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What Are High-Functioning Alcoholics?

High-functioning alcoholics are people who struggle with alcohol abuse but are still able to maintain personal and professional obligations and who may not seem to even drink all that much, at least in the minds of their friends and family.

The truth is that, behind their veneer of competence, high-functioning alcoholics may drink more than anyone. Those whose addiction is accompanied by a degree of accomplishment or prosperity may mistakenly excuse their own alcoholism, or even see it as their secret to success. They also may feel compelled to hide their addiction for fear it will contradict their public persona; this can lead to binge drinking in private, which can have incredibly destructive consequences on physical and mental health.

Doctors, lawyers, scientists, therapists, professors, politicians, and those from every walk of life can develop so-called high-functioning alcoholism. Even many well-known celebrities have been afflicted with the condition. Ultimately, no matter how successful they are, high-functioning alcoholics will only see their lives improve if they can manage to bring their drinking to heel. Support groups, therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes may all be helpful ways for a high-functioning alcoholic to get a handle on their addiction, since despite what they may think, their drinking is indeed out of control.

What Are The Risks Of Being A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

While at first brush being a high-functioning alcoholic may seem preferable to the alternative, the truth is that it comes with many unique risks, roadblocks, and dangers. These may include:

  • The likelihood that an undertaking of massive importance (such as a surgical operation, a political negotiation, a court case, or a business deal) could be sabotaged due to alcoholism, possibly with wide-ranging fallout that could affect more than just the alcoholic.
  • The possibility that the high-functioning alcoholic has achieved so much personal or professional success that they view themselves as invincible; this could stop them from seeking treatment or from even acknowledging that they have a problem.
  • The idea that a high-functioning alcoholic may set a poor example for others in their field, and that those who view the high-functioning alcoholic favorably may emulate their drinking, possibly because the imitator mistakenly views alcohol use as being an effective way to relax or to cope under pressure.
  • The notion that high-functioning alcoholics may struggle to relate to other addicts, especially if the high-functioning alcoholic lacks a story about hitting “rock bottom” and therefore wrongfully considers themselves not to be addicted at all.
  • The probability that a high-functioning alcoholic will suffer from a debilitating health event like a heart attack, stroke, or major illness; the combined stress of a potentially demanding job or personal life coupled with the destructive effects of alcohol may weigh heavily on the heart and the immune system.

Which Celebrities Could Be Considered High-Functioning Alcoholics?

  • Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin, the famous astronaut who walked on the moon, struggled with alcoholism, something he attributes in part to genetics. After battling addiction, Aldrin has now been sober for almost 4 decades.
  • Betty Ford. Ford, a first lady who effectively hid her drinking from White House staffers, became addicted to both alcohol and the medication she’d been taking in combination with it. She achieved sobriety with the help of a treatment center.
  • Robin Williams. The famous actor and comedian used both alcohol and Cocaine heavily in his youth. He drank both to treat his low mood and to cope with the stress of his career, confessing this sentiment common among high-functioning alcoholics to a reporter: “I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going… maybe [drinking] will help. And it was the worst thing in the world.”
  • George W. Bush. The 43rd President quit drinking when he was 40, going “cold turkey” after a particularly intense period of use around his birthday. Bush leaned on his Christian faith as a way to successfully recover from addiction; this method works for many who credit a “higher power” with helping them attain sobriety.
  • Carrie Fisher. Fisher, an internationally renowned actor and pop culture icon, struggled for decades with alcohol and drug abuse as well as the co-occuring mental health condition of bipolar disorder. Tragically, Fisher was found with alcohol in her system after her death, proving that even a life full of success and acclaim can be lost to substance abuse.
  • Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor faced addiction to both alcohol and painkillers. Despite her status as a high-profile movie star, Taylor’s substance abuse threatened to put her in jeopardy. “[She was] impossibly sloshed all day long,” husband Richard Burton once wrote of Taylor, “So much so she couldn’t even read the lines.”

Why Should High-Functioning Alcoholics Seek Treatment?

Alcohol leads to a variety of health conditions. It could predispose one to accidents or to alcohol poisoning in the short-term, and can lead to many incapacitating ailments (like a range of cancers and cardiovascular conditions) in the long-term. High-functioning alcoholics may also destroy their families or their careers in addition to their health.

High-functioning alcoholics should seek treatment to prevent the above from happening. Several different methods, like support groups (which may be more effective if they also contain other high-functioning alcoholics), therapy, and even medication used to curb alcohol cravings or withdrawal symptoms, can all be effective in treating high-functioning alcoholism.

Learn Healthier Coping Strategies Now

If you or someone you know is leaning on alcohol as a way to prop up a seemingly successful life, know that the charade can’t go on forever. Eventually the house of cards will come tumbling down — with potentially devastating results. Contact a treatment provider today to learn about how high-functioning alcoholics can recover and gain healthier coping strategies that will allow them to live even happier, more successful lives.