The Myth Of The Functional Alcoholic

Flaming_cocktailsThe term high-functioning alcoholic was popularized by Sarah Allen Benton in her 2009 book, “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic” and she claims that up to half of alcoholics fit her definition. Her claims support a kind of mythology among alcoholics at large. It’s the myth that has the appeal, not the actual existence of functioning alcoholics.

The question comes down to just what is necessary to be an alcoholic in the first place. Addiction, the term under which alcoholism falls, includes the concept of using to the detriment of a person’s life beyond the substance they are addicted to. The argument then becomes whether someone can be an alcoholic and maintain a “normal” or even successful lifestyle. That concept has a great appeal to those who are addicted to alcohol.

In fact, it’s a common theme for new members at AA meetings. They often aren’t concerned so much with stopping their drinking altogether, but finding a way to control the negative aspects so they can keep drinking. The myth gains traction because if someone else can manage to drink and be otherwise productive and even respected, then maybe I can do it too. The problem is not that people can’t work or lead a productive life while still drinking, it’s that they can’t maintain the delicate balance required.

Consider it with the idea of balance in mind. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. To be an alcoholic is to travel a path that leads to sickness and eventually, death. At some point, the weight of the disease grows enough that it tips the balance and the most successful alcoholic will plummet because of that. To say that someone is a functional alcoholic implies they have their drinking under control. What is actually happening is they have managed to conceal their drinking for now.

Once you see that it’s a temporary condition, it’s obvious that “functional alcoholic” is a bogus label. Without help, they will spiral down until they enjoy all the misery alcoholism can bestow. They are as “functional” as the guy falling from a hundred story building who yells while falling, “I’m fine so far!”

Ms. Benton’s book is worth reading to understand how seemingly successful alcoholics operate and the challenges they face. It eventually explodes the myth and recommends the spiritual treatment from a 12 step recovery program. It does give an insider’s peek – Ms. Benton was herself a high-functioning alcoholic.

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