The term alcoholic brings to mind someone who’s stumbling about, slurring their speech, loud and obnoxious, dangerous to themselves and others. They get into fights, rack up DWI’s, lose their jobs, and often their families and friends. A high-functioning alcoholic often displays none of these behaviors.
I take umbrage with the phrase high-functioning. It is a misnomer evoking a sense of triumph and accomplishments. A more accurate term would be low-visibility. To continue his addiction, my husband was flying under the radar at work, among family and friends, amidst drivers in traffic. The label ‘high-functioning’ makes it sound as though drinking a quart of Scotch a day undetected is an incredible achievement. Except for the people I’d confided in, no one seemed to realize Robert had a drinking problem. He was getting by. Every day another lie. Putting himself and those around him in peril.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 19.5 percent of U.S. alcoholics fall into the functioning category. They are typically middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families. Alcoholics exist among us, but often undetected. The driver of the 18-wheeler in your rearview mirror. Your mother’s surgeon. Your closest friend.
My heart goes out to those battling addiction, but it is their loved ones whose pain I feel most. Through no fault of their own, their lives have been decimated as they walk the impossible line between aiding and enabling. Persuading a high-functioning alcoholic to get help is rife with challenges because the alcoholic fights you with seemingly irrefutable evidence. “Paula, I get up for work everyday, I hold down a job – I couldn’t do that if I were an alcoholic!” Robert’s doctor estimated he’d been an alcoholic for only a few years: “He hasn’t been drinking that long. Some people come in and they’ve been addicted since their college days. That’s tough to turn around.” Having survived an alcoholic, I’ve learned that a staggering percentage of alcoholics can hide their addiction and continue abusing their bodies without the impediment of intervention. For Robert, it was an incredible achievement, swiftly executed into a lethal outcome. High-functioning.