What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

What it means to be a functioning alcoholic

Friday, January 8, 2021 | By Cooper Samp

More than 16 million American adults over the age of 17 were classified with an alcohol use disorder in 2013, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports.

We often associate the term alcoholic with someone with broken relationships, troubles holding a job, financial trouble and health problems – often someone who is constantly intoxicated or hungover. 

However, about one fifth of people battling alcohol usde diorders do not fit this description. Instead, they lead relatively normal social lives and maintain a relatively normal job and family life. These individuals would be classified as functional alcoholics or “functionally dependent” on alcohol. 

Of course, these cases are harder to identify. For this reason, it is estimated that the number of functioning alcoholics are actually much higher. 

Individuals who match the description of a functioning alcoholic are often educated, middle aged, with a family and successful career as opposed to lonely, and desolate. Even friends and family might not even be aware of the problem at hand. Functional alcoholics will often balance their drinking with other priorities like going to the gym; but will come home and drink a bottle of wine or excessive alcohol during the evenings. Seeing as how their everyday life is not influenced by their drinking, this type of behavior can be seen as normal and seems ok. 

Alcohol misuse and abuse is the fifth leading risk factor for preventable death and disability around the world and the number one risk factor for those between the ages of 15 and 49, the NIAAA publishes.

To go further, these individuals may not even drink everyday but engage in frequent episodes of binge drinking every few days. These days are often rationalized by weekends, celebrations, or socializing. When he or she is able to separate these drinking habits with their work she or he will begin to live a double life.

Of course, these drinking behaviors will eventually have negative consequences, but these may not be immediately apparent. 

African woman supporting her Caucasian girlfriend, outdoors.

How to Recognize a Functioning Alcoholic 

Addiction is often recognized by the environmental factors that are inhibited by the drinking; but when work, social life, and family are all maintained it can be harder to spot the addiction. The first sign of a functioning alcohol use disorder is often the tolerance to the levels of alcohol. Over time, the individual will need to drink more to feel their desired effects of intoxication. 

They will often feel hungover more regularly than someone who drinks periodically. Other functioning alcoholics may be able to function regardless of the negative side effects of the hangover; thus appearing to be healthy.

While they may be functioning relatively normal within their work and relationships, over time, alcohol will eventually begin to negatively affect the brain and one’s ability to function optimally. As a result, it may be harder or take longer for them to accomplish tasks. 

Other signs of a functioning alcoholic include:

  • Unable to stick to drinking limits – continually drinking more than intended
  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Using alcohol to deal with stress
  • Joking about alcohol consumption
  • Engaging in dangerous behaviors (drunk driving or risky sexual behaviors)
  • Rationalizing drinking as a reward
  • Planning things and events around alcohol
  • Blackouts or memory lapses

In 2012, alcohol consumption was a factor in 3.3 million deaths in the United States, according to the NIAAA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that alcohol abuse can shorten one’s life up to 30 years, as studies done between 2006 and 2010 found that excessive alcohol use led to 2.5 million years of potential life lost and 88,000 deaths each year in the United States.

Aside from these adverse effects, individuals struggling with substance use disorders are at high risk for heart problems and liver disease. They are also more prone to vehicular accidents; killing themselves or others. Repeated or regular use of alcohol can also cause overdose and other life-threatening health effects.  

How and When to Find Help

The first step in finding help is often overcoming denial. Being able to recognize the signs of alcoholism and admitting that there is in fact a problem is often a hard truth most people are unable to come to terms with. More common than not, it is often the families or friends who recognize the signs before the individual does. Supporting them through the process of recognizing their behaviors can be a long and tedious process and may take some work. 

How to talk to someone you believe has an addiction

A good first step is approaching the subject when he or she is sober. This can be difficult as it is often the most bothersome when they are drinking. However, when they are drunk, they will not be as open-minded and may not even process the information. Attempt to use “I” statements instead of blaming them as this could cause the individual to become defensive. If you are unsure about how to handle the situation correctly, it may be worthwhile talking to a licensed interventionist first to help you. 

It is very common for individuals suffering from alcoholism to also suffer from mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), over one third of addicts also suffer from mental illness. Also, a quarter of functioning addicts also likely suffer major depressive illnesses in their lifetime. For this reason, if you are looking for help, it is always recommended to find a facility that offers Dual-Diagnosis – meaning both the substance use disorder and mental health disorders can be treated. 

A functioning alcoholic may not even realize the extent of their drinking or mental health as they often suppress the symptoms with drinking. Dual diagnosis treatment provides the best opportunity to fully treat the alcohol use disorder through advanced therapy techniques and even medication.

How long a person has been drinking, how often they use, as well as their mental and physical health will all determine which treatment program is best suited for them. Also, a high-functioning alcoholic with a strong support system of family and friends may be able to better recover than someone who receives outpatient therapy alone.

Get Help Today

The highly skilled staff here at Coalition Recovery is experienced in handling both functioning alcohol use disorders as well as mental health disorders that often contribute to the drinking. By utilizing an advanced approach of psychotherapies, medications, education, and fostering their outside environment has enabled us to not only stop alcohol abuse but prevent it from happening in the future. 

Call today to learn how Coalition Recovery can help. Our addiction specialists can walk you through our program and give you a better idea on which treatment program may be right for you. 

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