear, odorless liquids like vodka that they put in water or sports drink bottles as a decoy.

Recognizing the symptoms of a high-functioning alcoholic may be challenging as many HFAs are not detected until an unfortunate incident, such as a drunk-driving accident. Some signs to look for are excessive drinking during social engagements, missing work or family obligations, the inability to stop drinking even if they put a limit on a how many drinks they were going to drink, and obsessing over the next time he or she will be able to drink again.

Treating a HFA can be extremely difficult because many individuals are unwilling to admit they have a problem. Many will go undiagnosed because they don’t go through the physical symptoms of alcohol dependency such as withdrawal since they may not be daily drinkers. Once the decision has been made to seek help, therapy and group sessions are a good option. Tracking one’s drinking is an excellent way for a HFA to recognize his or her problem. Setting a “drinking” goal—for example, limiting alcohol to two days a week—has been shown to be an effective method to curb drinking.

Achieving sobriety is an intimidating goal, but one that can be attained with treatment. If you or a loved one may be suffering from alcoholism, please don’t wait. Help is available.