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A SOBERING STORY: Some users can mask their problem

by on April 27, 2014 1:58 AM

Oftentimes, the symptoms of alcohol or substance abuse are obvious. But sometimes, those with a problem are able to conceal it.

They’re holding down a job. They’re meeting deadlines. They seem to be productive, if not altogether successful.

“But if you peel the layers away, you’re going to find out there are problems in other aspects of a person’s life,” said Frank Jans, director of psychiatry at West Penn Allegheny Health Network.

Such people are considered to have a functional addiction, in which they lead a sort of double life.

Outwardly, addiction specialists say, the addict seems to have things together, but inwardly they are being consumed by the addiction. Although the concept applies to both alcoholism and drug abuse, it’s more often associated with alcoholism.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism considers functional alcoholism a subset of alcoholism, one of five it identified through a 2007 study.

In that study, researchers analyzed a group of nearly 1,500 alcoholics and concluded that close to 20 percent of Americans suffering from the disease would be considered “functional alcoholics.”

Researchers found that these people typically are middle-aged and well-educated and have stable jobs and families.

About one-third of them have a multigenerational family history of alcoholism, and nearly half were smokers.

Sometimes, Jans said, functional addicts have certain life circumstances that help them support appearances and shield them from consequences. For instance, the functional addict might be well off, allowing them to afford their addiction and keeping them from financial problems.

Or, he said, the functional addict might be a known and respected member of his or her community, and therefore people are willing to cut him or her a break for bad behavior arising from drinking.

Jans said that although functional addicts may not realize it, they have worked hard to create an illusion of well-being, having put all their energy into that one aspect of their life. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, other aspects of the addict’s life are slowly eroding.

He said that’s another way to look at that particular problem — as a slow erosion and not an immediate implosion.

“But eventually it’s going to catch up with them as their body starts to break down and they start to have problems,” said Vince Mercuri, executive director of The Open Door Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Center in Indiana.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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