What is a ‘Functional’ Alcoholic?
Alcoholism – or alcohol use disorder – comes with a tremendous amount of stigma and presumptions. The general tenor of conversations around alcohol addiction suggests that in order to be considered an alcoholic, a person has to experience tremendous financial, social and emotional turmoil.
However, this vein of thinking completely disregards the many functional – or high-functioning – alcoholics flying under the radar and masking their addiction by maintaining social expectations. It also makes it possible for functional alcoholics and their loved ones to ignore their substance use disorder, simply because (on the surface) their life hasn’t fallen apart.
What does functional alcoholism look like from the outside?
A high-functioning alcoholic holds down a job, participates in social events, meets daily responsibilities, and maintains romantic partnerships – while also drinking to excess. While their drinking may occasionally impact these areas of their lives (i.e. they may miss a day of work once in a while, have conflict within their relationship, or experience sleep disturbances), they are a long way from the stereotypical idea of the full-blown alcoholic passed out on the sidewalk.
High-functioning alcoholics present as physically and mentally healthy; they earn enough money to maintain their habit and are therefore never seen in public (or even at home) with the tell-tale shakes of an alcoholic experiencing withdrawal. They are gregarious and pleasant company, even when intoxicated; and their occasional slips of decorum are usually explained away (“They had one too many, happens to all of us.”).
Functional alcoholics are often branded as “work hard – play hard” characters, who will generously provide an extra supply of drinks at get-togethers and be the first ones up after a party, cleaning up and enjoying a ‘hair of the dog’.
What does functional alcoholism look like from the inside?
High-functioning alcoholics experience tremendous levels of stress. The effort of upholding their façade of regular everyday operations can be incredibly draining. The level of secrecy required to maintain their drinking habit without drawing attention to it may result in a complex web of lies and deception that could collapse at a slip of the tongue.
It is common for functioning alcoholics to be deeply in denial about their substance use disorder. Because they are not technically at rock bottom, can afford expensive (high-quality) alcohol and are in no danger of becoming homeless, telling themselves that they are “not that bad” is not particularly difficult; especially since public perceptions and opinions are playing right into their hands.
Many functioning alcoholics find that their tolerance levels increase as their habit goes on. This means they require more alcohol more frequently in order to get a buzz; until they eventually require it in order to function normally. High-functioning alcoholics still experience all the withdrawal symptoms – including shakes, cravings, mood swings, irritability, sleep issues and nausea – but they tend to manage these moments privately to avoid detection.
What are the risks of being a functioning alcoholic?
Like all persons suffering from alcohol use disorder, functioning alcoholics face severe health risks including:
- Higher susceptibility to certain cancers (i.e. liver, kidney, breast, mouth, liver and throat)
- Higher likelihood of experiencing depression and anxiety
- Memory and learning problems
- Weakened immunity
However, because they are presenting as well to the outside world, functional alcoholics are much less likely to receive offers of help – or ask for it – than the obvious alcohol addict. This means that their illness often continues for longer, heightening their risk of experiencing harmful effects.
If you believe you or a loved one might be experiencing high-functioning alcoholism, the team at Hader Clinic Queensland are here to answer all your questions in a free and confidential consultation and can discuss options for alcohol addiction treatment.
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