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What is a Functional Alcoholic?

living with a functioning alcoholic

Someone once told me that I wasn’t really dealing with an alcoholic, because I wasn’t beaten and didn’t have horrible stories of abuse. (Interestingly, this is the same kind of gaslighting my alcoholic used on me, as to why I should be grateful and just accept things as they were.) This kind of attitude is very dangerous. One does not have to be abusive to be an alcoholic. Nor does one have to be useless, jobless, and an awful person. Though they can go hand in hand, most of the time, they do not. I’d like to introduce you to a term you may not have heard of before: the functioning alcoholic.

The Functioning Alcoholic

Technically, they have renamed “alcoholism” “alcohol use disorder,” but for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use the old terminology in this article so we don’t get lost in semantics.

The Functioning Alcoholic does not behave in the way we expect an alcoholic to behave. They hold jobs, and, in fact, can be quite successful. That success can actually be one of the reasons their addiction is overlooked by others! My alcoholic was just like this. Extremely driven, fast advancing, and the go-to man at work. You would never expect he had a problem from his work persona. They have lives that appear great, social bonds, and their home life seems fine from the outside.

Often, they use these as ways to rationalize that they do not have a problem. How could they have a problem if they hold a great job and have friends? How could they have a problem if they aren’t puking every night, beating their family, or having shouting matches with their spouse on the daily? It’s even common for family members to have no idea the person has a problem because they hide it so well (especially family who does not live with the person with the problem.) Downing a bottle of wine each night becomes “normal” because the person still holds their job and functions well enough.

Sometimes, the functional alcoholic does not even drink every day, but binges frequently or has cycles of heavy drinking every few days. They end up living a sort of double life, compartmentalizing their drinking self from their professional and personal life.

In reality, no one can keep up heavy drinking without it catching up to them eventually.  No matter how hard they try, someone is going to end up hurt. They might end up drinking and driving, blacking out, or having risky sexual encounters. Tasks get harder and harder to complete as mental efficiency is compromised. Often, they will alienate their spouse and those who love them with their constant drunkenness and lack of real connection.

So How Much Is Too Much?

It’s less than you might think: 3 drinks per day or 7 per week for women, and 4 drinks per day or 14 per week for men. If you or someone you love is consuming this much, they are at risk of being an alcoholic.

Do You or Someone You Love Need Help?

In addition to the drink limit above, there are other behavioral signs of alcohol abuse.

Red Flags:

  • Saying you have a problem or joking about alcoholism
  • Not keeping up with major responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Losing friendships or having relationship problems due to drinking, but you don’t quit alcohol
  • Have legal problems related to drinking, such as a DUI arrest
  • Needing alcohol to relax or feel confident
  • Drinking in the morning or when you’re alone
  • Getting drunk when you don’t intend to
  • Forgetting what you did while drinking
  • Denying drinking, hiding alcohol, or getting angry when confronted about drinking
  • Causing loved ones to worry about or make excuses for your drinking (like I did)
  • Periods of sobriety characterized by irritability, restless, agitation, and mood swings
  • Unable to successfully stick to drinking limits – drinking more than intended in a sitting despite saying he would stop at a certain amount
  • Hiding alcohol

What Can You Do?

A functional alcoholic is still an alcoholic. You may see yourself or loved one go through this cycle over and over, with or without the larger consequences of DUI or other legal issues. Some of them are able to reign themselves back in for a time at that stage (this is when they decide again they will “only drink beer” or limit how much they drink temporarily.)

I lived through this cycle more times than I can even count in my marriage. It’s very taxing, emotionally and physically, as the spouse of the drinker. It takes a huge toll on your mental health — and eventually your physical health, too. Living with a functioning alcoholic is nothing to take lightly. Please take action to care for yourself as well as your loved one. Find a counselor you can talk to who is experienced with addiction and families. They can help you through this, and help you figure out how to help your loved one. Do not let yourself get caught up in the isolation of hiding addiction for your loved one.

You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for confidential help and treatment referrals for individuals and families facing mental health and/or substance abuse disorders.