Perhaps you recognize that you drink too much – but you don’t necessarily experience the devastating effects that so many people equate with alcoholism.
Maybe you still go to work, haven’t lost your friends or family as a result of your drinking, or don’t have serious legal consequences looming over your head.
You may have heard the term functioning alcoholism in the past, and started your search for “what is a functioning alcoholic?” Is there any meaningful difference, and could you be one?
- What Is a Functional Alcoholic?
- What Does it Feel Like to be a Functioning Alcoholic?
- Is Functional Alcoholism Different from Alcoholism?
- The Danger of Functional Alcoholism
- Why So Many People Flirt with Functional Alcoholism
- What Should You Do if You Suspect You Are a Functioning Alcoholic?
- Getting Help for Functioning Alcoholism
What Is a Functional Alcoholic?
A functional alcoholic is a colloquial term used to describe somebody who has an alcohol use disorder, but can still go about their everyday life without serious disruption. They may continue to hold a job, have good relationships with friends and family, and be financially stable.
But functional alcoholism extends beyond gray area drinking, where your alcohol consumption doesn’t meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
Functional alcoholism is alcoholism. Left untreated, living with an alcohol use disorder can cause serious challenges.
The term functioning alcoholic isn’t a medical distinction. In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V-TR), the only diagnosable alcohol-related disorders include:
- Alcohol Use Disorder
- Alcohol Intoxication
- Alcohol Withdrawal
- Alcohol-Induced Mental Disorders
- Unspecified Alcohol-Related Disorder
While daily functioning is one indicator of an alcohol use disorder, there are ten other criteria that mental health professionals use to come to a diagnosis. Functioning at work, school, or home does not exempt you from having a serious mental health condition.
What Does it Feel Like to be a Functioning Alcoholic?
Living with functional alcoholism can seem very normal and non-problematic, but can lead to serious alcohol-related consequences if not addressed.
You may do all the things that your friends, family, and neighbors do: go to work, take your kids to school, and keep up with the everyday tasks in your household. But when the workday is over, or the weekend finally comes, you find yourself falling into a similar pattern of excessive alcohol use.
When I was in the middle of my own addiction, my drinking could always fit the description of functional alcoholism.
I would drink almost every day after getting off work – typically several beers or glasses of wine. On the weekends, I would get drunk with my friends at bars, at the pool, or at social gatherings. But my alarm would go off early Monday morning, and even if I had a hangover, I would make it into work on time.
I never missed paying rent and kept a relatively large social circle. My friends all drank similar amounts, and I kept close ties with my family – who all drank heavily as well.
On the outside, nothing seemed wrong, but my life began to slowly revolve around constant alcohol use. Alcohol became a priority for every occasion, and I needed my fridge and liquor cabinet to constantly be stocked. I would drink without thinking about it.
But even though I kept up with my major responsibilities, my alcohol use started to create serious problems:
- I would drink too much, and embarrass myself in front of friends
- I would get into fights and arguments that would never happen sober
- When I wasn’t drinking, I was irritable and short-tempered
- My mental health started to get worse – and I began to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety
- My tolerance skyrocketed, and my budget for alcohol increased dramatically
- I would drive under the influence – telling myself that I “wasn’t that drunk”
In time, it became apparent that I was totally reliant on alcohol. I needed a drink to relax, to have fun, to watch TV, or to spend time with my friends. But as long as the alcohol was flowing, my problems were pushed aside, and I could keep living what seemed like a normal life.
Is Functional Alcoholism Different from Alcoholism?
Functional alcoholism and alcohol use disorders are fundamentally the same thing. Being a “high functioning” alcoholic is only an additional description of the symptom that you don’t experience – specifically, the symptom of being unable to fulfill your obligations at work, home, or school as a result of alcohol use.
You could similarly describe somebody as a “low-tolerance alcoholic” or a “withdrawal-free alcoholic”, though in the context of the severe nature of alcohol use disorders, the distinctions seem insignificant.
But functional alcoholism’s focus on responsibility, particularly as it pertains to work and success, plays into the beliefs that are ingrained into our culture, making people feel less guilty about their alcohol use as a function of their ability to work.
Alcoholism is alcoholism.
The simplest definition of an alcohol use disorder is being unable to stop drinking despite consequences. Even if your work or home life hasn’t suffered, functional alcoholism can cause severe impairment in other areas of your life and may lead to a host of physical and mental health challenges.
The Danger of Functional Alcoholism
After achieving my own sobriety, I worked for several years in addiction treatment. I helped people from all walks of life break free from alcohol addiction, from the young and reckless to the old-timers who had been drinking for decades.
This experience provided an essential insight into the danger of functional alcoholism – the slow rate at which constant alcohol use can create major challenges. The people who described themselves as functional alcoholics, those who drank for decades while raising families and pursuing careers, often faced the most severe physical and mental health challenges when trying to sober up.
The first major factor in this is tolerance – the need to drink ever greater amounts of alcohol in order to feel intoxicated.
Regular alcohol use quickly builds tolerance, and both the brain and body change in response to the presence of alcohol. And the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risk of developing complications such as alcoholic fatty liver disease, the several cancers linked to alcohol use, or life-threatening withdrawal effects when you suddenly stop drinking.
The second major factor is habits. Many functional alcoholics begin to depend on alcohol as their source of comfort, entertainment, and leisure.
When they finally stop drinking, they don’t know how to spend their time. Often the only activity that many of my clients engaged in that didn’t involve alcohol was work – and when these people reached retirement, they often spiraled into uncontrolled alcoholism.
Alcohol is a unique drug of abuse in many ways, but the slow onset of serious symptoms is perhaps the most pernicious element of alcoholism. Many people won’t experience the withdrawals and side effects of an alcohol use disorder until they’ve been drinking for years, and the habit develops an inertia that makes it difficult to break free from.
Why So Many People Flirt with Functional Alcoholism
When people self-describe as a functioning alcoholic, they recognize that their drinking is out of control – but hold to the belief that their life isn’t.
But what leads people to think that out-of-control drinking isn’t a serious problem, and that if they can describe themselves as “functional” that they don’t need to stop drinking?
The portrayal of the hard-working and hard-drinking man or the irreverent wine mom are common tropes in film, television, and literature.
Alcohol is nearly always used as a shortcut to show that a character is stressed or worn out and needs the relief of alcohol to make it through the rest of the day. These characters are romanticized and glorified for their alcohol use, and they rarely face consequences for their drinking.
A bottle of liquor in the office is the sign of a powerful executive, and a fine vintage the sign of class and prestige. These portrayals create a culture of alcoholism, normalizing excessive alcohol use and letting people think that their own drinking isn’t a problem.
Research has shown a direct relationship between the frequency at which people see alcohol being consumed in these types of media and the rate at which they drink themselves. And as time goes on, alcohol advertisers continue to find new ways to reach customers through social media, YouTube, and integrating their products into popular movies and shows.
Where you work may have a substantial impact on your drinking habits as well. Significant research has linked workplace culture to the rates of heavy drinking, with certain industries having more rampant alcohol use disorders than others.
My own published research has shown that workplace characteristics are a substantial driver of the rates of alcohol consumption, including:
- Permissive attitudes about drinking on the job
- Drinking off the job with your coworkers or employees
- Having alcohol available in the workplace
- Physically strenuous jobs, such as mining, construction, or manual labor
- Low levels of social engagement at work
A culture of drinking at work plays directly into the belief of functional alcoholism being nonproblematic. When your coworkers drink heavily and still show up to work, it can lead you to believe that alcoholic drinking is okay so long as you keep up with your daily tasks.
Having more heavy drinkers in your immediate social circle is a key indicator that you may have problems with drinking yourself.
We are inherently social creatures – and we learn what is normal and acceptable from the people we surround ourselves with. In the case of alcoholism, people with a drinking problem often create insulated social circles with other drinkers, depriving themselves of the knowledge of what non-problematic drinking truly looks like.
While you can still reach the point of recognizing that your drinking is excessive or out of control, many people rationalize their problems through the lens of functional alcoholism. And with only other heavy drinkers to compare yourself to, you may not even recognize how alcohol is affecting other aspects of your life.
What Should You Do if You Suspect You Are a Functioning Alcoholic?
If you think your drinking meets the criteria for functioning alcoholism, it might be time to reach out for help.
Functioning isn’t an indicator of a life well lived – and your alcohol use may be standing in the way of better physical, social, spiritual, and mental health. Alcohol use disorders are serious conditions, and typically get worse over time if you don’t take the steps to break free from your addiction.
If you’d like to assess your risk for an alcohol use disorder, we’ve included a quiz at the end of this article that can screen you for alcohol-related problems. A positive result indicates you may need treatment or support to achieve sobriety – as many people with an alcohol use disorder are unable to achieve sobriety on their own.
Getting Help for Functioning Alcoholism
Remember – alcoholism is alcoholism. The fact that you can keep up with certain responsibilities despite your excessive drinking habits isn’t an indicator that you don’t have a drinking problem, and there is an abundance of evidence-based resources that can help you achieve recovery.
Some of the best ways to help yourself or a loved one who’s struggling include:
Working with a therapist can help you to understand why you drink the way you do, teach you strategies to decrease or stop your drinking, and provide support and resources to help you thrive in your recovery. Decades of scientific evidence have shown that multiple therapeutic techniques are effective for helping people overcome an alcohol use disorder and can help you reclaim control over your life.
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Finding a Support Group
Addiction support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, Narcotics Anonymous, or Women for Sobriety can help connect you to other people striving towards recovery.
All of these options are completely free, have significant scientific support, and typically have both in-person and online options throughout the country.
These groups all have a structured program that you can follow to overcome your drinking habits – and provide the essential component of lasting social support for your recovery.
If you experience shakes, sweats, or other withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop drinking – it’s essential that you reach out to a medical detox or hospital to help you through the first days of sobriety. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal if left untreated, and these specialized facilities can offer medications and treatments to help you start your recovery safely and comfortably.
Take the AUDIT
The following quiz is called the AUDIT, which is short for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. It’s used by medical professionals to assess your risk for alcohol dependence. Curious about how your drinking habits stack up? Take the assessment.
This is not an official medical diagnosis nor is it medical advice. Rather this is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or concerns, share your results with your doctor.