What Is a Functioning Alcoholic?

What Is a Functioning Alcoholic? – A functioning alcoholic is an individual who can still attend to necessary responsibilities and maintain a livelihood despite routine excessive abuse of alcohol. This concept may sound like it includes contradictory elements, but in truth, many alcoholics may be considered “functioning” in one way or another, depending on the circumstances.

The Functioning Alcoholic

One of the many stigmas associated with alcohol addiction is steeped in how well the alcoholic can manage his or her life. For instance, compare the homeless “gutter” alcoholic to an upper-middle-class family man in the suburbs. They may appear very different on the outside, but they have at least one very defining trait in common.

Another possible difference between the functioning alcoholic and others who suffer is the level of acceptance. At some point, many severe alcohol abusers admit that they have a problem, mainly because they have no choice in the face of their lives crumbling around them. Moreover, they are made to sit by and watch, seemingly helpless, as their lives and relationships are slowly destroyed by drinking.

Functioning alcoholics, however, are often the last ones to know. As long as the bills are paid and the alcoholic feels as if he or she is in relative control of his or her life, it’s remarkably easy to remain in denial. Family members who see things more clearly may say things like “Grandma got really drunk last night,” but these incidents may be disregarded and remain unaddressed in the big scheme of things.

Finally, rather than admit they have a problem outright, many functional alcoholics will joke about it instead. These individuals are quite often happy to meet other people who like to drink and even encourage it, and always have alcohol available for those who would like to partake. Because functioning alcoholics often have disposable income, they use some of this money on things like keeping their bars well-stocked or having an impressive selection of wines.

Functioning alcoholics are often out in the open about their drinking, because they are so well accepted by their loved ones and have only minor difficulties in their lives as a result of drinking. Others, however, may sometimes drink in secret or drink at inappropriate times when they know they can easily get away with it.

Who Is an Alcoholic?

Experts believe that alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction (also known as alcoholism) exist on the same spectrum and both fall under the classification of alcohol use disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines an alcohol use disorder (AUD) as “…a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.”

Unhealthy alcohol use is further defined as including “any alcohol use that puts your health or safety at risk or causes other alcohol-related problems.” This unhealthy behavior also includes binge drinking or “a pattern of drinking where a male consumes five or more drinks within two hours or a female downs at least four drinks within two hours.”

What Is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Signs and Symptoms

A functioning alcoholic is a person who…

…holds down life-sustaining employment or is undergoing the education.
…typically can afford food, shelter, and other necessities of living.
…may financially support a family.
…may be well-educated, well-regarded by others, and a high-achiever.
…may hold a position of authority or power.

Yet that person…

…consumes alcohol to excess regularly and frequently and can’t control their drinking once they have started.
…minimizes and/or conceals the severity of their problem, and reassures others, when necessary, that everything is okay.
…may be quick to identify others whom he/she deems to be a more severe and less functional alcoholic.
…occasionally fails to meet important responsibilities as a result of drinking.
…may have encountered some legal problems or family conflict as a result of drinking.
…may have been hospitalized for heavy alcohol use and/or is experiencing health-related problems such as liver disease.
…others have noticed there is a problem but are afraid of a confrontation.

Example: The Case of Ryan
Ryan, 35, is an assistant manager at a high-tech firm and has a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He shares a home in the suburbs of a medium-sized city with his wife and young son.
Ryan has been drinking heavily since college, including both daily and binge-style alcohol use. He rarely misses work as a result of his drinking patterns, however, despite regular late-night binges after his son has gone to bed.
Ryan’s wife knows that he is an alcoholic, but rarely confronts him. She has discussed the problem with his family, who continue to insist that his excessive alcohol use isn’t a problem and that she should learn to appreciate better the long hours he works and the nice things he provides for the family.
Still, Ryan had a DUI five years ago, and yet occasionally engages in drinking and driving as he sometimes comes home from after-work gatherings completely inebriated. Ryan has no plans on stopping drinking, cutting back, or seeking help for his problem despite escalating problems with his wife and repeated risky behavior.

All Alcoholics Need Help

What Is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Functioning alcoholics, despite their outward image of relative normalcy, still encounter the same risks as anyone who regularly engages in alcohol abuse, such as damage to and loss of relationships, employment, and security, along with dependence and withdrawals if they try to quit.

They continually endanger themselves and others when inebriated, and are possibly just one DUI away from long-term incarceration. They also incur the same increased risk of liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, brain damage, and cancers of the throat, esophagus, breast, liver, and colon.

Moreover, functioning alcoholics are by no means exempt from the harmful effects of alcoholism. Unfortunately, functioning alcoholics are often the last to admit they may need help, and due to their family and social status, also the last ones that loved ones will bother to confront.

Treatment for Alcoholism

All alcoholics, regardless of their level of functioning, should seek help in the form of professional and comprehensive addiction treatment. Alcoholism is a severe and oftentimes devastating disease that can result in many physical and mental health issues, financial or legal problems, and tremendous undue strain on interpersonal relationships. The longer active alcoholism remains untreated, the greater the chance that these adverse consequences, among others, will occur.

Alcoholism is considered to be a chronic disease, and, as such, there is no single, surefire cure. Rarely can anyone who has an alcohol use disorder return to something resembling “normal” drinking or functioning. Alcoholics are hardpressed to fully reclaim and control their lives if they are engaging in any form of alcohol use, however minor it seems.

Fortunately, alcoholism is very treatable. Contemporary treatment options, such as those facilitated by Recovery in Tune, employ approaches that are clinically proven to increase the chances of a successful recovery. These approaches include psychotherapy, drug counseling, group support, and medication-assisted treatment. We provide our clients with the tools, resources, and support they need to achieve abstinence, prevent relapse, and enjoy long-lasting wellness and sobriety.

If you believe that you or someone you love is suffering from alcoholism, please contact us immediately to discuss treatment options. We help clients make their lives better, and ensure that they have the support they need to look forward to a fulfilling, alcohol-free future!

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