Our traditional mental image of an alcoholic is of someone who simply cannot keep their life together. The alcohol is interfering with their family, their friendships, their job, and their health.
But 20% of alcoholics don’t look like this. They are called high-functioning alcoholics, and they have all the outward signs of success: a good job, accomplishments in their field, a steady income, and even a loving family.
However, below the surface, life isn’t so rosy. They struggle with their addiction in dangerous silence, or their friends and families are aware of the problem but not how big a problem it truly is. Experiencing a pattern of good luck that fails to expose their drinking habits to others, the addict may not even realize that they struggle with alcoholism at all.
This pattern typically continues until one of two things happens: a traumatic event or a loss of control shocks the alcoholic, causing them to seek out treatment; or their alcoholism contributes to their death.
The infographic below shares the story of ten of the most famous high-functioning alcoholics in history, and how they either turned their life around or succumbed to their alcoholism.
The Most Famous High-Functioning Alcoholics in History
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh was enamored with absinthe, and it featured in many of his paintings. During much of his most productive years, Van Gogh’s diet mainly consisted of bread, coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes. Alcohol is at least partially responsible for the mental decline that led to his removal of his ear in 1888 and his suicide in 1890. Despite his alcoholism and poor mental and physical health, he was incredibly prolific during his later years, producing over 2100 pieces of art, including over 800 oil paintings, in about a decade.
Stephen King has published over 60 books and almost 200 short stories from the 70s through today. Still, most of the late 70s and 80s went by in a haze of alcoholism for King, who wrote in his memoir On Writing that he “barely remembers writing” his 1981 novel Cujo. Despite this apparent fact, the book won numerous awards and was turned into a movie in 1983.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great was a legendary Ancient Greek general who is considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time. As his power grew, though, so did his sense of paranoia and megalomania. He considered himself to be a god, and had increasingly erratic behavior that led him to murder a close friend. Some historians attribute this behavior to alcoholism, which contributed to his untimely demise at age 32.
Leonard Nimoy is best known for his enduring role as Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Unfortunately, the success of the show led him to drink, and what Nimoy called “unwinding” spiraled into a ritual of drinking wine, beer, or other spirits at the end of shooting every day. Eventually, he even started to sneak drinks on the set, disguised as water in a paper cup. Later, he checked himself into rehab, where he got clean.
American First Lady
Betty Ford, former First Lady and wife to President Gerald Ford, was an outspoken proponent of the feminist movement. Her approval ratings were much higher than her husband’s, at around 75%, and people admired her outspokenness and candor on a variety of issues. Still, she battled all along with an addiction to alcohol and painkillers. After a 1978 intervention she went into treatment, going on to establish the Betty Ford Center, a rehabilitation clinic, four years later.
Buzz Aldrin was the second person to walk on the moon. Upon his return to earth, with seemingly little left to accomplish in life, his life deteriorated. Under the weight of depression and alcoholism, his marriage fell apart, and he withdrew from friends and family. He recounted the experience in his 2009 memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.
Ernest Hemingway published many works of fiction that are considered classics today. He received a number of serious injuries in WWII and later in a series of plane crashes that left him in chronic pain. He drank heavily to escape the pain, once declaring that “a man does not exist until he is drunk.”
One of the most famous classic Hollywood stars, Elizabeth Taylor spent over three decades of her career addicted to alcohol and painkillers. She became the first celebrity to openly admit herself to rehab at the Betty Ford Center in 1983.
Ulysses S. Grant
As a Union general, Ulysses S. Grant was nearly constantly intoxicated, drinking from a large barrel of whiskey he kept stowed in his tent during the Civil War. Still, he led the North to victory and went on to become the 18th president of the United States.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson is a highly successful actor, having appeared in over a hundred films, and is currently the second highest-grossing actor of all time. During most of his early career as a stage actor, he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. His first role upon completing rehab was as a cocaine addict in Jungle Fever, the film that launched his cinematic career.
Warning Signs: How to Identify a High-Functioning Alcoholic
Just because someone is able to function at work or in life despite their dependence on alcohol does not mean that they are immune to its effects. Here are some signs that could indicate someone is a high-functioning alcoholic:
They need alcohol to feel confident.
Often high-functioning alcoholics feel “locked in” to their drinking because they worry that when the alcohol stops, so will their success.
“I used to think that drinking would help my shyness, but all it did was exaggerate all the negative qualities. The drinking and the pills just sort of dulled my natural enthusiasm.” –Elizabeth Taylor
They joke that they have an alcohol problem.
They don’t take their alcohol dependence seriously or believe that they still have complete control on it.
“Do you drink?” “Of course, I just said I was a writer.” –Stephen King
They don’t seem to get hangovers anymore.
Developing a tolerance for alcohol can, in turn, convince them that their drinking is not a problem because they are not feeling its effects.
“Because I could handle my drinking – or so I thought – and could consume a lot of alcohol without becoming uncontrollably inebriated, I refused to see it as a problem.” –Buzz Aldrin
They drink alone.
Drinking is not a social activity for them; it is a solitary pastime.
“I like to drink alone. I never get ugly when I drink too much, I never bore myself with a lot of dull conversation, and I have never yet invited myself to step outside.” –Stephen King
They replace meals with alcohol.
Mealtimes are often an excuse for the high-functioning alcoholic to start drinking. They may even forego food altogether.
“I would as soon not eat at night as not to have red wine and water.” –Ernest Hemingway
They become a different person when they drink.
Social drinkers do not dramatically change their personality when they drink. Alcoholics, however, behave quite uncharacteristically.
“The minute we finished the last shot I would have a drink. Then it became a series of drinks, little by little. Before I knew it I was drinking more and more because my addictive personality was taking over.” –Leonard Nimoy
They become hostile or argumentative when they can’t drink.
Alcoholics often suffer withdrawal symptoms if they are forced to stay sober or are cut off from their alcohol supply.
“I knew I was an alcoholic because I was preoccupied with whether alcohol was going to be served or not.” –Betty Ford
They can’t stop at one drink.
They have trouble letting alcohol “go to waste” and may finish friends’ drinks for them. They have trouble setting a limit on their drinking.
“I ain’t the kind of guy who can have one drink. I never could. That’s what I have to remember. I never had one drink in my whole life.” –Samuel L. Jackson
They hide their alcohol.
They keep their alcohol stashed in a secret location where their friends and family won’t find it, like in their desk or car.
“I left his office, went around the corner, and at the first liquor store I found, I bought a bottle of Scotch. I couldn’t even wait until I got home. I swilled several swigs before pulling out of the parking lot.” –Buzz Aldrin
They black out regularly.
It isn’t unusual for them to be unable to recall what happened while they were drinking.
“The turning point came when my family found me passed out on the kitchen floor. I guess I wanted to get caught.” –Samuel L. Jackson
Recognize these warning signs in yourself or a loved one? Reach out for help. It’s not too late.
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Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.