What is a Functional Alcoholic?


The stereotypical image of an alcoholic or drug addict is someone whose personal appearance is disheveled and whose life is in a shambles. While addiction to drugs or alcohol can be devastating to a user, many are able to hold on to an appearance of strength and success until late in the game. A 2007 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found  that just 9 percent of those addicted to alcohol experience devastating effects from using it. That means that the overwhelming majority of addicts are high-functioning, masking the reality of their problem.
However, just because there are no obvious and monumental signs that addiction is present, it does not mean that addiction is impossible to detect. Long before addicts stop going to work, neglect their families or run through their savings, they may display these more subtle signs that they are living a double life.

1.  The person may not see themselves as an addict. Self-awareness is not a characteristic of addiction. Nor is it necessary for a person’s life to be falling apart for him or her to be an addict. Nevertheless, stereotypes are hard to beat and the person who is succeeding at work, paying the bills and meeting obligations may be able to deny to themselves the reality of their situation. Denial is a characteristic of functional addiction.

2.  One reason that it is easy for the person to deny their addiction is the apparent “togetherness” of their lives. Another reason that denial is so common is that addicts tend to surround themselves with people who share their habits. The alcoholic chooses friends who like to drink. The drug user finds social settings where drugs are acceptable. Thus the person appears normal by comparison. Denying you are involved in addiction is easier when everyone around you looks just like you.

3.  Eventually the mask will begin to show cracks. At some point, others will be able to tell that the person is behaving differently. They might withdraw from relationships or social occasions. They may begin to show signs of sleep deprivation or other health problems. The person may even start engaging in risky behaviors. As the substance takes on a greater and greater role in their thinking and their lives, things cannot help but change.

4.  In an ironic sort of way, the person’s insistence on not having an addiction problem will actually lead to them feeling on the inside that they are struggling vainly against addiction. The very act of leading a double life–appearing fine on the outside while craving a substance just to cope–will exhaust them. The person will explain away any confrontation about his/her substance use. They need a drink to face the stress of family gatherings or they need drugs to stay alert and productive at work. This pattern of self-realization followed by rationalization is taxing on the  psyche and the addict will wind up feeling tired and alone.

Sadly, many high-functioning addicts are just waiting to be forced into dealing with their problem. Not until they are involved in an accident or are arrested will they own up to the truth of their plight. Loved ones who see the characteristics could help them escape before catastrophe strikes.

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