How do you picture a functional alcoholic? You’re probably imagining someone who’s lost control of their life. A person who is always inebriated; unable to keep their composure. They may have already hit “rock bottom” and lost their friends, family, career, and property to alcohol abuse.
Now that you’ve created an image in your head, think of the exact opposite – because this is what a functional alcoholic looks like. They’re composed and don’t appear to have been drinking at all. They can also have a stable job, a loving family, supportive friends, a beautiful home, and maybe even a car or two.
A high-functioning alcoholic will seem like any normal adult so you won’t be able to tell they have an alcohol use disorder. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 19.5 percent of alcoholics are functional. Although Psychology Today believes they may comprise 75 to 90 percent of all alcoholics.
These numbers seem like a stretch but functional alcoholics are usually in denial and refuse to seek rehabilitation. So there may be plenty of undiagnosed cases out there that are unrecorded.
Functional or not, alcoholism requires alcohol detox and rehab. A functional alcoholic may not immediately suffer the consequences of their drinking habit, but eventually it will take a toll on their physical and mental health.
Before this happens, you should:
- Know the difference between an alcoholic and a functional alcoholic
- Learn to identify the tell-tale signs of a functional alcoholism
Who knows? Your loved one may be secretly struggling with this type of alcoholism. Unless you’re able to tell that there’s a problem, you won’t be able to get them the help needed to recover from alcohol addiction.
What is alcoholism?
Alcoholism is the layman’s term for a condition known as alcohol use disorder. It is characterized by the compulsive need to drink alcohol. When someone is an “alcoholic” they will have difficulty controlling the urge to drink, even if it has consequences.
How can you tell if someone is an alcoholic?
In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person can only be diagnosed with alcoholism if they exhibit at least two of the following signs:
- Drinks large amounts of alcohol or for long periods
- Struggles to reduce their alcohol intake even if they want to
- Spends a significant time drinking, getting alcohol, or recovering from its effects
- Is unable to meet responsibilities at home, work, or school due to alcohol use
- Continues to abuse alcohol despite its negative effects on their physical and mental health, as well as their relationships and social life
- Gives up previously enjoyed hobbies and activities for the opportunity to drink alcohol
A true alcoholic will experience withdrawal if they stop drinking. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include irritability, mood swings, anxiety and depression, fatigue, confusion, inability to focus, tremors, and seizures.
People who chronically abuse alcohol will also develop alcohol tolerance. You may notice that they’re not easily intoxicated, even as they gradually increase the amount of alcohol and the frequency of their drinking.
What is functional alcoholism?
Functional alcoholism is one of the six subtypes of alcoholism. Some of its symptoms are unique and not typical of alcoholism.
Compared to the average alcoholic who struggles with their career and personal relationships, a “functional alcoholic” has an outwardly normal life. There’s still the habit of unhealthy drinking. But because they tend to do well and lead a successful life, you might not be able to tell they have an alcohol problem.
How do you know if someone is a functional alcoholic?
Interestingly, studies show that most functional alcoholics in the United States are middle-aged individuals who are educated and have stable jobs and families. One-third have a family history of alcohol use disorder, nearly half are smokers, and one-quarter experienced a major depressive episode at least once in their life.
Of course, any adult can be a functional alcoholic regardless of their age or status. As long as they exhibit the following signs, it’s likely they belong to the subtype.
A functional alcoholic usually has a very high tolerance to alcohol. They can drink large amounts – either in a binge or continuously throughout the day – and not appear drunk.
Specifically, they have a “learned tolerance” which allows them to function even when they’re intoxicated. Since their body has become adapted to high concentrations of alcohol in the blood, they won’t experience any significant impairments in behavior.
Due to their learned tolerance, functional alcoholics are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior than other subtypes. Examples include drinking while taking care of children, driving while under the influence, and unprotected sex.
They may not have problems at work and at home. Maybe not at first. But months and years of alcohol abuse can damage their brain and slow it down. While they may continue to show up at work and do household chores, eventually they’ll find it more and more challenging to finish tasks efficiently and without accident.
Other signs of functional alcoholism
A high-functioning alcoholic may also show signs which are similar to alcoholism. Among them are:
- Joking about an alcohol problem
- Using alcohol to relax or gain “liquid confidence”
- Getting angry when confronted about their abuse of alcohol
- Undergoing alcohol withdrawal if they suddenly stop drinking
Getting help for functional alcoholism
A high-functioning alcoholic will likely deny they have a substance abuse problem. It’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who has managed to maintain a relatively normal life.
Unless they’ve experienced serious consequences from heavy drinking, they will find it difficult to acknowledge their unhealthy behavior. In most cases, it takes an unfortunate event such as being diagnosed with liver disease or getting into trouble with the law before they finally realize their alcohol addiction.
You don’t have to wait this long to help a loved one. Our medical team at Roots Through Recovery is ready to evaluate them for alcohol abuse. We’ll help you plan the next steps and facilitate their recovery.