The New York Times estimates that as many as half of those battling addiction involving alcohol may be considered high-functioning alcoholics or functional alcoholics.
Addiction can be all-encompassing and disrupt a person’s ability to function in everyday life; however, this may not be the case for a functional alcoholic, as most are able to live functional lives, hold down successful jobs, maintain familial responsibilities, and have a home, job, family, and friends. A functional alcoholic may not be physically dependent on alcohol; they may go days without it and not suffer significant withdrawal symptoms.
Functional alcoholics often lead a double life, as they may appear to have it together on the outside but really are teetering on the edge of disaster. Loved ones should not wait until they hit “rock bottom” before seeking professional help, but instead intervene early and help them get treatment.
- The person is in denial. A functional alcoholic often refuses to admit that they have a problem with alcohol. Loved ones, coworkers, and others around them may enable their behavior since they don’t fit the mold of the stereotypical “alcoholic.”
- The person drinks more than others. At a social event when everyone else has one drink, they may have three. They may also finish the drinks of others and rarely leave any alcohol on the table.
- The person is unable to control the amount of alcohol consumed. Someone who battles addiction cannot control how much they drink at a time and how often they do it. They may obsess over drinking.
- Blackouts are common. A person may drink so much that they cannot remember events or even whole chunks of time.
- There are no, or few, hangovers. A functional alcoholic may not suffer from a night of binge drinking the next day as an occasional drinker is liable to. Lack of a hangover may indicate a significant tolerance to alcohol that has been built up by continued abuse.
- The individual replaces food with drinks. Drinks may take the place of meals, or mealtime may become an excuse to drink. A functional alcohol may lose interest in food altogether.
- The person experiences personality shifts while drinking. A functional alcohol may seem to become another person altogether when they drink. For example, someone who is relatively soft spoken may become more social and outgoing while drinking.
- There are many excuses. Someone who is a functional alcohol has an excuse for everything; they will always be able to come up with a reason for why they drank or had so much in one sitting.
- They hide their drinking. A functional alcoholic may drink alone and hide it. They may keep a bottle in their desk and drink when no one is looking, for example.
- Subtle signs of problematic drinking are present. Despite a person’s best effort to hide them, there are often signs of problematic drinking, even for functional alcoholics. Absences at work or school, sloppiness, weight fluctuations, lack of participation in social events, alteration in focus level, increased anxiety or depression, and changes in sleep patterns may occur over time. For functional alcoholics, these signs may be very subtle and slowly accumulate over time.
A high-functioning alcoholic may not meet all of the criteria for addiction and may not think that alcohol is a problem for them; however, alcoholism always has consequences.
For most functional alcoholics, there will be a tipping point at which their ability to function well begins to wane.
It is important to seek professional help when signs of addiction are present. Often, with a high-functioning alcoholic, it is helpful to enlist the help of a trained professional interventionist, as recommended by Psych Central, in order to help your loved one recognize how alcohol is negatively impacting their life and the lives of those around them. A professional can guide the conversation, often resulting in a more successful outcome and the individual reaching out for help.