According to Boston-based licensed mental health counselor Sarah Allen Benton, recovering alcoholic and author of Understanding The High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights, being successful professionally or personally and being an alcoholic are not mutually exclusive."A high-functioning alcoholic (HFA) is an alcoholic who is able to maintain his or her outside life, such as a job, home, family and friendships, all while drinking alcoholically," explains Benton, who is also the addiction blogger for PsychologyToday.com. "HFAs have the same disease as the stereotypical â€˜skid-row' alcoholic, but it manifests or progresses differently."
The danger with HFAs is that not only does society overlook their excessive drinking (after all, HFA's seem to have it all together), but, to compound the problem, HFAs also remain in denial because they don't think they are the stereotypical low-life drunk.
"Many HFAs are not viewed by society as being alcoholic, because they have succeeded and overachieved throughout their lifetimes," explains Benton. "These achievements often lead to an increase in personal denial as well as denial by colleagues and loved ones. HFAs differ from lower-functioning alcoholics in the way that they appear to the outside world. They are able to hide their addiction so that loved ones and colleagues often do not think or realize that they are alcoholic."
Benton says research suggests that HFAs tend to gravitate toward certain professions, particularly business, law and health care. (Keep in mind, however, alcoholism doesn't discriminate, and that both men and women can be HFAs and that all professions have HFAs.)
A study in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found that problem drinking had developed in 18 percent of the lawyers who had practiced for 2 to 20 years and in 25 percent of lawyers who had practiced for 20 years or longer. Benton adds, "The American Bar Association has found that lawyers and judges are overachievers who often take on excessive amounts of work and tend to escape from these stressors through alcohol and drugs."
According to Benton, interviews with addiction experts indicate that drinking cultures in business and law graduate schools contribute to higher alcoholism rates in these professions. Additionally, statistics from the Massachusetts Committee on Drug and Alcohol Dependence, suggest that 8 to 13 percent of health care professionals have alcohol or drug dependence, which is a higher rate than that of the general population.
Do you suspect someone you know — maybe even you — is an HFA? Through her interviews with sober HFAs, Benton created the following list of characteristics that HFAs display. These include but are not limited to:
Professional and personal life:
A double life:
Even though HFAs seem to have it all together, their excessive drinking can put their health — and even life — at risk. Despite the faÃ§ade of success, HFAs have the disease of alcoholism — a disease that is lifelong, chronic, progressive, and potentially fatal. "While HFAs may be succeeding professionally or academically, they may be engaging in dangerous behaviors, such as drinking and driving, having risky sexual encounters, blacking out (memory lapse), etc," warns Benton. "Although they may have been able to avoid serious trouble professionally or personally to a certain point, it is only a matter of time before alcoholism will lead to problems."
April is Alcohol Awareness Month. If you suspect you or a loved one is an HFA take advantage of your local resources to learn more about this disease and options for recovery. You can also visit Benton's website HighFunctioningAlcoholic.com or pick up her book Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.
Benton concludes, "HFAs are putting not only their own health at risk through their alcoholic drinking, but also the emotional health of their families because they are not getting treatment for their alcoholism."
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