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Are High Functioning Alcoholics A Myth?

Labels Seldom Help... but Some Do Irreparable Damage

High Functioning Alcoholics MythAt Saint Jude Retreats, we respect our guests' complex identities and motivations, so loaded terms like "alcoholics" and "alcoholism" aren't even in our vocabulary. However, many of our guests have participated in 12-Step programs before coming to work with us and they still view alcoholism as an identity and a disease. If their lives don't fit the most destructive, extreme pictures of alcohol use, they consider themselves to be "high-functioning alcoholics", but is there even such a thing as a high functioning alcoholic?

No matter how much or how often you drink alcohol, you're not defined or controlled by that behavior. However, labels like this one can have a real impact on your self-image. Learn why it doesn't apply to you or anyone else.

Is "Functioning Alcoholic" An Oxymoron?

Even among those who subscribe to the mythology of addiction and alcoholism, "high-functioning alcoholic" is a problematic and impossible combination of two opposing terms. According to traditional 12-Step mentalities, alcoholism is a disease that changes your priorities and perceptions, causing you to choose alcohol over your own best interests. By definition, it implies that you can no longer control your drinking.

When you add "high-functioning" to this gross generalization, the waters get a little murkier. Depending on your own experiences, you may use the term to describe heavy drinkers who regularly do one or more of the following:

  • Successfully conceal their drinking (or the true extent of their drinking) from their loved ones or colleagues
  • Continue to have professional and personal success, despite their heavy drinking
  • Tolerate alcohol so well that they can consume it throughout the day, without acting intoxicated or suffering hangovers afterwards
  • Wait until their daily obligations are fulfilled, then drink excessive amounts of alcohol

In each of these theoretical situations, the drinker is able to limit the effects of alcohol on his or her life by choosing when and how they drink. They may suffer adverse consequences to their health, or find it difficult to break the daily habit, but they are proving on a regular basis that alcohol cannot completely control them. They are still capable of choosing when and what they drink, even if they believe that alcohol has become a necessary ingredient to their daily functioning. This disproves the notion of addiction as an all-encompassing, all-powerful force.

Are You A "High-Functioning" Drinker?

Substance use is a behavior, not a disease. Do you use alcohol on a regular basis, but your habit isn't "obvious" to everyone around you? Does your heavy drinking affect you in negative ways, but it doesn't prevent you from accomplishing your goals or supporting yourself? You may assume you're a high-functioning alcoholic, but the truth is much more promising.

Rather than assuming that your disease is less severe because you function at a higher level, it's time to acknowledge what you've already proven: you don't have a disease at all. Instead, you've developed a habit that prevents you from fulfilling your true potential, but you haven't given up on that potential completely. You've already proven that you're capable of prioritizing behaviors that are more important and productive to you than drinking. That means you're capable of living without alcohol or further moderating your alcohol use too.

If you'd like to discuss changing your alcohol habit, please feel free to call one of our Family Consultants who can help you learn more about our transformational Cognitive Behavioral Education (CBE) approach to substance use. We'd be happy to talk with you and help you decide if a self-directed program for change fits your unique needs.

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Thank you all for giving me an opportunity to dream again.Karla Sober & In Control Since 2010
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