Functioning alcoholic is an informal term used to describe people who have an alcohol dependency but still accomplish their roles in society. Alcohol dependency does not cause them to miss work or fail to accomplish other obligations. They seem to be mentally and physically healthy. They can pass as normal people in jobs, homes, and social roles.
However, below the veneer of normalcy is an individual struggling with uncontrollable alcohol cravings, obsessive thoughts and fantasies about alcohol, and unsuccessful attempts to quit or control the drinking habit. In short, they manifest all the symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The National Institute of Health describes the average functional alcoholic as a middle-aged, well-educated person with a stable job and family.
Different Stages of Alcoholism
Functional alcoholism does not happen overnight but develops over time.
- Binge Drinking: most people start by experimenting with alcohol as teens or young adults during outings and social events.
- Regular Drinking: regular drinkers consume alcohol once in a while. They may do it as a part of socialization, alleviate stress, and overcome boredom or combat loneliness.
- Problem Drinking: problem drinking involves frequent, uncontrolled alcohol abuse. Some problem drinkers may experience withdrawal symptoms and legal problems such as drink driving.
- Alcohol Dependency: people with alcohol dependence have an attachment to alcohol and take it as part of regular routines. They have developed tolerance and drink increasingly larger amounts to get buzzed. They experience withdrawal symptoms if they go for long without a drink. Most functioning alcoholics are at this stage.
- Addiction: addicts no longer drink for pleasure but have a physical and psychological need to drink. They exhibit compulsive behaviors and alcohol cravings.
Symptoms of a Functioning Alcoholic
You may be a functioning alcoholic if:
- You get irritable, agitated, or nervous if an event disrupts your drinking rituals.
- Love to make or hear alcoholic jokes.
- You head to the bar after work or have a drink as the first thing on arriving home from work.
- Constantly talk about alcohol or brag about stockpiling liquor.
- Often look for excuses to drink, such as adding a drink to your meals or drinking during breaks and trips.
- Engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking or driving under the influence.
- A friend or loved one has confronted you about your alcohol problem.
- You occasionally experience blackouts.
- You often drink more or longer than planned.
- Hide alcohol or alcohol-consumption habits from friends and family
- Experience withdrawal symptoms
Factors That Encourage a Functioning Alcoholic
One of the reasons functioning alcoholics do not seek treatment for alcoholism is denial. A functioning alcoholic has yet to experience the adverse effects of alcohol dependency. They still retain their job and perform well, have not suffered significant financial losses, have never experienced serious health problems, and have never been arrested for drink driving.
Some may view it as a status symbol, especially if they go to VIP parties and drink expensive wines. Consequently, they never admit they have an alcohol problem, lie about the amount they consume, and refuse to acknowledge that alcohol abuse harms their lives.
A functioning alcoholic has developed alcohol tolerance to the point where they do not manifest symptoms of intoxication even after heavy drinking. They keep on increasing the amount they drink to achieve the high they want. Other functioning alcoholics are used to working while intoxicated. Some of the reasons for high alcohol tolerance include:
- Drinking alcohol for long hours.
- Body size and composition: high lean muscle percentage increases tolerance.
- Gender: men can tolerate more alcohol than women.
- Genetic enzyme deficiencies make some people have fewer alcohol processing enzymes.
- Ethnicity: whites have a higher tolerance than Asians and Native Americans.
Tolerance exposes the functional alcoholic to risks such as alcohol dependence, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related organ damage, and cognitive impairment.
Eventually, a functioning alcoholic becomes dependent on alcohol and develops withdrawal symptoms if they take too long to take another drink. The withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant and force them to drink, perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Get Help If You Are a Functioning Alcoholic
If you are addicted to or abusing alcohol, you may need professional treatment to quit. Contact Fairwinds Treatment Center to speak to addiction management professionals.