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Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

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Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

I’ve run into several people whose alcoholic family member gets up each morning and goes to a job, so the sober person says their loved one doesn’t have a problem. For people who don’t understand substance abuse and addiction, the high-functioning alcoholic can be difficult for some people to wrap their brain around.Sarah Allen Benton.jpg

Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights, by Sarah Allen Benton, explains that some of us are influenced by the stereotype of the jobless and homeless substance abuser who’s all tapped out. That’s what an alcoholic is to them. Benton calls people who represent this stereotype “low-bottom drunks.” and I take that to mean drinking takes over these peoples’ lives to the point where they lose everything and can barely function.

Roughly 18 million people suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence in this country, and about 9% of those fit the stereotype just mentioned, according to the book. However, 20% of people who abuse alcohol may be high-functioning, Benton tells us. They work, often in prestigious careers, and they can maintain a life outside work. They often hide their disease well. Plus, their success makes it even easier for them to deny they have a problem.

But this group exhibits the same warning signs as anyone with a drinking problem: They experience blackouts, they feel shame about their drinking, they obsess about it, and they can’t stop. There are several other signs as well. Plus, they’re on the road that leads to one place only: death.

Benton speculates that there’s not a lot of research on this segment of drinkers simply because they’re higher functioning. They don’t pose as severe a problem for society and government systems as their severely addicted counterparts. Her discussion of famous “HFAs”, as she calls them, reminds us that no one is immune. The list goes on and on: Buzz Aldrin, Elizabeth Taylor, celebrity host Pat O’Brien, Representative Patrick Kennedy, Grammy winner Keith Urban, Eric Clapton, and more recently, Charlie Sheehan, to name a few. There but for the Grace of God go you and I.high functioning alcoholic bookcover-200.jpg

The book is divided into two sections: Active Alcoholism and Recovery, which I found to be an interesting approach.  It stands to reason that the author discusses the controversial topic of cutting down, or drinking in moderation, since it’s an option most HFAs probably consider. She presents a ton of research, both pro and con, and you can guess, on reading her background, which side she’s on.

A high-functioning alcoholic herself, Benton is a mental health counselor in Boston entering her 7th year of sobriety. Her story of alcoholism and recovery, woven throughout the book in actual entries from a journal she kept, seem especially poignant, probably because as a professional she has great insight into her experiences. “The longer I have been in recovery, the more I change my perspective on my past,” she writes.

Here’s a blog post Benson wrote for Psychology Today:

There’s a lot of information in this book, but if it’s the personal story that always gets you, Benton certainly has one.

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