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Someone who is a functional alcoholic may not always show the classic signs that they’re struggling with alcohol use disorder. For example, they might not show up blatantly drunk to family events. Or, they may not be physically or verbally abusive toward loved ones or friends when they drink. They may not even appear to drink as much as they do, making it difficult to even identify whether their drinking is an issue or not.
Regardless of whether you or someone else has experienced external consequences due to excessive drinking, uncontrolled alcohol use can still be a major problem, especially if it continues to remain unaddressed. It’s never easy to admit you need help for addiction, but if you think that your drinking has gotten out of hand, treatment is always a good option.
Related post: What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Addiction?
What is a functional alcoholic?
A functional alcoholic (also sometimes called a high-functioning alcoholic) isn’t a medical diagnosis. Instead, it’s a term that’s casually used to describe someone who is physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol but can still function in society.1 Although the term “alcoholic” was historically used to describe someone with an alcohol addiction, today, medical and clinical professionals prefer to diagnose and refer to this condition as “alcohol use disorder” or AUD.
A functional alcoholic’s drinking habits may rarely cause them to miss work or other obligations. Generally, they’re still able to keep up with their work, family, and home life. Typically, although functional alcoholics also appear physically healthy, they often struggle with intense cravings and obsess over when they will have their next drink, which are common indicators of addiction.
While you might think that few people could pull off the delicate balance of being addicted to alcohol and functioning well in life, you might be surprised to know that it’s actually fairly common. Some experts and researchers believe that as much as 75% of people with alcohol use disorders are still able to function at a high level in many different areas of their lives.2
Even though a high-functioning alcoholic may be able to get through the day-to-day without disastrous consequences, they are still suffering physically and emotionally. Irresistible cravings can make it very difficult to focus and concentrate at work, hiding alcohol use from co-workers, family, and friends can become mentally taxing, and the turmoil of not being able to stop on your own are all torturous.
In the end, alcohol use disorder may not be blatantly obvious for all to see, but it is still a chronic brain disease that requires treatment for recovery and people who suffer from it need individualized treatment and care to get healthy.
Key risk factors
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), high-functioning alcoholics are usually well-educated middle-aged individuals with stable jobs and families.3 However, that doesn’t mean someone outside of this subtype can’t be affected. Key risk factors for alcohol use disorder include:4
- Having a parent or another close relative with alcohol use disorder
- Drinking at an early age
- A history of mental health problems and trauma
- Binge drinking
- Experiencing very high stress levels
Signs of high-functioning alcoholism
Even if you continue to function well in society, you might be struggling with an alcohol use disorder. Although alcohol addiction presents itself differently for various people, there are a few key signs of alcohol addiction that might indicate you have a problem. For example, you might:
- Need alcohol to feel relaxed or confident.
- Feel agitated, irritable, or unwell if you’re unable to have a drink.
- End up drinking more or longer than you originally intended.
- Fill all your spare time with drinking (including having drinks immediately when you get home from work or the moment you wake up).
- Behave irrationally or irresponsibly while drinking, such as driving while drunk, caring for your children while you’re intoxicated, or having unsafe sex.
- Feel defensive, angry, or irritated when friends or loved ones confront you about your drinking habits.
- Black out after drinking and be unable to remember what happened or how you got home.
- Hide your drinking from co-workers, family, and friends.
- Experience relationship problems caused by your drinking.
If several of these conditions apply to your life, you may have a high-functioning alcohol use disorder, or as some would say, you may be a “high-functioning alcoholic.”
Should I get help for alcohol addiction?
If you think you might have an alcohol use disorder, you can accurately assess the severity of your symptoms by going to a doctor or asking yourself the following questions:
- Have there been several instances in which I’ve had more to drink or drank for longer than I intended to?
- Have I tried to cut back or stop drinking more than once, but been unable to?
- Do I spend a lot of my time drinking or nursing hangovers?
- Have I ever craved a drink so badly that I couldn’t think about anything else?
- Has my drinking or hangovers interfered with my ability to take care of responsibilities at home, school, work, or in my relationships?
- Do I continue to drink even though it causes problems with friends and family members?
- Have I cut back or given up on activities that used to be important to me so I can drink instead?
- Have I gotten into bad situations that could end up in injury to myself or someone else due to my drinking?
- Does my drinking make me feel depressed, anxious, or contribute to a medical health problem, yet I keep doing it?
- Do I have to drink more than I used to in order to achieve the effects that I want?
- Have I experienced withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol starts wearing off? (Examples include shakiness, nausea, insomnia, sweating, racing heart, restlessness, or seizures.)
If you answered “yes” to 2 or 3 of these questions, your AUD may be mild. If you answered “yes” to 4 or 5 of them, your AUD may be moderate. However, if you answered “yes” to 6 or more of them, you likely have a severe AUD. Regardless of the severity of your alcohol use disorder, if your drinking is affecting your life in any of the ways listed above, it’s a good idea to seek help for alcohol addiction.
How to help a functional alcoholic
Three of the most common signs that someone needs help for an alcohol use disorder are denial, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms. If you realize that someone in your life is struggling and needs help to recover, there are three main ways you can attempt to help them.
- Initiate a conversation. This might be a daunting task, but just make sure you approach them without judgment and be empathetic. Don’t attempt to talk to them while they are drunk. Instead, wait until they’re sober to bring it up and have treatment recommendations ready. Make sure to let them know that you’ll be right there beside them to help if they choose to enroll in a treatment program or get some other type of care for addiction.
- Encourage them to take the next step. If the person is receptive to your conversation, encourage them to set up an appointment with their doctor or schedule a call and visit at a rehab center. Or, if they will allow you to, set up the appointment for them. A doctor can assess their symptoms of AUD and recommend effective treatment. Visiting a rehab center may also help to ease their worries and encourage them to get the help they need to recover.
- Plan an intervention. If you’ve already tried to talk to your loved one about their drinking problem but they refused to listen, it might be time to host an intervention with other close loved ones. A carefully-planned and executed intervention might be what it takes to help your loved one realize it’s time to get help. There are many different intervention techniques and approaches but a professional interventionist can help you identify the best option for your loved one and make a plan.
Ultimately, it’s up to the person to get help for their addiction and you can’t force them to get sober. However, taking the steps listed above may help encourage them to get treatment for alcohol use disorder.
Related post: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: A Precursor of Addiction
Get help with alcohol detox in Austin
If you or a loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic, the experienced staff at Briarwood Detox Center can help you establish a stable foundation in recovery and get sober so you can start fresh. Alcohol detox Austin is a safe and effective way to overcome alcohol use disorder and we accept most insurance plans. Please contact us online or call (512) 262-4426 today to speak with an admissions representative.