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High-Functioning Alcoholism: Why It’s More Harmful Than You Think

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Alcohol is everywhere. From church to sports games and family dinners, it’s become an integral part of American culture. It can be easy to forget that it’s deadly. According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol kills at least 95,000 people per year, making it the third leading cause of entirely preventable death in our country. With that in mind, any use of alcohol is dangerous. Indeed, it can cause a variety of physical and mental issues. If you believe you’re a high-functioning alcoholic, your habits may be more harmful than you think.

Side Effects Of Alcohol 

Put simply, alcohol causes brain damage – and that’s the intent. The acting ingredient in alcohol, ether, slows down the central nervous system, impairing your judgment, reaction times, and memory. Over time, the effects can be even more damaging: Alcohol has been shown to cause high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and liver problems. One government study also found that alcohol is a contributing factor to obesity, which comes with its own suite of dangerous health issues. 

Alcohol also has significant effects on the brain and emotions. Because of how it impacts brain chemistry, alcohol can intensify feelings of depression and decrease your ability to handle stress. 

All of these effects are of course exacerbated when someone drinks to excess.

What Is Alcoholism? 

With all of that in mind, why would someone choose to drink at all – let alone to excess? Social pressure, lifestyle, and self-medication all play a role in that decision. Ultimately, however, most people decide that the benefits outweigh the risks. When the negatives outweigh the positives, though, not everyone can quit so easily. Disordered drinking can slip into alcohol addiction, what The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA) calls “an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”

The experience of alcoholism is not the same for everyone, though. In fact, one study by NIAAA and several other federal agencies found that there are five typical sub-types of alcoholics. 

Young Antisocial Alcoholics

Young antisocial alcoholics start drinking the earliest, around age 15, and by 18 they are addicted. More than 50% of this group suffers from antisocial personality disorder, and other mental issues like depression or bipolar disorder are rampant in this group. Overall, they make up about 21.1% of alcoholics.

Intermediate Familial Alcoholics

Intermediate familial alcoholics make up about 19% of problem drinkers. They start drinking in their mid-teens, and are likely influenced by the fact that they have an alcoholic in their immediate family. Because of that, they also often suffer from co-occurring issues like depression, cross-addiction, or eating disorders.

Young Adult Alcoholics 

About 31% of alcoholics are the “young adult” subtype, defined by the fact that they started drinking in their late teens and therefore developed disordered drinking habits early. Now in their 20s, young adult alcoholics drink less frequently than other problem drinkers, but they drink more when they do. Many of the binge drinkers of college days go on to become young adult alcoholics.

Chronic Severe Alcoholics

Chronic severe alcoholics exhibit the demographic traits of many of the other subtypes. For example, more than 75% of them have an immediate family member who is an alcoholic, like the intermediate familial drinkers. However, 47% of them have antisocial personality disorder, like the young antisocial alcoholics. What is most definitive about this group, therefore, is the severity of their use: More than 90% drink more than they intend to, despite the issues it causes, and more than 80% will experience withdrawal symptoms if and when they try to quit. Only 9% of alcoholics ever reach this level.

Functional Alcoholics

Nearly 20% of all alcoholics are “functional,” which in this case means that they are able to hold down a job and maintain relationships. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are doing either well.) In addition, functional alcoholics are just as susceptible to the physical and mental effects of alcoholism. Depression is often associated with this subtype.

How To Get Help For High-Functioning Alcoholics

The key word in the phrase “high-functioning alcoholic” is this: “alcoholic.” No matter how much they or their loved ones try to convince themselves otherwise, they are generally only surviving, not thriving. They are high-functioning only in the context of other alcoholics – not the world at large. 

What’s more, alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease. Left untreated, it will only get worse, leaving the “high-functioning alcoholic” to cross the line to rock bottom when they least expect it. The reality is, you are high-functioning until you aren’t, and by then it may be too late.

If you believe that you or a loved one may be a high-functioning alcoholic, there is a way to experience a better life free from alcohol. Give us a call to learn more about your options for renewing your life and becoming truly high-functioning – without alcohol.

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