What’s a High-Functioning Alcoholic?


You might ask, “Is there such thing as high-functioning alcoholic?”

high-functioning alcoholicSurprisingly, yes. But they are not getting a lot of media attention because despite their addiction they are able to maintain successful lives.

In an article written by Sarah Allen Benton featured on Addictionpro.com, she cited a landmark 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) which categorized alcoholics into five subtypes. The study found that about 19.5% are the “functional” subtype, 31.5% are the “young adult” subtype, 21% are the “young antisocial” subtype, 19% are the “intermediate familial” subtype (middle-aged with mental illness), and only 9% are of the “chronic severe” subtype that fits the stereotype of the low-bottom alcoholic.

Some of the common characteristics of HFAs include, but not limited to the following:

  • Denial — Given their non-stereotypical image and the fact that they are able to live a manageable life, HFAs often have difficulty viewing themselves as alcoholics. They also shun recovery help and they make excuses for drinking by using alcohol as a reward or to relieve stress.
  • Professional and personal life — HFAs are capable of maintaining a social life and relationships, as well as job or academic performance. They are well respected for their achievements, but sadly, they also surround themselves with heavy drinkers.
  • “Double life” — In the outside world, HFAs appear to be managing their lives really well. But that’s because they have the knack for separating their professional, personal, and drinking lives.

Unlike lower-functioning alcoholics, HFAs are challenging for clinicians in terms of treatment. They could appear resistant and use their successful lives as evidence that they are not alcoholics. Still, for experts, HFAs need to have their psychological addiction to alcohol treated. There are available books written by or for HFAs that can provide valuable perspectives and healing. Similarly, identifying the stage of change of an HFA is deemed essential for effective treatment or therapy.

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