What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

There have been dozens of movies and television shows that portray an alcoholic as a shambolic caricature of a person who has lost every measure of position or status in life. While that can describe the effect that alcoholism has on certain people, it masks the complexity of addiction and how different people are affected in different ways. For some individuals, misuse of alcohol is covered by the veneer of a successful family life, leading many concerned family members to wonder if their loved one is a functioning alcoholic.

How Can Someone Be Functional and an Alcoholic?

To understand what a functional alcoholic is, it is important to understand that addiction is not a straightforward process, and that everything from mental health, age, a family history of addiction, and more can affect how a person responds to the effects of unhealthy drinking habits.

While a number of people might struggle to maintain their daily lives while under the influence of too much alcohol, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 20 percent of problem drinkers earn consistent, decent wages and have stable families.

However, the “functioning” part of being a functioning alcoholic is countered by the actual alcoholism. In that, functioning alcoholics share a lot in common with other problem drinkers, including the following:

  • Using alcohol as a first resort to deal with stress
  • Justifying needing to drink by finding a reason to drink every day
  • Requiring larger and larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effects
  • Being dishonest with themselves and others about their drinking habits
  • Engaging in other risky behaviors, even when they are sober
  • Rejecting any notion that their drinking needs to be curtailed, pointing to their stable family life as a sign that their drinking habits are fine

The “evidence” of maintaining a normal professional and/or personal life is what can make many feel that their drinking behaviors are not problematic. Those who are functional alcoholics may use that evidence of proof in defense of their actions, but also to justify it. For example, functional alcoholics may state that they are entitled to drink without criticism because of the hard work they invest in their careers and families. In some cases, some functioning alcoholics are truly unaware that their drinking has reached problematic levels, therefore they are not concerned that much is wrong.

Functioning Alcoholism and Denial

Psych Central cautions that in some cases, the more severe the addiction, the stronger the denial. Functional alcoholics may feel ashamed by what their loved ones have told them about their drinking habits, but the idea of seeking professional help can seem overwhelming and scary. That fear may be motivated, in part, by the addiction itself, as it can be easy for a person to feel like they wouldn’t be able to function without alcohol, they will be viewed as less-than because of their alcoholism, or that they can’t possibly invest the time or money into getting treatment. But the danger of high-functioning alcoholism is that some people can get carried away by their ability to successfully maintain several areas of their lives that it can take a potentially devastating consequence of drinking for the veil to be lifted from their eyes. For instance, this could include receiving a routine physical and being diagnosed with a health condition or complication due to alcohol consumption. Or, it can happen if a person is hit with a drunk driving charge or something else regarding their alcohol consumption and the law.

Psychology Today lists some other ways that high-functioning alcoholics might be convinced that their drinking has gotten out of hand, including being given an ultimatum by a boss or spouse, noticing that academic or professional performance has slipped, or being faced with a lengthy (or hefty) criminal penalty for crimes committed while under the influence.

Depression and Functioning Alcoholism

Everyday Health warns that around 25 percent of functioning alcoholics have had a case of major depression at some point in their lives. While depression is one of the many factors that can contribute to the development of a problem with alcohol, the assistant unit chief of psychiatry at a hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, explains that functioning alcoholics sometimes do not realize that their need to drink is motivated by unresolved feelings of depression or anxiety.

Functioning alcoholics, despite their ability to successfully manage several areas of their lives at a time, can also drink to a dangerous degree. WebMD explains that women who consume more than three alcoholic beverages a day are placing themselves at extreme risk for developing a dependence on alcohol. Due to differences in biology, men can drink as many as four drinks per day before they would be considered heavy drinkers.

Signs of Functional Alcoholism

There can be several signs that your loved one may be a functional alcoholic. They can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Starting to struggle when it comes to keeping up with responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Getting drunk despite not intending to
  • Denying the severity of your drinking
  • Causing loved ones concern as a result of your drinking

In a similar way that some high-functioning alcoholics angrily reject the notion that their drinking is out of hand, some are flippant about it, possibly even joking that they have a problem. However they react, any attempt to defray concern may suggest that this is a topic they do not want to address in any depth, for fear that it may hit too close to home.

While many couples enjoy having a drink together, alcoholic partners may arrange their schedules to give them time to drink by themselves. They may try to hide evidence of this (paying for drinks with cash or visiting bars or restaurants outside town), and they may lie or try to blame other factors if they are found out.

Talking to a Loved One about Functional Alcoholism

Doctor speaking to a family of a loved one with functional alcoholismApproaching a high-functioning alcoholic about your concern for them is not easy. It is highly recommended to have this conversation when your loved one is sober.

Psychology Today suggests talking to functional alcoholics when they are hungover or feeling guilty about something they did or said while under the influence, as they are more likely to agree that their drinking has gotten out of hand.

To best have that conversation, tell your loved one the negative effects the drinking is having on you, your relationship, and how family members and friends are also suffering the consequences. Frame that perspective in terms of the emotional, financial, and mental losses that have been suffered as a result of the insistence on drinking. It will be easier for your loved one to see that side of the story when hungover or feeling down about drinking, and this might motivate your loved one to turn things around. Motivation is a very important concept when talking to someone who struggles with problematic drinking, regardless of if they are considered functioning or not. Therefore, use compassion. This can provide the person with an opportunity to step up and place their personal investment into their recovery.

Unfortunately, not every person dealing with problematic drinking will respond well to such overtures, and even trying to provide encouragement through a low moment may not have any short- or long-term success. If the functioning alcoholic in your life refuses to get help, you should set clear, feasible boundaries for the kind of behavior you will not tolerate, for the sake of yourself or any other people who would be affected by the continued alcoholism.

Alcohol Rehab in Dallas, TX

One of the biggest obstacles that stands in the way of a functional alcoholic getting into treatment is the idea that they won’t be able to take the time off of work or let go of their other responsibilities. However, one option that can be helpful for a functional alcoholic can include outpatient treatment. In this program, we allow patients to continue to uphold the responsibilities they have outside of treatment, such as work and school, all while receiving life-saving care.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and are unsure of what to do, call us today at . Our experienced and compassionate rehab admissions navigators can help answer all of your questions, including those regarding how to pay for rehab, using insurance to pay for rehab, and what levels of addiction treatment we provide. Do not wait any longer to get the help that you deserve. Greenhouse Treatment Center, American Addiction Centers’ Texas alcohol rehab, is ready to help you start on the journey towards recovery.

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We are here to help you learn how to live without reaching for the next drink. Start your recovery at our spa-like facility in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Holistic therapies, chef-prepared meals, and LGBTQ+ support are among the many features of our premier drug and alcohol treatment program.