functioning alcoholism

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Functional alcoholism is a term used to describe those that suffer from an addiction to or dependence on alcoholism but are able to function effectively in daily living activities. Often, functional alcoholics are able to retain a job, have some sort of personal relationships, and may even seem healthy on the outside. However, a functional alcoholic often suffers from co-occurring mental health disorders, stress, and a deep dependence on substances.

Understanding Alcoholism

To understand the high functionining alcoholic, we have to first understand what alcoholism is. The term alcoholism is used to describe the state in which an individual is addicted to and dependent on the consumption of alcohol. Alcoholism can develop in individuals who habitually or regularly consume alcohol, and can develop more quickly in individuals with certain risk factors. Risk factors for developing alcohol use disorder include:

  • alcohol addiction

    Frequent use of alcohol
  • Family or personal history of addiction
  • Family or personal history of mental health disorders like bipolar, depression, or schizophrenia
  • Personal history of trauma, abuse, or stress
  • Environmental factors like peer group and family drinking

Our image of an alcoholic may be a bleak one, but the truth is that there are many high-functioning alcoholics out there who are able to keep their lives together in some regards. Although every individual is different, the functioning addict may be successful in many areas of his or her life. Perhaps they only consume a small amount of alcohol but do so daily, only drink on weekends in a binge pattern, or just drink regularly throughout the day to calm their nerves.

Functional alcoholism may look very different on the outside than a traditional image of an addict. However, the high-functioning individual may be just as dependent as the lower-functioning addict. The body and mind have grown accustomed to having the substance in the system, it is used habitually, and the indiviidual may experience withdrawal symptoms when ceasing consumption. One of the difficulties in dealing with an alcoholic of this nature is that denial is common as the person's life may not have fallen apart at all. Many functional alcoholics carry on their lives for years in this manner.

Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic

There are many signs that somebody may be an alcoholic. Sometimes we need to seek the help of a trained professional to really decide. However, there are a few signs you may look out for.

1. No Hangovers

Hangovers commonly happen to individuals who drink heavily because their body is adjusting to the lack of alcohol in the system. As alcohol impacts the nervous system, changes cognition, and dehydrates the body, an individual will experience symptoms of hangover. However, high-functioning alcoholics will often not experience hangovers as regularly.

As an individual consumes alcohol more regularly, the alcohol stays in the bloodstream. This means that hangovers are less common and are likely to be much milder than normally seen. If somebody drinks heavily but wakes up and rarely has a hangover, this may be a sign of alcoholism.

2. Irritation or Anger

With any addiction, irritation and anger are common. This is especially common when an individual is denied the opportunity to consume the substance of their choice. Alcoholics will often grow irritated when they're in a situation where they cannot drink. Furthermore, a functioning alcoholic may be more inclined toward anger and irritability on a regular basis.

3. Excessive Drinking

This seems rather obvious, but is worth mentioning. Functioning alcoholics often drink excessively, and this may manifest in different ways. Some may binge, or drink a lot on certain occassions. This is most commonly seen on weekends or in party environments. Others may not ever drink to the point of intoxication, but drink regularly. This may look like a glass of scotch after lunch and a glass of wine at dinner, or some regular "light" drinking pattern.

4. Memory Issues

If you've ever been intoxicated, you know that your memory while drinking tends to be fuzzy at best. In people who consume alcohol regularly, this difficulty with short-term memory may be more persistent. As the body constantly has traces of alcohol in the bloodstream, it's common that individuals who are dependent on alcohol have difficulty remembering small details and events.

drinking alcohol infographic5. Justification and Denial

Although this is not always true, many high-functioning alcoholics often respond with justification or denial when confronted. Even if it is a soft confrontation or question about the person's drinking patterns, they may react with reasons why they drink, explanations of their drinking behavior, or flat-out denial that there is a problem. This is a tough one to deal with, as somebody in denial cannot easily be convinced there is a problem.

6. Mood Swings

Mood swings are a possible warning sign of alcoholism, as the changes in body chemistry can lead to anger, irritability, anxiety, or depression. You may notice your loved one go through periods of joy and ease, mixed with periods of sadness, fatigue, irritation, or anxiety. This is common with any drugs, and often mimics the cycle of abuse of the substance.

7. Lacking Responsibility

The nature of a functional alcoholic is that they are able to continue with daily tasks, responsibilities, and commitments. However, you may notice a change in these responsibilites. A functioning alcoholic may begin slacking at work, not fully handling family commitments, or letting things fall by the wayside. As alcohol consumption becomes regular and the person develops an alcohol use disorder, the reward pathways in the brain change, and the individual may find more fulfillment from drinking than fulfilling commitments.

8. Embarrassment or Shame

Sometimes, high-functioning alcoholics will exhibit some embarrassment or shame related to their drinking. This may be because the individual knows somewhere inside them that there is a problem, and this can be quite uncomfortable. Often, those addicted to drugs or alcohol have moments when they wish to quit, but are not able to. This shame around drinking may be a sign that there is something going on with the person that could be beneficial to address.

9. Failed Quitting Attempts

Finally, if an individual tries to stop drinking but is not able to, this may be a bad sign. For many people, putting down the bottle is no problem. However, alcoholics often struggle to do so. If your loved one has tried quitting many times but returns to drinking, this may be a sign of dependence and addiction.

Finding Help and Treatment

Living with a high functioning alcoholic or having one in your life can be quite difficult. We cannot control the behavior of somebody else, and we deeply wish to help. However, the individual needs to be ready to address the problem themselves. The good news is that there are trained professionals who can help!

At an alcohol treatment center, the individual will have the opportunity to investigate their drinking, work with family and loved ones, and learn to live a healthy life without alcohol present. Even if the drinking does not seem very excessive, they may benefit from a professional and medical detox to ensure their safety. The process of quitting alcohol can be quite difficult and uncomfortable, and it's important to remember that you don't have to do it alone.


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