A common image of an alcoholic is someone who usually drinks too much, looks messy, has difficulties finding and holding a job, and has financial problems. Some people add such characteristics as problems in relationships, homelessness, or incarceration. Though this classic description fits some individuals struggling with addiction, it’s not true for many others. Not all alcohol users become “full-blown” alcoholics and cannot function physically or in society. These individuals are called functioning alcoholics.
Definition of a Functioning Alcoholic
Some people drink in moderation during the day. They don’t get drunk but consume enough to satisfy cravings and prevent withdrawal symptoms. Or they may stay sober during daytime but binge drink at night. Others stay sober during the week but go all-out on the weekends. These are the drinking patterns of functioning alcoholics.
Usually, they have a steady job, and in some cases even achieve a big success in their career, all while increasing their alcohol consumption. That’s why they are also called working alcoholics. These people have good relationships with their family and friends, get their education, and participate in social life. It doesn’t look like they need free outpatient drug rehab.
Functional alcoholics hide their habit well. Sometimes, it becomes evident only when an unexpected alcohol-related event happens, for example, a drunk driving accident or liver disease caused by long-term consumption.
Even if alcohol abuse is noticeable, it may be not addressed. People don’t find it an issue as their life is not falling apart yet.
The Stages of Alcoholism: Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the words “tolerance”, “dependence”, and “addiction”. People often use these words to describe the same thing, but there is a significant difference between them.
Regular alcohol use builds up a tolerance to it. So, a person needs more drinks to achieve the same effect. Often, the person can’t even say how much alcohol they are drinking. Also, they may not experience a hangover.
Tolerance can quickly develop into physical dependence. It means that a person has alcohol withdrawal syndrome when they stop drinking. It’s a set of physical and mental symptoms. They include anxiety, sweating, shakiness, vomiting, fast heart rate, and fever. More severe symptoms may include seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens (DTs). Note that a person that has a high tolerance to alcohol or is dependent on it is not necessarily an addict.
An addicted person has not only a physical need for alcohol but also a mental and emotional need for it. They can’t stop drinking even despite the negative side-effects. Unlike tolerance and dependence, addiction is a disease. It’s called an alcohol use disorder. Patients with this diagnosis need to go into free alcohol treatment centers.
The Consequences of Alcohol Abuse
Though functioning alcoholics lead normal lives, sooner or later their secret habit will start to take its toll. Users may experience:
- Health issues (liver disease, pancreatitis, hypertension, brain damage, complications of pregnancy and childbirth, including Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), certain types of cancer, including cancer of the upper respiratory tract, liver, colon, and breast;
- Major problems at home, work, or college;
- Emotional exhaustion (anxiety, depression).
Unfortunately, functional alcoholics procrastinate with getting free alcohol treatment. They receive it when they find themselves in a situation when a whole bunch of problems requires to get solved.
Moreover, long-term addiction is more difficult to treat. Withdrawal symptoms are more severe and more time and effort are needed to become healed.
The Signs of Functioning Alcoholism
The first sign of a functioning alcoholic is binge drinking. The amount of risky alcohol consumption differs according to gender. For men, it’s more than 4 drinks in a single day or 1
Other signs that someone is a functioning alcoholic are:
- Using alcohol to relieve stress and relax
- Using alcohol to feel confident, powerful, or in control
- Taking a drink in the morning
- Drinking alone
- Drinking too much
- Experiencing blackouts while drinking
- Jokes about their alcohol consumption and drinking episodes
- Missing school or work for unexplained reasons
- Having secret places to hide alcohol
- Drinking as a self-reward or planning the day around drinking
- Angry or defensive reaction when someone talks about the possibility of alcoholism
- Risky behaviors, such as drinking when in charge of children, driving under the influence.
A functional alcoholic tries to justify their drinking binges. And these justifications usually sound illogical or senseless. For example, they may say “I drink to lose weight”, or “I’m stressed and I want to want to cut loose and party.”
Some functional alcoholics have a hidden struggle with a mental condition. They drink because it helps them to mask the symptoms of psychological disorders, like social phobias, depression, and eating disorders. Some may worry or have anxiety about their competency or material security. In some cases, they may have suicidal thoughts.
People who struggle with alcoholism and mental illness can undergo free substance abuse programs in the centers that provide services for those with a dual diagnosis.
Does a Functioning Alcoholic Need Treatment?
Functioning alcoholics don’t maintain their functionality forever. If you suspect that someone has problems with alcohol, address this issue now. Don’t give a mild alcohol use disorder a chance to develop into a strong addiction. Many troubles can be avoided by timely intervention.
Individuals who might fall into the “functional” subclass of alcohol use disorders often don’t want to admit that their use is problematic. You might need several tips to convince a person to attend treatment. Talk to a professional who will guide you on some sort of intervention and recommend some free rehab centers, if necessary.
A functioning alcoholic will receive the same treatment as any other addict. It will include detox, individual therapy, group counseling, and post-treatment support. Help your loved one start the journey to a sober life.