Although I’m not in the healthcare field, I’m a former college professor who fit the term “high-functioning alcoholic” to a T. (Just ask my ex or the Dean of Faculty where I worked.) What I hope to bring to the topic of “Am I or am I not a high-functioning alcoholic?” are my personal experience, a handful of statistics, and some encouragement to those doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who may be facing that very question.
To start, what is a high-functioning alcoholic? That phrase is typically used to refer to someone who habitually drinks an unhealthy amount of alcohol while maintaining some level of professional and personal success.
“A functional alcoholic often consumes as much alcohol as someone with an alcohol use disorder. However, they will not exhibit outward symptoms of intoxication. This is because they have developed a tolerance for alcohol to the point that it takes more for them to feel the effects (including ‘hangovers’). Consequently, they must drink increasingly larger amounts to get the same effects they’re looking for.”
According to Sarah Allen Benton, a licensed mental health counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, “You can still be one (a high-functioning alcoholic) even though you have a great ‘outside life,’ with a job that pays well, home, family, friendships and social bonds.”
According to a National Institute of Health survey, about 20% of alcoholics in America can be classified as high-functioning alcoholics. Certainly, doctors and nurses can sustain successful careers, even while drinking to excess, and sometimes their co-workers, patients, and family don’t recognize they have a problem. A high-functioning alcoholic might hold down a demanding, important, even prestigious job and have a family, despite an underlying struggle with alcohol addiction.
From my own experience, I know that a high-functioning alcoholic can hide their struggle or how much they drink from friends, loved ones, co-workers, and the people they serve. I was both devious and strategic for years, regarding how I hid my drinking, the bottles (both full and empty), my breath, and the consequences of my drinking… at least as well as I could at the time.
However, high-functioning alcoholics are also often unaware of how their behavior and the consequences of their drinking impact their associates and loved ones. In my case, I had no idea how much damage I did to my relationship with my ex and my former employer, not least of which were the bonds of trust I broke beyond repair. (Neither of those two people have allowed me into their lives since I got sober 22 years ago.)
While I eventually did learn, I learned the hard way: it doesn’t matter how much achievement, success and “good” in the world one musters, alcohol abuse causes relationships to suffer.
And that’s not even mentioning the harm, impairment and injury to one’s own health alcohol abuse can cause!
Alcohol abuse carries serious health risks and poses many negative consequences. In a WebMD.com article titled, “Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic?” the author states, “It (alcohol abuse) can lead to liver disease, pancreatitis, some forms of cancer, brain damage, serious memory loss, and high blood pressure. It also makes someone more likely to die in a car wreck or from murder or suicide. And any alcohol abuse raises the odds of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome.”
Unfortunately, a combination of denial and a lack of appropriate support and understanding often prevents high-functioning alcoholics from ever getting treatment.
In PART TWO of this 2-part blog-post on healthcare workers who may be high-functioning alcoholics, we’ll take a deeper look at denial, the potential dangers, and the ABC’s of getting help.
 Benton, S.A., Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2010