What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

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man talks to doctor about his alcohol addictionMore 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.

When you think of an alcoholic, or someone who regularly engages in unhealthy and heavy drinking episodes, you might picture someone with broken relationships, financial trouble, difficulties holding down a job and health problems – someone who may be in a near constant state of intoxication or consistently hungover. Around a fifth of those battling an alcohol use disorder may not fit into this stereotype. These people may instead be deemed functional alcoholics, or “functionally dependent” on alcohol, according to Everyday Health. Since functional alcoholics can be difficult to recognize, this number may be even higher than reported. Psychology Today reports on other studies that puts the number of high-functioning alcoholics as low as 20 percent to as high as between 75 and 90 percent of all alcoholics.

A functional alcoholic is likely middle aged and educated, with a successful career and married with a family instead of destitute, desolate and alone. Friends and families may not recognize that a problem with drinking even exists. Functional alcoholics may go to work all day, go to the gym after work, and then go home and down a bottle or two of wine or excessive liquor. Family members may take this as normal behavior. Since the person is not having problems fulfilling work or familial obligations, she must be okay.

Functional alcoholics may not even drink every day, but instead engage in frequent episodes of binge or heavy drinking every few days. A functional alcoholic may not see a problem with her drinking, and she may lead a sort of double life wherein she is able to completely separate her drinking life from her professional and personal life.

Alcohol abuse can and does have negative consequences, however, even if those consequences aren’t immediately apparent.

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.

Spotting a Functional Alcoholic

Spotting a functioning alcoholic Just because someone seems to have his life in order on the surface does not mean that he does not have a problem with alcohol abuse or even suffer from an alcohol use disorder. Someone with an alcohol use disorder may develop a tolerance to levels of alcohol, meaning that he will need to drink more each time in order to get drunk. He may also suffer withdrawal symptoms, or feel hungover, when alcohol is removed. Some functioning alcoholics may not hungover, however, as they may be able to train themselves to function regardless of alcohol’s negative effects.

While a loss of production at work or school, or the inability to consistently fulfill family or work obligations and tasks, is often the sign of addiction, a functioning alcoholic may not appear to have a problem with this. Over time, however, alcohol is bound to have a negative effect on the brain and one’s ability to function normally. As a result, tasks may get harder and take longer to complete for a functioning alcoholic.

Some of the other warning signs to watch for if you suspect someone you love may be a functioning alcoholic include:

  • Unable to successfully stick to drinking limits – drinking more than intended in a sitting despite saying he would stop at a certain amount
  • Requiring alcohol to relieve stress or relax
  • Periodic memory lapses, or blackout events while drinking
  • Drinking while alone or in secret
  • Planning the day around drinking
  • Justifying drinking or using drinking as a reward
  • Periods of sobriety characterized by irritability, restless, agitation, and mood swings
  • Drinking and engaging in potentially hazardous behaviors (e.g., driving while under the influence or engaging in risky sexual encounters)
  • Frequent jokes about alcohol consumption or alcoholism
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. Functioning alcoholics are at risk for liver disease and heart problems, as well as for potentially driving while intoxicated and facing DUI charges, or worse crashing and killing someone or themselves. Regular and repeated alcohol abuse can be dangerous and even deadly if ignored and not treated.

When and How to Seek Help

Curbing the problemDenial is common in both functional alcoholics and their families. Being able to recognize the signs and admit that a problem does exist may be first step toward recovery. Often, friends and families may come to the realization that drinking is a problem before the alcoholic does and helping the person come to the same conclusion may take a little work. It may be optimal to open up the lines of communication about a loved one’s alcohol use when she is sober, particularly if she is feeling remorse after an episode of drinking or is feeling hungover. Use “I” statements, and try not to appear confrontational or judgmental. It may be helpful to seek out a professional interventionist to help you plan and stage an intervention in order to facilitate your loved agreeing to enter a treatment program willingly and on her own accord.

Alcohol abusers often also may suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder and use alcohol as a way to temporarily relieve mental illness symptoms. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that as many as a third of all of those who abuse alcohol also suffer from a mental illness. A quarter of functional addicts have likely suffered from a major depressive illness in their lifetime as well, Everyday Health publishes.

Learn More

A functioning alcoholic may not realize that depressive symptoms could indicate a treatable mental health disorder, and undiagnosed mental illness can increase the potential for engaging in episodes of problem or heavy drinking. When two disorders occur in the same person at the same time, specialized dual diagnosis treatment may offer the highest rate of success for recovery. Dual diagnosis treatment manages symptoms of both disorders simultaneously in an integrated fashion, with both medical and mental health professionals working together for the best results.

Treatment for an alcohol use disorder generally includes counseling, therapy, and support groups and may also require a detoxification period as well. Detox from alcohol can be difficult and even life-threatening. As a result, it is recommended to be performed in a specialized facility with around-the-clock medical care and supervision available.

Your, or your loved one’s, level of dependency on alcohol, length of time abusing alcohol, and family or medical history, will determine which treatment program is best suited for the situation. A high-functioning alcoholic with a strong support system may be able to recover with an outpatient treatment plan, attending counseling, therapy and educational sessions scheduled around work or other obligations and then returning home to sleep at night. Others may benefit best in a residential treatment program that is more intensive and comprehensive and may be a respite from the stressors of everyday life. Peer or 12-Step programs can aid in providing a positive supportive network that offers encouragement and a sense of community.
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