Diane Schuler had everything: a beautiful home, happy family, a good job. People saw her as a supermom. On July 26th, 2009, she drove two miles on the wrong side of the Taconic Parkway and hit an SUV head-on, killing eight people. Her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. The amount of alcohol in her system surprised everyone around her, including her husband. How could someone like her have a problem like that? How could nobody have known?
High-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) are one of the most difficult group of alcoholics to spot. HFAs have jobs, homes, families. They can be highly educated and respected in their field. 19 percent of alcoholics are HFAs. They tend to be middle aged or older. 60 percent of HFAs are male, and half are married. The median income for HFAs is $60,000 a year. HFAs often appear as pillars of the community, people of great authority and respect.
When someone is so successful, how do you know their drinking is a problem? High-functioning alcoholism has several signs:
Get aggressive or defensive when confronted about their drinking
Break promises about cutting back on drinking — even promises to themselves
Often use excuses like “I’m not a morning person” to hide the results of their frequent drinking
Hide aspects of their drinking, like how often or how much they consume
Deflect with humor or self-depreciating jokes
Can’t stop thinking about drinking, or measure their day in terms of when they can drink
Blackouts — do they have difficulty remembering what they’ve done while drinking?
We all know the squeaky wheel gets the grease; this makes high-functioning alcoholics more vulnerable to going unnoticed and untreated. While the disease is content to stay overlooked, HFAs run the risk of not getting help until it’s too late — a DUI, hurting a loved one, driving away a spouse, harming themselves. Additionally, HFAs rarely pursue help on their own. They may not understand that they are an alcoholic. They may want assistance, but the work, expense and hassle of recovery turns them off — not to mention the guilt and shame that often goes along with alcoholism. For those who thrive in their field, admitting they have a problem can feel like failure. Often HFAs need a third party to intervene, such as a spouse, family member, employer, or the law.
So what do you do if you or a loved one exhibit the signs of high-functioning alcoholism? The first step is getting them to acknowledge the problem. Approach them when sober. Make sure to use a non-judgemental tone. Come from a place of caring and empathy.
Once the problem is acknowledged, get them help. AA meetings are a great place to start. Therapy, whether group or one-on-one, can be a big help for many. Therapy can also help alcoholics find out if they’re self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness, or to learn coping mechanisms for stressors they don’t know how to deal with. Likewise, going to a physician is important if they use alcohol to deal with any kind of pain. Recovery treatment is a big step, whether outpatient or inpatient. A support system is also vital to recovery. That support system can be friends, family, or people met in treatment (like a sponsor).
While high-functioning alcoholics might believe everything is under control, others see it not as a type, but a stage of descent — one that often leads to disaster. Support and recovery is the best path to a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.