business man holding an alcoholic beverage

All people affected by alcoholism will eventually develop problems that impair their ability to function and maintain their physical and mental health. Despite this fact, some individuals temporarily manage to avoid showing the effects of heavy drinking. The informal term for this situation is functional alcoholism. Consciously or unknowingly, you or your loved one may fit the definition for this type of drinker. Let’s take a close look at how you can identify a functional alcoholic.

What Is Alcoholism?

A person with alcoholism has a physically driven need to consume alcohol. The source of this need is a long-term, alcohol-triggered change in the chemical balance of a brain area known as the pleasure center. However, you needn’t have a physical dependence on alcohol to be considered an alcoholic. And here’s a rule to keep in mind: Alcohol consumption is excessive when it falls outside the accepted guidelines for sensible drinking, which for men is two drinks a day or 14 in a week, and for women, one drink a day or seven in a week.

What Is Functional Alcoholism?

The stereotypical image of an alcoholic or drug addict is someone whose personal appearance is disheveled and whose life is a shambles. While addiction to alcohol can be devastating to the mind and body, most people are able to hold on to an appearance of strength and success until late in the game. Known as a high-functioning alcoholic, this individual may not show any alcohol-related changes in their mental or physical health or in their everyday behavior. Instead, they may appear to lead a successful life, when measured in terms of such things as holding a steady job, maintaining friendships and meeting personal, financial and social obligations. Still, their outward appearance can’t counteract the eventual consequences of consuming heavy amounts of alcohol over long periods of time.

For a while, the functional alcoholic may be able to fool themselves and the people around them into believing that their life is indeed on track. Denial runs rampant with this disorder, and it’s this apparent “togetherness” that makes it easy for them to disavow their addiction. Contributing to that denial is the fact 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.

However, the façade will eventually begin to show cracks. The individual 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.

In an ironic sort of way, the person’s insistence on not having a drinking 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 their substance use. They need a drink to face the stress of family gatherings or to get moving in the morning. This pattern of self-realization followed by rationalization is taxing on the psyche and the alcoholic will wind up feeling tired and alone.

Sadly, many high-functioning alcoholics must face serious consequences before they admit to themselves and others that their drinking has gotten out of control. Loved ones who see the problem brewing could help them before catastrophe strikes.

Signs to Look For

A range of signs may indicate that you or someone you know qualifies as a functional alcoholic. The list of things to look for includes:

  • A functional alcoholic may frequently arrive hungover or late to work. They may use the excuse that they’re not a “morning person” as a way to explain their sloppy appearance or missed deadlines. Another giveaway is people who can wake up without a hangover, even after consuming multiple drinks the night before.
  • They drink instead of eating — Heavy drinkers often lose interest in food altogether. Research shows they consume only a “liquid lunch” due to the fact that alcohol such as beer and white wine suppresses hunger.
  • Angry reactions to any mention of the possibility of being an alcoholic — Problem drinkers tend to get defensive when confronted about issues surrounding their alcohol consumption. It’s all too true that alcoholics are often the last to know they have a drinking problem.
  • Functional alcoholics are often unable to remember what happened while they were under the influence of alcohol — memory loss and even “blacking out” are common.
  • Prepped for happy hour — The functional alcoholic in the office may be the first to suggest that people meet up for drinks after work and then beat everyone to the bar.
  • Limits are set, but then exceeded — They may promise themselves or declare to others that they’ll only drink on the weekends, but then continue to imbibe throughout the week.
  • They “pre-drink” before an evening out — Even if they’re going to a party where alcohol will be served, they’ll drink at home first to “loosen up” or suggest stopping at a bar along the way.
  • They hide their drinking from others — They may sneak drinks around the house, or even at the workplace, depositing the empty bottles in odd places. You may find bottles squirreled away in the back a bathroom cabinet, hidden behind full bottles in a liquor cabinet, in the trunk of their car or under the front seat.
  • They drink early in the day or while alone — You may be cleaning up after breakfast and notice the smell of alcohol in a half-empty glass of orange juice your spouse left before heading to the office. Or, the functional alcohol may make a beeline for the refrigerator to grab a beer or glass of wine the minute they arrive home from work.
  • They  joke about the possibility of being an alcoholic — They laugh about how much they drink, even finishing the drinks of others so as not to let them “got to waste.”
  • They follow only some of the rules — Keep in mind that if you stay within the sensible limits for weekly alcohol consumption, but then hit up a few parties over the weekend and binge, you’ve quickly jumped categories into problem drinking.

Are You a Functional Alcoholic?

Has your alcohol consumption progressed to the point that you find yourself unable to stop or even cut back? You can still be alcoholic even though on the outside you appear to have a pretty good life. Take our quiz and find out what kind of drinker you are.

Resources

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Use Disorder https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Use Disorder – A Comparison Between DSM-IV and DSM-V http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/dsmfactsheet/dsmfact.htm

New Mexico State University: Functional Alcoholism Isn’t http://chc.nmsu.edu/files/2014/03/enabling-handout.pdf