Often, people think of someone who has a substance abuse problem as someone who isn’t able to work, take care of children, or hold down a household. However, not everyone who suffers from a substance abuse problem, like an alcohol addiction, goes from one job to the next or neglects their household. Some individuals classify as “functioning alcoholic.”
What is a Functioning Alcoholic?
A functioning alcoholic is a person who abuses alcohol frequently, but they are still able to function in primary areas of life. They often hold down a job, take care of financial issues, care for children, and do all this in a timely manner. They lead seemingly normal lives. In some cases, a person who falls in this category may be a position of power, and people overlook the drinking because of it. Oftentimes, individuals who fall into this category avoid legal ramifications associated with frequent alcohol abuse, such as driving under the influence (DUI) charges or public intoxication. In addition, functional alcoholics tend to look presentable; they don’t have the disheveled appearance, poor hygiene, or weight issues that many associate with alcoholism.
In some instances, high-functioning alcoholics may not be physically addicted to drinking. In fact, they may be able to go without alcohol for days or sometimes weeks without having symptoms of withdrawal. However, these individuals may still be psychologically dependent on alcohol because they structure their lives around when they can drink again, and they feel as though they need to drink in certain settings. They may experience blackouts, which means they don’t remember anything after an episode of heavy drinking. They may suffer from frequent hangovers but are usually able to hide it well.
A functioning alcoholic is essentially able to maintain the appearance of an orderly or managed life. Generally, there are issues under the surface that become more apparent over time. If one regularly engages in alcohol abuse, it is inevitable that various areas of life suffer.
Signs of Functional Alcoholism
Those with alcohol use disorders often engage in frequent binge drinking sessions. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is a repeated pattern of bringing one’s blood alcohol level, also known as a BAC, to 0.08 g/dL. Usually, blood alcohol concentrations reach this amount when women consume four drinks, or men consume five drinks, in a two-hour period. Those who engage in alcohol abuse binge drink at least five days per month.
It’s not always how much a person drinks that determines if they have an alcohol abuse problem. Other factors play a role. If the person exhibits the following, it may be a sign that they have an alcohol abuse issue or are a functional alcoholic:
- Has trouble controlling how much they drink at one time
- Drinks more than originally planned on
- Jokes about having an alcohol problem
- Needs alcohol to relax
- Need alcohol to feel confident
- Acts differently when drinking than when sober
- Drinks in the morning
- Drinks when alone
- Gets drunk without intending to do so
- Denies drinking
- Hides alcohol
- Has blackouts from drinking
- Thinks about alcohol frequently, especially about what to drink, when to drink, and whom to drink with
- Gets angry when confronted about drinking
- Makes excuses about drinking
According to WebMD, though functional alcoholics may appear together in certain areas of life, they often take risks due to their drinking. For example, they may engage in unsafe sexual activity or partake in other dangerous behavior while drunk that leads to accidents or injuries.
How Many Alcoholics Are High Functioning?
Statistics presented by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that 24.7 percent of people 18 or older admitted to binge drinking in the past month while 6.7 percent stated they drank heavily in the past month. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that 16.3 million people 18 years of age or older had an alcohol use disorder in 2014. Of this number, 10.6 million were men and 5.7 million were adults.
Per WebMD, among people who struggle with alcoholism, up to 20 percent classify as a high functioning.
What Are the Consequences of Functional Alcoholism?
Functional alcoholics will ultimately feel the effects of continued alcohol abuse. The negative health effects of chronic alcohol abuse add up over time, affecting one’s health, career, and relationships. Even if the person has been able to function well for years, alcoholism will eventually negatively affect virtually all aspects of life.
Oftentimes, functional alcoholics will eventually get behind the wheel after drinking. Drinking and driving can lead to a suspended license and even the person losing employment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28 people die in the US every day from a vehicular crash that involves a driver under the influence of alcohol. Statistics from the CDC show that 9,967 people died in an automobile accident involving a driver who was under the influence in 2014. In fact, close to 31 percent of all automobile accidents involved an alcohol-impaired driver in 2014.
When a person is secretive about alcohol use, it may begin to affect the person’s social life. Friends and family may begin to notice changes and confront the individual, which can damage the relationship if the person responds with anger or defensiveness. The functional alcoholic may begin avoiding people in order to drink privately.
Even if a person is able to function on a daily basis while suffering from an alcohol abuse problem, there are medical consequences to drinking, especially in excess. First and foremost, alcohol has an impact on how the brain communicates on a cellular level. It affects how the brain works and even appears. These changes to the brain caused by alcohol affect mood and behavior. The person may not be able to think move well or think clearly, even when sober.
The liver is one of the main areas of the body affected by alcohol since it is metabolized there. Drinking, over time and in excess, causes liver inflammation. Some people develop steatosis, also known as fatty liver. This occurs when alcohol damages the liver, so the organ is unable to process fat, and this fat accumulates in the liver. When the fat is more than 5-10 percent of the weight of the liver, alcoholic fatty liver disease has occurred. Generally, it doesn’t cause any symptoms, but if the person doesn’t refrain from drinking, the condition continues and leads to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis of the liver occurs when alcohol damages the liver and scarring begins to form. The liver may swell as a result of excess drinking and cause alcoholic hepatitis. Fibrosis is also possible.
Over time, alcohol also takes a toll on the heart. Although drinking wine in moderation has shown to have some heart benefits, chronic drinking has the potential to stretch the heart and cause it to droop, a condition known as cardiomyopathy. Alcohol abuse can lead to arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat. Those who drink heavily are more at risk for developing hypertension and having strokes.
The pancreas secretes toxic substances when introduced to alcohol. The toxic substances can eventually lead to pancreatitis, which is dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas. It prevents proper digestion from occurring. In addition, drinking alcohol in excess increases a person’s risk of developing mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and breast cancer.
Oftentimes, it is tough for functional alcoholics to admit that a problem exist. Since they appear to have their lives together for the most part, they may think that their continued drinking isn’t really a problem. The truth is that eventually chronic alcohol abuse catches up to everyone, and it’s only a matter of time before a functional alcoholic stops functioning in the same way.
Functional alcohol treatment is available. With medical detox and a comprehensive addiction treatment program, functional alcoholics can learn to address the underlying issues related to their drinking and avoid long-term consequences from alcohol abuse. Due to the potential severe nature of withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, a functional alcoholic should never attempt to stop drinking suddenly on their own; medical supervision is always needed for alcohol withdrawal.