Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

Professional Views and Personal Insights

by Sarah Allen Benton


This volume spotlights the thinking of millions of successful people who excel in other ways, but remain powerless against and under the control of alcohol.

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Cover image for Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

February 2009


Pages 224
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Psychology/General

Who is the typical alcoholic among the 12.5 million living in the United States now? Many, if not most of us when asked that question, would envision a skid row bum or someone at least out of work or with little education locked into a low-skill, low-paying job. But that is not accurate, according to the results of a national study released in June, 2007 by the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The NIAAA determined that alcoholics in the United States really fall into five subtypes, including nearly 20 percent who are highly functional alcoholics, well-educated with good incomes. They include corporate presidents, powerful politicians, police, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and other highly-skilled, highly-educated people who are middle- to high-income and by most accounts successful. In this unprecedented book, mental health counselor Sarah Benton takes us into the worlds and minds of so-called high-functioning alcoholics, to understand how people so intelligent and achievement-oriented get drawn into states in which they secretly cannot control their liquor consumption but still manage to excel in their careers.

The book includes a look at celebrity alcoholics like singer Eric Clapton and actor/comedian Robin Williams, as well as alcoholics in high positions including Chris Albrecht, former Chairman and CEO of HBO. Other high-profile people included in this book are Miss USA 2007 Tara Conner and football legend Joe Namath. With her own story of alcoholism and her recovery woven into the text, Benton takes us into the lives and challenges of these well-educated and successful people, seeking to understand how, when, and why they became addicted, as well as the reasons their alcoholism is, for most, so hard to admit, cope with, and recover from.

Author Info

Sarah Allen Benton is a licensed mental health counselor and therapist at McLean Hospital (affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School) in the "McLean Residence at The Brook" transitional living program for substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment in Waltham, MA. She is a therapist at Confidential Care in Norwell, MA, specializing in substance abuse treatment, and facilitates a women's early recovery group. She previously worked as a therapist in the Emmanuel College Counseling Center in Boston, held various counselor positions at McLean Hospital and received training through the Mind/Body Medical Institute, once affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston (now the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine). Benton has been involved in psychologically-based research studies through McLean Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Northeastern University and the Boston University Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master of science in counseling psychology degree from Northeastern University. She has been featured in a New York Times article by Jane Brody, has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, NPR, and is a blogger for Bneton is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober since February of 2004.

Table of Contents

Part I: Active Alcoholism1. Introduction: High-Functioning Alcoholics2. In the Beginning: High-Functioning Alcoholics in High School3. Freedom: High-Functioning Alcoholics in College4. Adrift: High-Functioning Alcoholics as Emerging Adults5. Falling Uphill: Professional, Intelligent and Alcoholic6. Attempts to "Cure" the Problem: Out of Control and Hitting BottomPart II. Recovery7. A New Start: The Paths to Sobriety8. Spirituality, Religion and the Bottle: Filling the Void9. Transformation: The Twelve Steps10. The Challenge: Life in Recovery



"[E]xplores in depth a hidden class of alcoholics that are professionally successful; topics include High-Functioning Alcoholics (HFAs) in high school, college, and as emerging adults."ForeWard Reviews


"Through telling case examples, interviews with recovering alcoholics of all ages, accomplished professionals and executives, and through her own reflections, Sarah Allen Benton brings to awareness that the largest majority of alcoholics are high functioning and, too often, go undetected. Drawing on the experience of high functioning alcoholics, including her own experiences, this book is both instructive and inspiring."—Edward J. Khantzian, MD
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School at the Cambridge Health Alliance

"I hope this book will help to puncture the myth that alcoholism/addiction is a condition associated with those with less education or lower incomes. Too often, individuals in powerful or highly respected positions suffer much longer than necessary because they and those around them (including their treatment providers) are blinded by their social status. Professionals may delude themselves despite facing a higher-than-average risk, seeking help only after their careers are coming apart."—Jeffrey Fortgang, Ph.D., CAS
Psychologist/Addictions Specialist for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

"Alcoholism has many faces and high functioning alcoholics are invisibly among us every day. Congratulations and thanks to Sarah Allen Benton for the courage she displays by showing her face and telling her story."—David L. Rosenbloom, PhD
Director, Join Together, Boston University School of Public Health

"Sarah Allen Benton's work brings to life and thoroughly examines the risks and challenges that confront one-fifth of our nation's alcoholics, an often seemingly invisible element of our dysfunctional adolescents and adults, the high functioning alcoholic. This work will be a useful resource for lay person, professional and trainee interested in a realistic and professionally informed understanding of high functioning alcoholics and the Twelve-Step recovery process. Those whose loved ones are suffering and living the effects of high-functioning alcoholism as well as HFAs themselves will find important identifying information and resources for hope and change."—Robert M. Klein, MD, MBA
Director of Behavioral Health, Northeastern University Health and Counseling Services
Assistant Clinical Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine

"Sarah Benton's book Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic is a gift to both clinicians and clients alike. It is a thorough and insightful discussion of an often misunderstood and mistreated clinical group that frequently does not respond well to traditional psychotherapy, or psychopharmacology, or simply Twelve Step approaches. Sarah presents an integrated treatment approach in a highly personal and engaging way that truly bridges the gap between research, clinical work and moving personal experiences. Despite 35 years of working with this population of substance abusers, I was delighted to see how much I learned from Sarah's book. The highest compliment that I can pay her for this accomplishment is that I immediately thought of many clients and therapists that I could give it to."—David Treadway, Ph.D.

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