Alcohol – Addiction
There’s something wrong with our picture of alcoholism. We think of the typical alcoholic as a person whose drinking habits have cost him or her a job, a home, a social circle, a husband or wife. In fact, alcoholics are people whose lives have come to a grinding halt because of booze, right? Not necessarily, say the experts. Unless you’re very close to that person, you’d often not even know that he or she is a high-functioning alcoholic. The question is, are you?
In her book, Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Breaking the Cycle and Finding Hope, Sarah Allen Benton, a licenced mental health counsellor at Emmanuel College in Boston, US, writes from personal experience. She points out that high-functioning alcoholics, like she herself had been, never really hit rock bottom in the usual sense. They’re able to live respectable, even high-level lives for many years, usually with a home, a social circle, a job, a marriage and children. They’re intelligent, witty and popular. They’re not your stereotypical winos who dry out in rehabs every few months with nothing much to live for. In fact, a list of celebrities who at one point or another may have been functional alcoholics include Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, Robin Williams, Eric Clapton and even US ex-president George W. Bush.
Dr Mark L. Willenburg of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, whom Benton quotes in her book, writes, “People can be dependent and not have abuse problems at all. They’re successful students. They’re good parents, good workers. They watch their weight. They go to gym. Then they go home and have four martinis or two bottles of wine. Are they alcoholics? You bet.” And therein lies the rub. Nobody, including themselves, see them as alcoholics because they don’t fit the usual picture. Yet, the limits of their drinking habits reach far beyond what’s healthy. It’s hard, even for them, to imagine themselves without booze. So, what does the typical high-functioning alcoholic look like?
Meet Charles, a high-functioning alcoholic
• Charles is the senior vice president of a large law firm. He is 45 years old and happily married to Lucile, a stay-at-home mom who raises their two children, Katy (10) and Kevin (6). They own a property in a well-to-do neighbourhood. He does well at his job and is extremely popular. He’s never been to rehab or arrested for drinking, but he’s bribed a traffic official once or twice and brags about it with relish.
• Charles was a party animal at varsity and still drinks like he did back then. He is the life of every office or social gathering, often boasting that he can drink anyone under the table. He never says no to a drink. In fact, he’s the first at the bar after work, or to be invited along when a night out with the boys is planned.
• Drinking is a focus in Charles’ life. He often talks about it. He often suggests it, and often plans or attends social events and gatherings where drinking is the main purpose. Then he usually brags about his escapades afterwards. But he laughs it off when confronted because he doesn’t think it’s a problem.
• Charles’ friends and family ignore the signs. Because Charles doesn’t believe his boozing is problematic, nobody else really does. They laugh it off, just like he does. But they often talk about it behind his back.
• Charles begins to feel the effects. Even though Charles still copes very well, it requires more effort at times to keep doing so. He experiences memory blanks after binges and he gets nervous or restless when he hasn’t been drinking for a day.
The problem with the drinking habits of many high-functioning alcoholics is that they’ve been built up over many years. Physically, this implies tolerance – a high-functioning alcoholic often needs far larger quantities of booze to show any effect compared with friends who drink occasionally. But, regardless of getting drunk or not, the amount of alcohol consumed reaches damaging levels, putting the liver, kidneys and brain of the drinker in danger.
The problem is that the physical damage only shows up when it’s too late. And as far as social, financial and emotional consequences go, there are very few of those – if any – in the life of the high-functioning alcoholic that can act as danger signs. Many believe it’s only a matter of time before functional alcoholism becomes full-blown, even if it takes years. So, it’s partly the responsibility of those around the drinker to speak up about the drinking far sooner than they tend to do.
Genetic predisposition has a key role to play in both heavy drinking and alcohol dependency. However, researchers from the University of Colorado, US, discovered an interesting genetic distinction that divides these two behaviours. The drinking habits of rats, they found, was linked to the pleasure and reward pathways in the brain, as well as to some of the genetic systems that control appetite and satiety. But when they compared these systems to those found in humans, they discovered that the genes identified as controlling drinking behaviour were not the same group thought to play a role in alcohol dependency. What this implies is that certain people may be genetically predisposed to drinking heavily, but not to becoming alcoholics. Other people who are genetically inclined to alcoholism might consume far less alcohol than those who don’t have the dependency genes and still become dependent. This is why it’s difficult to determine which levels of alcohol consumption are “normal” or “safe”, as our genes react to alcohol in very individual ways.
PLEASE NOTE: Products are ranked in decreasing order of potency. Products listed nearer the top of any particular health need are the most effective and have the most scientific research to support their use in respect of such health need. Multiple products, one from each bullet (•) can be combined with products from other bullets for added effectiveness, if needed, since products from different bulleted lines have different mechanisms of action. However, where more than one product is listed within a particular bullet (•), then only one of these products should be used, since all products listed within the same bullet share an identical or similar pharmacology (mechanism of action) for that condition. This is because whenever a particular condition is treated via multiple different mechanisms of action, the result is generally improved effectiveness. However, when products are combined that work via exactly the same mechanism of action, then no extra benefit is obtained.