The term functional alcoholic (“functioning” alcoholic, “high functioning” alcoholic) is a term that refers to a person who is alcohol-addicted but is able to lead a seemingly normal, even successful life. It is not a medical diagnosis. This, of course, is an assessment made from an outside perspective and often times by the alcoholic, themself. An alcoholic, functional or not, is still suffering from a disease that affects their life and their loved ones’ lives is a very real way.
Generally speaking, functional alcoholics are those who can hold down a job or even excel at their career. They own homes and have families.
As with every addiction, the alcoholic experiences denial before realizing they have a problem that needs to be dealt with. With the functional alcoholic however, denial is an even more formidable enemy because it is quite easy to fool oneself into thinking their life is manageable when there are no real consequences to their drinking…yet. The functional alcoholic most likely has not been arrested nor has incurred alcohol-related criminal charges. They have not missed work or suffered financially due to their drinking.
The functional alcoholic consumes as much alcohol as any “full-blown” alcoholic; they just don’t exhibit the outward symptoms of intoxication. But because they have developed a tolerance for alcohol, it takes more for them to feel the effects. Therefore, they must drink increasingly larger amounts to get the same “buzz” they desire. This slow build-up of alcohol tolerance means the functional alcoholic is drinking at dangerous levels that can result in alcohol-related organ damage, cognitive impairment, and alcohol dependence.
Signs of alcoholism include:
- After one drink, experiencing a craving to have more and cannot predict what their alcohol intake will be
- Obsessing about the next time they will be able to drink alcohol
- Behaving in ways that are not characteristic of themselves while drunk and continue to repeat these behaviors and patterns
- Surrounding themselves socially with heavy drinkers
- Getting drunk before arriving at social engagements
- Setting drinking limits and not being able to adhere to them
- Always having to finish an alcoholic beverage or even another person’s unfinished beverage
- Using alcohol as a reward
- Having memory lapse due to excessive drinking (blackouts)
- Taking breaks from drinking and then increasing alcohol consumption when they resume drinking after a long period of time
The distinction with the functional alcoholic is that, in their professional and personal life, they are often well respected for job/academic performance and accomplishments and can maintain a social life and intimate relationships. However, it is because of a couple of coping mechanisms that they are able to pull this off. The functional alcoholic often leads a “double life,” where they appear to the outside world to be managing life well yet internally and in the privacy of their home, they are falling apart. They are also skilled at living a compartmentalized life, meaning that they are able to separate professional, personal and drinking lives.
Often times, the term “hitting a bottom” is used to refer to the point at which life becomes so unmanageable and painful that the person is willing to take the steps necessary to make a change and get sober. However, functional alcoholics experience few tangible losses and consequences from their drinking and may even hit a bottom and not recognize it clearly.