Redefining Addiction Stereotypes

Sarah Allen Benton, MS, LMHC, LPC

Primary Therapist

  The stereotype of the "typical" addict/alcoholic prevents many individuals with addictions from seeking help-as it allows for comparison to the worst case scenario. The media also fuels the stereotype, as many of the movies and stories that portray addicts and alcoholics are often tragic-when the real-life stories can be dull by comparison. I personally struggled to acknowledge my own alcoholism because I had succeeded academically, thrived in my career, had many friends and a stable place to live. Society led me to believe that alcoholics were homeless men living on the street and therefore, I believed that I was exempt. On the surface I did not appear to have an addiction, and in fact, those around me were unaware that I was an alcoholic-making comments such as "you are not like those people" while in fact, I was. Being an addict/alcoholic and succeeding externally are not mutually exclusive-they can co-exist. High-functioning addicts and alcoholics may also lead their loved ones to have secondary denial about their addiction-as family members are often misinformed about addiction or given a false sense of security by outside appearances. Parents were informed to look for "red flags" of alcohol or drug usage that include declining grades, social isolation, loss of interest in extracurricular activities, behavioral issues, etc. However, if those signs are not present, families may overlook the addiction or minimize it.   The concept of "hitting bottom" also has many associated misconceptions. I often hear the question "what was that person's bottom?" or "what happened to lead them to get help?" and frequently attached to these questions is the expectation of a dramatic story of external devastation. However, many bottoms are more subtle or internal and often do not involve such obvious losses. Each alcoholic has a unique bottom, and some alcoholics report having several bottoms along the way that they have ignored. Generally, high-functioning addicts and alcoholics experience bottoms that are emotional and internal-including feelings of shame, remorse, loneliness and/ or hopelessness. Some don't have a home or family to lose, which limits the type of bottom they may have. In contrast, lower functioning alcoholics often have bottoms that involve losing their jobs, family, friends and housing in addition to going through emotional suffering. Some high-functioning individuals are often lacking the "gift of desperation" that may motivate lower functioning alcoholics to get help. For others, functioning only lasts until the disease progresses and the person cannot fulfill their daily responsibilities any longer. When defining addiction, it is important to focus on what happens to an individual when they drink or use drugs (ie, craving, mental obsession, ability to imagine life without using, loss of morals and values). The external aspects of an individual's life (ie, education, socioeconomic background, appearance) are the smoke that clouds the mirror that is truth of addiction.   ................................ Sarah Allen Benton MS, LMHC, LPC is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who recently joined our clinical team. She was most recently a Therapist/Case Manager at McLean Hospital in the McLean Brook transitional living program for substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment in Waltham, Massachusetts. She had also worked in private practice at Lynch Wellness and Recovery Foundation and facilitated a Women's Early Recovery Group in Norwell, MA. Sarah is the author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic that was published in 2009 and released in paperback in 2010. S he has been featured in a NY Times article by Jane Brody, has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Today Show, NPR and writes a Psychology Today.com blog called " The High-Functioning Alcoholic". Sarah has been involved in the recovery community for almost a decade. She worked previously as a therapist at the Emmanuel College Counseling Center in Boston where she was the leader of the Alcohol Skills Training Program directed toward helping college-age problem drinkers. In addition, she gives lectures and trainings on the topic of high-functioning alcoholics at high-schools, colleges, addiction conferences and alcohol treatment facilities. Sarah earned a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology degree from Northeastern University and has been involved in psychologically-based research.