Understanding Functional Alcoholism

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : December 19 , 
2020 
| 4 Sources


Characteristics of a Functional Alcoholic


They appear physically healthy and living a normal life

Functional Alcoholism

Functional alcoholism is a sub-type of alcoholism in which the alcoholic, while still addicted to alcohol, manages to function fairly normally in his daily life. It appears that way to outsiders, at least; family members and close friends will begin to see signs of a drinking problem.

A functioning alcoholic is an individual who can maintain what looks from the outside a successful and normal life.

A person with functional alcoholism has typically achieved or even overachieved in their life. They are less likely to believe they seek help or need help. Nonetheless, alcoholism is a disease. It usually needs professional treatment to help an individual prevail over their condition.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 20 percent of all alcoholics can be considered a functional alcoholic. Functional alcoholism is no less serious than any other kind of alcoholism, even though the disease manifests differently.

If the alcoholic in question doesn’t get help, the problem generally grows worse over time and eventually, he becomes much less functional (of course, women can be alcoholics, too; we’re just using male pronouns here for simplicity’s sake).


 Functional Alcoholism
Characteristics

Functional alcoholics don’t look like drunk homeless people sipping from a paper sack on a street corner. They often:

  • Go to work regularly, often in high-paying professional positions
  • Are well-respected at work
  • Are married and seem to have a good relationship
  • Have kids and seem like a good mom or dad
  • Seem to be managing life well
  • Appear to be physically healthy, with no significant alcohol-related medical problems
  • Are adept at living a compartmentalized lifestyle (separating personal, professional, and drinking lives)
  • Avoid any help for recovery, and they justify their excessive drinking by using alcohol to relieve stress or s a reward.

However, someone with functional alcoholism may also:

  • Spend a lot of time thinking about when he will get to have the next drink
  • Find that having one drink only makes him crave another
  • Demonstrate a very different personality when intoxicated
  • Do things that compromise his moral values when intoxicated (like someone who believes adultery is wrong, and who also loves his wife, but cheats on his wife sometimes when he’s drunk)

Functional alcoholics often deny they have a drinking problem. Often, they’ve managed to avoid many negative consequences of alcoholism, at least so far. It may seem that they’ve just been lucky.

Since they haven’t been fired from their jobs or gotten divorced or been arrested for driving while intoxicated, though, they may feel they haven’t “hit rock bottom” and that therefore their drinking problem isn’t serious.

What Would a Functional Alcoholic's Drinking Pattern Look Like?

The drinking patterns and even the consequences are not very much different for a functional alcoholic than they are for just about anybody else diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. What distinguishes the two are societal notions of success. There is a stigma still associated with substance addiction: those with alcohol use disorders must be homeless or unemployed or have lower economic status.

Still, those notions are simply false. Addiction impacts all people. When it comes to alcoholism, the pattern of drinking and the relationship to drinking are the important elements, not the societal notions of success that mix into the idea of functional alcoholism.

With that said, following are a few common patterns of alcohol use and consequences that patients with alcohol use disorders often experience, functional alcoholic or otherwise:

  • They suffer frequent performance problems at work, school, or other functions
  • When they consume alcohol, they lose control
  • They prioritize their drinking and become upset or frustrated when something interferes with it
  • They create reoccurring guarantees to abstinence or moderation
  • They tend to drink alone at home
  • They suffer from different health issues as a result of their excessive drinking


Risks

Functional alcoholics might seem to be in control, but they may place themselves or others in harm’s way by driving under the influence of alcohol, engaging in risky sexual encounters, or passing out.

Heavy drinking likewise has a lot of other health risks. It could lead to liver disease, pancreatitis, certain types of cancer, brain damage, severe memory loss, and hypertension. It also makes a person more likely to die in a vehicular accident or from suicide or murder. And any alcohol abuse increases the odds of domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, and even fetal alcohol syndrome.

Getting Help for a Functional Alcoholic

If you think you might be a functioning alcoholic, give yourself some credit for recognizing and admitting that you might have a problem. You can get treatment discretely; your boss, your coworkers, your neighbors, and other people do not have to know.

Start by talking to your doctor. Your medical information is confidential and your privacy is protected by a federal law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

Your doctor can assess your health and refer you to an addictions treatment program if needed. Treatment programs for alcoholics are very careful about confidentiality. If you need to take time off work for treatment, you may need to let your employer know you need the time off to get medical treatment, but you don’t have to share the details. Please don’t hesitate to seek help because you’re afraid of people finding out you that have a drinking problem.

If you’re concerned about someone you love that shows signs of functional alcoholism, remember that you can’t make someone get help. You can share your concerns with your loved one and encourage him to get help, but it the end, it’s not in your power to make that happen.

You can, however, get help and support for yourself, which can be very important when coping with a functioning alcoholic. Make an appointment with a professional counselor or attend an Al-Anon meeting to get more information about coping with an alcoholic and to get the support you need to deal with a very difficult situation.



Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


Hello!

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More



Sources:  

Healthline. High-Functioning Alcoholic. March 31, 2017. https://www.healthline.com/health/can-you-function-alcoholic

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Functional Alcoholism: How to Tell if Alcohol Abuse Is Happening. July 28, 2020. https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/functioning-alcoholic-signs

Web MD. Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic?. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/high-functioning-alcoholic#2



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