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Life as a High-Functioning Alcoholic: An Interview with Sarah Allen Benton

Life as a High-Functioning Alcoholic: An Interview with Sarah Allen Benton

Sarah Allen Benton is a Licenced Mental Health Counselor specializing in alcoholism. She is also an author, and writes the blog The High-Functioning Alcoholic through Psychology Today’s website. Recently, she was kind of enough to take the time to answer our questions:

AllTreatment: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Sarah Allen Benton: I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at McLean Hospital in The McLean Residence at The Brook transitional living program for substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment in Waltham, Massachusetts. I am also the author of the book, “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic”. I have been featured in the media including a NY Times article by Jane Brody, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, The CBS Early Show, NPR and am a blogger for Most importantly, I have been in recovery from alcoholism for 8 years.

AT: How did you become interested in alcoholism?

SAB: I have always had an interest in psychology and pursued my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. However, my own struggle with alcoholism and recovery led me to have a specific interest in the addiction field. I was troubled that the stereotypical image of the alcoholic was preventing many alcoholics, including myself, from getting appropriate help. My own challenge in recognizing and acknowledging my alcoholism led me to want to help others short-circuit this process—which is the true purpose of my book “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic”

AT: What is a high-functioning alcoholic?

SAB: A high-functioning alcoholic is a person who drinks alcoholically yet is able to maintain an above average level of functioning in their life responsibilities such as career, academics and/or childcare.

AT: Some of your articles focus on coping with alcohol cravings. What are some effective alternatives to alcohol consumption?

SAB: There are many strategies to help individuals to cope with cravings to drink. It is important to determine which ones are most helpful and to apply them in difficult times:

  1. Choose not to drink or use drugs despite what your mind may be telling you
  2. Distract yourself- Physically get away from the situation you are in, and do something else
  3. Talk with someone immediately who is supportive (therapist, friend, family member)
  4. Avoid isolating yourself, go somewhere safe with someone you trust
  5. Engage in another activity take a hot or cold shower, squeeze ice
  6. Exercise- go for a brisk walk or run, swim, lift weights, or engage in other aerobic activities that require physical exertion
  7. Release your emotions in a safe manner- punch a pillow, yell, etc.
  8. Pamper yourself by doing something soothing: read, listen to music, take a relaxing bath, look at the moon or clouds
  9. Get fresh air- open a window or take a walk in an area that is not near a bar, liquor store, etc.
  10. Practice relaxation exercises that involve diaphragmatic breathing (meditation, mindfulness, guided CD)- allow yourself to experience and observe your feelings and cravings in a detached way
  11. Journal- Write your feelings down
  12. Read recovery based literature
  13. Create a delay- Increase the time and distance between you and a drink or drug
  14. Look at your pro/con list of drinking and/or using drugs
  15. Pray- serenity prayer, for the strength to stay away from a drink or a drug
  16. Eat a meal, snack or drink a non-alcoholic beverage
  17. Go to a mutual-help group meeting- A.A., N.A. or SMART Recovery
  18. Call your sponsor and talk about your cravings and that you are in a high-risk situation
  19. Repeat a positive affirmation or mantra (“This too shall pass”, etc.)- it is harder for your mind to think about alcohol/drugs and intentional repetitious thoughts
  20. Stay away from people, places and things that tempt you while in this vulnerable state
  21. Focus on something else- play with your pet, garden, watch TV, read a magazine
  22. Think of the consequences- imagine the impact for tomorrow, next week, next year
  23. Positive self talk
  24. Observe your thoughts- don’t believe everything that you think
  25. Imagery- visualize being in a safe or special place
  26. Break time down into manageable increments- commit to staying sober for the hour, minute, second
  27. Create a structure for your day/evening
  28. Replace destructive activities- eat candy instead of drinking or using drugs
  29. Practice delay- tell yourself that you only have to stay sober today
  30. Fight the urge- imagine this is a battle that you want to win!
  31. Don’t pick up a drink- NO MATTER WHAT!

AT: What are some challenges facing a recovering alcoholic in today’s society?

SAB: Drinking alcohol is part of the American culture and therefore, getting sober is essentially going “against the grain”. Therefore, finding social support in recovery is crucial to maintaining long lasting recovery. Additionally, alcohol is a legal substance and therefore more accessible and socially expectable than illicit drugs. Recovering alcoholics can often feel socially isolated when they get sober and “not normal” as so many others in their life may be able to drink alcohol in a moderate way or have not chosen to get help.

AT: In your experiences, why do people abuse alcohol?

SAB: People abuse alcohol because they enjoy the effects that alcohol produces. For those with alcohol problems, many begin drinking for one reason (socially, work culture) and then often report that they end up drinking because they have developed an addictive relationship with alcohol. Alcohol serves different purposes for different people, and is highly addictive for those with a predisposition for alcohol problems Individuals are more at risk for developing alcoholism if they have alcoholism in their family, started to drink before age 15, trauma history, mood issues and/or impulsive personality.

AT: What advice can you give for anyone struggling with alcohol addiction?

SAB: If you are having a moment of clarity around your alcohol problem, take action and reach out for help. It is easier not to deal with an addiction and important that loved ones can support you in getting help and hold you accountable. There is hope and there are MANY resources available. My website lists some of the available resources.

Thank you, Sarah, for your insight and tips. Alcoholism, like many addictions, can be a difficult disease to recover from, but with methods and support from loved ones, it can be beat.

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