There is a stereotype of "alcoholics" that is often untrue and unhelpful, of violent and impoverished people who spend all of their days too drunk to function. The truth is that there are many people, called high functioning alcoholics, with out of control drinking who are nevertheless able to maintain a presentable face to the world, having a life that, to an outsider, looks good.
They may have strong relationships or achieve success in their jobs or school, keeping their addiction a secret in a life that seems to be held together and happy. Alcohol addiction can be sustained through denial, and people can look to signs of a successful life as a way to hide the hard reality of their addiction.
According to a 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse shows that 19.5 of alcoholics meet this definition of a "functioning" alcoholic with no readily apparent negative social consequences of their addiction. However, their addiction is still a life threatening danger, with the threat of loosing everything unless they get help.
In spite of the denial of "high functioning," alcoholics can and will still reach a point where they become aware of their need for help. Here are some reasons why the illusion of a high functioning addict cannot be sustained forever
1) The nature of alcoholism means you cannot protect yourself from its more dramatic and scary dangers forever
Alcoholism is a progressive disease. That means that it often gets more dramatic over time, unless it's treated.
After long periods of heavy drinking, gradually the alcoholic discovers they need more and more drinks to reach a desired level of tipsiness, as they develop physical dependence. As alcohol becomes a stronger and stronger craving, the illusion that everything is under control and safe becomes harder and harder to maintain.
A high functioning alcoholic may feel he or she is ok if they've never been drunk at work, or become violent or been in a dangerous situation because of alcohol, but continuing to drink to excess makes these things more likely.
2) A bottom can look different, based on how aware you are of your own behavior
The idea of hitting rock bottom may bring up very scary images of homelessness and jail time, but it may look different from each person. Often, high functioning alcoholics find that, even if they do manage to hold on to their jobs or relationships, they can reach an emotional bottom.
The shame, remorse, loneliness, and hopelessness at failing to control drinking can be a powerful motivation towards helping someone realize the truth about themselves. It may be easy to think you can only have one drink and be fine, but you quickly find yourself overstepping any boundaries you set, as if by compulsion.
If so, you can learn to listen to these feelings. Achieving that awareness of your need for help can help you reach your bottom quicker, before it's too late.
3) The HFA's perfectionist, overachieving drive can increase awareness
Many people who think they are capable of getting through or hiding alcoholism by sheer force of will do so out of a strong perfectionistic sprit, that drives them to keep achieving in spite of their addictions. Sometimes intensify feels of denial, since measuring everything by external appearances can cause them to feel their isn't a problem.
On the other hand, this can also make them more susceptible to recognizing how alcohol may be causing even small-perceived "failures." A college student may be unable to perceive how weekly binge drinking is affecting his or her schoolwork, until As turn into Bs.
Such a bottom may be subtle, but enough to promote awareness and change. If your entire identity is wrapped up in successes in a certain field, the fear of loosing a job can be enough to promote change.
4) Self delusion can't last forever
Many high functioning alcoholics are very adapt at hiding their condition. Even though they obsess over consuming alcohol, they create excuses and rationalizations to justify their behavior.
They surround themselves with other, social drinkers as much as possible, and try to get as many drinks as possible in that environment. Things may need to progress to a deeper levels of out of control behavior before the danger is recognized.
5) The health risks will catch up
Heavy drinking over a long period of time brings with it a number of health risks, including high blood pressure, cancers, loss of memory, and poorer job and school performance. These things are things you can not control or avoid or hide, and so may be part of the bottom for a high functioning alcoholic.